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Hit Play! Loving Horch House's Latest Yello Release on Tape!

04-21-2024 | By Myles B. Astor | Issue 132

Welcome to the first installment of Hit Play!, a bimonthly column (at least in the beginning) dedicated to the ultimate in music and sound on 15-ips reel-to-reel tape. Why devote space to a column about an obsolete analog format? Easy. Tape is far from obsolete! To start, three companies (Analog Audio Design (France)/Metaxas (Holland)/Ballfinger (Germany) are manufacturing new reel-to-reel tape machines (plus there are countless other pro- and consumer machines still around). That certainly wouldn't have happened without consumer interest in the reel-to-reel tape format. Throw in the thirty plus companies currently releasing new and reissued recordings on reel-to-reel tape and we're talking! Plus another two labels set to release even more music on reel-to-reel tape come summer 2024! Best news of all? There's currently over 500 reel-to-reel tape titles available from the likes of The Tape Project, Analogue Productions, Opus 3, AudioNautes, Horch House, Yarlung Records, Groove Note, International Phonograph Inc., UltraAnalogue, etc. to choose from. Let's put it another way. You haven't heard your favorite analog titles until you've heard them on real time duplicated 15-ips tape! Tape aficionados are living the life!

The inaugural installment of Hit Play! kicks off with the German company Horch House's brand spanking new release of Yello's Stella on reel-to-reel-tape! And Horch House hit it out of the park with this release!

Admittedly, I've been a little late to the Yello party bus (Dead Can Dance, too, but that's a story for another day!); but as they say, better late than never! Make no mistake, though. This isn't the type of music that you lounge around and listen to while reading the Sunday NY Times and sipping your favorite Hawaiian Kona Mountain coffee! Not in your wildest dreams! Yello's music is a total, sometime brutal assault on the senses, written and played to elicit an emotion. Boris and Dieter grab—no, make that demand—your attention with their music's unexpected and sudden twists and turns and sound. Nor is there anything remotely approaching a slow moving ballad on Stella! No. In fact, I don't think the word ballad is in Yello's vocabulary. Stella with its raw, pulsing, throbbing, pounding, big beat Europop sound is meant to be played loud. Neighbors be damned, at least for an hour. The more you play Stella, the more the album comes to life and grows on you!

Sonically, the album is a complex musical kaleidoscope with layer upon layer upon layer of instruments packed into a massive, all encompassing soundstage. A word of warning, too! Stella provides a stern test of your system's dynamics, soundstaging and resolution! Here, the little only in stature Solution 330 integrated amplifier, recently arrived Doshi Audio Evo tapestage and Furutech power cord, elevated both the system's and Stella tape's sound to heights never ever imagined.

Just so everyone is starting on the same page. Yello is a Swiss Europop band formed in 1987 by the trio of Boris Blank (keyboards), Dieter Meier (vocals) and Carlos Peron (tape). Their first album was entitled Solid Pleasure and released in 1980. Work on Stella (Yello's fourth album and first without co-founder Carlos Peron) began in the summer of 1983 and the finalized album was released in January 1985. According to Boris and reported in Jonas Warstad's book Yello: Stella The Story Behind The Album, the concept for Stella, "came out of the musical opera/stage show called Snowball that Dieter was working on that never came to fruition." Boris' main instrument here is his trusted Fairlight Series II and ARP Odyssey with a flange machine. Stella was according to Warstad's book, "recorded on a 24-track Otari recorder with two Telefunken mastering machines." Yello's fourth LP was their best selling, breakthrough album and gave them international recognition. With the release of Stella, Yello was the first Swiss group to hit number one in Switzerland and top ten in Germany. Many readers will recognize the cut "Oh Yeah" featured in director John Hughes' movie Ferris Bueller's "Day Off; a year later "Oh Yeah" was used in the movie The Secret of My Success (not to mention the TV show The Simpsons).

There are so many great tracks to choose from on these two reels including "Desire" and "Desert Inn"; coincidentally, both tracks feature Chico Hablas on guitar. "Desire" begins with Hablas' guitar intro and everything multiplies from there. Etherealness. Beat. Breathiness. Sound, you name it. "Desert Inn" is definitely an aural experience with not a lot of vocals here either.

But perhaps the most famous and arguably best sounding track (though, the sound of "Desert Inn" is every bit as good) from this album is the third track "Oh Yeah" on Reel A." The lyrics here were Boris inspired as he suggested to Dieter, "why don't you try to say on and on oh yeah? Textures up the wazoo on Dieter's vocals, big thumping and what sounds like balloons with air escaping! A true musical extravaganza. Boris shared with author Warstad how he created Dieter's vocals on "Oh Yeah." "I used the harmonizers to tune Dieter's voice a bit down so that it's very deep, it was kind of three octaves down." Boris also shared more about the creation of this track "I always wanted to have a mixture between the technical instruments, some acoustic instruments and voice sounds in it, to build the rhythm, and in this track you can hear this mixture very well."

Reel B, maybe even more dynamic than the Reel A, kicks off with the track "Domingo," with its as Boris shared in Warstad's book, "exact balance between heavy metal—very rude, very rough guitars and triggers and heavy metal feeling—and religion." Religion here being the story of a fake preacher. "Domingo" always has the feeling of being at a concert. The buzzing of the synth. Dynamics up the wazoo. Sound that changes throughout the track.

Track four, "Ciel Ouvert," (or "Open Sky") with its dark and scary sound originally began life as a soundtrack. A huge enveloping and engrossing sound that exudes power and authority. With a little guilty audiophile pleasure here with the sound of a helicopter created by Boris on his ARP Odyssey (what is the attraction between helicopters, music, and audiophiles?)

The last bit of tape pulls past the heads of Reel B and one is left sitting stunned asking themselves what did I just hear?

How does the 15-ips tape stack up against the original 1985 German LP release? Let's just say that the reel-to-reel tape runs rings around the round black disc. Yes, the LP is very good sounding but the tape betters it by quite a large and significant margin. It's just another example of liking something until you hear something better.

Just for further information. The 12-inch version of Stella was played back using a VPI Avenger Direct turntable, SAT LM-12 tonearm and Lyra Atlas Lambda cartridge run into a trio of three phonostages that were in house: Luminous Audio Technology Arion 2 (stay tuned for upcoming review of this sweet piece), Doshi Audio EVO and Goldmund PH3.8. The 10-inch version of Stella was played back on a Technics RS-1506 machine outfitted with very low (80MH) inductance Flux Magnetic heads, modded tape path and run balanced out from the tape heads into a Doshi Audio EVO tapestage (see upcoming review).

Overall, the tape has even more authority, resolution and dynamics than the LP. Instruments and voices are far more fleshed out and there's more overt and subtle things happening around and about the soundstage. For example, take "Desire" from Reel A. The tape has an abundance of spatiality, presence and staging. The distortion is so low you just want to keep turning the sound up. Or take for instance, "Vicious Game." Here the tape really stands out when it comes to the separation of instruments, their presence and weight. Take note, too, of the harmonic decay. Lastly, the bass is much tighter and deeper. Careful listeners may find, too, little things moved around on tape relative to the LP. Or take that favorite track "Oh Yeah." Even the 45rpm maxi-single that I used as a reference LP for ages doesn't hold a candle here to the tape. Huge sound. Amazing textures on Dieter's voice. Superfast, super detailed. And just insane dynamics here as well as on "Domingo" on Reel B!

 Stella certainly isn't for the faint of heart but it's definitely one tape that will see lots of play time! Everything here says quality from the sound to the tape packaging. The pair of 10-inch reels come packed in a sturdy, solid slipcase with Horch House emblazoned on the front. The reels are engraved and there's a packet inside that includes pictures of Boris and Dieter (from the same boxes that gave birth to the Yello 40 book?), a shot of the original master tape for side A of the album (the album was recorded at 30-ips with Dolby A and you can also see that "Oh Yeah" was originally titled "For Stella" and "Desert Inn" was originally named "A Rage"), a sheet containing information about the duplication process and songs on the two reels, copy of the cover from the original LP and a music lead sheet for "Desire." This tape is an absolute no-brainer, must-have for everyone into tape.

While on the subject of must-have tapes! I recently created for the tape panel discussion at the recently held AXPONA 2024 audio show a list of six must-have tapes that belong in every music collection. Now the list isn't necessarily fair to labels with large catalogs such as Analogue Productions or The Tape Project but I wanted to spread out the glory. Make sure to check back in each Hit Play! column for additions, deletions or even possible expansions to the recommended tape list! There are just so many great 15-ips tapes out there today!

Talking Tape With Volker Lange of Horch House

This interview was conducted back on February 12, 2024

VL: What I would like to tell you now is highly confidential and the press release date is April 8, 2024.

Do you know the music group Yello?

MBA: Absolutely! I even have a copy of your earlier reel-to-reel tape release of Yello's One Second. Mouth watering sound! Visitors here keep asking where they can obtain a copy. I assume One Second is now out of print?

VL: OK, those going to High-End Munich will see the guys from the music group Yello including Boris Blank at the Horch House booth. And you will see the starting point of five Yello master tape releases starting with Stella and a new tape coming out every four months! One Second is included and will come as well but we chose to start with Stella as it is the best seller in Yello history.

MBA: That's fantastic news!

VL: Do you know the company Revox?

MBA: Yes, I do!

VL: OK, Revox will release a "Yello" tape machine in yellow design based on the B77 Mk.II. Revox is building this machine from scratch with new parts. Revox started six months ago to be back in the analog business and selling machines. One can click on the Horch House website to see a new machine with two years warranty and it's around €6000. (Note added: Ten Yello yellow Revox B77 Mk. IIs went on sale 4/8/24 and were sold out in the matter of an hour! - MBA)

One Second will be a full professional release: meaning that the reels are printed and everything is really developed from scratch to have a perfect product. You have I think seen our new packaging and commented (the new Yello release comes in a much more compact package that will fit on shelves - MBA) on this and we have as you know these red boxes. For the Yello production, the final version will be in in "Yello yellow!"

MBA: I think—and you know this better than anyone—that tapeheads are looking for rock music releases on reel-to-reel tape! It's great that we have all these wonderful jazz and classical releases but truth be told 70% of audiophiles listen to rock. As a result, there's a hesitancy to get into reel-to-reel tape because of the software. So there's no question this new Yello Stella release will be welcomed with open arms!

VL: Yes, I see that too. We (Horch House) will come out with Santana and Dire Straits for sure, of course. We have access to all the Santana tapes.

What we have seen here is a big growth in the reel-to-reel tape market in Europe. In the past, let's say two years ago, the situation was that 40% of our market was Asia, 50% of the market was US and 10% of the market was Europe. This has changed a lot. Now Europe accounts for 30% of our market. Many, many people are buying tape machines and tapes.

There's certainly no shortage of old (tape) machines in Europe. We have in Europe four companies building new machines, too. We have this French guy building (Analog Audio Design) machines that are distributed in the US.

MBA: I think with Brian Tucker, Pro Audio, is distributing the AAD machines in the US.

VL: Brian exactly. And then and then we have Ballfinger.

MBA: I'm not sure Ballfinger has a huge US distribution but interestingly a New York City dealer I know has a customer who owns the Ballfinger deck. I'm not sure, though, how he obtained it.

VL: Yes, Ballfinger is a German company and this guy is booked for seven to eight months. He can't build the machines quick as he can sell it. And then we have this Metaxas guy and he's selling a good portion in Europe as well.

Then we have somebody in Slovakia building these Stellavox machines.

MBA: I read something about these "new" Stellavox machines online, then couldn't find any mention of them again. If I remember correctly, the website address was Sepea.com.

VL: Exactly. He is near Bratislava and building these TD9s. They're not on his website, anymore, because I looked the other day. Apparently, he has a legal naming issue with the company in Switzerland.

All these companies—it doesn't matter which company and nobody understands this—they're all one man shows. In other words, if some of these guys are getting old or gets into in an accident or something like that, from that day on, no spare parts, no help. Nothing. I mean that's always been a question with these new machines and company.

That's the good thing for Revox. They are in place for 75 years and are still a good company in Germany doing a good job. In the past, Revox was moving away from the analog business but in the last six months they are coming back into the analog business. This is pretty good for the market out as there are hundreds of thousands of Revox machines out there. At least here in Europe we have a perfect service for them. To give you an idea of the business we're doing in Europe; Horch House is selling 2500 tape copies a year and I think we are by far the biggest company in this business in Europe. 

MBA: That's an impressive number of tapes sold per year!

VL: The interesting point for us is that 60% of the market is classical; yes, this is pretty easy to understand as 99% of the Asian market is classical. That's the reason why the classical market is so big for us!

MBA: How did this Yello project begin?

VL: I was in Switzerland last September acquiring the license to tapes from the Swiss company Triston Masters (Jorg Shopper's company - MBA). We signed the agreement, and I got the tapes for the copies and this guy told me, "hey, my best friend is Boris Blank's best friend. They (Yello) planned to release reel-to-reel tapes on their own but have problems with production capacities and bringing this into the market worldwide. Would you like to talk to them? My first answer was yes." Then the first question they asked was, "can you do some copies for us? Sure no problem and then we started the conversation. I told them, "Hey guys I have 15 distributors around the world and for me it's just like that (insert finger snap) to bring your tapes in the market. Then I signed a license agreement with them for the next three years for five titles; the five titles are the titles that were produced in analog. All the others are digital.

Good and then they told me, hey, we had a long discussion with Revox, a Swiss company too, and they will release a Yello yellow designed machine. For example, the counter if you put on the machine shows yellow. The whole machine is in yellow design; on the back is a plate signed by both the guys and everything.

So this is a short story. This is a situation I got through this Triston label through the best friend to work. This was the way and and we are pretty happy that they are joining us at the Munich High End Show on Saturday for two hours at our booth. We are more than a little bit happy to sell the Yello tapes.

MBA: So what tape machines are you using in the duplication process? I assume based on the number of tapes that you're selling that you're not just doing 1:1 tape transfers (in other words, the master tape is copied to just one "slave" machine at a time - MBA).

VL: We're producing a lot of copies, so we are doing 1 to 15. In other words, we have two Studer (equipped with either ½- and ¼-inch heads) A80 machines for playback and we have 15 Studer A80s with Butterfly heads on recording side. All the machines are regularly serviced. We have our own service situation here for the daily maintenance. This means to do the measurements and all this. Then every quarter we have the big service for the machines.

MBA: So you're really going all out and doing things correctly…

VL: Yeah, look, I'm German (laughter). It's do it right or don't do it. And think every day what you can do better. This is this is how I grew up and this is my/our situation here. We don't follow this idea somehow what if the playback machines were a C37 (Studer) or Telefunken M10. This is *******. If you are in a serious production production, you need tanks for your copy system and you know they (the tape machines) are surviving seven days a week. Have you ever thought about why in the Studer product line there were only two machines with Master Recorder printed on them? Just two. On all other machines is written Recorder Reproducer. Hmmm.., on just two the Studer A80 and Studer 820. This gives you an idea what was the idea behind in the Studer development department and that's the reason why we use Studers. These machines have no integrated chips, they have discrete electronics, they are very easy to service and they never die.

Look, for us here in Europe, again, it's very easy to get spare parts or service for Studer machines while you were dying for service for ATR or MCI machines. In Germany 10 people for Studers and just two or three people around Europe for the other machines. That's the point and that's another reason we chose Studers. And yeah 1 to 15.

MBA: So how do you handle duping all the titles in your catalog?

VL: This is our production process but what we are doing business-wise is different to The Tape Project and Analogue Productions.

MBA: How do you keep so many titles in stock?

This is pretty much what on demand means. This means we have right now 110 titles on our website. We are adding another 30 titles over the next four months. You simple can't stock 140 titles. Here's what we do. We keep the bestsellers like Suzanne Vega or Al DiMeola, etc. in stock and other titles we have are on demand. It was a long discussion here about whether we should discontinue the other titles but for instance, people often order these Oscar Peterson titles. We love what we are doing and that's the reason why we don't stop. Why we have these titles still on our website but with a little bit longer delivery time.

MBA: I know some other tape manufacturers who wait until they reach a certain amount of orders before duping.

VL: Yes, that frustrates people there's no there's no delivery schedule. The customer could be waiting a year.

MBA: Exactly!

That's not our situation. If it's an old title, we're doing a one to one copy, no question, but this is our strategy. Otherwise, we can't do that, we can't have that many titles, right. We are coming on the classical side with some very nice titles including the old original 1958 recording of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. In all in all genres, pretty good stuff.

MBA: Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me Volker! I (and I think I can speak for the entire tape community) are very excited by your venture and can't wait to hear your new reel-to-reel tape releases!

Yello: Stella, Boris Blank (Keyboards and background vocals and instruments), Dieter Meier (Lead and background vocals), Produced by: Yello and Ian Tregoning, Engineering: Tom Thiel and Yello, Mastertape Edition Concept and Curation: Alex Hefter. Photos: Anton Corbyn and Ernst Gamper, RTM 911 tape, Recording level: 511 nWb/m, IEC equalization, Horch House/Polydor, 15-ips reel-to-reel tape, Released, 2024.

US Distributor - Elusive Disc