Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 15

Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 15

Written by Ken Kessler

Producing what one considers to be revelations from what is the “bloody obvious,” as the British would say, is a waste of anybody’s time. What could I possibly tell Copper’s audience of seasoned audiophiles about reel-to-reel tape? But nearly 40 years after the demise of any format, one might presume that an audience now exists which never used that format, and which might be equally unaware of both its sound and/or capabilities, as well as the artists who recorded in it. Again, I think of that YouTube clip where kids cannot figure out how to use a cassette.

Every music format lives or dies according to whether or not the content providers (what used to be called “record labels”) embrace it. No matter how much better it may be, any format launched without a vast catalogue of pre-recorded material to support it will not take off, which is why the amazing Elcaset never stood a chance. Equally, any format will die when the labels abandon it. This means that all playback methods are locked into the era during which they were viable, thus embracing and depending on contemporary artists, though also able to access all that has gone before with reissues. Thus, you can find Caruso CDs, though he died in 1921, and Jimi Hendrix lives again on SACD.

Yes, there will be straggler manufacturers and artists, especially those exploiting a dead format for effect, be it retro or kitsch, but usually they are gone forever, like 8-track or MiniDisc. For example, aside from a few novelty items like Moby Grape including one 78-rpm track on Wow!/Grape Jam, 78s died when 45s and LPs came out in the 1950s. As a result, no artists which emerged after the mid-1960s have had their singles or albums on 78s. Yes, I know there were Beatles 78s in India, as the format lasted longer there, but you get my drift: 78s are dead and buried, though I know one jazz buff in the UK who still swears by them – as in, “You haven’t heard Charlie Parker until you’ve heard the 78s.” And I would love to hear Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith 78s just to know if he’s right.

It goes on, and anyone releasing cassettes today, such as Kylie Minogue or Metallica, is doing it strictly for fashion, because sonically they still suck and they remain fragile. But to deliver even more extreme examples, you will not find Edison cylinders of Billie Eilish, nor 8-tracks of Ed Sheeran or Michael Bublé (though the latter’s music begs to be heard on 78s…).

It’s slightly different with open-reel tape because the format, though no longer supported by any commercial or major labels, survived the digital juggernaut because many studios never abandoned it. But we must differentiate between pro, semi-pro and domestic usage. It is possible for formats to serve the first two users, while being totally ignored by the third, and vice versa.

Here’s a couple of illustrations: Early digital recording on Betamax tapes, to choose a format of not-too-distant memory, was strictly a studio pursuit, though I am sure there were audiophiles who splashed out on a Sony PCM-F1 rig; these are the same audiophiles who now use 1/2-track 15 ips machines at home. Conversely, 8-track machines were designed for the car, though there were domestic players. Would studios bother with them? No way, except possibly to have one around to compare the commercially-released 8-track to the master tapes.


Sony PCM-F1 Digital Recording Processor, introduced in 1981.

Sony PCM-F1 Digital Recording Processor, introduced in 1981.


Then we come to the other anomaly that distinguishes reel-to-reel from all other dead, moribund or simply niche formats (unless you know of labels still producing cylinders, 78s and 8-tracks). Those same audiophiles who dabbled with the Sony PCM-F1 and always had a big Studer or Ampex reel-to-reel deck are today’s customers for the only pre-recorded open-reel tapes currently being produced. So, unlike other certifiably dead formats, open-reel tape has always enjoyed a tiny element of support. (But please note that cassette tapes and hardware, too, like LPs and turntables, never disappeared completely before their recent, respective revivals.)

Except for a few isolated cases, all currently-produced pre-recorded open-reel tapes are 1/2-track 15 ips releases on 10-inch spools. The repertoire, as has been discussed here before, is severely limited to a precious few famous reissues from the likes of Analogue Productions and The Tape Project, or brand-new recordings almost entirely of jazz or classical music from relatively unknown performers. And as incredible as the latter might sound, it takes a well-heeled, open-minded, generous-of-spirit individual to drop $500 on a 25-minute recording of Frenchmen playing the blues, or solo piano tangos, or Danish jazz trios.

Why am I bringing this up after 14 previous columns about returning to reel-to-reel? Because more than one reader has berated me for not emphasizing the dearth of material available if they want only new tapes, nor the seemingly-antique repertoire on offer if they are brave enough to acquire used, pre-1980s tapes. Common sense should tell them two things, the first of which is about the repertoire ending in the mid-1980s.

Again and again, I have stressed: you will not find Rage Against the Machine on open-reel tape! Coldplay, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Adele, Beyoncé – whatever you prefer listen to, if it emerged in the last 35 years, it will not be available on reel-to-reel.

Secondly, any rock era tapes you acquire are bound to be unplayable. This statement, while less simple to prove than the above, is based on my small sampling. Yet again, I leave it to you as to whether or not my findings have any merit, given that the number of tapes I own is 2,500 in total, not 25,000, so your skepticism is valid. But let me tell you that, of 200-plus rock-era tapes from Carole King to CSNY to Simon and Garfunkel to the Beatles to Aretha Franklin to the Supremes to Blood Sweat & Tears to Roy Orbison, I’ve found a 4/1 ratio of ruined to playable. Yes, the abuse was that widespread, but I have no way of knowing for certain if it’s down to mishandling the tapes, poor machine maintenance, or other maltreatment.

Why this is so has been referred to in earlier columns, but the possible reasons strike me as obvious (and please keep your trolling to yourself if this generalization offends you): Younger people seem less fastidious than their elders, and – especially during the 1960s/1970s when hi-fi was booming – too many stoners would have been spooling, in the most clumsy manner, what are now ruined copies of the Doors’ Soft Parade or Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around or the Bee Gees’ 1st.

Instead, that is what you must expect if – as did I – you’ve gone the second-hand tapes route and search eBay on an hourly basis. To give you an idea of what the audience was for pre-recorded tapes, using both my own collection as “sort of” indicative, while comparing the lists in the catalogues which came with the tapes, the biggest sellers included the following in no particular order – and by that I mean I have eight or more titles by each:

Andy Williams, Enoch Light, the Lettermen, the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Ink Spots, Trini Lopez, Jackie Gleason, the Mills Brothers, Percy Faith, Doc Severinsen, Ray Conniff, Roger Williams, Martin Denny, Al Hirt, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Kostelanetz, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Fiedler, Si Zentner, Ferrante & Teicher, and a number of others in the popular, jazz/big band/easy listening, and classical categories. Arguably the biggest genre of them all was my other huge cache of tapes: soundtracks and Broadway scores.

Here are some general observations, of neither scientific nor statistical validity. Please bear in mind that these tapes came from multiple sources, so no lone, ham-fisted tape user can be blamed for any of the barbarism:

Most tape releases: Andy Williams; Tom Jones; Percy Faith; Ray Conniff; Arthur Fiedler


One third of Ken's Andy Williams tape library.

One third of Ken’s Andy Williams tape library.


Worst-treated tapes (other than rock-era albums): Trini Lopez and Barbra Streisand; all country artists, especially Loretta Lynn

Best-sounding: Jackie Gleason easy-listening albums; soundtracks on RCA and Columbia; Bernstein on Columbia

If this is a cautionary tale, it is aimed at those under 60, or maybe 70, whom I don’t want to be disappointed if they have been bitten by the tape bug, perhaps after hearing one of Jeff Joseph’s (Joseph Audio) demos at a hi-fi show. Boomers, even when toddlers, were regaled with “Stranger on the Shore,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and anything force-fed to us through appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Palace, etc., so the above might seem logical…and maybe obvious.

There’s an upside to all of this I wouldn’t change for anything, despite wishing I had more mint Beatles tapes. Thanks to these reel-to-reel adventures, my tastes have broadened, and my appreciation of the artistry of the above – especially Andy Williams – is a great reward for the time, effort and expense. But the biggest pleasure has come from something my father adored: film soundtracks and Broadway scores, which sound better than one can imagine.

As for proof of their popularity, I have more than five copies apiece of The King and I (screen), South Pacific (stage and screen), West Side Story (stage and screen), My Fair Lady (stage), The Sound of Music (stage and screen), Oklahoma! (screen), Gigi (screen), The Music Man (stage and screen) and Fiddler on the Roof (stage). No surprises here, understandable as they were huge hits. And it makes me so happy that only one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s atrocities – Jesus Christ Superstar – has emerged so far on open-reel. Yes, both the stage and film versions.

As Fiddler probably only appealed to 1960s Jewish audiophiles – and remember that we owe the greater part of our hobby to lantsmen such as David Hafler, Avery Fisher, Sidney Harman, Saul Marantz and other nice Yiddishe bochers – maybe it’s why I play that particular tape whenever I want to dazzle visitors. Zero Mostel’s “Oy!” has never sounded more real. So, my father’s passion for tape aside, I guess open-reel is in my blood.


Header image: a Bernstein buffet! Photo by Ken Kessler.

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