If you’re a studio denizen or a seasoned open-reel tape user, please skip this interlude before I resume discussions about the current state of acquiring pre-recorded tapes. You will find too much of it, e.g., splicing tapes, tediously elementary. However, in keeping with my desire to create a gigantic, off-putting caveat for any who might dare to enter (or return to) the world of reel-to-reel tapes in the 2020s, it would be remiss of me not to emphasize the various routines and skill sets of the past one must learn, or re-learn, as did I, along with some other sensible practices.
Unlike used vinyl, pre-recorded tapes do not offer visual clues as to their condition. It’s safe to say, within, oh, a 70/30 ratio, that if you buy used vinyl, and the LPs still shine and are free of dirt, grit, fingerprints, or scratches, they will probably be VG+ at worst, near-mint at best. Scratch-free also suggests that a session with a top-quality record cleaning machine such as those from Clearaudio, VPI and Pro-Ject will yield restorative results beyond criticism. Not so with tape.
Aside from visible mold, even if a used tape is perfectly spooled, its ends un-chewed (or, better still, fitted with leader tape and tail), and kept with a protective inner bag, there’s no guarantee that the tape hasn’t been erased either accidentally because someone hit Record or because it was stored near magnets. A visual study will not tell you of drop-outs or repairs, especially if the repairer used clear splicing tape which doesn’t announce its presence like colored splicing tape as used by the pros. Studying a tape will not tell you if it is missing the first few inches or feet into the recorded portion. Accept that this is a gamble.
Having stopped buying when I hit around 2,500 tapes, of which around 2,440 came from eBay sellers, I cannot recall a single one which the vendor described as anything other than “untested.” As mentioned in earlier columns, tapes found on eBay or other selling sites, at garage and lawn sales, in pawn shops, or through vintage record dealers invariably got there via the heirs of the original users. Grandpa passes away, his descendants find a few boxes in the attic filled with what are clearly music albums, but on some weird medium they don’t even recognize, and they either dump ’em or realize that they might have some value.
While a collection of 2,500 tapes is hardly enough to form definitive statements about used tape, it’s a start, and I have now played through just over 1,400 of them. (I know this because I store most of them in boxes which hold 19, so it was easy to do a count.) Moreover, I can tell you that at this point, by looking at the single container I have filled with their empty spools and boxes, I have only had to write off around 30 tapes as savaged beyond playability or salvation.
If you consider that ratio, it’s a far better percentage than I would expect of 1,400 LPs amassed from various sources. If anything, it completely belies any anti-tape naysayers who insist that old tapes simply do not survive the passing of the years, many who refuse to believe even their ears, as I know from demos I have undertaken.
They too-often cite the misleading “sticky tapes” phenomenon, which as far as I can tell only affected specific defective blank tape stocks sold to professional users and studios – not the raw stock used by the record labels’ duplicators for commercial pre-recorded tapes. Tape haters go on about pre-echo and tape hiss – are they any worse than an LP’s groove-tracing whoosh? In both cases, they’re insignificant compared to the sounds with which you are rewarded.
Older hands in my circle of tape collecting friends cautioned me first about the initial playing of any used or merely old tape which probably hasn’t slipped passed heads in a half-century or more. I was warned about residue, dust or other types of schmutz which would build up on heads, guides and pinch rollers, and the wear-and-tear they would cause. Their consensus was to acquire a “sacrifice” machine, like the £50 bottom-of-the-line Sony I found at the UK’s AudioJumble. I use it to fast-forward the tape’s A-side (often referred to as Side 1), then flip it over, and play back the B-side (or Side 2) at the tape’s correct speed. I then leave it for a day or two, before playing it back for actual listening on one of my preferred machines.
At this stage, before I even put the tape on the deck for the initial high-speed run, I fit it with leader tape if it doesn’t already have some. A rough estimate shows that only one in 30 or 40 tapes has leader, let alone leader-and-tail, aside from those horrible UK mono tapes. (See Part Six, Issue 153.) Again, an indictment of the record labels for failing to do so. After the fast-forwarding, I fit the tail, and then re-spool onto the actual reel in playback mode.
As for supplies of leader tape and splicing tape, as well as splicing blocks and single-edged razor blades, all of these can be found online from specialists like tapecity.co.uk, reel-2-reel.com and numerous others, along with, yup, eBay. There are online video guides on how to do it – pretty straightforward and easy to learn – but do not for a second think that this is anything like the near-surgical skills needed to edit tapes as in studios. This no-brainer splicing is strictly for attaching leader and tail, or maybe repairing a split. I cannot even imagine what was involved in piecing together the bits of tape which created “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
It’s that first play in real time which is what’s this is all about. You learn 1) if the tape is in good condition, and 2) if the sound is as dreamily, dramatically fabulous as you hope it might be. Once the tape is played fully in real-time and monitored from start to finish, I place it in an inner bag, similar to sandwich-sized Baggies but without a Ziploc strip which makes the contents too thick and causes damage to the box, and then put it in its box. I found a supplier online for the catering industry which offers 7 x 7-inch plastic bags that are perfect for the job.
As for the boxes themselves, around one in 10 among my purchases are like new, but usually the majority require repairs as the hinges and the corners are often split. Lastly I grade each tape’s quality with colored stickers: green for pretty much perfect, yellow if it suffers only one or two drop-outs or edits, or red if seriously damaged but still in possession of some of the recording. I keep the last ones in the hope that a better copy might one day come along, though I have given up on finding a decent example of The Turtles’ Golden Hits.
At this stage, a particular irritant I must cite is something which happens all too often, and which makes my inner-OCD-self scream, because I use color-coded leader and tail: it’s finding out that the tape was flipped at some point, and that I put the leader at the beginning of the B-side and vice versa. And, yes, I am anally-retentive enough to then swap leader and tail if “wrong.” This is in addition to finding that they didn’t flip over the spool – a different issue which happens when the tape plays correctly from the start of Side 1, but the label is on the other side.
Do not, however, be too hasty when this occurs. Please note that the track listing on the tape spool’s label and that on the box are often reversed. How so? The artwork for nearly all pre-recorded tapes is the same as the corresponding LP, but for whatever reasons, A-side/Side 1 and B-side/Side 2 might have been flipped by the record company. I tend to regard the sides according to the label on the spool, not the information on the box. This swapping around isn’t all that common, maybe one in 50 tapes, but like I said, when it comes to tapes, I’m borderline psychotic.
Another issue is when the tracks have been changed to a completely different playing order from that on the box and the label. So far I have found only three or four tapes like this, and each one drove me nuts, thinking that someone had cut up the tape and spliced it in some weird order. Eventually, I bought a second copy of one of them and it was the same as the first. Which sucks for the artist if the track order was important.
From time to time, one gets lucky and a batch of tapes will include one or two tapes which are still sealed. Yes, I have now acquired around a dozen of these as-new tapes. That said, they still go through the same regimen of loosening them up with fast-forwarding, re-spooling in real time, and playing them back a day or so later. So far, every one of these virgin tapes – Live Cream, a couple from the Lettermen, a smattering of classical tapes – have been absolutely perfect. This is reflected in the prices that sealed tapes can command on eBay and elsewhere, and as such are pretty safe bets if you are offered any.
Inevitably, if you buy large quantities of tapes, you will end up with some which are home recordings. My 200 or so include lots of home recordings on Scotch and Ampex from US sources, loads recorded on BASF in Europe and the UK, but surprisingly few on Maxell or TDK. Why, I have no idea, considering that the Japanese tapes were among the best, in my experience. I stopped hoping I might find anything of value among the homemade tapes in my possession, like lost live sessions from Buffalo Springfield, or missing broadcasts , but the tapes themselves, given what used tapes in reasonable condition sell for online, are worth recycling.
I use the same regimen for these as I do for commercial tapes, playing them through to loosen them up. Occasionally I listen to them if the writing on the box or label suggests something interesting, but if a tape clearly contains copies of LPs, I don’t waste my time. I clean up the tapes for resale by erasing them on a 2-track professional machine in real time, I fit leader and tail, and sell them at the AudioJumble for £5 –£10, or more for 10-inch tapes on metal reels. To put this into context, branded empty metal spools can sell online for £30 – £50 (US$40 – $68), with some, like genuine Revox spools, often touching the $100 mark, so I like to think of this flea-market-priced recycling as a public service. And besides, who needs more than one 7-inch and one 10-inch take-up spool per machine?
That’s how I get rid of duplicates, too, such as five copies of Andy Williams’ Moon River, four of Roger Williams’ Greatest Hits, and six each of Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, Fiddler On the Roof, and My Fair Lady. Like I’ve said before, if you don’t like MOR, soundtracks or easy listening, find yourself another format.
 Don’t laugh: I did find a long-lost radio program from a certain group, but it is not worth my freedom to tell you what it was.
Header image: KK’s arsenal of tape-care amenities.