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Purchasing “Pre-Recorded” Reel to Reel tape can be a “risky proposition”, and unfortunately, OFTEN results in a disappointing outcome for the purchaser. I get questions like these often, "Do old reel tapes still sound good or even have any sound left?", "Will the recordings hold up on old tape?", "Do you think my old reel to reel tapes still have music on them?", "Are old pre-recorded tapes worth it?" etc.
 "Used”, “Still Sealed”, “Never Opened / Never Played”, “NIB”, “MIB”, “NOS” or whatever adjective is applied has virtually nothing to do with the actual condition of the tape and recordings. I see 'old, pre-recorded' tapes for sale sometimes bringing $$$ amounts in the range of quite a few hundred dollars. Given my personal experience with many hundreds of 'old' reel to reel tapes, including some 'still sealed in plastic', I can't imagine the disappointment when someone gets their 'new to them' copy of a tape they just spent $200-$1000, or even $50.00 on, only to discover that when they actually play it, it has serious issues, or isn't even the tape that's supposed to be on the reel or in the box. And the seller having "100% Positive" feedback, and stating something like, "no way to test as I don't have a reel to reel machine, but tape "LOOKS LIKE" it should play just fine", or "mint in the box", then ending with "returns not accepted" or "all sales final" only adds 'icing to the cake' (albeit fairly 'icky' icing)...





Notes about / tips to purchasing / buying pre-recorded reel to reel tape
(much of the following can also be applied to 8-Track tapes, Video tapes and some cassettes)

There are many potential pitfalls to purchasing ‘old’ / ‘NOS’ / used / ‘still sealed’ / ‘NIB’ etc. 'PRE-RECORDED' tape that you actually hope to listen to and enjoy. I have a had LOT of tape pass thru my hands. I have learned to exercise considerable trepidation when allowing myself to get too excited about playing a 'recently acquired' tape for the first time. I know the chance of at least one of the following issues may occur is strong. Some issues with tapes can be rectified. A few can be 'accepted'. Many render the tape un-playable, un-enjoyable, un-usable and can be potentially deleterious to the tape deck / machine.

While you can generally 'look' at a record album, and have a pretty good, if not concrete idea of it's likely quality, unfortunately, for some of the following 'tape ailments', there’s no ‘visual’ indication of an issue. A tape must not only be ‘played’ on a sufficiently functioning / calibrated tape machine to determine its actual condition, but must be continuously monitored it's entire length, by ‘ears’ capable of making a ‘value judgment’ as to the tapes ‘true condition’. Not too many people selling tapes have the equipment, expertise, nor the time for that kind of undertaking. Thus, purchasing tapes, for what may be assumed to be on them is a ‘crap shoot’ at best. While owing an original ‘Beatles’ “Abby Road” on reel tape, ‘Pink Floyds’ “Dark Side of the Moon” or any of the other myriad of recordings made throughout the decades on reel tape is a wonderful idea for many, but unfortunately unless the seller has investigated ALL of the following, there is a STRONG chance the tape will be somewhere between ‘needing attention’ to ‘completely useless’.  Most sellers will simply say something like, “I don’t have a machine to play this on, but it looks like it should sound fine”.  Right… What that means is, don’t pay much for it (unless you’re just the ‘gambler type’) if it hasn’t been played just prior to sale by someone with the means to convey it’s true and complete condition to you.
The following 'issues' are possible with 'old' tape, and may not occur singularly...

Breakage: Occasionally I’ll have tape simply 'break'. This actually doesn't happen as often as you would think it would and is usually associated with trying to thread it onto a reel with excessively 'sharp' edges in the tape 'end load' slot. This can usually be addressed by attaching a 'leader' to the tape, as the 'leader' will be more resistant to sharp edges / rough handling. Sometimes a tape will simply 'break' midstream when either when playing or 'fast winding'. Better have your splice kit handy. This is especially frustrating when it happens 2 or more times during one tape (and it does).
Some of this tape is 'old'. Some of it could be said to be 'VERY OLD' (although that's a relative descriptor, we're often referring to tape that is 35-50+ years old as of this writing).  If a tape has a 'leader', it will have been attached from the factory / manufacturer / user by adhesive tape. Adhesive tends to loose some of it's 'adhesion' qualities over time, so it's not un-common for a leader to become 'un-stuck' to it's associated recording tape. This usually happens the first or second time you try and play a tape. DOH!!! Well, that's how it goes. You'll now need to hone up on your splicing skills and re-splice / tape it back if you wish to use the tape with a leader (which is almost always preferable).  Leader detachment can even (and often does) happen with fresh, NOS, sealed, never used tape!
Leaders are a good idea as well from a recording conservancy standpoint. If the recording starts very near the ‘lead-in end’ of the tape, and every time you load the tape, you break off a bit, then soon you will be into the actual recorded material just to thread the tape onto the reel. Interestingly, most 'pre-recorded' tapes did not have leaders attached from the factory.  You should always use  / install ‘leaders’ with your tapes for that reason alone. Leaders need to be on 'both' ends of the tape as well. Some manufacturers use two different colors to help you tell which is the beginning / end of each side A/B.

Missing Tracks / Songs: This usually happens near the beginning of the tape. This is because tapes typically get the most 'abuse' near their beginning either due to having no leaders, resulting in that each time the tape is loaded, it potentially damages the beginning of the tape. If this is done enough times, it doesn't take long before you're 'into the first track / song.
Another reason a tape will be damaged nearer the beginning is a 'take up' reel not doing it's job, and the tape 'spills' onto the floor, then gets 'stepped on', dirty, falls into some ones dinner plate or otherwise compromised. The damaged section gets 'chopped off' and you're undoubtedly going to be well into the first track.
Another reason is that a tape decks' 'pinch roller' is 'sticky' either because it has something on it that shouldn't be (soda is the most common 'foreign matter' that get's on tapes and tape decks) or the rubber pinch roller is deteriorating (VERY COMMON in recent years due to the 'time effects' on rubber). Often the deck then 'eats' the tape which typically damages a decent length of it (this problem is especially prevalent with 8-track cartridges and cassette tapes). This issue also usually happens near the beginning of the tape.
This recently happened to me. I had a 'Frank Sinatra' tape, from 1963 given to me, and it's was missing all of the first track, and about 20% of the second track (which then meant it was missing some of the 'Side B' tracks near the end. It also had 'wrinkling' during the first half, prevalent on one side / half (an issue addressed below).

Splices: Occasionally a tape will be spliced (sometimes more than once). If I observe a splice upon my inspection, that looks like it's simply a splice 'midstream' and the tape 'type' was not changed (usually signified by a different 'edge color'), I’ll usually play or wind the tape to that spot and inspect the quality of the splice. If it looks good, then I’ll continue to play it. If there are numerous splices visible, or color changes associated with the splices or in the case of a 'single splice' the person who spliced it did a substandard job, I know that either tape has been added to the end of the original recording (best outcome for that), or it’s been spiced somewhere ‘mid-stream’ which usually means the original recording is not intact either.
Sticky Shed / Shedding / Flaking: Occasionally a tape will have a symptom commonly referred to as 'sticky shed' (means the magnetic material is flaking off of the tape base). This can be evidenced by the magnetic material simply flaking off of its base. Sometimes a tape will feel ‘tacky’ to the touch, and will leave residue on the guide pins of the tape deck. This can often be so serious, that after a few feet of tape, the path become so choked / clogged with residue / material, that the tape speed (especially in ‘Fast Wind’ mode) will slow down to a ‘crawl’ or stop altogether. You can clean the residue build-up from the guide pins, and the tape speed will be fine for a few moments, but then start to re-build and slow down again. I am not aware of a solution for tapes that exhibit this. There's a potential solution that some folks seem to have good results with (at least temporarily) by 'baking' tapes in an oven, but haven't gone there yet...

11/12/2020. Just had personal experience with "Sticky-Shed" with some Ampex, 'Black Box', "Grand Master 3600 / 10.5" tapes. OMG!!! It was unbelievable how much of the oxide material was 'flying off' the reels in 'fast forward' mode, especially as I got near the end of the 'supply' reel. I was trying to find a tape to make a demo tape with. I've had great luck with Ampex Grandmaster 456 in the past. This 'Black Box' Grandmaster was 'back coated'. I've definitely had more issue with 'back coated' tapes in the past either gumming up my machine or flaking off. I took some video and will try and post it in the future...

Wrinkling / wrinkles / wrinkled tape / warped tape / wavy tape / crinkled reel tape: Occasionally a tape will appear fine while tightly wound on the reel, but as the layers come off (often for the first time in decades), the tape will develop a ‘wavy’, wrinkled appearance. Another tell-tale sign of tape that are going to come off with "waviness" is to look at the edges of the tape, wound on the reel, thru the openings. If you see a "V" pattern running across the layers of tape, from center to edge (you may have reflect the room light at certain angles off the surface to really notice this), the tape will most likely come off with 'waves / wrinkles'.  If the wrinkles / waves are ONLY near the first couple of layers, then it might not be an issue, but depending on multiple factors, it quite likely will continue throughout the tape. This usually renders the tape ‘un-listenable’, at least from any kind of decent quality standpoint, as the ‘waves’ will cause the tape to cyclically come away from the tape playback head, causing a ‘drop-out’ effect in the sound. Sometimes only one half of the tape will be affected, and the other half may sound fine. Depending on track format, and your need for that tape / recording, you’ll have to decide if it’s a ‘terminal’ issue.  Personally have had this MANY times, most recently with a 'Sony Tape Deck Demo Tape' and
an 'Akai Quadraphonic Demonstration' tape. An additional issue with a tape exhibits this issue, is that it will probably not completely fit on the take up reel, as it won't 'pack' nearly as compactly as it was originally on the supply reel. The wrinkles will cause more space between the layers of tape.
Recently, we were making a 'Playback Demo' tape to send out with a deck we had finished restoration on. We generally do this on Scotch 203, as it's a decent and we have a good batch of it

I’m not aware of a solution for this ailment, but am open to suggestions….
Actually, one potential remedy, if the 'warping' isn't too bad, would potentially to play the tape on a deck such as a Sony TC-200 thru TC-300 series and Philips N-4504 come to mind, that utilizes a 'pressure pad' that presses the tape against the heads with even pressure. Cassette tapes and 8-Track tapes have 'pressure pads' built in to hold the tape against the head more evenly. I'll try one of those as a test and add that information to the page. I'll also try and see if there's a noticeable pattern regarding 'base type' (Mylar, Polyester etc), or if different thickness of tape, ie; 1.0mil, 1.5mil etc or if it tends to affect any particular brands, one over the other has and affect on it...
Another issue that we've seen on a few cassette tapes is 'crinkling', typically from 'bad' pinch rollers on a deck that the tape was previously played on. Replacing the rubber pinch roller on the cassette deck usually addresses the issue, but once the damage is done to the tape, I'm not aware of a 'fix' for that. The 'crinkled' section will definitely be affected audibly (and not in a good way).

Re-Recorded over: ARRRGGG! This one happens all the time. It is especially frustrating when it’s an ALIGNMENT / TEXT tape we’ve purchased. Often it’s likely from someone needing a tape to record on, and decides to ‘sacrifice’ one of their existing tapes.  Occasionally it may have been an accident, and someone inadvertently presses ‘Record’, if only for a moment, and that section of tape all of the sudden has some other material recorded on it. I experience this recently with both an Ampex Alignment tape and an Akai 'Quadraphonic Demonstration' tape.

Wrong tape / Mixed up tape / reel / box: This one happens VERY often as well. Someone inadvertently winds the wrong tape on a reel, and never rectifies it, then you end up with “Alvin and the Chipmunks Sings Christmas” in a Beatles “Sgt Peppers” box (hey, I suppose SERIOUS Alvin and the Chipmunks fans would consider that a 'windfall').

Correct recording, but Re-Recorded over: This could mean a number of things. Someone may have made the tape completely from ‘scratch’. This is usually evidenced by hearing ‘click and pop’ from records in the back ground. This could have been completely innocent. OR, someone could be recording (even and especially from a CD), reproducing the reel graphics and box graphics and essentially pirating recordings as ‘originals’. That is, of course, illegal (and something you could do yourself, assuming your machine is up for it, and you have tape that is up to the task).  I see eBay sellers offering reels of tapes VERY OFTEN as having recordings by artists on tape, but that are 'home brew' / have been ‘self recorded’. You can sell ‘home brew’ tapes with recordings on them, you just can’t advertise them with any specific or implied music recordings on them (at least not anything you don't have the copyrights to), unless they were recorded ‘from the factory’ that way.

Alignment / Test tapes: 'Proper' alignment / test tapes have always been fairly difficult to obtain. Over the years, we have collected many in most formats. Some from companies whose primary focus is manufacturing / marketing test tapes, and some from 'jobbers' who make fairly 'generic' versions. We have 'original Factory' tapes by Alpine, Ampex, Apollon, Panasonic, Pony, RCA, Sony, TEAC, Wollensak and others by companies by STL / MFL, and 'Jobber' tapes such as Aspen, AudioTex, GC Electronics, Nortronics, and a bunch of others (probably 25-35 in all currently). Having said that, I will tell you this, that we DON'T HAVE TWO tapes that match up perfectly. They are all 'off' by a few cycles / dB, one from the other, so often we are getting an 'average' between 2 or 3 or our more trusted tapes to adjust things like 'speed' and 'levels'.
There are folks out there that are 'rolling their own' for re-sale, but they tend to be 'multi-track' formats, and since most (many, depending on intended use) proper and original test tapes were 'full track', they're not something I would tend to trust. Not to mention, there's likely less chance that the machines / decks they're making the tapes on are properly calibrated. Just having a 'good / quality' tape deck doesn't means it's sufficient for making test / alignment tapes. I believe MFL is still in operation.? There also appears to be a company out of Northern Europe somewhere that seems to be making proper test tapes (at least as of this writing).

Home-Brew Recording: See above.

Music plays backwards or is VERY muffled or BOTH backwards and VERY muffled: This one can usually be rectified with a couple of empty reels, and some ‘brain power’ to get it re-wound correctly or ‘flipped’ over.

Moldy tape: While this isn’t ‘good’, it might not be detrimental, and can often be rectified or may not really be much of an issue from a playback standpoint.

Warped, cracked or broken reels: While this isn’t ‘good’, it might not be detrimental, and can often be rectified or overlooked.

Dropouts / 'cyclically muffled' sound: This effect / issue can be caused from a number of situations, but was likely due to the tape being exposed to a 'magnetic field'. Examples of this can be from a vacuum cleaner motor ran too close to them, a furnace motor (I had this happen to most of my cassette collection that was stored in racks, mounted on the wall, that happened to have the F.A.G. furnace located just on the other side of the wall), someone storing or sitting their tapes on just the 'right' speaker, in just the 'right' way (this one happens often), tapes sat on top of a TV or near it's power supply (magnetic flux from it's power transformer). Another example of how this can happen is someone owns / utilizes a bulk tape eraser, and isn't cognizant of other tapes in close proximity.

Out of round / unbalanced / dented / warped / split / cracked or otherwise 'physically compromised' reels: Some of these issues can be addressed. We often see "unbalanced" reels (which is more prevalent on the larger 10.5" size) which often will cause excessive vibration / chatter when in 'fast wind' mode. Warped flanges can cause tape rub. These can sometimes (at least on metal reels) be straightened out with a bit of effort and patience. Recently we had a metal reel with 'nicks / burrs' in both flange edges, which would catch and some could have eventually cut the tape. We cured it with a fine toothed file. If you have a plastic reel that has a separated crack / split in on of the flanges, it will likely cut the tape if you try and use it. You might be able to glue it if you can match up the crack perfectly, then transfer that tape to another reel. Once done, pitch that reel as it will always have a high risk of cutting a tape.

3 3/4 ips vs 7 1/2 ips: So this isn't so much an 'age related' issue, but just something to be aware of. As time progressed from the 1950's thru the 1980's, the overall quality of 'pre-recorded' reel to reel tape went, generally down hill. Originally 'pre-recorded' tape was offered for 'Full Track / Mono' machines and at 7.5 ips. That would have been the 'highest and best' recording quality available to a 'consumer' at that time. Following that, the tape deck head / track format went to the 'Stereo / Half-Track' format at 7.5 ips. Next, in the interest of 'tape economy', '4-Track / 2-Channel' head formats were introduced. This is the format that was most successful among consumers, the format that was the 'most sold', and really, for most folks, a good compromise of quality vs tape economy. There were two primary tape writing speeds that were offered, 3.75 ips and 7.5 ips (yes, there were others, but those two were the mainstream, 'consumer' speeds). Having said that, most of the earlier 'pre-recorded' tapes were released at 7.5 ips. In the mid 70's or so, however, many, if not most, labels starting releasing titles at 3.75 ips, again in the interest of 'tape economy'. As most of us know, slowing down the writing speed of magnetic tape, will result in lesser quality. It became 'rarer' to find titles released at 7.5ips past the mid 1970's, yet the writing speed had no effect on the original retail price, and now, to the fairly 'un-educated in the ways of magnetic tape-mass consumer', prices for 3.75 ips tapes vs prices for 7.5 ips tapes are generally similar, yet the quality between the two is often 'considerable' and dramatic. Now there are other factors that can come into play regarding the quality between versions of the same recording on different tapes, such as 'how many generations away from the master' each was when recorded, any of the above mentioned issues, the type of tape the label was using at the time (yes, they could have switched to different, commonly 'cheaper' suppliers), the condition / health of each 'duplicating' mechanism, and more. Having said all that, while I have obtained a 'hand-full' of tapes (out of hundreds I own and have come across) recorded at 3 3/4 ips that do sound 'good', 7.5ips is GENERALLY WAY BETTER if given the choice, and with only a few exceptions, should have a fairly 'strong' determination of price / value.

Those are some of the 'high points' (or 'low' depending on your perspective) of the potential risks of purchasing reel to reel tape(s) with the intention of enjoying the recordings that might appear to be on them. Again, the only way to really know, is if the seller has actually, recently played them, is qualified to judge their quality, and did so on a system adequate for the task. Sorry to be a 'Debbie Downer', but I've loaded up many tapes I had 'high hopes' for, only to be sorely disappointed.

So, what is the solution.
There may be a couple...
If you're talking about a 'box lot' of tape, and it's not 'much' money, then "throw the dice". I've purchased boxes at auctions, that had a few dozen tapes in them, some of which were 'pre-recorded', and they were likely less than $50 (sometimes much less, although they're getting 'fewer and farther between' in recent years). These can be found at local auctions, garage / yard sales, and occasionally on 'Craigs List' (not so much 'thrift stores' anymore, as they are typically pricing them 'individually' in recent years).

If you're at a 'record store' (and there's not a lot of those around typically), the first thing would be to ask if they have a reel to reel deck for tape testing (un-likely). Barring that, ask what their 'return policy' is (now again, if it's a 'few' dollars, just buy it, and deal with what ever the consequences are, but if it's enough money that would 'bother you to throw away', then ask). If they don't have a machine, and throwing $12, $20, $30, $100 or more at a tape 'bothers you' (and it would me, especially on the upper end of the scale), then consider lugging your reel to reel deck down to audition them.

If you're looking at a tape on one of the on-line auctions such as eBay, then it likely get's more complicated. Not only do you have the cost of the tape, but you have the 'likely' cost of shipping
(and you should have 'shipping' costs. "Free Shipping" means "Free Packing", and that scares me. I would rather pay to get something packed adequately for 'safe transit' than get a 'box of parts').

Consider, when the seller mentions "condition", are they speaking of the 'actual playing condition' of the tape?  That would mean that the seller (or their 'consignee') would need to have access to a "properly working" reel to reel deck, in the same track format as the tape, to have played the tape on, have taken the time to actually 'sit down' to attentively listen to the entire tape, have the experience to give an accurate judgment and description of the quality of the recorded material, and be able to convey the information to you. Assuming they do (BIG assumption), this isn't likely going to be a 'ten dollar' tape (given the capital investment of an 'adequately functioning / working reel to reel deck', the 45 min to an hour and a have the time to listen to the tape, and any additional time spent to repair splices / breakages etc.) You're potentially talking about adding $40 to $100 or more to the cost of the tape, over an above any value it's 'title' might potentially have.  While there may be sellers investing those sorts of resources into tapes they are selling, I would venture a guess that they're a 'tiny fraction', at best, of the sellers of tape out there.  Barring that again, what is their 'return policy' (now again, if it's a 'few' dollars, just buy it, and deal with what ever the consequences are). If it's a 'sought after' tape though, it won't likely be five or ten or even twenty bucks. Some of the more 'sought after' titles are fetching a 'few' to 'many' hundreds of dollars at this point. I recently saw a "David Bowie" tape actually bring almost $900.00 in 'un-tested' condition. The typical R&R tape is currently $300-$600. Talk about "rolling the dice"!

Maybe the best solution would be to 'roll your own'. If your tape deck is sufficiently 'up to the task' of making good recordings (or at least 'good enough' in your opinion), then purchase some 'blank' tape (and again, many of the above factors can still be applicable) and record your own music. This has generally been considered, perfectly legal, if you already 'own' an original piece on vinyl or CD or whatever, and you're simply making a 'back up' copy FOR YOURSELF of course and NOT to sell. You could even copy the box / label graphics for the 'eye candy' aspect.
I have to admit, it's a pretty 'cool thing' watching those big reels spin
 (especially if they're the 'big 10.5" reels).  While there are a couple sources around the world for 'brand new tape', I personally don't typically 'spring' for new tape, but typically re-record on used tape, and we usually have that available HERE...   

If you're looking for 'new blank' tape, there's pretty much one source that I'm aware of (and the tape is great quality BTW), try "ATR Tape". You can find them on the interwebs.

Another possibility / resource (although not for the 'faint of pocket book') would be NEW recordings on NEW tape. Yes, they exist. There are a couple of sources what we're aware of. One would be "Acoustic Sounds", out of Salina, Kansas. They're offering 're-mastered' tapes on 10.5" / 2-Track / 15ips format. Here's a link to their page.
Another source would be "The Tape Project". They're also offering 're-mastered' tapes on 10.5" / 2-Track / 15ips format and here's their link.


Reel to Reel Tape Running Time Versus Tape Length
ie; "How long does a xxx foot tape play?"

Speed ips 1 7/8 3.75 7.5 15 1 7/8 3.75 7.5 15
600' 64 32 16 8 128 64 32 16
900' 90 45 22.5 11.25 180 90 45 22.5
1200' 120 60 30 15 240 120 60 30
1800' 180 90 45 22.5 360 180 90 45
2400' 240 120 60 30 480 240 120 60
3600' 360 180 90 45 720 360 180 90



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