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Notes On Open Reel 1/4 inch Tape: part 1

6/29/2008

As those who have been in contact with me lately will know, I have been getting into the world of open reel tape machines and the 1/4 inch tape that is played on these.  For this moment, I thought it a good idea to come up for air and make an appraisal of what I've seen and heard so far.

Pictured above: A pair of Otari MX-5050BII-2 1/4 inch tape 1/2-track machines.  Both have the 4th head option which allows 4-track playback.. 

Back in the day.  You know, the sixties and seventies.  I knew a few different folks that had this-or-that open reel machine.  As a student, I studied music and played in various bands.  Many of these facilities that I was in used open reel tape to analyze our performances. A most effective tool that way. On a higher level; what professional musician/composer wouldn't be without his/her reel to reel!  More recently, I've read the odd mention of "The Tape Project" here and there in the audio press. I've seen the occasional photo of an open reel machine in the context of system photos. Some are within the various gallery pages here at The Analog Dept.

Then I heard some of the demo tapes this fellow Charlie King was playing on his little Stellavox at VSAC '08 in the AN room.  The sound quality that I heard that day was very, very good. Combine this with the relative affordability and availability of 'certain' used r2r machines and it just seemed like a distraction worth pursuing. Compared to many folks, I've bought into the tape machinery a little late. Prices on many of the more desirable machines are no longer a giveaway...but, I suspect, that if a popular interest grows,  the prices of the hardware and software will continue to grow along with it.

Is It A Resurgent Movement Or A Dead Medium?

Take a cyberspace journey over to The Tape Project . http://www.tapeproject.com/.  Here is an organization that appears to be infusing new energy into the medium by producing high quality "master duplicates" to be played back at 15 ips 1/2 track on 1/4 inch tape.  Their goal is to produce 10 titles per year.  The best price offered on these is to buy a 'subscription' which obligates you to buy a specified number of titles, but at a much lower price than any single title.  So far, only subscribers have any of these tapes.

 I suspect the costs of production are high for this project.  Even the cost of the tape is enough to sink a battleship. In my own searches I find that a 10.5 inch metal reel, new, and filled with blank 1/4 inch recording tape will set you back about $49.99. I did manage to find a sale price on Quantegy 499 Gold Master (was Scotch) 1/4 inch tape in a 10.5 inch reel (2500 ft) for $29.99 through Musician's Friend, a pro-audio supplier.  But that was a sale price, not the regular price.  Consider that a 10.5 inch reel of 1/4 inch tape recorded at 15 ips will play through in about 33 minutes.  In light of that how many tapes would you want to buy!  Further, the Tape Project is not using high speed duplication machines like the major record companies did - way back when.  Instead it is making direct transfers from 1-inch 2-track tape, on an Ampex MM1200 with electronics modified by Tim de Paravicini, directly to 1/4 inch 2-track tape at 15 ips (real time) using Ampex ATR 100 machines.  The method is slow. By all accounts the results are extraordinary for home listening. I've yet to hear any of these.

 Additionally, "The Tape Project" are offering equipment upgrades for customer machines. One such upgrade is to patch a direct line out from the tape head to an external tape head preamp.  This is said to raise the quality of output by a considerable margin. Owners who have had this done tend to proclaim major improvements in sound quality of their open reel decks. 

Another company that is producing high quality analog master duplicates on 1/4 inch tape is Quinton Records  Quinton Records is in Austria. Link to their site for catalog, prices and to order.

About The media: Availability and Durability.

Check Ebay for the price of pre-recorded tapes these days. The popular titles, the collectible, the desirable titles are just as pricey, if not more so, than the collectible - desirable counterpart titles on vinyl.   

Consider also the vulnerability of the tape itself to deterioration with age. High humidity storage is to be avoided. Stable long term storage-room temperatures are preferred. The binder (adhesive) layer that holds the media to the substrate can rot. The magnetic tape is vulnerable to damage by the way it is handled. (Keep your finger prints off! ) According to The National Media Lab, the projected average working life of magnetic tape is calculated to be around 10 to 30 years. Here's a link to more info:

There are other ways you can damage the tape.  If it has a mylar substrate it is vulnerable to stretching when your machine puts too much torque-pull against it. A general rule of thumb is to use reels with a large center hub. See photo below. Both hubs on the Otari pictured below have large center hubs on the reels mounted.  The large center hub will reduce the amount of force that the machine can pull against the tape.

Improper winding and rewinding can lead to pack problems and make the tape prone to wrinkle.   Such damage can cause flutter in your playback.  Ideally we want the tape to wind in a neat uniform spool with edges evenly stacked.  

Extreme temperature fluctuation in the storage environment will allow the tape to expand and contract giving cause for more types of damage.  See link for the full details.  Beware, some photos are explicit! 

Ironically, most of the used commercial tape titles that are being sold these days are well past 30 years old. Many of these are still in good playable condition.  But others are showing familiar signs of decrepitude like the dreaded "sticky-shed syndrome".  Sticky-shed happens when the binder layer -that holds the magnetic particles- and is adhered to the substrate - becomes soft and gummy - loses lubrication - then - tends to stick, bind and shed during playback.  Bad ju-ju.

By comparison, a vinyl Lp, when correctly handled, played and stored, will not be susceptible to anything near this level deterioration. More likely, a vinyl Lp, when stored correctly, could last as long as the projected life expectancy of pvc left outside to rot in a land fill......that would be just about forever

In light of the durability and price issues it is easy to see why open reel tape takes a back seat to vinyl as the more favored playback medium. The Lp is simply far more readily available, cheaper and permanent than is tape.

Q: What is it that I hear from the tape?

Above photo: small assortment of recently acquired 4-track 7.5 ips commercial tapes.  Btw, you're not supposed to store these tapes as I have pictured.  They should be up on end.  I just did the stack temporarily for a convenient photo.

A: From the small stack of commercial 4-track 7.5 ips* tapes that I have I hear a purity of tone and texture, coherency, very wide sudden dynamic range. Transients are fast. There is a very snappy, fluid rhythmic drive.  The extended high frequencies are beautifully detailed and airy. Violins and other bowed string instruments are real. Massed strings in orchestra works are fleshed out in nice detail. The music seems to flow like a river.  Naturally. 

Two of the pre-recorded tapes I bought were recorded before a live audience. Ok, now what I have to describe next may be regarded as a psycho-acoustic effect. Somehow hearing a live audience performance via open reel tape seems to take you closer to the recorded event compared to playing the same live audience performance on record. Eerie. At first there was this sensation like I was eves-dropping on the performance. Psycho-whatever, it's cool.

I do detect a sonic signature that identifies the medium being played as tape compared to vinyl. Is it hiss that identifies the tape? It would if it were prominent but in this case I don't think so .  The hiss generated on this machine, with these tapes, is very soft and not apparent without listening specifically for it. Is it the noise of a stylus tracing its way through the vinyl groove versus the noise of tape being uniformly drawn across the playback head?  I'm not sure what it is, but the source has its signature whether it be vinyl or tape.  Oddly enough the vinyl is a mass produced transcription of a master tape.  Some times you can hear evidence of the tape master within the vinyl recording, but it is still identifiable to my ear as being vinyl.

As a proud Otari owner I'm hearing the tape signal that is coming through the 24 yr old Otari electronics. No question, the sound is very good...but a little lean in the lower frequencies. I suspect that either a refurbishment/upgrade of the internal electronics, or perhaps a simple bypass operation to take the signal directly off the playback head into a standalone tape head preamp would work wonders and elevate this performance to an entirely different and higher level.  But wait a minute!  This is starting to get expensive! The going price of the used machinery is attractive, mainly,  but that cost is just the tip of the iceberg. The commercial tapes are not at all cheap...unless you can pick them up for free somewhere.  Then there is the prospect of equipment maintenance costs.

Conclusion

In spite of the apparent draw-backs having to do with the fragile nature of the tape and the complexity of the equipment, there is something here very much worth while to audiophiles who enjoy high quality playback. I think it well worth the bother to get equipped with a decent open reel machine and start playing the occasional tape. It makes a refreshing comparison against the vinyl Lp, is obviously superior to CD and broadens your sonic experience.

-Steve

PS: for reels, tape and other r2r supplies check with "pro audio" and "musician supply" stores online or in your neighborhood. That's where they keep the usual stuff. Another source is, inevitably, Ebay.

Footnotes:

* Speed of tape as it passes over the head has a profound effect on frequency response. Typically, 7.5 ips (inch per second) is considered a good speed for high quality playback. 

3-3/4 ips is a commonly seen speed for commercial tapes.  This speed will have dramatically rolled-off high frequencies.  Frequency response at 3-3/4 ips is ~ 30 hz to 10,000 hz. Most people I've talked with say they avoid this speed and search out the 7.5 ips tapes.

At the other end,15 ips is considered "high speed" for home use and not all open reel machines have this option. Tapes recorded at 15 ips will have highest possible fidelity.  A very high quality format on 1/4 inch tape  would be 15 ips 2-track.