Star Club tape recorders and tape

Ted Taylor’s Grundig tape recorder

Heritage Auctions recently listed two of Ted “Kingsize” Taylor’s original tape recorders for sale, the sale also included a tape of The Beatles playing at the Star Club, Hamburg in December 1962. The tape recorders are the one that was originally used to capture the performances and the one used to create an edited version of the tape for Brian Epstein’s consideration. The auction ended on December 6, 2014 without getting a winning bid.

Description by Heritage:

Beatles – Portable Reel To Reel Tape Recorder Used At The Star-Club, Hamburg With a Tape Recording of The Beatles. This vintage Phillips portable tape recorder is of great importance to the history of the Beatles, for it is the machine on which the album Live! At The Star-Club, Hamburg, Germany; 1962 was originally recorded. The four-track recorder was purchased in Berlin in October 1962 by Ted “Kingsize” Taylor, the leader of the Liverpool group Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. The Dominoes shared a Star-Club residency with the Beatles in December 1962, during the last of the Beatles’ extended trips to Hamburg. Taylor had suspended a microphone from the ceiling of the club which ran to the Phillips recorder, and had taken to recording his group – and then others – at the venue. According to Taylor, he approached John Lennon one evening and asked if he had any objections to Taylor recording a Beatles performance. John’s reply was that it was fine “so long as you get the ale in” (buy drinks for the Beatles) – which Taylor did, and he also rolled the tape.

The exact date of the recording isn’t known for certain, but the Beatles residency ran from December 18th through the 31st, which was also the final date of the Dominoes residency. According to Taylor, he left the tape at his mother’s home upon his return to Liverpool, and didn’t address the recording again until 1965 when he presented an edited version to Brian Epstein to gauge his interest for possible release. Epstein purportedly replied that due to the substandard quality of the recording there would be no commercial interest, with a purchase offer to Taylor of 20 pounds for the tape. Eventually the Star-Club recordings were released commercially on the German Lingasong label in the 1970s through a partnership with Taylor and the Beatles’ first manager, Allan Williams. The recordings have subsequently been the subject of various legal proceedings, and at present are currently unavailable. Despite any sonic limitations, Beatle fans have long cherished the Star-Club recordings for capturing the energy and excitement of the Beatles’ legendary early career performances, in the city where the group perfected their craft.

The Philips tape recorder

Offered in this lot are two portable recorders owned by Kingsize Taylor: one, the Phillips recorder purchased in Germany and used to record the Beatles at the Star-Club, and two, a Grundig recorder subsequently purchased in Great Britain, and used by Taylor to create the edited tape presented to Brian Epstein. The Grundig recorder does include a microphone, however, it is not the mic that was used to record the Beatles at the Star-Club. A copy of the edited tape as presented to Epstein is also included. This tape is not the master used for the Lingasong release, and no copyright is conferred with its purchase. A two-record vinyl copy of the Lingasong release is included for listening enjoyment. Mach Schau!

Source Heritage Auctions

OxTango’s 2014 release of the Star Club recordings of the Beatles

Of course, the person actually responsible for setting up these recordings was Adrian Barber, and not Ted Taylor.

Despite Heritage Auction’s claim that the recordings are currently unavailable on an official release, OxTango Music made a version of the recordings public last year.

Earlier, a so-called “safety master” of The Beatles’ Star Club recordings were reported to be available from American Memorabilia. For researching purposes, the most important tape has yet to show up: the unedited original tape – which would have provided us with the true sequence of the songs. One of the things the OxTango release has been critisised for is that it deviates from what has been thought the chronological order of the tracks.

Even though the tape included with this auction is an edit of the master tape, at least it would have provided us with a recording not tampered with in preparation for the 1977 release.  A number of techniques were imployed to create a master for these LP’s, all of which were probably of more harm than actually enhancing the recordings (see below for details). In 2015, far more advanced technology could have benefitted a new release, if only the original tape could be found, used and for instance, be an official release in the aftermath of The Beatles Live Project.

August 1977

High Fidelity/Musical America

Resurrecting the Beatles: Star-Club to Stereo

By Charles Repka

The author is a recording engineer for the Vanguard Recording Society

The year was 1962, the place Hamburg, Germany. Ted “Kingsize” Taylor and the Dominoes were in town for a three-night stand at the Star-Club. Taylor had asked for a recording of the gig, and someone at the club obliged with a simple one-microphone setup plugged into a mono Grundig tape recorder. The machine ran continuously, capturing Taylor’s performances and those of two lesser-known acts also on the bill: Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers and an up-and-coming quartet from Liverpool that called itself the Beatles.

Not many people know what happened to Cliff Bennett or Ted Taylor, but that up-and-coming quartet went on to become one of the major musical influences on this generation. After Hamburg the tapes were momentarily forgotten. Taylor eventually offered them to Brian Epstein (the Beatles’ manager), but Epstein didn’t think they had any commercial possibilities. Subsequent offerings throughout the Fab Four’s incredible career were also refused (last spring, they did attempt to stop the distribution of the LP), and in time Paul Murphy of Lingasong Records in London acquired the tapes and sold the rights to Double H Licensing Corporation in New York last fall. What does one do with a historic, mono, 3.25 inches-per-second Beatles recording? Put an enormous amount of faith in modern technology and make it into a commercial LP of course.

The job was not an easy one, in fact it’s one of the most technologically ambitious projects ever attempted in the pop music field. The man behind it all is Larry Grossberg, an independent producer/engineer. We met in his comfortably furnished mid-Manhattan apartment to listen to the finished product and discuss the restoration process. “Lee Halpern, president of Double H, and his attorney, Walter Hofer, knew about the tapes and had been pursuing them for some time. Lee came to me one day with the news that he had just acquired the rights to a Beatles album. I said that was terrific. Then I asked him if he had heard the tapes and he said, “You know I’m not a judge of music.” Then I said, “Well, don’t you think you should listen to what you just bought?”

Halpern apparently thought that was a good idea, and they arranged for a first listen. Grossberg recalls his reaction. “All I could say was, ‘Jesus, that’s bad! That’s a pretty terrible recording.’ But at the same time I thought it was commercially viable and could be improved upon with modern studio techniques.”

Murphy must have had the same thought earlier, for what Halpern played for Grossberg was actually a 16-track, 2-inch tape copy of the original, with the same mono program on each of its tracks. This “multi-track mono” tape would allow Grossberg to use the separate (though of course identical) tracks as his basic source material. From each, he would attempt to isolate, draw out, and eventually enhance one instrument or voice, and then put them back together again in an improved form.

Clearly, this was no overnight lark. So Grossberg booked several months at New York’s Sound Ideas recording studio, sent out for lots of coffee, and got down to business. “The first thing I did was to sit down and just listen to try to identify things. As I listened, I began to realize there were a lot of problems. A lot more than I had anticipated. This was a recording made in 1962, under the severest of conditions, on a Grundig mono home recorder at 3.25 ips using a handheld mike of dubious quality. The tapes had every classic problem. Hum, tape hiss, distortion, wow and flutter, background noises, performers too far off mike, you name it and it was there. It took about two weeks of experimentation (at $1,500 per day) before I started to understand what had to be done and which procedures to follow.”

The initial task was to create one track for each element, bass drum, top hat, snare drum, cymbal, bass guitar, lead guitar, lead vocal, and choral vocal (they actually used between eight and thirteen of the sixteen available tracks). This was done by selectively filtering and equalizing the original mono signal for each instrument’s specific frequency. For example, the bass drum track was created by cutting off all high frequencies, then accentuating a narrow frequency hand centered at 100 Hz. The lead guitar was likewise found by boosting frequencies in the 3 kHz region. Ashly .05-octave parametric equalizers were the most significant tools in the process. Since they can be fine-tuned to hear only a small portion of the original signal, while rejecting everything else, they in essence could “find” those almost inaudible instruments that were buried within the original recording.

In addition to the Ashly parametrics, an arsenal of other signal-processing devices were rolled in, including Burwen noise suppressors, UREI compressors, Kepex noise gates, API dynamic sibilance suppressors, and an assortment of equalizers. The DBX Noise Reduction System was used to ensure that there would be no addition noise buildup during the long and complex transfer process.

The proliferation of hardware brought with it a new set of problems. “There would be times when we would blow up a sound lost in the background,” says Larry. But in bringing it up, it carried with it enormous distortion and background noise, so we’d try using something else to minimize noise. So on any particular track, say a cymbal, we could be using an Ashly, a sibilance suppressor, a noise gate, a compressor, and a limiter. But at the same time, as you isolated one thing, something else like a guitar chord would suddenly shoot out of nowhere because it fell into the same frequency range (Guitar chords were a particular problem on the vocal tracks because of the similar frequency ranges). Then we would have to go back and change things slightly and try again. And this was done for each track on all twenty-six tunes.”

And then there was the problem of electronic interference between all the various “black boxes.” As Larry says, “It was a learning process. I found out what happens when you hook up three or more of these devices at the same time. Utter chaos!”

Because this was originally a homemade effort some of the tunes were in pieces. Occasionally the Grundig would run out of tape in the middle of a song or RECORD did not get depressed until well after a number had started on stage. The beginning of I Remember You, for example, was missing altogether. And some of the tunes were reconstructed from different performances during the three nights of recording. The beginning of a song might be from the second night, the middle from the first night, and the ending from the third night. And since the recording sounded different on each night, great care had to be exercised in matching the pieces so that they could eventually be spliced together.

Assembling restored “chunks” of tape into a smooth continuous performance complete with audience reaction was the next step. “The songs have been put into the sequence we felt the Beatles would have wanted.” The transitions between tunes were created by putting together disconnected bits of applause (which wasn’t in abundance – the Beatles were simply another young band trying to make it at this time), audience noises, and onstage comments made by the band on a tape loop. This wild track was put on a separate machine and brought up between cuts.

But even the wild track had its problems. Kathy Dennis, who assisted Larry at Sound Ideas, recalls the inevitable burst of loud laughter that kept coming round again on the tape loop. That, of course, had to be toned down considerably in deference to the performers. And there was Horst the waiter, who joined the group on Be Bop A Lula (sic). The audience apparently loved him, and it was the engineers’ task to bring up the level of the Beatles’ reception to match their chants of “Horst, Horst.”

After many hours of fiddling, filtering, equalizing, expanding, compressing, and crying, the separate tracks were ready for mixdown. Interestingly enough, the mixdown was “back to mono”(!), even though the eventual record would be in stereo. But keep in mind that the original source was mono. And although the much-manipulated multitrack tape had given Grossberg the control he needed to correct many of the deficiencies, the finished product could still not match the latest big-budget, studio-slick stereo recording productions. Besides which, Grossberg wasn’t aiming for flawless sound reproduction (which would have been impossible anyway), but a recreation of what that Hamburg audience heard some fifteen years ago. A stereo mixdown of the doctored tracks was not the answer. It might have sounded cleaner than the original, but too electronically connived. So Larry dragged out yet another marvel, the Orban/Parasound Model 245E Stereo Synthesizer.

The 245E simulates a stereo effect by breaking down a mono program into several frequency bands some of which are routed to the left while others go to the right. The overall effect is one of a concert hall type of ambience ideally suited to the project. As Grossberg put it, “The perspective we sought was that of the audience sitting and listening to the Beatles at the Star-Club. A live performance is a hell of a lot different than a studio mix and the sound we got out of the Orban was just what we were looking for.”

Finished now? Well, not quite. Before writing an end to this project, the tapes were sent to Bob Ludwig at Master Disk for transfer to a lacquer disc from which pressings would be made. But when the test cuts were reviewed using average home loudspeakers, the sound did not live up to expectations. Lingering distortion components in the master tape seemed to be aggravated in the transfer process and Larry felt that some more work should be done, right at the disc-cutting lathe. Making those further equalization changes while cutting was complicated by the fact that a playback stylus picks up a sound about half a second after it has been cut. Therefore, Larry had to anticipate the necessary changes as cutting progressed, and trial and error was the rule of the day.

After many more hours in the cutting room than originally anticipated, the lacquers were okayed and readied for pressing. Titled “The Beatles Live! At the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962” the LP was released first in Germany, where according to Larry it “instantly went Gold.” After hearing what Grossberg had to work from, it’s safe to say that he and his team of experts achieved their intended goal: the successful representation of the early Beatles in a live – if somewhat chaotic – club-date setting. Sound quality is not the LP’s selling point. It is a historic document and as Larry puts it, “There is a charisma captured on this album that was absent from their first three or four albums. Once they got into the studio, they had to go through the process of learning how to be natural in unnatural surroundings.”

The LP is also quite significant for its technical achievement. Larry believes there are many commercial possibilities for recordings of this type with such artists as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix. “I would like to see more albums from early tapes of now famous performers. It’s a part of our musical heritage.” It will no doubt happen in the not-too-distant future.

People who have been able to do an A/B comparison of the released albums versus the original, unedited tape all testify that the original tape is far better than the album.

The Beatles’ Star Club recordings will sound crude to the average listener, but they are appreciated by fans, not only as a historic document, but also as a testimony to The Beatles’ sound when they played in Hamburg – and for those of us who have gotten used to the inferior sound quality, for the enjoyment of the performances and the music.

Further reading: BeatleSource.comWikipedia

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ox Tango is a bootleg label, so those are not official releases.

  2. Geert says:

    OX Tango seems to be defunct now: the website is no longer accessible

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