Reel to reel

April 28, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I was just remembering back to when I got started in all of this HiFi stuff. Reel to reel tape was the big deal. Not even high-end cassettes had been popularized yet. (For reference, there were no home computers yet and all communications were either by letters or phones).

Working with Giorgio Moroder in his Munich, Musicland studios, I first got my hands on a 16-track Studer reel to reel machine that used 2-inch tape. What a treat. I still have several reels of the work we did.

For the most part, it was 1/4 inch tape that we mere mortals used and the machine to own back then was a Revox A700. Oh, how I wanted that reel to reel.

The A700 was first launched in 1973, just about the time when Terri and I left Europe to begin our lives in California. It would be another year before Stan and I started PS Audio.

Here’s a picture of the A700.

 

The original A700 went for $1,800—a princely sum in 1973, more than I could afford. Today, you’d be lucky finding one anywhere south of $5,000.

The reason I never wound up with an A700 was twofold: I didn’t have the money and even if I did I had no idea what I would do with it. (my original notion was to be able to play master tapes but….I didn’t have any of those either).

My desire for that gorgeous reel to reel was nothing more than classic lust.

I still think it’s gorgeous (and still don’t know what I’d do with it).

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51 comments on “Reel to reel”

  1. Indeed , master tape sound quality that was the reference! But didn’t these tapes wear out and sound quality was degraded continuously? And what about noise reduction? Dolby A, B, C and HiCom were invented much later. However a stunning mechanical (!) master piece – as are these new designs today from Balfinger and Metaxas. Today DSD should bring master tape quality to the enduser! It only needs to find out why analog sounds more acceptable for our ears than digital?????

  2. I remember when I had the Revox B77 in the late 80‘s, I recorded some CD‘s to it to get a somehow more organic sound.

    Today I’d love to have space and the will to pay for a good machine just to listen to the extremely limited repertoire meanwhile available again from various reissue companies in the probably best quality available of those recordings. But the effort would be much too high for my taste from a music lovers’ standpoint, considering the relevance of some audiophile warhorses vs. the whole spectrum of available music.

  3. Our local Rep Brian Tucker set us up in 1974 as a Revox dealer. Consumer applications were live 2 track recordings, live CSO WFMT & WXRT FM broadcasts and vinyl transfers.

    The Revox A77 hit the US market @ 1973 followed by the A700 in 1974. The A77 was a decent portable machine, but the faux wood side panels and plastic faceplate that surrounded the metal frame appeared a little cheezy. The B77 had substantially better build quality and sonic performance priced in-between the two.

    Indeed the A700 & B77 with a pair of their machined aluminum 10 ½ reel hubs looked tits! Everyone wanted a Revox but the pricing was a little heavy in its day and only professional clients such as doctors, lawyers and stock brokers purchased one.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if it was the Revox reel hubs that inspired Steve McCormack’s vision of the original tip toe aesthetic design.

    1. Brian Mother Tucker an the A77,that name brought back memories!
      He was also our Luxmen rep.
      Talked to a few “Reps”at Axpona wondering how that now works with so few high end stores?

  4. The Phaidon Hi-Fi porn book “Hi-Fi: The History of High-End Audio Design” has one of those on the front cover. So Paul is not alone in the lust department. He seems to have good taste (never doubted that for a minute).

  5. Quite a while back I bough an A77 for exactly the same reasons – historical lust.

    It’s silly, really. I record stuff for later playback – and Roon-ing vinyl transcriptions works fine. Playing back from tape requires more space, is lower quality, and eeek – the S/N ratio (no Dolby) really isn’t to digital standards…. And tape? Couldn’t buy decent tape for quite a while, tho’ I gather that’s improved.

    I got my Nak cassette deck (a CR7A) repaired last year for the same reason (now, that had been a resource – transferring vinyl to Nak cassette was a viable means of avoiding vinyl wear for casual listening). Bought some cassettes (gah! what happened to all my favorites???), and did a trial recording or seven. Eh, not bad 🙂

    But these days life is all about simplifying, so when I get time perhaps I should reconsider.

    1. Many moons ago, I bought a Nakamichi 680ZX cassette deck for the same reason, sparing wear and tear on the vinyl. However, it had a fatal flaw. Every 13 months it would break, regular as clockwork, for precisely the same reason. I had bags of the parts that were replaced and they all matched. And the problem was vicious. It would start by silently scribbling on the tape. You wouldn’t know about it until you went to play the tape again. Eventually, it would get to the point where the heads would drop out. Off to the shop it went for yet another expensive, out of warranty repair. When CDs came out, I never looked back at tape again.

      1. Jack

        Sorry to hear that. My CR7A never gave any trouble at all for many, many years. until I didn’t use it for 10 years (cursed Mac minis with vinyl transcriptions- so much easier to play!). Then it wouldn’t pull the tape at all. But it seems happy now 🙂

  6. Thanks Paul, brings wonderful memories back of recording demo tapes and mastering onto a Revox, hoping to make a career of rock drumming like my hero Keith Moon..sadly it was not meant to be.
    I loved every moment of trying…now i love hifi audio and thanks to you and PS Audio all is good!! Cheers!

  7. “high-end cassettes”…an amusing oxymoron.

    The Philips ‘musicassette’ came out in 1966.
    In 1970 I inherited a Philips reel to reel…my
    introduction to home-audio; I was 10yo.
    I can’t remember the model #.
    Looking at reel to reels makes me feel both young
    & old at the same time…a real brain-bender 😉

    1. Fat Rat

      Obviously a cassette at 1 7/8 ips doesn’t have the bandwidth nor S/N ratio of a CD. But you’ll find it’s “quite close” to vinyl, so you can make very satisfying transcriptions from vinyl – with care about peak levels, proper head azimuth setting (good CR7A!) and tape choice. Check here (yes, it’s numbers, not emotions, but it’s a good starting point):

      https://stereonomono.blogspot.com/2010/12/nakamichi-cr-7a.html

      No, it’s not as good as good vinyl on an excellent table with a marvelous arm, a wondrous pickup and one o they gold-plated moving could preamps.

      But much much cheaper, and seriously more child, dog, cat, spouse and idiot visitor proof. And not at all bad in its own right.

  8. What would you do with it today? Find some master tapes and enjoy the great sound of pure analog with no DA conversion. A nice little toy to play with and enjoy the nostalgia and it’s history.

  9. I was never exposed to reel-to-reel back in the 60s and 70s it was all cassette at that time for me. I would buy an LP, tape it, and then play the tape instead of wearing out the record. I never bought any prerecorded cassettes.

    About six years ago through a request from a friend to help him digitize some old family recordings done on paper-backed reels, I ended up with a very well preserved Teac X300. I tried a couple of factory recorded reels, and wow, I was smitten.

    No home taping for me with this medium, it is all factory reels acquired through eBay or garage sales. Rock issues primarily. It is not without work keeping the rollers clean and such but, oh what fun and what a mesmerizing listen.

    If anyone hasn’t already check out the ongoing series about reel-to-reel in the last few editions of “Copper”.

  10. “What to do with it?”

    The same thing I do with my Pioneer RT707 Reel to Reel: Watch the reels go round and round, while the meter needles bounce up and down.

    https://youtu.be/wr55WA2U2Aw

    When you reach a certain age and financial security, you don’t need to have a reason to buy something (legal) you desired in your youth. Just buy it!

  11. I agree Aero. I have a collection of half dozen top of the line machines that I enjoy as audio art in my music room. I rarely fire them up but I really enjoy looking at them. I got my first deck in 1973 and have always loved them.

  12. I love my refurbed Studer 810 with direct outputs from the JRF heads to a Doshi tube preamp. It’s set up as a playback only machine and I’ve built up a collection of about 100 10.5″ 15ips titles. This feels a lot like the resurgence of vinyl with more and more sources for new or remastered tapes coming available all the time. Yes, there is tape hiss in the gap between songs but once the music starts to play, you forget about all that. The dynamics are awesome and the bass is generally better than you find on the same title on LP.

  13. Paul, did the A700 play/record 2-track or just 4-track.? I assume it had both NAB and IEC (CCIR) equalization.

    Three tape nut friends and I meet frequently to listen to reel-to-reel. The setup du jour is 10-inch, 15 ips, 2-track, IEC eq. I have about 150 of these, including one of the $450 tapes (Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth) from Acoustic Sounds.

    Are we crazy? Probably, because this is the ultimate hair-shirt medium. But once you’re hooked on the sound quality, it’s hard — for us at least — to play vinyl/digital again. Not impossible but hard.

  14. Refurbishing and maintaining a decades-old tape machine can be an annoying and expensive project. Sourcing true master tapes, or true safety copies thereof, is very difficult.

    But a legitimate provenance, low generation tape on a well-calibrated studio tape machine achieves the greatest suspension of disbelief I have ever experienced. This result, even for only a few titles, makes the endeavor worthwhile for me.

  15. My first experience with reel to reel was in the early 70’s. A popular band called Smokehouse was managed by Freddie Tieken. They had a reel to reel set up in the middle of the stage. When the “flash pots” went off (fire and smoke) a reel to reel turned on. Lights behind the reel created a very psychedelic strobe effect.
    I was shocked when the drummer, Dennis Tieken, got out of his seat and came to the front of the stage – The music and drumming continued. The others followed. The bands music continued to play without skipping a beat. It was pretty shocking to see the band members standing in front stage clapping their hands and doing the boogie. After their boogie show one by one they took up their positions and then the reel to reel turned off and the lights behind it went off.
    Some of guys that played in Smokehouse one time or another were Slink Rand & Steve Gaines went on to play for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Micki Free is still touring. I think the legendary producer Dan Penn of Beautiful Sounds made the tape recording for the band. They recorded there a lot.
    Using a studio copy of the tape in a live setting on a reel to reel was very creative and impressive. It went on and off seamlessly. No skip in beat or change in volume. It felt live and you could feel the percussion from a mic’d kick drum.
    After that when local guys were coming back from Vietnam they would bring home reel to reels from the PX. If you saw someone with a reel-to-reel you knew they were a ‘Nam Vet…

  16. I have a B77 that was given to me. It still plays and records but it really needs some restoration. I keep saying that I will do it, but something more urgent always happens. There has definitely been and R to R resurgence.

  17. I got up to a 5050 BQII and knew what to do with it – unique recordings. CDs were fine but only worth the effort for “borrowed” tracks.
    Now to convert the indigenous tracks to PCM via a Focusrite 4i4.
    The slight increase in quality is offset by inconvenience and mechanical atrophy.

  18. I remember my aunt playing the Beatles with 8 tracks. Then cassette came then CD’s and now are on the way out it appears. However surprisingly Records are still here. I always lusted after a reel to reel also. I have bid on many Pioneers up to around $ 600 and lost. Am glad I didn’t win because not sure what I would do with these space consuming beasts. I would like to see how they work though. I know if I ever obtained one it would need a lot of work. Capacitor replacement and idler wheels, springs, and lots of rubber items that I would probably not be able to get parts for. I had a reference Cassette deck I purchased while in the service. Harman Kardon CD 491 which died about 3 years later. Very disappointing. I always wanted that Nakamichi Dragon deck that actually physically turned the tape to change directions. I thought that was the bomb but could never afford it. Now that I am older I have purchased many of these items I could not afford. I was very dismayed to watch my Rolling Stones 8 track being eaten by my newly purchased 8 track player. What a horrible design. Cassettes never sounded great always hiss or dropouts. engaging Dolby A, B, or C (not sure where they stopped maybe went to “Z”) seemed to me like nothing more than High cut filters or EQ.s Best I ever heard was something called Dolby HX Pro. I was amazed the first time I heard a CD. I purchased it from a guy (Phil Colling No Jacket Required). After awhile I found the dynamic range actually seemed to hurt my ears (bother me a bit not sure why) and I went back to LP’s. No 45s because I don’t want to get up out of my listening chair every 3 minutes. I have a VPI manual player and those record changers seemed like a great idea years ago, but dropping the records on each other while they are spinning is not a recipe for long record life. I am still waiting to get a Reel To Reel someday. I heard there was a company out there considering making new Reel to Reels but they are not on the market yet.

    1. “I always wanted that Nakamichi Dragon deck that actually physically turned the tape to change directions.”

      Actually it was their models RX-505 and RX-202 that incorporated the mechanism that opened and physically turned the tape to change playback directions.

      The Dragon featured a four track playback head (two tracks for each direction of tape travel) enabling auto reverse playback. More significant the Dragon incorporated Nakamichi Auto Azimuth Correction. A very clever patented circuit, NAAC featured a servo system ensuring continuous playback head azimuth alignment.

      Eliminating azimuth error assures proper high frequency response on playback.

  19. I first got my Revox A77 back in 1976. I did location recording with it for the next 35 years or so, before moving to digital. Today you can spend $150 for a portable digital recorder that has a better signal to noise ratio than my old A77. Does anyone still make tape?

    And for those of you who are still thinking of getting into an open reel machine, you have to know that each brand and formulation of tape is unique and your machine has to be adjusted on the bench by a tech to get the expected performance from it. So you set it up for that one tape formulation and never record with anything else.

    You also have the issue that you need to run at higher speeds to get better performance, but that reduces the recording time. You really have to plan ahead because you don’t want to run out of tape during a live performance.

    Open reel machines were marvels in their day, but that day is past. I suppose you could buy pre-recorded tapes from the The Tape Project, but at $450 EACH, that’s a little rich for my blood.

  20. I dreamed about the A700 but could just barely afford the A77 in 1971. WBUR used to broadcast master tapes over a direct microwave link to the transmitter on Sunday afternoons. I still have several tapes i recorded of these broadcasts on Scotch 407 tape. Luckily they are not the old acetate base which badly deteriorates over time and becomes brittle so i can still enjoy them.

  21. I still have my B-77. I have the tapes, Ampex 456, some Maxell too. I used to have a Tandberg TCD330 (if I recall the numbering correctly). I have two friends that had the A700. The Tandberg was a great cassette deck. Best transport system.

    My B-77 is 2 track, but I made the mistake of getting a 3 3/4 and 7.5 ips instead of 15. 15 swallowed tape like crazy.

    I rarely use the B77 now. Not for decades. I’m getting a Motu to transfer the tapes with original music into digital.

  22. Paul, I believe that 16 track is 1″ tape. 24 track is 2 inches. I have a 16 track master here from a studio recording. It is 1″ tape.

    Back in my 80ies career rock band days, we recorded on 2″ Ampex tape of which the model eludes at the moment. (on 24 track Studer machines).

    In 1989, it was $175 a reel !! The speed was 30 IPS, I think we averaged two songs per tape. The full album was expensive, then add that to the hourly studio rates.

    All in Hollywood, where? Bing Cosby’s studio 55 for basic tracking. Then off to Westlake Audio for overdubs etc. After that, another studio known for top mastering. Those were the days. But, when you have a nice record contract, the sky was the limit ((O:

      1. Too funny Paul. Most likely it was a 24 track. 2″ width with only 16 tracks doesn’t make sense, you can research that for your own amusement. Enjoy (O:

  23. My A77 sounded better than my friend’s A-700 that we used to make copies! A decade later, another friend replaced every part with 1% and I still use it for 1/4″ 2 track 15ips mastering.

    I assume it sounded better than the A-700 because the 700 has some IC chips while the 77 has none.

  24. Another RT-707 here – got it a few years ago with (the awesome) RT-909 in need of repair. I adopted three boxes of ‘reels’ about 18 years ago – about 150 reels. I always wondered what was on them. I occasionally put one on and play ‘reel roulette’. (And keep a database of their content – thank gawd for shazam!) They were all recorded from around ’69 – ’76; the former recorded in Germany the rest here in Canada. There’s lots of German FM broadcasts, Zep, Heap, Deep Purple, Beatles, CSN&Y, ELP, Moody Blues, Joplin, JCSS soundtrack, Stones, Chet, Donovan, Mamas & Papas, – the standard 60s/70s hippie stuffs. Classical, Jazz, some German speeches, some old home piano recordings, one highly entertaining 2.5 hour reel just entitled “Party at Brian Bayly’s House July 1970”. Quite hilarious. There’s also a couple 60s university lectures including one that starts with: “Welcome – we are here today to discuss some of the atrocities happening on our planet and the latest Black Panther movement!!”
    I reeled one up just the other day and the first track rekindled my appreciation for Herb Alpert’s A Taste Of Honey. Quite well recorded too.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGmQXuySF28

    Yes, there’s nothing more peacefully nostalgic as the tranquility of slowly two spinning aluminum reels….
    Cool stuff, however I’ve learned that I really can not stomach Joan Baez…..

    An entertaining mashup video of Herb here – check out the cool cars & 60’s fun…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xb6IMbXLnrA

    1. What a blast from the past! You got me listening to Herb this afternoon wishing I was on the white sands of Punta Cana with a cerveza in my hand listening to Love Potion No 9 and thinking of Whipped Cream and other delights.
      p.s. Those dames in the black and white are probably in their 80s now…

  25. No one mentioned the old Crown reel to reel machines. I understood they were quite good machines and I believe there are sources today of refurbished Crown recorders.

    I’ve heard second edition master tapes and have been super impressed. They can approach close to the dynamic linearity of live music.

  26. An analog reel-to-reel tape recorder is near the pinnacle of the audio hardware porn way cool factor. I can understand Paul’s point, however for an alternate opinion the gentle reader is directed to Natural Born Kessler in Copper Magazine. His ‘Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots’ articles are up to part 13 now.

    On my last visit to the local shop Lincoln Vintage Vinyl (which also sells used CDs and kit, but mostly LPs), I was sorely tempted by a Teac recorder (7 inch reels, 3-3/4 & 7-1/2 i.p.s., bi-directional, don’t remember the model number) for $700. I managed to restrain myself and got out with 3 albums (although one was the triple LP “Yessongs”, which I already have on double CD, but you can’t beat having Roger Dean’s artwork on LP size format; well, a poster but I don’t do those anymore).

      1. Yes (pun intended), there is a 12 page 11 x 11 inch pamphlet inserted within the cardboard album sleeve not occupied by vinyl, but it is a full color ‘souvenir’ of spotlit pictures of the band and production crew. Artsy, but no other Dean paintings, at least in my American Atlantic Records album.

        1. That is correct! My memory failed me!
          I haven’t played the album in decades. I need to find a copy but it is deep in storage. I uploaded everything to a Mac Mini solely dedicated to music so I have no use for records now. I miss the covers!

  27. I also have an old Uher 4200 portable reel 2 reel tape recorder… cool old piece. Very well engineered for accessing and servicing – the bottom board folds away on hinges to access all the mechanisms & belts. Uher. Sounds like something a foreigner calls his cheating wife…. 😉

  28. Those were the days my friend.

    We thought they’d never end.

    Although they did, and we traded a great wealth of gear…

    For something much more ‘dear.’

  29. I remember tape recorders. I had a VM (Voice of Music) tape-o-matic. It was a mono recorder. We used it to copy records through a microphone hanging in front of a speaker. We had a console stereo and my dad though this would keep us kids from wearing out records…replaying the ones we liked over and over and over. How many times could we play “In a gadda da vida”. I found a new use for that tape deck. I hung the microphone in front of the TV speaker. I recorded my favorite show, Star Trek. That was long before video tape recording for home use was available. TV News crews were still using 16mm film.

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