Can You Tell Me How Master Tapes Are/Were Usually Handled Back in "the Day"?

A reader asks:

I was wondering if you could tell me how the master tapes are/were usually handled back in the day? The reason I ask is because there are several master tapes floating around on the internet and people are offering reel to reel copies of them for sale (photo from back in "the day").

I have actually just bought a copy of a Led Zeppelin II master, the seller has the master reel from the Mexican record company Gamma. According to his photos of it, the box does have the reference number GX 01-521 and a note that the original catalog number is 588198, recorded 18/11/1969, which sounds correct, although a bit curious.

I was wondering if the record company would have made all the copies of the original mastered tape in one batch to be distributed worldwide (20-40 of them?), or if one master tape would have been sent for instance to the UK and then copied in turn for the European market?

And in the case of this particular LZII, it seems strange that the Mexican master tape would be marked 588198 rather than SD 8236, ie a UK mastertape as opposed to a US one?

So... would the Mexican tape be mastered by Bob Ludwig or George Piros - or who ever mastered the plum UK edition?

It's all very confusing, If you have the time I would love your input on the matter.

Here's a "quick and dirty" answer (because I need to make it quick and I'm just back from the gym and dirty):

In the case of Led Zep II, the original Ludwig cut had EVERYTHING. No cut to bass or anything else limited but it was pulled because it wouldn’t play on “kiddie” phonographs.

Ludwig was the LP mastering engineer. He didn’t “master” the tape. The tape was a finished product handed to mastering engineer for cutting (and often in need of "cleaning up" and prep for LP cutting) and then handed back.

It’s difficult to know the particulars of that Mexican tape or any tape but usually the master tape owner (in this case Atlantic Records), would make the copies for world wide distribution so there would be someone sitting in a studio running off copies probably on a bank of three or four machines. Though sometimes lacquers were cut and sent if the master tapes originated elsewhere, which is why some American Led Zep IVs have "Pecko Duck" on one side and "GP" (George Piros) on the other!

But it’s also possible that rather than using the precious MASTER, they made a copy and copied from that. So by the time you get yours from Mexico it could be 4th generation or worse, a fourth generation “cutting master” with limited bass and dynamics.

On the other hand, it could be a 3rd generation tape off of an un equalized uncompressed master and that would sound AWESOME (assuming the duping was correctly done) and the tape was properly stored and handled (that's a big "if" in this case).

Also: while SD 8236 is the Atlantic LP catalogue #, all record labels had a different numbering system to identify tapes themselves. So 691 671 was side one of Led Zep II and 691 672 was side two. Those are on the labels and the lead out groove area.

588198 is the original UK catalog # on a record that says “Under license from Atlantic Records, USA” because Led Zep though a British band was under contract to Atlantic USA. So, if the tape has the U.K. # (which is odd), it means one of two things:
1) the Mexican label licensed from the U.K. label (Polydor I think) so that tape is yet another generation down OR
2) The whole thing is a SCAM and someone screwed up and used the U.K. catalog # thinking that would make people think it was more “original” (when the opposite is true!).

I'd be cautious before spending big Krona (the readers lives in Sweden) on a tape copy of unknown origins.

Anton D's picture

I see a teeny touch of Liam Gallagher in that picture.

I am surprised at the stream of "master tapes" that seem to be suddenly appearing these days."

I worry that a lot of people are buying duplicated CDs.

There is also a river of Frank Ocean colored vinyl pressings flowing out of Russia, for some reason.

Tom L's picture

...of thousands of copies of Frank Ocean colored vinyl flowing gently to the sea...

Jim Tavegia's picture

wanted a crack at the head of hair. Could have made a lot of sweaters. But, as Billy Crystal would say, "When you look good, you feel good, and you look marvelous".

Ortofan's picture

... the J&R headphone commercial?

samman's picture

You could have passed for Jack Bruce! Now stop fooling around and review the new Mofi One Step of Simon and Garfunkel. I'm waiting.

Michael Fremer's picture
Haven't received it! Heard at TP at Music Direct when I visited last spring. That's all I'll say.
otaku2's picture

Hey Mikey. I got my copy of Bridge two days ago.
I can play it for you over the phone if you want to hear it.

TommyTunes's picture

With the renewed interest in Reel to Reel decks, there are more dubs of master tapes floating around the internet today than there were copies of the lp’s sold back in the day. Most originating from eastern europe or russia. Personally if it doesn’t come from Acoustic Sounds, The Tape Project and a couple of other labels, just take your money and put it through the paper shredder.

tresaino's picture

I don‘t agree. I got some production master tape copies of eastern origin that sound amazing, some audiophile Lp editions in my collection have no chance. But true that one has to take a risk and also trust that copies were made on properly biased machines.

jenspp's picture

The manipulations with the original master tapes as part of the mastering or copying process is a very interesting topic. I was always puzzled by the total lack of low end on the Kashmir track on Zep's PG double album. Such a tremendous riff, but no bass whatsoever.
Michael, do you know if something presumably closer to the original (where I assume you would be able to hear John Paul Jones play bass) exists ?

jkingtut's picture

Didn't your mother remind you to always check your collar when you put a shirt on?... after the admonishment about records of course.

Blue Note's picture

HD files, although they are also continuing to use commercial 4 track tapes and LP to create their files, which brings forth the question, how are they doing this? I mean, I see Blue Note, Atlantic, Deccas & more being sold by them. I assume that you need clearance to make and sell them, which ain't cheap, so I wonder how they are getting around this.

Jay's picture

I'd be as scooby dubious about the provenance of those so called "Master tape" copies out there as I would be about that rather magnificent 'fro of yours Mikey...'s picture

Hello all.
I'm building a turntable from scratch. My option was to build a 12 in wand, for no special reason other than curiosity, I never had one. So now I have to figure out 2 things: the turntable plinth resonance frequency (if it is really necessary) and the pivot point to position the tone arm. The article "Tone arm geometry 101" diagram, appears to be the starting point, but there are some variables that I would probably assume without any background, and I don't really want to do this way. Would anyone have good advices to give me directions to start? I did not start building the plinth yet, so it is still time to check it out with people with more experience than me. thank you!'s picture

I'm sorry, I'm going out go topic here! I'm new and probably you guys will need to cut me some slack. thanks!

michael m's picture

Michael suggested to get the white album pressed by Optimal. i saw one yesterday but could not see where it was made? how do you know..thanks