Is reel to reel coming back? We’ll know for sure this time next year, but the signs are good. It seems extraordinary that we should be even contemplating the return of a hi-fi format that was only ever embraced by a minority among real (reel) aficionados of audio. But the staggering resurgence of turntables has put the entire industry into a spin, and many of the reasons people are buying new vinyl product also apply to analogue tape.
It seems to me that there are two reasons that people have rekindled a fascination with LP records. The first, naturally, is a desire to get closer to the sound. The sound waves produced by live music are analogue and as far as we can tell, our sense of hearing is analogue too. Chopping music into digital samples allows us to transport it and re-present it to listeners more conveniently.
But for many, existing digital formats add an unacceptable artificiality to the sound that is not present in purely analogue reproduction.
If we accept that as true, then listening to an original analogue tape recording (or an early-generation dub) is a big step closer to the music than a phonograph disc. The addition of a cutting lathe, the stamping process, cartridge, tone arm and motors, along with the considerable equalisation added in the process, all add their own errors and inevitably come between the music and the listener.
Those particular errors at least, are removed when listening to a tape copy. Of course any extra generations of dubs and any high-speed duplication processes add their own inaccuracies (and those can be as bad as or worse than the disc reproduction chain). But a master recording on analogue tape is the closest you can get to the reproduction of music, assuming it was recorded on tape in the first place.
And now, you can buy that experience.
As we reported three issues ago, Slovakian audiophile specialist Horch House is selling a very small selection of dubs which it lists as being produced on refurbished Studer A80 decks using “a Pure Analogue process directly from a master tape of the first generation”. At up to A$550 for a 38cm/sec (that’s 15ips in the old money) two-reel copy on 10½ inch spools, these are pleasures reserved for the seriously well-heeled. There are at least 20 other companies too, like The Tape Project (tapeproject.com), with small catalogues of dubs from “original master tapes” that aim to bring the experience of listening to the studio master tape into the home listening room.
It is important to note that we are not talking about the pre-recorded tapes that were available back in the 1960s and 1970s where they sold alongside the LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes of the same titles. There are literally thousands from this era for sale on online auction sites, mostly recorded at 3¾ or 7½ inches per second. These were mass-produced by high speed duplicators and do not offer the same experience of quality.
The second reason for the renewed interest in vinyl is the joy of owning and operating beautiful machinery. There is no doubt that manually loading a record, aligning the tone arm and placing the stylus in the groove can provide a much more satisfying experience than simply pushing a button or pressing on a touch screen. As with top-flight turntables, the best reel-to-reel machines, like the classic Akai M-series, TEACs (such as the A3440S four-channel recorder I used to have), the Otari MX-5050 (in production until the early part of this decade) and many more are truly elegant machines to operate and works of art worthy of display in any domestic setting.
It’s not all plain sailing though. In my career at the ABC, commercial television and beyond, I have operated everything from ¼-inch full-track Nagras and Rolas to two-inch 24-track Ampex and Studer machines — and I can assure you they need plenty of maintenance. Pinch rollers, belts and rubbers all need regular replacement. The crucial tape heads need cleaning and are subject to wear in normal use, requiring regular alignment as well as periodic lapping or replacement. The analogue circuitry in tape machines demands regular adjustment of bias and equalisation, as well as periodic repair since components like capacitors do have a finite life.
The tapes themselves can (and do) stretch, shed their magnetic coating, become sticky or brittle and generally wear out with repeated playing. Even extended storage of magnetic media is a problem as the chemical composition of the base, the binder and the magnetic coating can change and deteriorate over time.
So why did I say that we’ll know next year whether reel-to-reel is really resurgent? Well, it’s all about hardware. Any revival based purely on refurbished equipment — beautiful as it may be — will not last long. The vinyl resurgence has been sustained by dozens of manufacturers pouring out new turntables and phono preamps at every imaginable price-point. If analogue reel-to-reel is going to be anything other than a curiosity, then we’ll have to see new hardware.
There’s every expectation that new decks could be spectacularly good as well. Tape machines are complex and tape damage was a constant problem in the past. Adding modern control circuitry and motor technology should improve tape handling out of sight. There’s also the prospect for modern design to provide auto alignment of both the mechanics and the electronic circuitry (while still keeping the signal path pristine and totally analogue) to keep performance at the top level.
Sadly, many of the once-great names in tape have gone or had their trademark brand-names sold off to companies working at the low end of the electronics market. A few recognisable names still appear, like the once-great TEAC and Akai, but it takes an enormous amount of dedication and resources to bring a new reel-to-reel to market.
Yet one of the great names has now committed to return. Revox is back (well, hopefully). In an unprecedented announcement, the Swiss manufacturer, famous for its A77 and B77 reel-to-reel decks that once dominated the Australian market, has shown pictures of a glamorous looking machine it hopes to bring to market in 2017. The announcement is very light on detail, noting a partnership with the aforementioned specialist distributor Horch House which markets the reel-to-reel dubs from analogue album master tapes. There’s not even clarity whether these new machines will be recorders as well as players. While a player-only deck would surely be an enormously market-limiting decision, analogue tape has no copy protection so perhaps the software distributors would insist on this.
So what’s next? It’s surely beyond the pale that 8-track cartridges would make any kind of comeback, but how about cassettes? This relatively low-fi tape system is already on the rise, led by independent new releases and some commercial re-releases from the likes of Eminem and Blink 182. It’s hard to foresee a mainstream cassette revival at the level of the current vinyl resurgence, but if we do actually see reel-to-reel reborn, then perhaps anything is possible! Though I long ago got rid of all my reel-to-reels, I still occasionally pull out my trusty Nakamichi 550 analogue cassette deck to dub treasures of the past for friends — so if analogue tape really comes back, I’ll be ready! Derek Powell
WEB REFERENCES for SoundOff, Sound+Image, August-September 2016
Order your $550 reel to reel masterpieces here: http://www.musicstore.revox.com/
There’s a number of Australian live recordings available on tape here: http://mastertapesoundlab.com/MasterTapeSoundLab/Catalogue.html
Or for around $600 you can order a Nat King Cole original (or many other Jazz, Roots or Classical albums) from www.tapeproject.com
There’s a useful list of companies producing tapes here: www.unitedhomeproducts.com/master_tape_sales.htm
For those in the market for a brand new machine, Revox has announced the first new reel to reel product in decades – details and pictures here: http://www.revox.com/en/news/news-details/article/revox-und-horch-house-vereinbaren-enge-kooperation.html