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Brief Impressions: HDTT's Howard Hanson: An American Romantic on Reel-to-Reel Tape

08-29-2017 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 93

HDTT Howard Hanson

Unless you're a 'phile who lives under rocks, listens to CDs, and thinks that eclipses happen because someone didn't pay the power bill, you're aware that reel-to-reel (RTR) tapes have been going through a quiet renaissance over the past few years. There's an incredible romance that goes along with RTR machines, one that is deeply mysterious. Techno-pheromones surround a great RTR like mating time in major elk herds. It's irresistible, even to people who don't know what the holy hootchekoo they are. It hooked me early on…

These days, we are evaluating RTR tapes with a brilliant ATR Services Ampex ATR-102, one of the great pro reference players on the planet, courtesy of Jonathan Tinn and Blue Light Audio. The custom precision take-up reel is by Reeltronix.

The signal path used for these notes:

ATR Services Ampex ATR-102 tape recorder with Reeltronix take-up reel, to PASS Labs Xs Preamp, to PASS Labs Xs 150 Amps, to Evolution Acoustics MM2 loudspeakers with EXACT external crossovers. Cabling is via EMM Labs XLR, Kubala-Sosna Elation! XLRs, power cords, and speaker cables, and JENA Labs. Isolation platforms are Stillpoints and Critical Mass Systems. This gives us a world-class playback system for the evaluation of RTR tapes, with exceptional resolution combined with great authority and a remarkable musicality.

Back in Issue 75 (Sep/Oct 2014), I reviewed the Quad DSD of this album (read that HERE). At the time, I was really transported by the extraordinary quality of this recording, and its remarkable subtlety in its various passages. Witrak's Quad DSD transfer, courtesy of the Merging Technologies HAPI analog-to-digital processor, produced a truly exceptional musical experience here. Since then, this Hanson has become a regular reference for me in my listening/evaluations on all Quad-DSD-capable devices. It remains a top Quad DSD recommendation from me for our readers.

But how would Bob's new RTR venture do in the very tricky and labor-intense world of 1:1 reel-to-reel transfers? Costs are high, the audience is relatively limited…a niche within a niche in high-end audio, which is itself a niche with the world of audio…would HDTT be able to keep the quality this wonderful album as it faced the real challenges of the analog duplication process?

I wondered, especially since the Quad DSD version (available for purchase and download at a very reasonable price at the HDTT site) is so very fine. The only way to find out would be to obtain a copy for our reference system here.

The good news was that Bob Witrak was willing to send me a review sample. We were still reorganizing our stereo listening room when it arrived, a process that only finished on August 25-26. (At last, and many thanks to the professionals and friends who assisted during this back-breaking effort.)

My first impression of the HDTT Hanson set was very favorable. The album arrived as a box set of two tapes. The outer box has the cover image, a replica of a photograph signed by Hanson back in the day, and was further signed (for real) by the producer/engineer, John Proffitt. This was a unique touch, one that I appreciated, connecting ownership of the tape with its production. Within the outer box were two reels of 10.5" tape, reel 1 and 2, each within a plastic bag for protection. The cover image was again on both reels. Inside each box was a tape on a 10.5" metal reel, centered on a metal spindle. This all represents first-rate production values by Witrak and HDTT. I also noted with real delight that Jonathan Horwich had done the 1:1 tape transfer, which was a righteous sign, indeed! Jonathan is an expert of the field of analog tapes, and a fiend for quality, well known for going the nth degree to obtain the very finest results. The combination of Bob and Jonathan meant that this tape was going to be splendid.

I won't duplicate the very good album notes that cover Hanson's music itself; you can read that for yourself after you purchase the tape, eh?

The HDTT site does list a summary of the tape as follows:

Artist(s): David Craighead, organ; Rochester Chamber Orchestra, David Fetler conducting (Organ Concerto; Ballet Nymphs and Satyr) Recording session in Asbury First Methodist Church, Rochester, New York

Brian Preston, piano; Meliora Quartet (Concerto da Camera; Yuletide Pieces). Recording session in Parmenter Chapel, Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester

Chorale/Organ tracks

Barbara Harbach, organ; The Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale, Robert Shewan conducting (Choral Anthems) Recording session in First Lutheran Church, Lyons, New York. Schlicker tracker-action pipe organ

Recording information

The Concerto for Organ, Harp and String Orchestra, Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite, and Three Psalms were recorded at sessions which followed their performance at a Howard Hanson memorial concert at Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, NY, on 27 September 1981.

The Concerto and Ballet Suite were recorded in Asbury First United Methodist Church, Rochester, NY (Austin organ); the Three Psalms, along with A Prayer of the Middle Ages, were recorded in First Lutheran Church, Lyons, NY (Schlicker cracker-action organ). Equipment used in the recording sessions included Neumann condenser microphones, and an analog Studer professional recorder. All selections were produced and engineered by John Proffitt. Note that the EQ is IEC.

The four main tracks included on the two reels are:

Reel 1

Concerto for Organ Harp and Strings
Two Yuletide Pieces for Piano Solo

Reel 2

Suite Nymphs and Satyr
Concerto Da Camera for Piano and String Quartet

These selections fill up the 10.5" reels at 15 IPS. This means that four other tracks from the recording aren't aboard. Not to mourn overmuch, however:  There is more good news. Inside the cover of the outer main box, I found a USB drive with digital copies of this recording. These range from PCM in 96kHz/24-bit and 192kHz/24-bit, to Single, Double, and Quad DSD. Furthermore, the four tracks not included on the two tapes due to space limitations will be found here in your preferred format. (That would be Quad DSD for me.)

A Prayer of the Middle Ages
How Excellent Thy Name
I will Lift up Mine Eyes
Praise Ye the Lord

Nice touch! Buy the RTR tape; get all digital versions included. I'd love to see this happen with all RTR tapes. BTW, I have listened to the Quad DSD tracks from this USB; they are very fine, and are guaranteed to light up your DSD playback system with reference-level music. Rest assured.

When Jonathan and I cued up reel 1, right after completing the move to PASS Labs Xs electronics, he, Din Johnson (prez of Ristretto Roasters coffee here in Portland), and I settled back to catch the first track, Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings.

Earlier, I mentioned that Bob and Jonathan teaming up for this project boded extremely well for the results, tape unheard, and no doubt about it. And I was right, in spades. From the quiet and haunting opening harp and strings, with the organ slowly approaching with its enveloping foundation, I was hooked. The Ampex ATR-102 was showing off its pro chops and Mike Spitz's brilliant restorative genius in this deck:  the coolosity and organic richness of a well-transferred analog recording shone like glory resplendent! Transparency, dynamics, and harmonic rightness, all in a seemingly perfect balance…definitely a reference experience.

There is an undeniable ease and authority to great RTR recordings and their accompanying playback machines. That's why many musicians have returned to analog tape for their recordings and productions these days, just like a number of consumers have latched on to LPs. They just sound so bloody great!

For the record, the review tape was immaculate. No physical flaws; no problems with tape playback at all. Quality control was excellent.

The transparency and presence of all four tracks on these tapes were notable. There's so much there there, such a sense of reality, of human presence in the church and chapel where Proffitt did these musical blessings, flows from the RTR tapes with the surety of the Ampex turning the reels smoothly and precisely at 15 IPS. I was deeply moved by the performances, showing skill and artistic understanding of Hanson's feel for spirituality and the beauty of life. After Jonathan and Din left, I just spent time in our new GamuT Lobster Chair, custom built for the best possible audiophile listening experience…a purpose that it accomplishes magnificently, by the way…and drifted into a near-trance. The only time that I got up over the balance of this recording was to stop reel 1, change tapes, library rewind, cue, and press play.

Good Lord! This was heaven. As the Quad DSD transfer was to Quad DSD playback, so the RTR transfer was to RTR tape playback.

Which is to say:  a world-class benchmark in both domains.

In fact, I could swear that the Ampex ATR-102 was smiling at me when I removed reel 2….

And so, what can I say? HDTT has produced a remarkable tape with this recording. Those of us who love 10.5" reels twirling in our world, with rivers of blessedness bathing us, will adore this recording.

Yes, you'll have to be comfortable handling RTR tape. Not everyone is…and a person wrestling with RTR tape is a very ugly sight. (Why do you think that cassette tapes were developed?)

And yes, you'll have to own a good RTR deck that will handle 10.5" reels, IEC EQ, and 15 IPS. They are out there, though; if you are willing to make the investment, you can get one. ATR Services  audiophile section would be glad to help you, that I know. (Yes, you will spend some real money here.)

Finally, yes, you'll spend real money for well-produced RTR tapes, as well. These can range in price from $200-$500 or more, depending on the production values, the number of reels required, and the relative scarcity of the tape. Be philosophical here.

But, as you'll learn, there is a special joy that goes with the RTR experience. It's distinct from LPs and turntables on the one hand, or Quad DSD on the other. At their respective heights, all are capable of lifting you into the heavens. But tape does it in its own way.

With Howard Hanson:  An American Romantic on RTR tape, there is no doubt in my mind that HDTT has hit a grand slam here. If you are into RTR, then you should put this one on your very short list of wonders to obtain. Remember that this is a very special limited-edition product; don't wait too long to purchase yours!

Price: USD $499

High Definition Tape Transfers


To purchase:  https://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/collections/reel-to-reel/products/hanson-an-american-romantic-1-1-copy-of-the-original-master-tapes

All photographs either by, or by courtesy of, David W. Robinson