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
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).
Leaders: 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
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
'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
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
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
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’
Moldy tape: While this isn’t ‘good’, it might not be detrimental,
and can often be rectified or overlooked.
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 reel to reel deck to have played the tape on, have
take 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, 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 half of 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. 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 'spring' for new tape, but typically re-record on used
tape, and we usually have that
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