Richard Hess Interview
by Eddie Ciletti
Hess restores and archives vintage analog tapes and provides mastering
EC: Richard, how did you get into
tape and machine restoration?
RH: I bought a Wollensak T-1616-4
while in fourth or fifth grade and I soon found out that you needed to
spend as much money on the machine to keep it running as I had spent for
the machine, so I got a Sams Photofact and learned how to take it apart
and put it back together. In the 1970s, I had ReVox A77s and an Ampex 350/440
hybrid that I put together for field recording (the A77s won out) and I
did all my own maintenance and alignment on them. I was working as an audio-video
systems engineer at ABC-TV at the time and this was a side interest.
In 1997 or so, I started meeting some folk
singers who were worried about their tape collections and I was worried
about what I had so I purchased a used Sony APR-5003V and started doing
I was on the Los Angeles chapter board
of the AES a couple of years later and asked Jim Wheeler to speak about
tape degradation for the AES, as he and I had developed a mantra, "just
because you can't play the tape doesn't mean it's trash." He then asked
me if I could play some 30 cm reels at 30 in/s from the Jack Mullin/Bill
Palmer collection and that was really the start.
I wrote an AES technical brief on the project
When NBC contacted me to transfer the Princess
Diana interview tapes that Andrew Morton had used for his biography, I
thought that this business could become interesting. I went into
the business full-time in the fall of 2004 with a move back to my wife's
hometown of Aurora, Ontario, Canada.
EC: How long did it take you to
get good at it?
RH: Years of work and study--and
then doing other things and coming back to it after a 31-year career designing
high-end broadcast facilities (with a two-year hiatus designing equipment
for McCurdy Radio--how I originally got to Toronto).
EC: Did you get help from anyone
(or any specific resources)?
RH: My mentor, Milton Gentsch, a
neighbour who helped spark an interest in both photography and electronics
was very patient with me as I was growing up. I was fortunate to have him
share with me--he had no children of his own and was very generous with
EC: Who are the people (customers
and other technically savvy folk) you really count on for their ears or
RH: I have developed a network of
other tape restoration professionals and we all help each other--and sometimes
even send work to each other. My first contact is my good friend Don Ososke
who is a musician first and who is often my "technical advisory board."
I have many other restorers and engineers who I speak with on a regular
basis, including: Peter Brothers, Parker Dinkens, Tom Fine, Jamie Howarth,
Paul Kraus, Graham Newton, Doug Pomeroy, Steve Puntolillo, Art Shifrin,
and Steve Smolian.
EC: Who are the technicians you
really respect in our biz?
RH: This is a difficult question
as I do almost all of my repair work myself. John French stands out as
a head miracle worker and has crafted some wonderful custom head assemblies
for me. He is an excellent machinist who understands what he is doing.
EC: What is the range of time you
might spend on rescuing a tape or machine?
RH: Rescuing a machine can be a
long process and it might be done in stages. I recently acquired four Studer
A80RCs and while two of them are up and running, the bearing grease is
getting old so I want to re-bearing the machines--there are 30 ball bearings
in each machine!
With tape failures, the biggest challenge
has been tapes that squeal that do not respond to baking. A year ago, I
presented a paper at the AES in San Francisco where I indicated that cold
playback of squealing tapes had promise and I had been able to successfully
play some tapes on a machine in a refrigerator. Until this breakthrough,
we had spent tens of hours trying to get some of these tapes to play. We
could coax them through with wet playing, but it was not the right answer.
I recall one hour-long tape where we played it in one-minute segments and
then spliced it back together in the digital audio workstation!
The worst time consumers are tapes that
are supplied in a ball in a box and we have to untangle them. I can do
about 300-500 feet an hour and it's perhaps the most frustrating work.
Mold cleaning takes at least a half hour per reel -- we don't do moldy
cassettes at this point.
Usually, with proper preparation, we can
get as good a transfer as possible--and then fix what we need to later
in the digital audio workstation.
EC: Do you have a non-audio hobby
or does it consume all of your time?
RH: My mentor introduced me to photography
-- which was his business -- and electronics -- which was his hobby. Electronics
became my business and photography is my hobby. http://gallery.richardhess.com/
EC: How many employees do you have?
RH: One -- me. My wife helps out
with the mailings and picking up the incoming packages. She has primary
responsibility for the kids and the house and the meals -- I don't know
how she juggles it. I couldn't do this business without her support for
all the other things.
EC: Do you have a pet peeve - something
that really bugs you?
Oh, I have several:
tape manufacturers' lack of thorough study
of tape aging
current-model microcassettes that come off
CSI for unrealistically raising expectations
EC: Are your customers patient?
people who don't break out the write-protect
tabs on cassettes
RH: Very patient -- but I also let
them know that this takes time and they understand. I try and take large
projects on "safe" schedules because I don't want to turn down other clients
while one huge project is in process. Besides, variety keeps this work
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