By Jack Sharkey, June 10, 2015

The first thing I heard when I listened to this track for the first time was Michael Jackson's wonderfully slow and silky vibrato. You just don’t hear singers slow their vibrato down that much today. The whole performance just dripped with 60s Chicago soul and feeling even though Michael Jackson was all of eight years old in 1967 when this track was recorded in a recording studio in Southside Chicago. Eclipsed by a recording of the same song released a year or so later on Steeltown Records (the Jackson 5's first single), this recording was pretty much forgotten about for almost forty years. You can read the whole story about the rediscovery of the recording here.

The historical significance of this recording, from a cultural and musical point-of-view cannot be denied. This recording goes way beyond telling the early story of Michael Jackson and speaks to the history of the early days of the pop music business, what soul music was during its heyday and how the technology of music itself has evolved. When this recording was re-discovered, the tape it was on was thirty-eight years old and was singular in its existence. Certainly this recording deserved to be heard by all who would want to listen, but you simply don’t take a tape as precious as this, slap it on some tape machine somewhere and get it out to the people.

Simply put, you don’t trust this kind of material to just anybody – you trust it to experts that care about quality to near obsession. That’s where Steve Puntolillo and the team at Sonicraft A2DX enter the picture, because without them you might not ever have been able to hear the very first recording of the Jackson 5. And that would be a shame.

I first became aware of Sonicraft A2DX while searching for someone to transfer an old 16-track tape of a project I had worked on back when my hair was longer and its original color. An engineering acquaintance of mine kind of smiled and said “you have the world-class tape transferring lab like 5 miles from your house.” My friend was wrong, it was ten miles from my house, and his high praise of Sonicraft A2DX didn’t begin to fully describe what they were all about.

If you’re a Springsteen fan, you may have picked up or listened to Bruce’s 3-CD set from his August 5, 1984 show at the Byrne Arena in New Jersey – transferred by Sonicraft A2DX Labs.

If you’re a Grateful Dead fan, you may have picked up or listened to all or part (depending on how big a fan you are) of the incredible 60-disc compilation of the Dead’s groundbreaking 1972 European tour – transferred by Sonicraft A2DX Labs.

Not a big Deadhead or fan of the Boss you say? Well, peruse this extremely shortened list of the artists Sonicraft has transferred (and therefore preserved) music for:

Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker,  James Brown, David Byrne, Eric Carmen, Gene Chandler, Chi-Lites, Celia Cruz, Sammy Davis Jr., Brian Eno, Jimi Hendrix, Lionel Hampton, Ron Jefferson, Bob Katz, Ben E. King Jr., Michael MacDonald, Melissa Manchester, Megadeth, Gerry Mulligan, My Morning Jacket, Graham Nash, Nu Kats, Osmond Brothers, Patti Page, Lenny Pickett, Bernard Purdie, Queen, Richie Sambora, Slipknot, Sonic Youth, Split Enz, Cecil Taylor, Townes Van Zant, Morgan Visconti, Joe Vitale, Don Williams, Hank Williams Jr., Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder.

If you’re not intimately familiar with at least some of the people on that list you’re not really a music fan so I have to ask you what you’re doing reading this blog.

Sonicraft A2DX Lab's Scully 284-12 Machine (pictured at right)        

Here’s the thing, tapes get old, analog tape equipment isn’t as easily accessible as it was even 15 years ago, there’s a nasty problem with tape formulation that may destroy the binding of the magnetic particles to the tape (therefore destroying the performance on the tape), and digital audio workstations are the industry standard, so there are a number of good reasons why your buddy with the garage band in 1975 or the folks at Columbia Records might want to transfer their open-reel tapes to a digital format. The trick is two-fold – ensuring the tape plays back with its original quality while making sure no damage is done to what is often the only existing copy of a performance. This sounds easy. It’s not.

My first impression upon seeing the Sonicraft lab for the first time was how immaculate and efficient looking it was. The lab is a high-end audio facility dressed up as a high-end computer room, and the vibe of the place whispers quality, (confidently - you don’t need to shout when you’re good at what you do).

Steve Puntolillo, the owner and founder of Sonicraft is the perfect amalgamation of left-brain and right brain: hard-core engineer with heavy technical chops perfectly in synch with intuitive artistic visionary. A big picture guy who knows the details chapter and verse. In other words, if I was going to trust a singular copy of a precious or priceless musical recording to someone to transfer to digital format (I did), I would call Steve. Just like pretty much everyone else in the industry.

A musician who became a mastering engineer who then took a journey into the burgeoning computer industry in the 1980’s, Steve’s career was a perfect preparation for developing a world-class transfer facility. He wasted no experience or lesson in building the lab at Sonicraft, and the team he has assembled to work with him is equally as impressive. Of the five main members of the Sonicraft team, Chief Transfer Engineer Kevin Przybylowski has, according to Puntolillo "run more miles of tape than anyone else I know. His work is impeccable."  

John Chester, Sonicraft's Chief Design and Maintenance Engineer, got his start working at a little concert venue called the Fillmore East in New York City,  you might recall from, well, pretty much every awesome rock & roll show that mattered, plus he was on the technical staff at a little outdoor show in Upstate New York called Woodstock, so his experience and knowledge puts him at the top of the list when it comes making audio equipment work as well as it possibly can.

When he started building the business, Steve bought multiple machines of each model he was restoring and took the best parts of each to assemble the machines in the lab. Meticulous restoration was done from replacing old parts with enhanced audiophile-level components to cleaning and restoring the wiring harnesses and connectors. The lab started with one Ampex MM-1200 that was restored using the parts from two other machines plus brand-new custom built components, and now boasts basically a machine for any pro-audio format you can imagine, including ultra-rare 4-, 8- and 12-track 1” tapes.

True to the statement that any audio system is only as good as every component in the entire signal chain lets it be, great care was taken in assembling the other components that make up the transfer facility.

Sonicraft uses Mytek 8x192 converters that are capable of up to 192kHz/24-bit sampling. Each of these converters has been factory-modified to allow the team at Sonicraft to dial in to the levels on the tape in 2dB steps.

Noise reduction is handled by an impressive array of outboard NR units that far surpass the quality originally found on-board each tape machine. Basically, the lab is entirely backward-compatible with any noise reduction system used since they were first implemented.

 

Custom MR-70 1" 4-track head assembly

“Sorting through the many configurations of professional noise reduction systems was an enormous job. We needed to be sure that the latest versions of each were indeed the best and would be fully backwards-compatible with tapes made on earlier systems. We purchased, rented and evaluated practically every style of Dolby and dbx noise reduction system. In fact, for dbx Type I decoding, we purchased and evaluated a total of six different dbx multitrack noise reduction systems before we made our final decision.”

Here at KEF, because so much of our time is spent in in the pursuit of, or preaching the gospel of, great sound, it’s really a treat to come across people who share that same passion and who have taken it to a really amazing level. Part of the fun of doing this Blog is to be able to introduce you all to industry professionals who care deeply about music and what it means to us all, and that truly makes Steve and his team at Sonicraft A2DX Lab Masters of Sound.

“My hope is that people like you will bring us your tapes and rest knowing that you've gotten the absolute best transfers possible. And, if you're going to remix, remaster, or repurpose those tapes, I want you to have the exciting and amazing experience I had when I pulled my first A2DX transfer up and heard analog recording like never before.” – Steve Puntolillo (pictured at right) 

Jack Sharkey for KEF