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The sound of analogue at its best is actually better than it was in analogues heyday, thanks in the main to three people: Mike Spitz (ATR Service Co.), John French (JRF Magnetics) and Tim de Paravicini (EAR), and to people with ears to hear like mastering engineer Bob Ludwig. Spitz, French and de Paravicini are all very active in restoring and improving the existing stock of analogue tape recorders, many of which have been sadly gathering dust over the last ten years. Mike Spitzs ATR Service Co. specializes in restoring old Ampex machines such as the classic ATR100 to their former glory. These machines, as you will appreciate, are ideal for conversion to the half-inch stereo format which many have regarded as offering the ultimate analogue sound. But the game has been raised. Mike now offers not only restoration, but upgrading to a one-inch headblock using heads from Flux Magnetics. Stereo on one-inch tape - each track is almost half an inch wide! Of course, such conversion is not without its problems, one of which is the increased sensitivity to azimuth error over such a wide track, but the lowering of the noise floor is apparently more than compensation for the effort involved.
JRF Magnetics also offer one-inch conversions, mainly to Studer A80 machines. John French however goes one stage further and offers an 8-track conversion for the Studer A827. It may seem a strange thing to do, to upgrade a 24-track machine to only eight tracks, but when each track can be almost a full quarter inch wide, then the sound quality should be increased in proportion. In addition to those eight track there is another narrow track for timecode, so this is very definitely a machine for the modern world. Apparently Disney Imagineering have bought one for 5.1 production, which would seem like an ideal application.
The work of ATR Service Co. and JRF Magnetics centres around the transport and headblock, although some electronic modifications are undertaken. Tim de Paravicinis one-inch stereo machine goes far beyond that and is a significant electronic re-design, superimposed on a stripped and rebuilt transport with heads made by Flux Magnetics to Tims specifications. Oddly enough, Tim uses the more elderly Studer C37 as the transport of his machine, which apparently offers many of the mechanical features of the later A80, and is visibly tank-like in the solidity of its construction. Tim goes further than this and uses his own EQ curves, making the machine incompatible with others using standard EQ, and even recommends a tape speed of 18 inches per second. This would give enhanced top end performance while still meeting his criterion for LF performance -3dB at 5Hz. Yes, that is five hertz!
Undoubtedly, the next hurdle is a two-inch stereo machine. Mike Spitz reckons that azimuth problems will outweigh any other advantages in noise performance and subjective solidity, but one of John Frenchs Japanese customers appears to be crazy enough to make it a virtual certainty that one will be built. Tim de Paravicini claims to have had the idea on the back burner for some time but it would be, a dream come true. Making the heads would be a major problem, and it might be necessary to make several samples from which to select the best.