The Ampex ATR-102 is a two-track tape machine, generally considered to be one of the best mixdown and mastering machines ever built. Possessing the sonic magic that often eludes description that is characteristic of tape machines in general, the ATR-102 stands out for its ability to run incredibly cleanly, with excellent stability, noise levels and wow and flutter specifications.

Ampex tape machines have a profound and eclectic history, not only in music and audio, but oddly enough, even military. In the 1950s, they were used to monitor guided missile flights by recording radio signals transmitted from active rockets. The ATR-102 began life in 1976 as the two-channel offering in the Ampex’sATR-100 line. These were designed as a mixdown and mastering deck (rather than a tracking machine) and aimed at the highest end of the market. It swiftly became, and has remained, the uncompromising standard for the final stages of record-making, owing to its wonderful sound and unmatched ability to reproduce audio with minimal artefacts that’re often the byproduct of working with tape.

The 102 offers a great deal of clarity and stability compared to many other tape machines. This owes largely tothe design of its transport system, which omits pinch rollers in favour of a tension-based system to create the necessary friction of the tape against the magnetic heads, reducing the mechanical interference of the machine. It also utilises a particularly large capstan drive wheel (the motorised wheel that moves the tape along), which inherently reduces tape flutter, but is also precisely sized so that the timing of its revolutions corresponds neatly to the speed of the tape. These measures along with the greatly overspec’d power of the machines motors, combine to create unparalleled consistency of recording and playback.

The sound itself is an equal drawcard to its reliability of operation. As is the signature of analog tape, it smooths out transients in a very agreeable way, while slightly bumping up the low end and introducing harmonic richness. The robustness of the ATR-102’s low end is a particular stand out. While this has a fairly universal suitability, care must be taken when dealing with music that already has a great deal of low end or is heavily compressed as there is a risk of this becoming overbearing. The high end extends beautifully while never getting harsh, as the 102 tapers and balances these frequencies in just the right way.

Today the ATR-102 is something of a rarity. With only a few thousand machines ever made in its six years of production, and with those machines still in operation being in varying states of repair, a top-condition model is a prized asset. Even though the explicit need for tape is a thing of the past, the ATR-102 continues to be an in-demand machine, as many agree it is the penultimate sound of a finished record.  

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