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Author Topic: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5  (Read 17726 times)

Offline stellavox

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"Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« on: February 02, 2007, 07:18:16 AM »
I was looking through some old hi-fi advertising info in my files the other day and came across some Mark Levinson brochures from the early '80s.  In there was a flyer about the ML-5 Master Recorder and it got me to thinking that there never really was a tape recorder produced to "audiophile?" standards.

Levinson liked to record and soon realized that the electronics in the "state of the art" recorders weren't as good as his equipment, so he made them better.  He marketed his hybrid product as the ML-5 and used a Studer A80 transport (he actually started with the Stellavox TD88 but that fell through for some reason) with his own R/P electronics and regulated power supply.

Don't know how many he sold.  I knew of one in Chicago, and saw the original? at the Levinson factory (MIddletown, CT) during the viewing before the operation was auctioned in the mid 80's.  Had a pile of (master?) tapes with it.  Had I been smarter (and had a lot more money) it might be sitting in my living room - Oh well.  Don't know what happened to either it or the tapes.

Here's a link to the ML-5 brochure - interesting reading: http://www.marklev.com/ML5/bro/index.html

Charles   

Offline ironbut

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #1 on: February 02, 2007, 08:43:38 PM »
Thanks for the link Charles. I have most of the records that were made in the Mark Levinson Acoustic Recording Series. I still listen to them, particularly the piano recording. Here's some of the blurb on the inner cover;
This record was produced without compromise.
Mark Levinson Audio Systems built special equipment for use with calibration microphones and high speed wide track tape format to create virtually noiseless, ultra low distortion master tapes, without noise reduction systems.
Robert Ludwig mastered the records by feeding the original tape through a custom mixer directly to the cutting amplifier rack with no filtering, limiting, or other added effects.
CIDS in France, developed special pressing techniques to produce the most quiet record surfaces posible with today's material and technology, and the skill of their chiefs of staff.
For the Acoustic Recording Series, musicians were asked to prepare programs which could be released without splicing passages. In this way, the coherency and immediacy of the musical event, rather than the note by note perfection of the spliced tape, are preserved.

Funny, they aren't very thick or heavy like the "audiophile" pressings today. But man, they sure sound great!
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Offline James Guillebeau

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks
« Reply #2 on: February 03, 2007, 08:53:49 AM »
The Studer C & J 37 were made to  beyond "audiophile" standards. So was the Ampex MR-70.  Tim de Paravacini is making a living modifying the still existing C & J 37s and A80s A 880 and Ampex ATRs. The Studer C&J37 machines was used little in the USA but a number of them were used in Europe notably by the Beetles starting on REVOLVER. 1", 4 TRACK.The only other system I considered better were the Westrex 35mm 3 track full coat machines developed for mo pic production and used by Robert Fine for the Mercury Living Presence and Command recordings.

Record-play electronics advanced little from the first AEG magnetofon except for experiments by Marvin Camras and his cross field head and Keith Johnson and his focused gap beamed bias head. If you look at the average solid state mastering recorder's record-play circuitry used in the height of multi-track era, it is really awful! Terrible design with crudely patched in solutions. Op-amps used willy nilly. P channel FETs used as EQ switches in feedback loops! You can't clean it up without a completely new design. James Guillebeau
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Offline U47

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5 and Studer C-37
« Reply #3 on: February 03, 2007, 02:08:02 PM »
The Studer C-37 is one incredibly well built Swiss machine. Many great European recordings were made with both the C and J(multitrack) versions. However in stock form they are not much better for playback than a stock G-36, which is fairly mediocre. Both the C-37 and G-36 decks were fine recorders but not anywhere near the same quality on playback. MR-70 is wonderful for play and record and is considerably more advanced than the earlier Studer tube decks. Many consider the MR-70 the pinnace of analog recorders. The MR-70 was priced about twice the amount as the AG-350 pro recorders. MR stood for master recorder and AG designated Audio General.
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Offline James Guillebeau

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #4 on: February 03, 2007, 02:39:28 PM »
The Ampex MR-70 while a truly fine machine used the similar tape path as the old 300 deck with the addition of a viscous damped supply reel inertia idler  (flywheel ran in a sump of oil)but it's supported path from idler to capstan across the head is long. I also don't like those all Nuvistor tubes in the electronics of the MR70. They'll oscillate if you look at them crooked or not holding your tongue right!. Much prefer the Studer arrangement and the Studer choice of tubes. Cheers! James
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Offline alexpop

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #5 on: February 06, 2007, 02:25:03 AM »
The Ampex MR-70 while a truly fine machine used the similar tape path as the old 300 deck with the addition of a viscous damped supply reel inertia idler  (flywheel ran in a sump of oil)but it's supported path from idler to capstan across the head is long. I also don't like those all Nuvistor tubes in the electronics of the MR70. They'll oscillate if you look at them crooked or not holding your tongue right!. Much prefer the Studer arrangement and the Studer choice of tubes. Cheers! James

Hi my first post to this great forum !

I have always been intrigued by the Studer versus the Ampex debate (I have a B62 & G36). What are the parts availability for the Ampex ?

Best Regards,

Alex

Offline James Guillebeau

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #6 on: February 06, 2007, 07:43:32 AM »
HI! I'd direct that question to Jay McKnight at MRL. He  makes reference test tapes and was with Ampex when the MR-70 was being engineered. He was responsible for many of the innovations in the MR-70, I believe. James
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Offline dwilawyer

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #7 on: February 15, 2007, 01:29:41 AM »
Very interesting topic, I have always wanted to see an ML-5, but what I would really like to see is the one that was marketed as a "consumer" deck.  In the 80's ML marketed the deck along with several, I don't know the number, two track copies of masters he had licensed.  They, I guess, were similar to the records that were produced, but were instead direct copies from the masters.  The cost was 20 to 25K, and I don't know how many 2 track tapes came with that.  Those tapes are what I would really like to see.

In terms of audiophile, I guess it is how you define it.  To me "audiophile" denotes consumer use, albeit, high-end and even behind on the reach of most.  Pro grear to me is not audiophile.  The pro great should have the best specs, but it was not designed for consumer use.  In my mind you have to distinguish between the two.  If you mean audiophile in the sense of top of the line consumer decks then it would be the Revox consumer decks from Studer/Revox, Tandberg and Technics RS series.  These decks were what Nakimichi was to the cassette deck (Tandberg also made audiophile cassette decks).  I think those would be considered by most to be the high end of consumer decks.  The Revox's were mostly low speed decks 3.75 and 7.5 although you could get high speed 7.5/15 ips.  The Technics and Tandberg (depending on model) had all three speeds.  Tandberg had special equalization with a seperate bias head that made it quite good in terms of home recording. 


The problem with "audiophile" in reel to reel was the quality of prerecorded material.  In the 50's you had 2 track but that switched to 4 track by the very early 60's.  This was possible because of significant improvment in head design (head gap) and the audiotape itself.  Prerecorded tapes were initially very high quality, 7.5 ips, and made at 4x speed.  Meaning the submaster tape would be spun (on Ampex reproduction equipment) at 30ips and the consumer reels were spun at the same speed.  Over time this eventually went to 8x, submaster spining at 60 ips, and 16x when the tapes were made in the 3.75 format.  By the end only record club outlets (Columbia, the notorious 1R1 cat. no.'s, were making tapes).  So while you had audiophile quality playback equipment you had very little in the way of audiophile source material.

If you are talking about state of the art in recording, pro gear, there has been some answers already which is what one would expect, Ampex vs. Studer.  It is going to come down to one of those two.

Travis


Offline dwilawyer

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #8 on: February 15, 2007, 01:44:49 AM »
Thanks for the link Charles. I have most of the records that were made in the Mark Levinson Acoustic Recording Series. I still listen to them, particularly the piano recording. Here's some of the blurb on the inner cover;
This record was produced without compromise.
Mark Levinson Audio Systems built special equipment for use with calibration microphones and high speed wide track tape format to create virtually noiseless, ultra low distortion master tapes, without noise reduction systems.
Robert Ludwig mastered the records by feeding the original tape through a custom mixer directly to the cutting amplifier rack with no filtering, limiting, or other added effects.
CIDS in France, developed special pressing techniques to produce the most quiet record surfaces posible with today's material and technology, and the skill of their chiefs of staff.
For the Acoustic Recording Series, musicians were asked to prepare programs which could be released without splicing passages. In this way, the coherency and immediacy of the musical event, rather than the note by note perfection of the spliced tape, are preserved.

Funny, they aren't very thick or heavy like the "audiophile" pressings today. But man, they sure sound great!

I would love to hear one of those records.  I am not sure what they meant by no limiting, I guess that is technically possible, but it would still have to be equalized for the RIAA curve prior to reaching the lathe.  This was either done through the mixer or the cutting amplifier rack.

What I would really like to hear is the two track tapes that Mark Levinson offered with his modified Studer deck as I mentioned in the post above.  I have heard there was as many as 20 to 100 tape he had licensed to sell with his decks.  I don't know anyone who actually bought one, but I do know someone who auditioned one.  So you essentiallyh got the deck along with "direct" copies of the studio masters (sound familar?)  That is what interested me most in The Tape Project, I missed out on the Mark Levinson opportunity back in the 80's because I was in my 20's and was in college, and did not have anywhere that kind of money. 

Now there is another chance to start a collection of "audiophile" reel to reel tapes.  I think the problem with the ML tapes was that you had to buy his deck which very few consumers could afford.

Travis

Offline dwilawyer

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #9 on: February 15, 2007, 01:54:47 AM »
The Ampex MR-70 while a truly fine machine used the similar tape path as the old 300 deck with the addition of a viscous damped supply reel inertia idler  (flywheel ran in a sump of oil)but it's supported path from idler to capstan across the head is long. I also don't like those all Nuvistor tubes in the electronics of the MR70. They'll oscillate if you look at them crooked or not holding your tongue right!. Much prefer the Studer arrangement and the Studer choice of tubes. Cheers! James

James,

I own an MR-70, one of the perks of having a father who worked at Ampex, he has given it to me to use and enjoy.  As you know, very few were made.  I have heard as few as 35 (which I believe is too low a number) but certainly less then 100.  It is by far the best tube deck Ampex made, that much everyone at Ampex agreed on.  There is some debate whether it even exceed the best of the ATR machines.  I would have no idea. 

The story I like the most, and I wish someone could confirm, is that after Willie Studer saw and heard the MR he made it his life's ambition to make a better deck; he said he managed to equal it, but he could never surpass it.

Travis


Offline James Guillebeau

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #10 on: February 15, 2007, 11:24:09 AM »
Yes, I like many things on the MR-70. The viscous damped inertia reel idler. The use of the high gain phase splitter in the re-pro amps. I don't like that lengthy tape path across the heads. It's interesting that Ampex copied the Fairchild 126  synchroll tape path in the solid state ATR-100. The tape wraps around the capstan almost 180 degrees. But it's a completely DC servoed deck. You can mount both reels off center and the DC servo will completely correct the error. But those nuvistors are hair trigger oscillators. I used the AKG C-12A condenser mic for opera which used nuvistors and was constantly changing tubes after no time at all. Howling oscillation! You have to have a stash of those tubes to service it. And the price of nuvistors is steadily climbing like everything else that can't be had with ease and is made from unobtainium.  It's only for the rich crowd that doesn't have to worry about "if you have to ask then you can't afford."
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Offline dwilawyer

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #11 on: February 15, 2007, 09:59:57 PM »
But those nuvistors are hair trigger oscillators. I used the AKG C-12A condenser mic for opera which used nuvistors and was constantly changing tubes after no time at all. Howling oscillation! You have to have a stash of those tubes to service it. And the price of nuvistors is steadily climbing like everything else that can't be had with ease and is made from unobtainium.  It's only for the rich crowd that doesn't have to worry about "if you have to ask then you can't afford."

You would not believe what my dad and I had to go through to get a reliable set of nuvistors (we ended up with milspec, very reliable but quite pricey).  Well I am not rich, the only way I have one is because of my father and his resources at Ampex.  I would not even begin to guess what it is worth today, more then 35,000 for sure, more then 50,000.  I will never know because my deal is I get to use it for as long as I want, after that it gets donated.

Travis

Offline Jim Smith

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #12 on: February 16, 2007, 01:37:19 AM »
I used an ML-5 from about 1981 until 1988 for location recordings, when I replaced it with StellaVox TD-9s.

The ML-5 made fabulous recordings, the best I had heard when I bought it.

But as good as it was, the sound from the modified TD-9s was even better.

Overall, the Stellas were the best analog machines I ever heard. Gloriously transparent.

I primarily used them at 30 IPS, same as I did with the ML-5.  I could never get the eq as flat with the ML-5, nor was it as extended up top.  The inevitable 30 IPS head bump was also worse with the ML-5.


« Last Edit: February 16, 2007, 01:53:32 AM by Jim Smith »
Jim Smith

Offline dwilawyer

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #13 on: February 17, 2007, 01:55:15 PM »
I used an ML-5 from about 1981 until 1988 for location recordings, when I replaced it with StellaVox TD-9s.

The ML-5 made fabulous recordings, the best I had heard when I bought it.

But as good as it was, the sound from the modified TD-9s was even better.

Overall, the Stellas were the best analog machines I ever heard. Gloriously transparent.

I primarily used them at 30 IPS, same as I did with the ML-5.  I could never get the eq as flat with the ML-5, nor was it as extended up top.  The inevitable 30 IPS head bump was also worse with the ML-5.




Very interesting stuff Jim, you were right there in the thick of things.  Did you ever have a chance to compare the Stella with an MR-70?

Travis

Offline Jim Smith

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Re: "Audiophile" tape decks - Mark Levinson ML-5
« Reply #14 on: February 17, 2007, 07:08:09 PM »
I used an ML-5 from about 1981 until 1988 for location recordings, when I replaced it with StellaVox TD-9s.

The ML-5 made fabulous recordings, the best I had heard when I bought it.

But as good as it was, the sound from the modified TD-9s was even better.

Overall, the Stellas were the best analog machines I ever heard. Gloriously transparent.

I primarily used them at 30 IPS, same as I did with the ML-5.  I could never get the eq as flat with the ML-5, nor was it as extended up top.  The inevitable 30 IPS head bump was also worse with the ML-5.




Very interesting stuff Jim, you were right there in the thick of things.  Did you ever have a chance to compare the Stella with an MR-70?

Travis

Unfortunately no.
Jim Smith