Returning after a long absence, Contributing Editor Ken Kessler – who started with Copper Issue 2 – provides us with a cautionary study of the open-reel tape revival, an addiction that has him listening to Percy Faith, Don Ho and Mantovani…without irony.
Header image: Solomon Kessler in 1957 with his Voice of Music tape recorder, home-built mixer and Columbia record player.
Along with many mainstream audio publications and websites, Copper – in fact, more than most – has actively acknowledged and supported the revival in open-reel tape. Its contributors have dug deep into rare transports, undertaken interviews with producers of the period, dissected microphone quality, and examined other issues. What begs further investigation, especially when the format’s observers are bold enough to mention it in the same breath as the vinyl or cassette revivals, is the fundamental difference: open-reel tape is, for all intents and purposes, dead to domestic consumers. For that, read, “audiophiles of normal means.”
Let me back up a bit because I am as guilty as any reel-to-reel devotee in touting the format’s merits, and for home use – not just analogue-oriented studios. I have become a tape obsessive, acquiring eight decks and over 2,200 commercial pre-recorded tapes in three years. (Yes, two thousand, two hundred.) At the same time, however, I have consistently stressed that open-reel tape can never return on a commercially viable level, as have LPs or cassettes, because, unlike those formats, it is not supported by affordable hardware nor pre-recorded media. We’ll get to the current offerings of both shortly, but bear with me.
Where the formats diverge, then, is simple availability-cum-accessibility, especially for those who prefer new hardware and media over second-hand. Any veteran will tell you that a format succeeds or fails strictly according to the scale of the support of the music labels, and that applies, too, after the format has passed its commercial peak, e.g. CD may be on the decline, but go to your preferred store or site and check out this season’s costly CD box sets.
LPs and cassettes were never truly dead because at no point after CD arrived were LPs totally out of production, nor were cartridges, tonearms and turntables. Name any date post-1983 and you could still buy a brand-new record deck and fresh LPs, while the second-hand markets for both remain massive. Cassettes may have been less well-served since the 1990s, but you can still buy new machines as of 2021, the tapes are making a comeback, and I don’t recall a time when blank cassettes were unavailable.
Open-reel? To the best of my knowledge, Otari was the last major manufacturer of reel-to-reel machines, and it ceased production of them over a decade ago. While eBay and other online sources are full of used decks, most are over 20 years old, beaten to sh*t, most are in need of impossible-to-find spares and – as if you need proof of renewed interest – offered at ever-escalating prices.
That in itself is a testimony to strength of the reel-to-reel renaissance. A Sony TC-377 or an Akai GX-4000D which would have been easy to find for under $100 three years ago will set you back $500 for a mint example in 2021. Technics RS-1500s are rapidly exceeding the $2,000 mark. There are no fully-serviced decks on the market which say “Studer” for under $1,000. As for the big Studer 800 Series decks, the most loved of all, five figures is the norm. And I don’t even bother looking for a Crown tape deck anymore, long my holy grail machine.
As for the new decks, some of which remain apocryphal so far, the primary example is the very-much-genuine Ballfinger from Germany. While you can configure it any way you like – and its target clients are mainly professionals, or the sort of consumer prepared to pay $450 for a single reel-to-reel recording – the cost of entry is above €15,000. The Thorens playback-only version of the Ballfinger announced at the last Munich High End Show (pre-COVID-19) will sell for €12,000. And it’s 2-track only, which tells you what tapes it expects to be fed.
What to Play?
Which brings us to the current pre-recorded tape situation, and which begs the question: why would anyone even investigate a return to reel-to-reel? The obvious answer is sound quality, but here I will reserve opinion on an underground cult which argues that copying an LP to tape results in a better-sounding recording. Let’s not go there. Home or live recording are separate issues, and not the reasons I got into open-reel tape. For me, it’s all about playback.
That means pre-recorded tapes – both new and old, and I care only about the latter. For everyone else, the suppliers are those bold enough to produce both brand-new or reissued recordings, priced at the top of the scale. Blessedly, in a recent issue of The Absolute Sound (October 2021, Issue 320), Jonathan Valin manfully, nay, heroically compiled the most comprehensive list I have seen yet of currently-available pre-recorded open-reel tapes.
His list included The Tape Project, Foné, STS, Hemiola, Chasing the Dragon, and many others, which I dutifully counted for you, reaching around 600 titles. With precious few exceptions, the tapes are 1) 15 ips, 1/2-track recordings on 10-inch spools, for maximum fidelity, and 2) sell for anything between $250 – $700 each. Think about the latter figure: that’ll buy you four Mobile Fidelity One-Step LPs if you need context.
At the risk of getting skinned alive, I have to point out that around half the titles JV listed are only of interest to people who are pre-disposed toward stilted performances reminiscent of 1980s audiophile LPs, mainly by musicians of whom you’ve never heard. Sorry to be so negative, but for $500, I want nothing less than Ohio Express – at least I know what I am getting. Fortunately, the other half of the available tapes, e.g. titles from The Tape Project, are well-known releases from star musicians. It’s obvious, though, that buying current pre-recorded tapes is as restrictive in financial terms as is buying a new machine. And as sonically superb as these tapes are, the repertoire remains severely limited.
On the Road to eBay
Before regaling you with tales of how I got a copy of Casino Royale on reel-to-reel tape, and why I have over 30 tapes of Hawaiian music, some personal history. Long before I attended kindergarten, I was au fait with open-reel because my father was a tape enthusiast in the 1950s. He was never what we would call an audiophile and was unimpressed when his son committed himself to hi-fi separates at the age of 16. His schtick in the previous decade was swapping tapes with English enthusiasts, much as there once were pen pals.
As I understand it, LPs were way out of reach to the average impoverished Englishman in the 1950s, as post-war rationing continued in Great Britain until mid-1954. Imports were taxed prohibitively to protect local manufacturing, and the country survived on exports. According to one source, 95% of all the sports cars produced in England – Triumphs, MGs, Austin-Healeys, Sunbeam Alpines, Jaguars, etc., etc. – went to the USA.
What my father swapped were big band recordings (he was a Glenn Miller fanatic) and I inherited his massive mono Voice of Music 700 Series recorder when he lost interest. I used it to record radio programs in the 1960s – live Rolling Stones, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, etc. – but the tapes are long gone. I next used open-reel tape a few times to record live gigs in a wine bar where I worked in Canterbury, but found cassettes much easier in a crowded cellar with no safe space for a big tape deck.
After a long hiatus, some 40 years, my rediscovery of open-reel tape was inspired by the late Tim de Paravicini. Because Tim was globally-renowned for his tape deck servicing and/or hot-rodding skills, his list of clients contained two Beatles, Abbey Road Studios, at least one member of Pink Floyd, Bob Ludwig, and too many others to list.
This celebrity status in turn gave him access to tapes about which most of us can only dream. Thus, when I happened upon his room at the Tokyo High End Show in 2017 and he was playing a tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I assumed that he was playing a copy off a master tape. It sounded too good to be true.
What he held up when I asked was the box of the bog-standard, 7-1/2 ips Capitol commercial pre-recorded open-reel release from circa-1970, with the blue-edge carton. I was stunned. I knew that his Denon DH-710 was a spectacular machine, and the real reason I was in the room was to hear his stacked pairs of Falcon Acoustics BBC LS3/5A speakers, but this was too unlike any of the 30-plus copies I have of that album, on every format aside from 8-track. I was absolutely gutted, wondering how I would be able to acquire a copy.
When I returned back to the UK, to my delight, I actually had a mint copy. I set up my ReVox G36, coincidentally hot-rodded by Tim, I stacked two pairs of LS3/5As and thus reproduced precisely what I had heard in Tokyo. From that exact moment onward, pre-recorded tapes became my audio raison d’être, overtaking everything else. My obsession was swiftly augmented by the few tapes I found alongside Sgt. Pepper: Aretha’s Gold and Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits. In every instance, I was staggered by what I heard, of tapes that hadn’t been touched in decades. Sorry, Mikey, but they slaughtered the best vinyl alternatives.
I honestly cannot recall a single occurrence in my 53 years as an audiophile which so overcame my hi-fi sensibilities. At that point, I had three G36s in need of service, a couple of tape decks in storage, and maybe 10 pre-recorded tapes. I wasn’t interested in home-recorded tapes, whether copies of LPs or CDs, or even high-quality FM radio broadcasts. It was the overwhelming realization that the pre-recorded tapes from both the early specialists like Audio Fidelity, Command, Bel Canto and Everest, and the best of the major labels, especially RCA, Capitol and Columbia, delivered sound so audibly superior to LP in every way.
In Part Two, KK describes the hunt for tape decks and – crucially – decent tapes.