Getting Started With Reel to Reel Tape Players
So, you are thinking about entering the growing world of reel to reel tape players? While the technology is not new, being present in some capacity since the late 1920’s, it is making a comeback. In fact, beyond the average reel to reel enthusiast, many modern musicians prefer the quality and sound that is not readily achievable by modern recording equipment due to a more “natural” and “fuller” sound.
New and Refurbished Reel to Reel Machines
There are a few manufacturers that are producing new reel to reel tape players. They include Ballfinger, Metaxas and the most recent addition the Thorens TM 1600. If you would prefer a classic machine, United Home Audio, Mara Machines and J-Corder sell completely refurbished reel to reel players. After they have been refurbished some customers prefer the performance of the classic machines to those that are brand new.
For the technically inclined there are many reel to reel recorders that can be found on after-market sales sites and through vendor services that can be repaired at home. There are many specialty sites that will allow you to repair damaged or missing items on your current reel to reel machines. Below you will find a brief synopsis about the parts, history, problems, repairs, and intricacies of reel to reel players that will allow you to have a greater understanding of their place and use in the world of recording and how an enthusiast like you can join in the fun.
Common Parts of a Reel to Reel player
When discussing the parts of a reel to reel player it's important to note that there are some parts that are found on a particular brand or model that might not be found on others. The parts listed below have been selected as they are common parts that will be found on the majority of reel to reel players.
Tension arm - A tension arm is a device used in magnetic tape recorders/reproducers to control the tension of the magnetic tape during machine operation.
Idler or Pinch Roller - A roller of flexible material which presses the tape or wire in a magnetic recorder against the capstan for drive purposes.
Tape Head - The tape head is the part of a tape recording or playback device which converts the magnetic fluctuations present in the tape into an electrical signal, which is then amplified and sent to speakers or headphones.
Capstan - The capstan is a rotating spindle used to move recording tape through the mechanism of a tape recorder.
Erase Head - the erase head is a permanent magnet that is mechanically moved into contact with the moving tape only during recording.
Supply Reel - The supply reel or feed reel contains the tape and is placed on a spindle or hub where it feeds during use to the takeup reel.
Takeup reel - Receives tape from the supply reel through guides during use of a reel to reel player. RX Reels makes some of the best supply and take up reels found anywhere!
Skew Control - Allow for minor adjustments in tape tension.
Tape Lifters - Are used to save wear and tear on the heads and to suppress some loud annoying sounds by popping up to pull the tape away from the heads during use.
Tape Guide - These are used to help guide the tape from the supply reel to the takeup reel during operation.
Power Switch - A power switch/control is used to turn the power on to a reel to reel player and ready it for use.
Function Controls - Are used to control the function of a reel to reel player, start or stop the recording process, select tape type, rewind, and many other functions.
Input Jacks - Depending on the make/model and age of your reel to reel player, it may or may not have input jacks that allow you to plug in many external inputs from microphones to external monitoring devices.
Erase Head - The erase head is a permanent magnet that is mechanically moved into contact with the moving tape to wipe the tape clean of signals before recording.
Record Head - The record head is a very small, circular electromagnet with a small gap in it that creates a magnetic field in the core during recording and magnetizes the oxide on the tape.
Playback head - The playback head is the part of a tape recorder that is used to pick up the magnetic pattern on tape in order to play back material previously recorded.
History of Reel to Reel Players
The reel-to-reel format was used in the earliest tape recorders, including the pioneering German-British Blattnerphone (1928) machines of the late 1920s which used steel tape, and the German Magnetophon machines of the 1930s. One of the first Sony reel to reel recorders available in the US was the 553.
Manufacturers such as Studer, Stellavox, Tascam, and Denon still produced reel to reel tape recorders in the 1990s, but as of 2017, the only company that continued to manufacture analog reel-to-reel recorders is Mechlabor.
It is important to note that some musical artists of different genres prefer analog tape, claiming it is more "musical" or "natural" sounding than digital recording processes, despite its fidelity inaccuracies. Due to harmonic distortion, bass can thicken up, creating a fuller-sounding mix. In addition, high end frequencies can be slightly compressed, which some claim is more natural to the human ear, though this claim is difficult to quantify due to the very personal aesthetics as to what is 'natural' sound.
When looking at reel to reel players that have been around for many decades, it's plain to see that they are still relevant today for both the reel to reel enthusiast, musical historians, and even in the professional recording process in studios all across the country.
Tape Sizes and Speeds of Tape
The faster the speed, the better the reproduction quality. Higher tape speeds spread the signal longitudinally over more tape area, reducing the effects of dropouts that can be audible from the medium, and noticeably improving high frequency response. Slower tape speeds conserve tape and are useful in applications where sound quality is not critical.
15⁄16 inch per second or IPS (2.38 cm/s): used for very long-duration recordings (e.g. recording a radio station's entire output in case of complaints, aka "logging").
1+7⁄8 IPS (4.76 cm/s): usually the slowest domestic speed, best for long duration speech recordings. Compact Tape Cassettes typically operate at this speed.
3+3⁄4 in/s (9.53 cm/s): common domestic speed, used on most single-speed domestic machines, reasonable quality for speech and off-air radio recordings.
7+1⁄2 in/s (19.05 cm/s): highest domestic speed, also slowest professional; used by most radio stations for "dubs", copies of commercial announcements. Through the early to mid 1990s, many stations could not handle 15 IPS.
15 in/s (38.1 cm/s): professional music recording and radio programming.
30 in/s (76.2 cm/s): used where the best possible treble response and lowest noise-floor are demanded, though bass response might suffer.
¼” tape is typical for mono or stereo tape machines that are intended for home use. Most available reel-to-reel machines are designed to read and record on ¼” tapes and it is the most commonly used tape size for available recordings.
½”, 1” and 2” tape was primarily used in professional studios. The larger width of the tape provides more area on which to store information. So potentially a wider width tape would be capable of recording a higher sound quality.
Tape Reel Sizes
In addition to the speed at which the tapes are recorded and played, reel to reel tapes are produced in a number of sizes.
7-inch reels are the most commonly used reel size for home consumer use. They are generally available with ¼” tape.
10.5-inch reels are the typical size of reels for master recordings as well as ‘prosumer quality’ reel to reel recorders.
The different recording formats of reel-to-reel recording are generally split between home use and studio use. The two main recording formats are two-track/half-track or four-track/quarter-track.
In the case of half-track recordings the left channel uses half of the tape and the right channel records on the other half of the tape. By utilizing all of the available recording area the recording maximizes the sound quality for the width of the tape, but the drawback is that when you reach the end of the tape you must rewind it and start from the beginning.
Quarter-track recordings utilized a quarter of the tape for the right and left channels respectively, in each direction of the tape. So that when you reach the end of the tape you can “flip it over” and play back the “b-side”. This allows the maximum amount of content to be recorded on each tape.
So the trade off between half-track and quarter-track players is that half-track recorders maximize sound quality while sacrificing playback time, while quarter-track players maximize your playable content while sacrificing a bit of sound quality.
Most Popular Reel to Reel Players
TEAC - On August 8, 1953, the brothers formed the Tokyo Electro-Acoustic Company (TEAC) and began producing their early reel to reel tape recorders. In June 1959 the Tokyo Television Acoustic Co. and Tokyo Electro-Acoustic Co. joined forces to manufacture tape recorders. In 1960 the Teac 505R reel to reel tape recorder was released. TASCAM was first conceptualized as a division of TEAC specializing in research and development of professional recording technology called TASC (TEAC Audio Systems Corp.). TASCAM was created in 1971 to sell their recording devices in the United States and still creates quality recording equipment to this day..
Sony - Sony found its beginning in the wake of World War II. In 1946, Masaru Ibuka started an electronics shop in a bomb-damaged department store building in Tokyo. The company had $530 in capital and a total of eight employees. ] The next year, he was joined by his colleague, Akio Morita, and they founded a company called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation). The company built Japan's first tape recorder, called the Type-G. In 1958 the company name was changed to Sony First Sony Tape Prototype called Soni-Tape - 1949. First Sony Tape Recorder Prototype1950.
Akai - Akai Electric Company Ltd. was founded by Masukichi Akai in Tokyo Japan in July of 1929 as a manufacturer of radio components, sockets and other electrical parts. In 1957 Akai unveiled a deluxe version of its high grade tape recorder. With the deluxe stereo model which was brought out the following year, Akai had acquired a firm position in the domestic market. In 1954 Akai made its first foray into the tape recorder field by bringing out the AT-1 model, a tape recorder kit. This was followed in 1956 by their first independently developed tape recorder, the 900.
Technics - Panasonic National Technics was founded in 1918 by Konosuke Matsushita. In 1961, Konosuke Matsushita traveled to the United States and met with American dealers. Panasonic began producing television sets for the U.S. market under the Panasonic brand name. The company introduced the RS-1000 reel to reel tape recorder with speakers used for recording in Japan in 1965 with the brand name Technics. (Shop: Technics Decks For Sale.)
Pioneer - Nozomu Matsumoto founded Pioneer as an audio products manufacturer in 1938, making speakers in his garage. The PIONEER RT-909 reel to reel tape recorder introduced in 1978. (Shop: Pioneer Decks For Sale.)
Ampex - The technology used to create the Ampex 200-A was based upon 2 German Magnetophones that a soldier in the US Army Signal Corp, named Jack Mullin, had shipped back in pieces after WWII. The technology was adopted by Bing Crosby for his radio show due to its sound quality and ease of editing and Crosby Enterprises is said to have been instrumental in providing funding for its commercial production. )Shop: Ampex Decks For Sale.)
Roberts - Roberts reel to reel tape recorders were designed by Robert Metzner in the US and manufactured by Akai in Japan. They were then sold as Roberts Electronics Inc., in the US and as Akai under licence in the rest of the world until 1973.
Crown - The company, then known as International Radio and Electronics Corporation (IREC), was first known for manufacturing small and durable open reel tape recorders for missionaries in hard to access parts of the world and in 1949 received a patent for the first tape recorder with a built in amplifier. Crown continued to innovate, and in the 1960’s produced the 150-watt DC300 solid-state amplifier, which is still used by audio professionals today.
Fostex - Founded in 1973 by Foster Electric. By 1981 they were producing three reel to reel recorders with the A-8 being the most popular as it was the first to allow 8-tracks on ¼” tape. Their innovations continued throughout the 80’s and 90’s culminating with their final analog reel to reel recorder the G-24S which was capable of recording 24 tracks on 1” tape and reaching unbefore known levels of sound quality.
Studer-Revox - Began in 1948 building products for high voltage labs. Transitions to recording equipment by modifying foreign recorders for British use. The Dynavox T26 was designed with 10” reels and single track 1” tape, it was later renamed the Revox T26. The company later became known for its innovative models the G36 and the Studer-Revox A77. (Shop: Studer Decks For Sale.)
Nagra - The original Nagra, a portable tape recorder, was invented in 1951 by Stefen Kudelski. The company was an innovator in analog tape recorder technology until 1992 when it transitioned to digital audio recording with the Nagra-D.
Tandberg - Founded in 1933 in Oslo, Norway Tandberg introduced many technological advances that were later adopted by other industry leaders. The TB-6X utilized a cross-field recording technique which allowed their machines to handle higher frequencies. Tandberg allowed Akai and Roberts recorders to use it in their recorders under license.
Proper Tape Storage
Reel to reel tapes have a common life of 20 years, but with proper storage some enthusiasts have noted that their tapes have remained in good condition for up to 50 years. Following certain guidelines can significantly increase the lifespan of your reel to reel tapes.
Simply keeping your tapes clean can have a large impact on their longevity. Tapes should be handled with care in a no smoking, no food area. Tapes should also not be allowed to drag on the floor.
Protecting Your Tapes
Tapes can be damaged by drops and sudden jolts so adequate care should be taken when handling them. They should be stored away from magnets and electronics that can produce magnetic fields including speakers, and other equipment particularly transformers and other strong magnets. Magnets have been found to be less of a danger to the tapes than previously thought but when talking about tape longevity even a small chance of harm should be avoided. Tapes should be stored in a cool and dry place and not exposed to direct sunlight.
Products to Protect Your Tapes
Wrap around collars that fit around or between the flanges can be used. They protect the tape by helping to exclude dust and debris as well as preventing the flanges from deflecting and pressing against the edge of the tape. Damaged, bent or nicked reels can also pose a risk to your tapes. RX Reels provide premium protection from this kind of tape damage because the reels are madefrom carbon fiber and aluminum hubs rather than plastic; they are incredibly strong and not subject to warping, bending or nicks in the same way that a similar plastic reel may be.
Heads Out, Tails Out
The terms heads out or tails out are used to reference which way that a tape has been wound. Heads out is when a tape has been rewound onto the supply reel and tails out is when a tape has been wound onto the take-up reel. It is considered best practice to store your tapes tails out because of a process called “print-through,” which is the process by which the magnetic flux of the tape slightly alters or prints on the layer below. The imprint can create a “pre-echo” for heads out tape storage or a “post-echo” for tails out tape storage. Post-echos have been found to be much harder to detect so it is recommended that tapes be stored tails out.
Common Problems With Reel to Reel Players
If you have purchased, or currently find yourself in possession of a reel to reel machine that is currently not working, most often you can narrow down your issues to one or more of the following issues:
- I can’t plug in my reel to reel recorder (damaged cord cap).
- It won’t power on (recorder plugs in but has something internal not allowing it to turn on).
- The tape won’t move (recorder powers on but will not progress tape).
- Tape is moving but won’t play audio or won’t record (Internal issue with the heads or other problem).
- One channel is muffled (not getting clear/concise sound during playback).
- It's playing at the wrong speed (tape/speed selection is not operating properly).
In the following section, we will go over some of the troubleshooting and restoration techniques that will help you identify and resolve these issues and allow you to start enjoying all of the benefits of reel to reel ownership.
Restoring Reel to Reel Players
If you currently own a reel to reel player and you are having issues with it, or you are looking to get into the world of reel to reel players and are trying to learn more about what the restoration process involves, below are a series of steps which you can use to troubleshoot/restore any reel to reel player presented in a logical and linear format.
- Identify the problem to determine which of the many different components in a reel to reel recorder that you need to focus on fixing.
- Unplug the machine and take it to a place where you have plenty of room to work on it such as a workbench or table where you won't lose parts or spill liquid on your project.
- Clean the reel heads. The best way to do this is by using cotton swabs (do not use anything metal) and a special cleaning solution you can order online on sites such as Amazon, and to give the heads and thorough cleaning to remove any dirt and dust that may be present. After completion of the cleaning, ensure that the machine has been given sufficient time to dry. After an appropriate drying time, simply load in some tape and run a test and see if your problem has been resolved.
- Disassemble your reel to reel player and check for any loose components that may be present on the interior.
- Replace any parts that are not working properly.
- Test your reel to reel player and ensure that it is working properly or if you need to find additional non-working parts.
When to Demagnetize Your Reel to Reel Players
Have you put any thought into demagnetization of your reel to reel player? While many people understand the importance of this simple procedure, many do not. Below are some of the times which you should consider giving your reel to reel machine some demagnetization love.
- After a good cleaning if during use you still are hearing a high level hiss or background noise or are experiencing poor quality recording.
- If your reel to reel player has been stored and unused for an extended time.
- Before a master recording or listening to rare and precious tapes that could be damaged.
- Before using alignment tapes to ensure that your machine is tuned up and ready for use.
- After every 20 hours of use.
This process is important due to the fact that magnetization of the iron oxide in the magnetic tape is how the recording process takes place. Due to the process, it is common for parts of the machine to become magnetized and could result in poor recording and playback performance if demagnetization is not done regularly.
We hope you found this post helpful for understanding more about Reel to Reel Tape Players. For a guide on what goes into a reel for open reel tape decks check out our blog post here.
RX Reels prides ourselves on manufacturing the world's best carbon fiber reels. Learn more about us and why Ken Kessler from Soundstage!HIFI has said "The RX Reels are among the mechanically best I've ever seen. In use they provide the most even take-up I've experienced."
See RX Reels Carbon Fiber 10.5" and 7" reels here.
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https://museumofmagneticsoundrecording.org/ Jack Endino. "Response Curves of Analog Recorders". Endino.com. Retrieved 2021-06-29 Workbench Guide to Tape Recorder Servicing. G. Howard Poteet, 1977 https://thereeltoreelrambler.com/reel-to-reel-tape-a-beginners-guide/tape-formats/ https://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub54/care_and_handling/ Edwards, Scott. “Zen and the Art Of Tape Editing.” Technical Tools of the Trade. http://www.techtoolstraining.org/spotlight/2017/6/7/zen-and-the-art-of-tape-editing. Retrieved 2021-07-15https://r2rtx.org/node/15) https://museumofmagneticsoundrecording.org/ Workbench Guide to Tape