Natural Born Kessler

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

    Issue 149

    Just so there are no misunderstandings, I have to explain to you how focused is my interest in reel-to-reel tape. I absolutely don’t want to be challenged or trolled by studio denizens about why did I forget about such-and-such, 30 ips is better, yadayadayada. My interest is, firstly, ONLY about playback and, secondly, about domestic machines because I only care about pre-recorded open-reel tapes.

    Thus, you will not read in my jottings anything to do with professional machines, the current availability of fresh blank tape, mixing desks, how to ensure correct record levels, microphones, ad infinitum. That’s because not only am I concerned exclusively with pre-recorded tape, my interest is also restricted to what we might call The Original Open Reel Era. For clarity, the tapes you can buy today from the Tape Project, Fonè, STS, et al, comprise what I will call The Open Reel Revivalists.

    Simply put, I have no intention of recording anything live or off-air, though I will, at a later point, touch on the cult interest in transferring CDs or even LPs to tape, by those who find it improves the sound. Moreover, I am fully aware that there are countless audiophiles using professional machines, especially the much-coveted Studer 800 Series decks in 1/2-track form, in their sound systems. Mazel tov to them. But pro decks, in the main, relate to my field of interest as howitzers do to water pistols.

    Finishing off with the hardware element for the time being, as I understand it, the production of open-reel machines (pro or domestic) from major makers ended around 2010 with the last of the Otaris. The end of quantity- or series-production tape decks for studios is not something I have researched, so I am going on what I was told by professionals. Since then, what you have are virtually bespoke, limited production items from specialists like Ballfinger, or resuscitated decks from the various restorers and resellers of Technics, TEAC, ReVox, and other rescued units.

    For purely domestic open-reel tape recorders, from Akai, Sony, Pioneer and so on, I would have imagined that they ceased production in the early-to-mid 1990s. That certainly applies to one of the most important and popular manufacturers, which – according to authors Luca Maria Olgiati and Paolo Bologna, in their definitive history – show that ReVox’s last open-reel machine, the PR99 Mk III, was made in 1993.

    [For the full saga, get a copy of their superb book, ReVox Reel to Reel Tape Recorders 1949-1993 (ReVoxMania, ISBN 978-1-36-659060-2). I found mine on Amazon.]

    Finishing off with the hardware, the puzzler in my arsenal is the Otari MX5050 because I always thought of that brand as pro-only, yet here is a machine which, like the Technics RS-1500, plays three speeds and two formats. And who ever used 1/4-track in studios? Even if I lost all my other machines, between the Otari and the Technics there isn’t a commercial pre-recorded tape, whether Original Open Reel Era or current 15 ips stuff, which cannot be played.

     

    This is KK's go-to machine for playing every format: the Otari MX5050, which accommodates three speeds, half- and quarter-track, and both CCIR and NAB equalization. The Technics RS-1500 or RS-1700 can do the same, minus CCIR EQ.

    This is KK’s go-to machine for playing every format: the Otari MX5050, which accommodates three speeds, half- and quarter-track, and both CCIR and NAB equalization. The Technics RS-1500 or RS-1700 can do the same, minus CCIR EQ.

     

    Now back to pre-recorded tape. Roughly speaking, commercially-available pre-recorded tapes date from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s. I have not found any open-reel tapes from any of the major labels after 1984 or so. From that point onward, as exemplified by early, pioneering open-reel specialists like Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds, the aforementioned Tape Project and Foné, and the others which emerged in their wake, nearly all post-1980s pre-recorded tapes are 15 ips, two-track recordings on 10-inch spools, with prices that, frankly, are forbidding, even though they simply reflect the costs of making pre-recorded tapes today.

    Let’s deal with the Revivalists at this point. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them, and understand why they have to charge anywhere from $200 to $800 for their tapes. This is not the place for a lesson in economics or commerce – if you don’t believe in profit margins, flights will soon resume to Cuba, Belarus or North Korea – but these guys have to add a markup. When the best price for a 10-inch spool of raw tape is anywhere from $70 – $100 (and as the majority of the labels seem to be in Europe, so you must add shipping and duty to US-sourced blanks), you’re already into three figures.

    Then we come to the available recordings on the revivalist labels. These are divided between reissues of material from known artists, such as the Tape Project’s titles by Linda Ronstadt and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to what I can only describe without being mean or cynical as “audiophile repertoire.”

    For those of you old enough to remember the heyday of audiophile vinyl, when any Japanese pressing was considered gold dust and direct-to-disc was the height of sonic excellence, the cliché was “great sound – a shame about the music.” Part of the problem, according to the musicians, was that direct-to-disc recordings did not enable multiple takes and editing was categorically out of the question, so performances were cautious or even stilted. Despite the involvement of wizards like Doug Sax, Lincoln Mayorga, Keith O. Johnson, and others of that caliber, the audiophile genre never threatened the appeal nor sonic supremacy of recordings from the best years of Mercury, RCA, Capitol, Columbia or Decca/London.

    While there were some stunning and desirable titles on audiophile labels, from artists including Taj Mahal, Thelma Houston, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Ry Cooder and others, for the most part what you ended up with were LPs you played once, put away, and only retrieved when friends came over to hear your new preamp or cartridge. One suspects they were only played repeatedly by retailers, or exhibitors at hi-fi shows. Huh? You actually listened voluntarily to the Sheffield Lab Drum Record for pleasure? Don’t tell me: you also pour a brandy and groove on Shure test disc LPs. Hmmm…the only audiophile LPs I still play are reissues via Mobile Fidelity, Nautilus and others, of known titles.

     

    Each of these five boxes holds 19 tapes – and this is just half of KK's soundtracks collection.

    Each of these five boxes holds 19 tapes – and this is just half of KK’s soundtracks collection.

     

    It’s the same problem with contemporary open-reel tapes. For those re-issuing familiar works, in addition to the cost of the blank tapes, the high cost of maintaining machines for duplicating, and the need to make copies in real time, comes the swingeing cost of royalties. One label with which I discussed the idea of releasing even big-ticket, ultra-limited runs of open-reel editions of their titles simply stated that, when compared to LPs and SACDs, the costs of labor, materials, but especially royalties based on a percentage of the retail price, it is simply not worth the effort for sales which might be as low as a few dozen, if even a few hundred.

    So, what does that leave? If you’re not able to reissue known works under license, then you are forced to record new repertoire. Paying the performers, booking a concert hall, funding an orchestra – it isn’t cheap unless you think you can get away with some unplugged troubadour recorded in your living room.

    Every once in a while, however, something amazing will slip through, like Eleanor McEvoy’s Forgotten Dreams on Chasing the Dragon. In addition to being an intimate, live set from a much-loved vocalist, the label even eased the pain of acquiring a copy by offering it not just on direct-cut vinyl, CD, and its premium 15 ips, 10-inch, 2-track tape, they also made it available on 7-1/2 ips/7-inch for a massive savings (£350 for 15 ips vs £215 for 7-1/2 ips).

    But that’s the exception. The bulk of current pre-recorded open-reel tapes involve artists you probably never heard of, playing music which is best described as “special interest.” If – and I am totally not expecting this to happen – pre-recorded open-reel tapes are going to transcend the few hundred enthusiasts wealthy enough to indulge in them, then we’re gonna need reel-to-reel copies of Dylan or Adele or Marvin Gaye or Queen or ZZ Top or Taylor Swift or Elton John or even Ed Sheeran, and for under $200 apiece. And I base that latter figure on how Mobile Fidelity sells out of every one of its Ultradisc One-Step LPs at $125 a pop, in runs now typically hitting 7,500 copies.

    Which is where I came in, finding original pre-recorded tapes no newer than 35 years old, probably stored in a garage or attic, covered in mouse droppings, poorly spooled, with split boxes and smelling like a corpse. Next time, we’ll discuss the trials, tribulations, and credit card flexing required to build up a library of tapes worth playing. And yes, I’m in love with one containing folk tunes from Peru.

    Header image: Just one of KK’s latest finds on eBay – not bad for under $100 including shipping to the UK and criminal import charges.

    8 comments on “Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part Three”

    1. This is a fascinating discussion, at least for someone like myself who adopted RTR in the 70s. I later came back to it during the early days of the Tape Project – I was a charter subscriber. My decks back in the 70s were first a Tandberg (3641XD, I believe), which sounded great and had a lot of features – on board Dolby, peak limiting meters, multiple heads, crossfield recording – but as the Tandberg service guy put it to me, it was made with “beer cans’, and not very robust. I later bought a Teac 3300, but I abandoned RTR in the early 80s as a fundamentally dead technology, and went for years without a deck. Around “the turn of the century” I started stalking eBay, which really, IMO, helped to revive the RTR market by providing a community where you could buy and sell RTR equipment and tapes. I ended up with a ReVox A77, a machine I really wanted to own. Sounds great, although I might have preferred a later model – you have to be just a bit careful with it. I did learn, however, that a number of the Ampex tapes I had purchased in the 70s were no longer playable – Ampex changed the tape formulation to one that was sadly not meant to last. Other tapes that I bought back then are fine, as are all of the tapes I made myself.

      Forwarding to something like 2008 – the Tape Project is in full gear, and while my Revox can handle 15 ips, it cannot handle two track, nor the IEC equalization curve used by the Tape Project – so I acquired a Technics RS 1520, which is switchable between NAB and IEC, and also has a 4-track head, so if I wanted, I could play ANYTHING on this deck. I actually am not fond of the tape path used by Technics, and someday…..I might want to actually acquire a NEW deck. The electronics aren’t that good, either. Some TP members had their decks modified – started with an RS 1500, converted to the IEC curve, and bypassed the electronics into outboard tube gear.

    2. One more comment – while a larger revival of tape would require that some of those artists that Kessler mentions to be available, I shudder to think of them being done from digital sources. Ideally, we would see a complete return to the roots – not only analog playback, but also analog recording. You might not get Ed Sheeran into a studio to do this….but what about someone like the Cowboy Junkies? Or – there are some very worthy classical artists who, I suspect, don’t sell that many copies of their digital recordings, and who might be persuaded that older ways are better?

    3. My R2R adventures started with an Akai deck gift that was brought back from the jungles of Vietnam. The model number of that deck is long forgotten. I started purchasing Dolby B encoded Barclay-Crocker (mostly) classical prerecorded tapes. My Dolby B decoder was a ‘harvested’ module from a FM-radio Dolby tuner (remember?).
      Then came a $50 Akai GX-260D. I currently have three other Dolby B units in various states of modification.

      Remember when the Audio Amateur published a DIY article on how to ‘hot rod’ Dolby B units (for lower distortion). Much later came my current main deck the Pioneer RT-707, refurbished with very expensive fairy dust and such and costing a bundle.

      My prerecorded R2R library is about 120 tapes, about 90% Dolby encoded: 70 or so Barclay-Crocker (x4 duplication speed they said) Dolby B; and 50 or so Rock, strangeness, and ‘other’ classical. Along the way I explored the silica gel treatment to restore tapes. Big hassle, big time investment, but it seemed to work. I’ve also used the special “LAST tape treatment” solution (and have had several nice talks with Walter Davies of LAST).

      Let me state the obvious: R2R sounds different (duh!) and to me is more relaxing to listen to than other formats. I currently use a Soundsmith “Sussurro” cartridge which is very nice too.

      Three B-C tapes from my library noted, two of which have given me great pleasure over the years: Vanguard “The Joan Baez Ballad Book”; Phillips “Tchaikovsky 1812 overture, Romeo and Juliet, Davis & BSO, Tanglewood Festival Chorus”; B-C Open Reel Frequency Test Tape (this has got to be a ‘rarity’).

      What ‘makes it’ for me with the 1812 overture (warhorse) is that it begins with the muted Chorus singing the hymn, and then at the conclusion the Chorus returns full volume – very satisfying. I have a passed Vietnam war hero to thank for my R2R escapades with his gift of a deck. He will never be forgotten.

    4. As someone who plays R2R tapes daily (on the same Otari deck KK has pictured), there are a couple of magic words for would-be tapers to think about. Ebay, yes. And, um, er, bootleggers. They sell on Ebay, naturally. Search on “15 ips, 2 track, reel-to reel tape” and … voila. Don’t expect them to be cheap.

    5. The fun part of R2R is that one has to use ingenuity and experimentation, something that our hobby no longer offer to most people, unlike the early days when folks used to build from kits etc. I did have an MX5050 and a bunch of pre-recorded tapes, but I (foolishly) gave the machine away when I bought my Nagras for recording work. The Nagra T is a great machine for mastering, and it has all the Eqs and speeds possible, but it does not have a 4-track head. I was very excited when the Tape Project came out with pre-recorded tapes, and I was a charter subscriber. That was the only way to get the two Decca titles, and the cost was $2000 for 10 titles (20 tapes), which was a steal. Analogue Productions and Horch House also managed to license some very worthwhile recordings for R2R release. Yes, there are people on Ebay claiming to sell copies of production and safety masters. Most of those I think are not worth the money. Yes, I know people who have large libraries of such tapes, usually people who worked at mastering facilities and production houses. However, they do not sell openly, and you need to know them well before you have any chance of getting copies made. That said, I can tell you many of these tapes are absolute stunners. They have to be heard to be believed. Anyone who has heard Greg Beron’s demos can attest to that. Some radio stations also have very high quality tape copies. In fact, I used to buy used tapes from Coast Recording in LA, which is sadly now defunct. Most of those were discarded by studios and radio stations, and they were sold for the aluminum reels. However, some of those tapes sounded pretty great !

    6. While I can certainly respect KK’s love of old commercially recorded tapes, I can’t agree that the sound quality is anything special. I’ve used R2R tape since the early ’70’s, eventually owning a variety of top-of-the-line machines from Revox, Tandberg, Sony and Technics. Even in the 1980’s there was a company which recorded and sold real-time 7.5 ips half-track dubs of their own master recordings (almost certainly a big step up in sound quality compared to older commercial R2R releases), a precursor to The Tape Project and its followers.

      HDTT uses premium equipment to transfer some old 7.5 ips quarter-track reels to 24/192 PCM. I’m not sure I have heard any example where the sound quality of one of these albums matches a commercial hi-res digital release (when there is one), and in a number of cases I think even the commercial CD sounds better. True, that is hardly definitive “evidence” of anything but it is very suggestive to me.

      I have a Tascam BR-20 now and my Technics 1506 is finishing its refurbishing and upgrading (with a FM head and outboard repro amp), and something over 100 commercial and “bootleg” 15 ips half-track albums. Truth to tell the sound quality is very similar to the best digital releases of some of these albums, but most of what I have on tape does NOT have a very good sounding digital release, which is more a comment on the sad state of today’s record industry priorities than any inherent “goodness” of R2R tape (which I do love still, after about 50 years from starting this journey)

    7. VHS HiFi and Beta HiFi each use a compander (similar in principle to DBX) to achieve high S/N ratios. Many recording studios using R2R tape also used Dolby A (a 4-band compander) to increase S/N ratios, but very few commercial pre-recorded R2R tapes used any sort of processing (other than the industry standards for EQ, NAB and DIN).

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