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Re: [ARSCLIST] PreRecorded Tape Duplicators
This is how myths get started. Let me be crystal clear. The 2-TRACK, early-era Mercury tapes were
the ones mastered right from the 3-2 mixes, not the later quarter-tracks, except maybe some early
ones made by Mercury itself. The stuff made by Ampex and Bel Canto were made from who knows what and
generally sound terrible. The few Ampex and Bel Canto quarter-tracks of Mercury albums I've
experienced ranged from distortion to wildly wrong azimuth to channels reversed to high hiss levels,
none any good.
As for the Mercury albums made in Russia, I think that by then Mercury was not doing its own duping,
so I'm surprised the quarter-tracks sound good. I prefer the CDs above any of the LPs (of course
with the exception of the Borodin Quartet, which was never reissued on CD). Of all the versions of
those albums, the only commercial issues actually mastered directly from the 3-2 mixdown of the 35mm
mag-films were the original Mercury LPs and the Polygram/Mercury CDs. The Speakers Corner LPs were
mastered from 2-tracks made at the same time as the original LP masters (ie from the same 3-2 mix
buss). I have no idea what source was used for the Golden Import versions, likely the same 2-track
tapes. The SACDs were made in Germany, from a digital transfer of a playback of the 35mm mag-films,
but not with the original playback equipment.
You are correct about finding superb-sounding gems in the early small-label tapes. Some of the Fine
Arts Quartet tapes on Concertape are really nice and also I think some of the RCA classical titles
from the 2-track era hold up well against the highly desired shaded-dog LPs but not against the SACD
reissues (including the CD layer). Also some of the Angel 2-tracks from the UK. Really, at least to
my ears, the only flaw in a lot of those early-era (1956-ish) 2-tracks is the amount of hiss,
musically they stand up very well and are pleasant to listen to. With any of the early stereo mass
media, be it 2-track or quarter-track tapes or early stereo LPs, when it sounds good, our hats have
to go off to the folks in engineering, mastering and manufacturing (not to mention the musicians)
because it was no small matter to get all of that right with new and rather crude technologies. The
thing that amazes and impresses me most is how many separate groups of people were able to pull it
off at least for a few titles.
-- Tom Fine
----- Original Message -----
From: "carlstephen koto" <cskoto@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Sent: Thursday, April 09, 2009 5:12 PM
Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] PreRecorded Tape Duplicators
That's some fantastic information.
I have a number of the Mercury 2 tracks and a few of the 1/4 tracks as well. I had no idea that
they were just one generation from the session tapes. The sound on these varies but the best ones
I have ( Adventures in a Perambulator/Hanson and Hary Janos/Dorati for example) sound amazing.
I have most of the "Russian" Mercuries on 1/4 track and prefer the sound on these to the reissued
The Command titles can also sound very good but I've had a difficult time finding minty copies of
these (just plain bad luck I think) but I've always admired the sound on the recordings from
35mm. Finding out that Fine Recording made these and the details you've provided is very much
appreciated. The back on one of the 1/4 tracks state "Originated and Produced By Enoch Light,..
Grand Award Record Co.,Inc., New York". Are there any links to Fine Recording in general?
I do have a few staggered heads, 1/2 tracks (The Atlantic) and I'll do as you suggested and
transfer them in my editing software.
These very early tapes quite often have prices printed on them and range from $9.95 on up to well
over $20 per tape. Considering that these are 1950's-early 60's dollars they were certainly for a
discerning few. I've come the the point that I really try and obtain and acetate copy of the 1/4
tracks if I know that they're available.
Collecting these tapes, you stumble across some real gems sometimes. A couple of weeks ago I
heard a fantastic sounding 5" 71/2 ips tape of Doc Evans. The include catalog was from 1957 and
the tape was a "sampler" on the Stereophony label. Ewing Nunn was the engineer and the sound
was stunning! We believe this to be partly due to it's being recorded on Scotch 111 as the high
frequencies didn't show a bit of degradation.
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>
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
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.