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Re: [ARSCLIST] PreRecorded Tape Duplicators

Hi Steve:

This is an interesting question. I am cross-posting your question and this reply to the Ampex list because those guys will know all sorts of details I don't.

The first written account of a commercial reel duping facility I have is from Radio & TV News, April 1952, by Leon Wortman, desribing the custom setup at Audio & Video Products Corp, NYC. What was made there, out of in-house modified Ampex 300 decks, was essentially what evolved into Ampex's duplicator systems, but Ampex made some changes. The system Wortman describes duped full-track and half-track tapes. By the time Ampex's system came out, it allowed for two tracks. The earliest manuals I have for Ampex dupers indicate the master tape could be recorded at twice the speed of the dupes or at the same speed (ie the master playback ran at both the same speed and twice speed of the dupers, and the dupers could run at half the speed of the master playback, too, offering a wide range of master and slave-product speeds). In the US, I think Ampex owned the "plug and play" duplication market into the 60's.

The early 2-track stereo tapes, especially the classical products, were a premium-priced niche product with a demanding audience. So, at least in the case of Mercury (and I think RCA and Columbia, too), the duping was done in small batches in-house. In the case of Mercury, the dupe masters were one generation removed from the 3-track session tapes. I assume there was an extra generation loss at most other places. Given the vagueries of 1-mil tape in those days, plus the mechanical demands on the duping equipment, I'm amazed that these tapes generally sound as good as they do. The ones I have heard are hissy but otherwise quite good as far as music reproduction. Some tapes from the smaller players have strange azimuth, but one can tune this by scope and ear if your playback deck has an accessible azimuth screw. Early on in the 2-track days, there was a brief format war between Magnecord's staggered tracks and Ampex's stacked tracks. Ampex used its market-share muscle to quickly kill the staggered format, and Ampex personnel argued vehemently for a standard format in several industry publications and meetings of the time. I have a few staggered-format tapes. As long as the tape itself isn't too warped/shrunken, I've had good success fixing the staggering in Soundforge, and ending up with a properly-phased stereo image. In some cases, adjustment was required every 10 minutes or so, but that was with somewhat warped tapes. One of my favorites of this type is a first-generation "Sound In The Round," both volumes, from Concertapes. The subsequent versions of this I've heard are inferior, as is the LP.

The quarter-track format, which came along at the end of the 50's, is what moved duped reels to a larger audience. Now, at a reasonable cost of production (half the tape, half the duping time), a full-album product could be offered, still at a premium to LPs. At first, at least in the case of Mercury, some or most duping was still done in-house. I think RCA and Columbia kept their duping operations in-house, too. Ampex got into the tape duping business in the early 60's, and a company called Bel Canto got big by the mid-60's. Ampex duped tapes for the European classical labels Decca and DGG, and Bel Canto and Ampex eventually did the duping for Philips/Mercury by the mid and late 60's. I think Ampex ended up as by far the biggest duping operation in the US.

As for smaller operations, I can only talk in detail about Fine Recording's duplication division. This was started in the late 50's, with Enoch Light's Grand Award and Command labels as the first big clients. The operation eventually took up the entire basement of the Great Northern Hotel, had its own street entrance and offices and employed dozens of people. The initial formats were 2-track, full-track and quarter-track reels, but the operation was the first or one of the first to do 4-track cartridges and then 8-track cartridges in NYC, and one of the first or the first to do cassettes in NYC. The equipment started out as Ampex duplicators but was heavily modified, including special heads for new formats from John French's father and also IEM. There was a dedicated dupe-mastering room and a dedicated maintenance guy just for this operation. At peak there were two quarter-track/8-track lines (with rolling loader bays to put the tape in the cartridges) and a separate full-track line for radio commercials. For 2-track and quarter-track reels, experience taught that 1:1 master to slave speed ratios ended up with the best playback quality, so the dupe masters were recorded at 7.5IPS and the dupes were 7.5IPS. What you lost in the master recording you gained in the duping. The primary tape brand was Audiotape. Judging from pictures of the dupe-mastering room I've seen, some dynamics-control was applied (there was a UREI compressor patchable into each channel). In the case of Command titles, if the master was a 2-track, the dupe master was made from the master. If the master was 35mm or 3-track tape, the dupe master was made from a 2-track created when the 3-2 mix was made for LP mastering. From what I've been told, duping was a mildly profitable business. I'm not sure how big the duped-reel market ever got. I'd assume it was a tiny fraction of the LP market. Interestingly, duped cassettes surpassed LPs after the Walkman Revolution, and then were obsoleted by CD's.

-- Tom Fine

----- Original Message ----- From: "carlstephen koto" <cskoto@xxxxxxxxxxx>
To: <ARSCLIST@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Sent: Wednesday, April 08, 2009 11:48 PM
Subject: [ARSCLIST] PreRecorded Tape Duplicators

I've been collecting prerecorded reel to reel tapes (classical and jazz) for a while now and while myself and a few of my fellow enthusiasts have found a good deal of information regarding the titles that were sold, we don't know very much about the duplicating facilities that made them. There are scattered accounts of the Ampex factory such as the one on Mr. Hess's site which I found very interesting. But I've never seen any documentation of RCA, Capital, Columbia (and the other monikers their tapes were sold under), Stereotape (which I believe began as Bell and Howell and was latter to become Magtec) not to mention all the smaller operations.
The information I'm seeking is more of the nuts and bolts such as years of operation, tape production, any details regarding their duplication lines (duping speeds, tape stock used) and what labels they produced these tapes for.
I do need to pose the question to the gentlemen on the Ampex list for more details on their operation but I'm concentrating on the early 2 track releases first since finding first hand accounts regarding these will become less and less likely as time marches on.
Thanks in advance for any information regarding these tapes even if it's only a lead.
Steve Koto

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