In Part One and Part Two (Issue 132 and Issue 133), this series discussed the rationale for listening to open reel tapes in the current digital music era, and surveyed a number of renowned models that are no longer in production. The series concludes with a look at currently-available open reel tape decks.
There are now two manufacturers that I am aware of that are selling tape decks based on completely new designs, and another that has a working prototype ready for commercial production. The first to release a brand new machine recently was Roland Schneider, a German engineer who made his name designing an award-winning table lamp. This man must be a genius, being able to design and build a new tape machine from scratch without any prior experience. His high-end Ballfinger M063 machine has three direct-drive motors, three selectable speeds, and both NAB and IEC1/CCIR equalization. The machine is modular, which means it can be configured for full function, playback only, or without any record or playback electronics. An extra 4-track playback head can be installed as an option. The advantage of this new machine is its more up-to-date electronics for the control logic and for audio, compared to legacy product redesigns. It is a conventional-looking, but very well-designed and built machine and I look forward to auditioning it at some point.
Ballfinger has just released a lower cost, drive-only machine called the M002P for use with external playback electronics. It also has three direct-drive motors and operates in two speeds. The deck is very compact and space-saving. Thorens has licensed the player to be sold under its own brand.
The second manufacturer to release brand new tape recorders is Metaxas & Sins. Kostas Metaxas has been using Stellavox tape machines for his recording work for decades, and his new recorders are a tribute to these legendary designs. All his audio products have a very distinct visual style that reminds me of the Terminator movies, and the Metaxas & Sins Papillon studio tape machine certainly looks unique and, in my opinion, quite beautiful. It reminds me a bit of the Transrotor turntable of the late 1960s that pioneered the skeletal record deck. He also designed the T-RX portable recorder, which looks like a modern reiteration of the Stellavox SM8, optimized for the purpose of location recording. The machine is jewel-like, and quite an object of desire for me!
Analogue Audio Design is a French company that planned on debuting a functioning prototype of their TR-1000 tape machine at last year's Munich High End Show, which was unfortunately cancelled. They have recently put up a YouTube video of the deck playing a tape. It is a conventional-looking machine, but most of the controls are on a touch screen. On the video, it sure looks like a smooth operator.
One criticism of studio tape recorders is that the quality of their playback electronics is often not up to audiophile standards. It therefore makes sense to bypass the stock electronics and use an external tape head preamplifier. Some vintage preamplifiers from the 1960s, such as those from Marantz, McIntosh, Harmon Kardon and even Audio Research (the SP-2) came with tape head inputs. These only had NAB equalization, and were optimized for the high inductance heads of the day. With a bit of work, they can be made to work well with a wide variety of tape heads and are worth exploring.
Several modern manufacturers have released preamplifiers designed specifically to work with tape heads. For those lucky enough to own a Cello Audio Suite preamplifier, there is the option of installing the P603 tape head preamplifier module, if you can find one. Charles King produces a tape head preamplifier based on the Cello design, called the King Cello preamplifier. It is a made-to-order custom design, and can include potentiometers to make fine adjustments to the equalization curves, as well as switchable input sensitivities and custom input loading. I often use this to make tape transfers, which allows me to correct problems with equalization.
Manley Laboratories produced a dual-mono tube tape head preamplifier with external power supply for a number of years, but this has sadly been discontinued. The preamplifier has continuously adjustable equalization, bass boost and polarity switch, all features mastering engineers find useful. Not many of these were sold to mastering studios and they are therefore rarely sighted on the secondary market. I called EveAnna Manley to ask if it would be possible to resume production on a custom order basis, but she told me she has so much work backlogged that this would not be possible, at least not in the foreseeable future.
Another option is to modify a phono preamplifier. The equalization needed is simpler than RIAA equalization for LPs, and designs that use a passive RIAA network are the easiest to modify. This is exactly what I did, and since I built the preamplifier from scratch originally, it was not difficult. The values of the components in the network can be worked out by calculation, but it is necessary to fine tune the performance with a reference tape. The input loading also needs to be fine-tuned to get good high frequency response and extension. You can read about what I did here.
One of the earliest dedicated tape head preamplifiers still in production is the Bottlehead Tube Repro. This was developed by tube amplifier designer Dan Schmalle, one of the founders of The Tape Project, to use with his Nagra TA. For anyone looking for a tube-based preamplifier, this is a very reasonably-priced option.
Another popular choice is the Doshi V3.0 Tape Stage. This has a differential input stage for superior noise performance, along with a continuously adjustable EQ and adjustable loading.
The Merrill Audio Master Tape Head Preamplifier is a solid-state unit that is available with either one or three inputs. It has an external power supply and is operated by touchscreen controls. The preamp offers all the commonly-used EQs and is fully balanced. It is highly praised by audiophile and professional users alike for its excellent sound quality and ease of use.
Analog open reel tape looks to be more than just a passing fad, with manufacturers of new tape machines and preamplifiers investing their effort and resources in this format. It offers a path to "perfect analog sound forever" for those of us who treasure the recordings of yesteryear and are willing to invest in some maintenance and upkeep, even if it’s simple, occasional head cleaning. This format offers something for every budget; it is possible to pick up an old tape machine for a couple of hundred dollars, or even for nothing (keep an eye on your local dumpsters), to play the 4-track tapes that you picked up at the local flea market or from your dad's collection. If the machine is in good mechanical condition, you can upgrade by wiring the playback head to a separate tape head preamplifier. Those who are less adventurous can buy professionally-refurbished machines or even new ones, with a price ranging from around $4,000 to $35,000.
Once critical mass has been reached, we should see many more new pre-recorded tapes becoming available. One thing is for sure, once someone has experienced good analog tape playback, it is hard not to become totally enchanted.
Header image: Doshi Audio V3.0 Tape Stage.