By now it has been established that my renewed interest in reel-to-reel is unnaturally narrow, in that I am not a recordist in any manner. I may be the only audio scribe who didn’t scratch his head when Thorens announced, at the last Munich High End Show, that its version of the Ballfinger tape deck would be playback-only. The only time I ever hit the Record button is when I am erasing old homemade tapes for recycling.
No wild claims for effect, no melodrama: I genuinely do not tape live music or off-air broadcasts, nor do I transfer LPs or CDs to tape, as I am not (yet) part of the niche group which finds it improves the sound. I am only interested in playback of commercial tapes, and that excludes the fare from the current practitioners, a.k.a. The Open Reel Revivalists.
Again, I do not wish to criticize any of the labels presently and bravely issuing pre-recorded open-reel tapes in the 2020s, nearly all of which are 1/2-track/15 ips releases, with prices up to around $1,000, but averaging $300 – $500. Partly it’s because I simply cannot afford them, but mainly it’s about repertoire. I just don’t have any desire to buy tapes of artists I’ve never heard of, performing music which I don’t care about, while the reissues of known works are simply out of my price range. And this is despite having heard examples of the Revivalists’ output, and been dazzled by their sonic worth.
Thus, you might have already surmised that I have restricted my playback to tapes produced during The Original Open Reel Era, roughly the period of 1952/3 to circa-1985 (give or take a year or two on either end), with the likelihood that some of the earliest binaural tapes may have appeared as far back as 1948. This is not as limiting as you might think, because – as best as I can estimate – in excess of 10,000 titles were released by labels ranging from the legendary pioneering audiophile labels such as the Livingston Tape Libraries, Everest, Command, Audio Fidelity, and so on, to nearly all of the majors. That figure of 10,000 comes from me manually counting the titles in my collection of 40 or 50 catalogues, as found in the used tapes I’ve acquired.Part of KK's rock collection.
Because RCA, Columbia, Capitol, London (the US wing of Decca), Mercury, and nearly all of the other mainstream labels supported open-reel tape for, at least, their major artists, and because the smaller independent labels, too, had access to well-known performers, the repertoire is huge, but severely skewed in terms of genre. It is blindingly obvious that – like the earliest LPs – the labels were targeting “grown-ups” for lack of a better term, because tape decks, and the tapes themselves, were costly.
Noting manufacturers’ prices printed on the boxes (as opposed to retailers’ price stickers), $7.95 – $12.95 was charged, depending on whether the tape was 1/2- or 1/4-track, a single album or a double-play, and occasionally thanks to some other factors, such as album length. (There were also budget labels and special sampler tapes from the likes of RadioShack for as low as $3.95.) Most of the vintage open-reel tapes seem to have playing times of 13 to 17 minutes per side, but many classical titles and some compilations ran to 30 minutes per side, while boasting this on the cover. Whatever the reasons, the prices equate to $60 – $110 in today’s values. In other words, feeding a tape deck back then was costlier than buying LPs. Plus ça change, eh?
Back to the genres. During the pre-Beatles era, the then-new teenager demographic got its musical fix with singles, not albums. Although major artists such as Elvis Presley (especially his soundtrack albums), Duane Eddy, Johnny Tillotson, Connie Francis, and Roy Orbison were given the reel-to-reel treatment, they were the exceptions.
One suspects that younger listeners would not become a market force until the mid-to-late 1960s, arguably the result of the perfect storm of college radio, the ascent of the rock LP, the arrival of affordable Japanese separates, and the emergence of outlets like Tech Hi-Fi, which catered to music lovers other than well-heeled professionals and seasoned audiophiles. It is therefore no surprise that the most poorly-served genres for pre-recorded tapes were soul, rock, R&B, and blues. By the time these genres did merit open-reel tape releases, the cassette had arrived and its convenience trumped that of open-reel, further limiting its commercial or practical appeal. And while many hundreds, if not thousands of rock titles ultimately were released on open-reel tape, the survival rate is low, while demand today outstrips that of all other genres. But we’ll get to that next time.
Surprisingly, there were more (US) folk and country and western titles available than one might have imagined. The former genre was hot in the early 1960s, with the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, and others benefitting from the “hootenanny” craze, crossing over into the pop charts and enjoying TV coverage. Country music was more radio-supported than album-oriented, but huge crossover stars, including Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Chet Atkins appeared on open-reel tape.
At this point, to provide some basis for these observations, please note that my research is based on analyzing the aforementioned catalogues, and on cataloguing more than 2,200 tapes I have acquired in the past three years. While that is hardly a large enough sampling to make broad generalizations, neither is it so tiny as to be risible or insignificant. Moreover, I have forced myself to develop an open mind, beyond rock, pop, soul, blues, and the like, and, out of necessity, have not limited myself by genre.
I have now spent many hundreds of hours in my dotage listening to music which never before issued forth from my sound systems. If you told me five years ago that I would be listening (as I write this) to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic’s album, Russian Sailor’s Dance (Columbia MQ801) with selections by Glière, Grieg, Copland, et al, I would have asked you to share your hallucinogens with the rest of the class. I have sat enthralled by Mantovani, marveled at Percy Faith, swooned to Jerry Vale and even sat through Half a Sixpence.
19 tapes per box, and KK has 80 of them.
Next month, I’ll get to the rock tapes and why they’re so rare, but for the moment, here are my musings. Out of 2,200-plus tapes, there are around 150-200 duplicates, so my study is based on 2,000 tapes purchased at random. Aside from a dozen purchased at the UK’s AudioJumble and a box of 40 or so from a record store, all are from eBay vendors – around 50 different suppliers. And I have watched prices treble since I started collecting, so I am not imagining a revival in interest in reel-to-reel, and I claim no credit for it.
It swiftly emerges from the sheer presence of so many multiple copies that the best-selling tapes back in the day appear to be the soundtracks or Broadway scores to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Carousel, Camelot, The King and I, and South Pacific; popular music from Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Englebert Humperdinck, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand; easy listening from Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, and Mantovani; and classical recordings from the aforementioned Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Andre Kostelanetz, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops and others of that caliber.
Jazz is represented by the Dukes of Dixieland, Dave Brubeck, Al Hirt, and a few others, but it might be that – like the best rock titles – they haven’t been fed to eBay because the lucky owners hang on to them, e.g., Miles Davis tapes fetch a fortune. The most common tapes from the pop, soul and rock era are the Supremes, the Carpenters, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Neil Diamond.
If open-reel tape is beginning to seduce you – all it takes is one good demo at a hi-fi show from the likes of Jeff Joseph – be warned. The cutoff date for open-reel means no Rage Against the Machine, no Prince, no Ed Sheeran, no Beyoncé, no Foo Fighters. It is a format locked in the past, like 78s. But if you do venture forth, you might find, as I did, that Julie London and Tony Bennett and Billy Vaughn are more than enough in the wee small hours.
Header image: Ken Kessler’s pension fund.