The Mulann Group is an industrial company that primarily manufactures two products: magnetic stripes for the smart card industry and magnetic tapes for the audio industry under the brand name Recording the Masters. I recently paid a visit to their factory in Avranches to speak with their Sales Manager, Théo Gardin, about their audio tape products, which have become quite popular in recent years.
Hi Théo. Can you tell me a bit about Mulann and Recording the Masters? Are they separate companies?
Mulann is a company founded in 1983 to cater to the magnetic stripe market, as well as produce quality control machines for the card industry. Recording The Master’s (RTM) was later created in the 2016, and is not a company, but a brand name for Mulann’s magnetic audio tapes. I’m employed at Mulann as the Sales Manager for the RTM brand.
Why are you the first person of contact at RTM, rather than someone with a technical background who works at the factory, like a senior technician?
It’s mainly because I’m the only one in the sales department, and I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, so it’s easier for me to chat with customers. However, if I’m asked certain technical questions, I can always turn to someone like Guillaume Enguehard, our Quality Control Manager, since I don’t have all the answers. I can respond to questions about how the tape is made, since I know how our machines work, but other questions can be more difficult to answer, like when we get emails from audiophiles, asking, “I have a new tape recorder that I’ve never used before. How should I calibrate your tape on this? “.
Can you tell me about your job as a Sales Manager?
I handle a few different tasks; one of them is to manage our distribution networks and set the market prices for our retailers. I also have to do prospecting in order to find new customers, and I’m responsible for the marketing side of RTM too, which involves handling social media posts, videos and photos. I also monitor customer feedback so that we can better understand their needs, and I talk internally with our team about what kinds of new products we can develop.
It sounds like your job entails more than just being a Sales Manager.
That’s true, but we’re a small company of 39 people, and we don’t have a marketing or web maintenance department, so all of us have to multi-task and do extra things sometimes. However, Mulann does have a Sales Manager for each of their product areas. So I handle the audio tape products, and we have someone else for the card-related products.
The chemical formulas that RTM uses were once owned by a chemical company called BASF. In 1991, BASF bought up a corporation called AGFA and acquired their proprietary tape formulas. They continued making well-received tape products until were acquired by EMTEC in 1997. EMTEC was later bought by RMGI in 2004, who was in turn acquired by Pyral in 2012. But Pyral ran into financial problems due to the excessive costs of running their tape factories, and had to sell their assets to Mulann. Do you know why Pyral struggled in the tape business, whilst Mulann was able to avoid the same problems?
I think Pyral had issues with adapting to the technological challenges of tape production in a declining market. But when Mulann took over Pyral’s activities in 2015, the demand for tape was on the increase, due to a revived interest in analog gear. So in 2016, the company decided to launch an investment program under the title “Long Live Analog”, which is how Recording The Masters was created. Other investments were also made to improve manufacturing yields and the quality of our tape. And since more people are building studios to record exclusively on tape and new tape recorder manufacturers are popping up, it’s created more demand for our products. So things are getting more interesting for us.
Do you know why BASF tapes were so acclaimed and successful through-out the 20th century, as opposed to their competition?
The magnetic pigments and chemical formulas were the key to BASF tape’s overall performance. Here at our factory, we have chemical experts who are constantly trying to match new chemical components with the existing formulas, and BASF was able to do the same thing, which allowed them to remain at the forefront of the tape business. The settings used for our machines are also very important; these are well-maintained machines, but they’re old, and we don’t always have the necessary spare parts to repair them. But if something goes wrong, we have to find a way to fix them anyway, and being able to do things like that is key to creating a good product.
At some point in the 90s, the tape business started to decline, due to the advance of digital technology. But you just said that the market is having a resurgence again. Do you know which years the decline and resurgence took place respectively?
I was born in 1991, so I don’t really know when the market started to decline, but the resurgence started around 2016. I think more and more studios are trying to record to tape now, which has positively affected the market.
What was Mulann known for prior to the tape business?
They were supplying test equipment for the card and ticketing industry. Because Mulann acquired Pyral in 2015, they were able to further expand their activities in the card industry by making magnetic stripes for PVC and PET cards.
We have three professional tapes: the SM900, the SM911 and the SM468 and two semi-professional ones, the LPR35 and the LPR90. Our semi-professional tapes are made from the exact same chemical formula as the professional ones. The only difference is that we coat a thinner layer of magnetic slurries on the semi-professional ones, which allows for longer tape lengths and recording time. Because of the thinner coat, one could perceive a slight change in audio performance, but it’s a very subjective difference. Personally, I use the LPR35 at home and I don’t hear that much of a difference, but of course, I’m not a studio owner. An audio engineer may hear those differences.
Let’s talk about Mulann’s individual tape products.
Sure. All of our tapes come from BASF and AGFA chemical formulas, although we’ve had to adapt them somewhat. For example, if our supplier of solvents can no longer provide us with the same raw materials, then we have to get a different supplier who may offer an alternative, which forces us to adapt the formulas to that.
SM900 and SM911: The differences between each tape formula is quite subjective to me, but I know that many people use the SM900 to record classical music because this tape is quite uncolored, whereas the SM911 gets used more for things like jazz music, when you want more color in your recordings. All of our professional tapes are available in quarter-inch, half-inch, one-inch and two-inch formats. The semi-professional ones are only sold as quarter-inches, and are mainly bought by audiophiles for their hifi systems.
LPR35 and LPR90: These are both based on the chemical formulas of the SM911 and SM900 respectively. They’ve just been thinned out, as I mentioned.
Would you say the audio tape business is a profitable one for Mulann to be in?
Well, our customer base is increasing because of the growing demand for tape, and that’s good for us, but we have huge costs at our factories; the maintenance and staff costs can be a challenge. So things can be profitable, but frankly, we need more customers and sales to cover the production costs. Mulann still works in the card business, but the demand for magnetic stripes has stagnated because new kinds of payment technology is being developed that offer alternatives to debit and credit cards. So we have to make adjustments in both industries.
Who are your main competitors in the world of audio tapes?
There’s only one other major tape manufacturer in the world, and that’s ATR Magnetics. There’s a small company who sells Capture tape in the US, but it’s considered by most people to be semi-professional tape. I think RTM has the biggest market-share worldwide.
RTM isn’t fighting with ATR over customers, or anything like that. It’s a healthy competition and they just have different chemical formulas that some people prefer. Things like that also depends on what tape recorder a customer uses, since the same tape sounds different from machine to machine.
Who are RTM’s main market: audiophiles or studios?
Half-inch, one-inch and two-inch tapes tend to be used in recording studios, whilst quarter-inch tapes are mostly used by audiophiles. Since we sell a lot more quarter-inch tapes, I’d say that audiophiles represent most of our customers right now. However, studios are important because of the visibility and promotion they offer; they tend to be quite vocal about why analog tape is important, and that helps to spread the word about our products.
Can you tell me what clients you have in France and internationally?
Most studios in France who record to tape use our products.example. Florian Lagatta, who has worked with artists like Daft Punk, uses our tapes at Gang Recording Studio. Other examples are Studios Ferber and Motorbass Studio.
In terms of international clients, we have studios like Electrical Audio, which is the owned by Steve Albini, and we’ve also started working with a place in Finland called Astia Studio. They record everything from metal to choir music and are doing a great job on social media of promoting the use of tape. We appreciate when studios do that kind of thing because it helps educate people about what our products can offer them.
RTM released the Fox C60 cassette last year, which has been well-received. What led you guys to get into the cassette market?
As a result of launching our “Long Live Analog” program, we identified the audio cassette as an important item to our business. In 2017, we started getting more requests from professional duplication companies for new cassettes, since the distribution companies that work with major labels were just recording their music to used cassettes and reselling them. So the demand for our cassettes initially came from the record labels, and we later saw a growth in demand from consumers who wanted blank cassettes to record music at home. But most of the major cassette manufacturers disappeared years ago, due to low demand. There might have been one company in China that was still making cassettes, but even they shut down last year. So since Mulann already makes audio tapes, we decided to adapt our tape formulas to be suitable for cassettes, and the Fox C60 was the result of that.
This was the first time in years that Mulann had designed a product from scratch, and we had to search for new raw material suppliers for that, which wasn’t easy. But now we sell about 2000 blank cassettes per month, which are quite good numbers.
Who are your raw material suppliers?
We have a lot of different ones. For our PET film base we have several suppliers in places like China and the US, although it depends on the thickness we want, among other specifications. Also, if one our suppliers goes out of business, we have to find a different one from somewhere else.
But you said the cassette material suppliers were hard to find. So how were you able to successfully produce your cassettes?
For the Fox C60, we use the same PET film base and pigments that we have for our audio tapes. The magnetic pigments are the key in this business, and the final performance of the product depends very much on the pigment properties. As Mulann had never made it’s own cassettes before, we’re working with different partners to produce the FOX C60, since finding the right materials and personnel to manufacture it ourselves was difficult.
Philippe Zdar purchases RTM tape for his Motorbass Studio, and he told me that his biggest issue with modern tape companies is that their batches are sometimes inconsistent in quality. How has RTM avoided this problem?
There could be many different reasons for that, since there are quite a few critical steps in the manufacturing process. Problems could occur during the emulsion coating process, perhaps with the PET film base. Even if one part of the film gets slightly contaminated, it affects the final roll of tape, although only the customer who buys that roll would be affected. Problems could also arise from the pigment if it doesn’t dry properly, or during the sliting stage as well, if we don’t cut the tape properly. Additionally, other tape manufacturers were known to overproduce their tapes from limited batches, which led to a dip in quality.
Due to the quantity of tape we produce at Mulann, we do sampling controls for our batches. So sometimes a small percentage of a tape batch might have a defect, and we replace the ones that have issues if it’s brought to our attention. We’ve come to understand how important quality control is in our line of work, so we’ve taken measures to improve that. For example, we’ve added optical controls to several parts of the production chain to catch any defects automatically. Also, we’re increasingly able to determine if a batch of tape will turn out good or not, since our staff are learning to detect things just based on how the tape looks as it runs through the machines.
Can you contrast magnetic audio tape versus cassette tape, and how each sounds different?
Well, it’s not just about the tape itself – the playback machines have a lot to do with how the audio sounds, due to differences in things like the tape heads and playing speeds. The higher the playing speed, the better the quality of sound you get. This is why recording studios have machines that run at 15 ips or 30 ips (inches per second), whilst audiophiles have machines that run at 15 ips or 7.5 ips. So a cassette, which runs at 1 ⅞ ips, can’t offer the same quality of playback as an audio tape.
Which part of the frequency performance of cassette tape is the hardest to get right? The low-end or the high end?
When people complain about bad-sounding cassettes, it’s usually because of how the high frequencies perform. A Type 1 ferric cassette isn’t going to sound like a Type 2 chrome cassette, since the magnetic pigments aren’t the same, and chrome cassettes have a better high-frequency response. So if you try recording a hot signal with a lot of high-frequencies on a ferric cassette, you’ll get unwanted saturation. Fortunately, our Fox C60 has been tested and compared to the best Type I’s made in the 80s, and has a good high-frequency response and low noise.
So why doesn’t RTM focus on making Type 2 chrome cassettes instead?
We’re working on it, but it’s been a challenge to find a good chrome supplier. We need one that offers reasonable prices, but since we only need a few tons of chrome, the prices tend to be quite high, and it’s unlikely that our customers want to buy cassettes at high prices because of our production costs. So we have to balance what our supplies offer us and what customers are willing to pay. And once we get the new chrome pigments, we still have to make a new formula for a Type 2 cassette. For the ferric ones, we could adapt the existing BSAF and AFGA formula that we already had, whereas we’d have to make a new formula for a chrome cassette.
(Above: Théo Gardin holding the Fox C60 cassette)
When I interviewed the founder of Burl Audio, he said that one of the reasons for the success of their A-D converters is that they recreate the sound of tape recordings by using transformers. Would you agree that the proper A-D converters can offer a similar recording resolution and depth of sound as tape does?
I don’t think that was possible in recent history, because A-D converters always had to compress the recorded signal. Compression really affects high-frequency content during conversation, especially when you record hot signal levels, which would lead to distortion, whilst tape doesn’t distort high frequencies. Instead, it just saturates in a pleasant way that rounds off the sound. But due to recent technological improvements, A-D compression isn’t the issue it was before, although it’s hard to say if it’s reached the level of tape.
RTM has partnered up with an analog-centric recording studio called Kerwax to manufacture a piece of processing equipment called the Kerwax Replica. How did that come about, and what have the sales been like?
I wasn’t working at Mulann when that relationship began, but I know that Kerwax have a very particular console in their studio and wanted to share a small part of it. I’m not sure who approached who, but the idea was for Mulann to help manufacture a unit that could be used for audio processing. So we helped Kerwax with the development and the production of the Replica, and our first round of sales have been pretty good.
Thanks for this interview Théo. Last question: which market has been the most lucrative for you, in terms of selling audio tapes?
Our main markets is the US, but we also do well in Japan, England, Germany and the Nordic countries. Russia is also growing a lot, since people there are fond of classical and jazz music, which is very much linked to the tape industry.