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A reel-to-reel tape recorder (Sony TC-630), typical of those which were once common audiophile objects. Note the distinctive Scotch tape spool at left.

Reel-to-reel, open reel tape recording is the form of magnetic tape audio recording in which the recording medium is held on a reel, rather than being securely contained within a cassette.

In use, the supply reel or feed reel containing the tape is mounted on a spindle; the end of the tape is manually pulled out of the reel, threaded through mechanical guides and a tape head assembly, and attached by friction to the hub of a second, initially empty takeup reel. The arrangement is similar to that used for motion picture film.



Magnetophon from a German radio station in World War II.

The reel-to-reel format was used in the very earliest tape recorders, including the pioneering German Magnetophons of the 1930s. Originally, this format had no name, since all forms of magnetic tape recorders used it. The name arose only with the need to distinguish it from the several kinds of tape cartridges or cassettes which were introduced in the early 1960s. Thus, the term "reel-to-reel" is an example of a retronym.

Reel-to-reel tape was also used in early tape drives for data storage on mainframe computers, video tape machines, and later for high quality analog and digital audio recorders as early as the late 1940s, up until modern day studios where it is still in use. Studer, Stellavox, Nagra, Denon and Otari currently manufacture analog reel-to-reel recorders.

The format was commercially developed in the late 1940s by American audio engineer Jack Mullin with assistance from Bing Crosby. Mullin had been a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. His unit was assigned to investigate German radio and electronics activities, and in the course of his duties, he acquired two Magnetophon recorders and 50 reels of I.G. Farben recording tape from a German radio station at Bad Nauheim (near Frankfurt). He had these shipped home. Over the next two years, he worked to develop the machines for commercial use, hoping to interest the Hollywood film studios in using magnetic tape for movie soundtrack recording.

Unitra ZK-147, an old Polish reel-to-reel tape recorder

Mullin gave a demonstration of his recorders at MGM Studios in Hollywood in 1947, which led to a meeting with Bing Crosby, who immediately saw the potential of Mullin's recorders to pre-record his radio shows. Crosby invested $50,000 in a local electronics company, Ampex, to enable Mullin to develop a commercial production model of the tape recorder. Using Mullin's tape recorders and with Mullin as his chief engineer, Crosby became the first American performer to master commercial recordings on tape and the first to regularly pre-record his radio programs on tape. Ampex and Mullin subsequently developed commercial stereo and multitrack audio recorders, based on the system invented by musician Les Paul, who had been given one of the first Ampex Model 200 tape decks by Crosby in 1948. Ampex went on to develop the first practical videotape recorders in the early 1950s to pre-record Crosby's TV shows.

7 inch reel of ¼ inch-wide recording tape, typical of non-professional use in the 1950s–70s. Studios generally used 10½ inch reels on PET film backings.

Inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders were widely used for voice recording in the home and in schools before the Philips compact cassette, introduced in 1963, took over. Cassettes quickly displaced reel-to-reel recorders for consumer use. However, the narrow tracks and slow recording speeds used in cassettes compromised fidelity.

Following the example set by Bing Crosby, high-speed reel-to-reel tape recorders rapidly became the main recording format used by audiophiles and professional recording studios until the late 1980s when digital audio recording techniques began to allow the use of other types of media (such as Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes and hard disks).

Even today, many artists of all genres prefer analog tape's "musical", "natural" and especially "warm" sound. Due to harmonic distortion, bass can thicken up, creating the illusion of a fuller-sounding mix. In addition, high end can be slightly compressed, which is more natural to the human ear. It is common for artists to record to digital and re-record the tracks to analog reels for this effect of "natural" sound. In addition to all of these attributes of tape, tape saturation is a unique form of distortion that many rock and blues artists find very pleasing.

Euphonic distortion and noise levels aside, high-quality analog tape currently outstrips the transparency of all but the best digital recording/playback systems: digital systems can suffer from (among other problems) clock jitter, inferior analog circuitry, inferior digital filter design, improper wordlength conversion, and/or lack of correct dithering. Dramatic improvements in the average quality of digital hardware design are narrowing the gap, though, and might soon eliminate the quality distinction altogether.[citation needed]


The earliest reel-to-reel systems used metal wire as a medium (see wire recording), which is robust, but suffered from a number of problems – poor fidelity, required a strong current to imprint the signal onto the wire, editing inconvenience (needing physical cuts and splices to effect an edit), and potential kinking or even tangling of the recording wire. The invention of cellulose acetate plastic tape coated with iron oxide solved these problems, opening up the use of tape recorders in studios.

The great advantage of tape for studios was twofold – it allowed a performance to be recorded without the 30 minute time limitation of a phonograph disc, and it permitted a recorded performance to be edited. For the first time, audio could be manipulated as a physical entity. Tape editing is performed simply by cutting the tape at the required point, and rejoining it to another section of tape using adhesive tape, or sometimes glue. This is called a splice. The splicing tape has to be very thin to avoid impeding the tape's motion, and the adhesive is carefully formulated to avoid leaving a sticky residue on the tape or deck. Usually, the cut is made at an angle across the tape so that any "click" or other noise introduced by the cut is spread across a few milliseconds of the recording. The use of reels to supply and collect the tape also made it very easy for editors to manually move the tape back and forth across the heads to find the exact point they wished to edit. Tape to be spliced was clamped in a special splicing block attached to the deck near the heads to hold the tape accurately while the edit was made. A skilled editor could make these edits very rapidly and accurately. A side effect of cutting the tape at an angle is that on stereo tapes the edit occurs on one channel a split-second before the other.

Professional-style tape reel. Note larger hub hole.

The performance of tape recording is greatly affected by the width of the tracks used to record a signal, and the speed of the tape. The wider and faster the better, but of course this uses more tape. These factors lead directly to improved frequency response, signal-to-noise ratio, and high-frequency distortion figures. Tape can accommodate multiple parallel tracks, allowing not just stereo recordings, but multi-track recordings too. This gives the producer of the final edit much greater flexibility, allowing a performance to be remixed long after the performance was originally recorded. This innovation was a great driving force behind the explosion of popular music in the late 1950s and 1960s. The first multi-tracking recorders had four tracks, then eight, then sixteen, twenty-four, and so on. It was also discovered that new effects were possible using multi-tracking recorders, such as phasing and flanging, delays and echo, so these innovations appeared on pop recordings shortly after multi-tracking recorders were introduced.

A typical home reel to reel tape recorder, this one made by Sonora. It could play stereo quarter track tapes, but record only in one quarter track mono. Home equipment with missing features were fairly common in the 50's and 60's.

For home use, simpler reel-to-reel recorders were available, and a number of track formats and tape speeds were standardised to permit interoperability and prerecorded music. (The first prerecorded reel-to-reel tapes were introduced by RCA Victor Record Co. in 1954.) Reel to reel was still popular through to the end of the 1970s, despite the ubiquitous cassette, mostly because of the superior quality of open reel recordings. Audiophiles are willing to accept the relative fiddliness of open reel tape to gain better quality reproduction. Reel-to-reel tape editing also gained cult-status when many used this technique on hit-singles in the 1980s.

When Ampex broke apart in the 1990s, Quantegy Inc. was formed, later becoming Quantegy Recording Solutions in 2004. Quantegy (and formerly Ampex) led the field in reel-to-reel technology, and Quantegy was the only company left making reel-to-reel tape in the world for a period of two years. In 2007, Reel Deal Pro Audio purchased the majority of Quantegy's reel to reel audio tape and accessories and began to sell it on their web site Reel Deal Pro Audio. [1]

In 2006, Recorded Media Group International (RMGI) in the Netherlands began manufacturing EMTEC specification tape in Oosterhout and is now the largest open reel tape manufacturer in the world.

ATR Magnetics of York, PA, longtime service and modification shop for multitrack and master recorders, began manufacturing analog multitrack tape, and in November 2006 began beta testing a new formula.

Jai Electronic Industries in India are currently making audio tape in 6.35 mm(1/4") and 12.7 mm(1/2") width, and perforated 16 mm and 35 mm audio tape for the film industry.

Daniel Technology in the USA are making 3.81 mm tape for the Nagra SN-series tape recorders.

Pyral in France are making perforated 16 mm, 17.5 mm and 35 mm audio tape.

Tape speeds

In general, the faster the speed the better the sound quality. In addition to faithfully recording higher frequencies and increasing the magnetic signal strength and therefore the signal-to-noise ratio (S/N), higher tape speeds spread the signal longitudinally over more tape area, reducing the effects of defects in or damage to the medium. Slower speeds conserve tape and are useful in applications where sound quality is not critical.

  • 15/16ths of an inch per second (in/s) or 2.38 cm/s — used for very long-duration recordings (e.g. recording a radio station's entire output in case of complaints, aka "logging")
  • 1⅞ in/s or 4.76 cm/s — usually the slowest domestic speed, best for long duration speech recordings
  • 3¾ in/s or 9.52 cm/s — common domestic speed, used on most single-speed domestic machines, reasonable quality for speech and off-air radio recordings
  • 7½ in/s or 19.05 cm/s — highest domestic speed, also slowest professional; used by most radio stations for "dubs", copies of commercial announcements; Through the early-mid 90's many stations could not handle 15 IPS.
  • 15 in/s or 38.1 cm/s — professional music recording and radio programming
  • 30 in/s or 76.2 cm/s — used where the best possible treble response is demanded, e.g., many classical music recordings

Speed units of inches per second or in/s are also abbreviated IPS. 3¾ in/s and 7½ in/s are the speeds that were used for (the vast majority of) consumer market releases of commercial recordings on reel-to-reel tape. 3¾ in/s is also the speed used in 8-track cartridges. 1⅞ in/s is also the speed used in Compact cassettes.)

For video tape recording the reel speed of a linear recorder would have to be extremely high, over 200 in/s, to adequately capture the large amount of image information. Since the data is on a single channel, linear recording would require a multi-track linear tape, with time-consuming reversals at the end of each tape pass to continue recording or playback. This led to the development of helical scan technology which allowed tape speeds to remain low while using all of the tape surface in one pass, across the spinning helical-scan recording/playback head.


Quality aspects

Even though a recording on tape may have been made with studio quality, tape speed was the limiting factor, much like sample rate is today. Decreasing the speed of analog audio tape causes a uniform decrease in high-frequency presence, increased background noise (hiss), more noticeable dropouts where there are flaws in the magnetic tape, and shifting of the (Gaussian) background noise spectrum toward lower frequencies (where it sounds more "granular",) regardless of the audio content. An MP3 of a noisy rock band at a low bit rate will have many more artifacts than a simple flute solo at the same bitrate, whereas either on low-speed tape will have the same uniform background noise profile and the same limited frequency spectrum (rolled-off high end) but no dynamic distortion patterns.

A recording on magnetic audio tape is linear; unlike today's digital audio, not only was jumping from spot to spot to edit time consuming, editing was destructive -- unless the recording was duplicated before edit, normally taking the same amount of time to copy, in order to preserve 75-90 percent[citation needed] of the quality of the original. Editing was done either with a razor blade--by physically cutting and splicing the tape, in a manner similar to motion picture film editing--or electronically by dubbing segments onto an edit tape. The former method preserved the full quality of the recording but not the intact original; the latter incurred the same quality loss involved in dubbing a complete copy of the source tape, but preserved the original.

Tape speed is not the only factor affecting the quality of the recording. Other factors affecting quality include track width, tape formulation, and backing material and thickness. The design and quality of the recorder are also important factors, in many ways that are not applicable to digital recording systems (of any kind.) The machine's speed stability (wow-and-flutter), head gap size, head quality, and general head design and technology, and the machine's alignment (mostly a maintenance issue, but also a matter of design--how well and precisely it can be aligned) electro-mechanically affect the quality of the recording. The regulation of tape tension affects contact between the tape and the heads and has a very significant impact on the recording and reproduction of high frequencies. The track width of the machine, which is a question of format rather than individual machine design, is one of two major machine factors controlling signal-to-noise ratio (assuming the electronics have high enough S/N not to be a factor), the other being tape speed. S/N ratio varies directly with track width, due to the Gaussian nature of tape noise; doubling the track width doubles the S/N ratio (hence, with good electronics and comparable heads, 8-track cartridges should have half the signal-to-noise of quarter-track 1/4" tape at the same speed, 3-3/4 IPS.) Tape formulation affects the retention of the magnetic signal, especially high frequencies, the frequency linearity of the tape, the S/N ratio, print-through, optimum AC bias level (which must be set by a technician aligning the machine to match the tape type used, or more crudely set with a switch to approximate the optimum setting.) Tape formulation varies between different tape types (ferric oxide [FeO], chromium dioxide [CrO2], etc.) and also in the precise composition of a specific brand and batch of tape. (Studios therefore generally align their machines for one brand and model number of tape and use only that brand and model.) Backing material type and thickness affect the tensile strength and elasticity of the tape, which affect wow-and-flutter and tape stretch; stretched tape will have a pitch error, possibly fluctuating. Backing thickness also effects print-through, the phenomenon of adjacent layers of tape wound on a reel picking up weak copies of the magnetic signal from each other. Print-through causes unintended pre- and post-echoes on playback, and is generally not fully reversible once it has occurred. The print through effect is another, not well-known limitation of analog tape recording, whether in open-reel or cassette/cartridge formats.

Noise Reduction

Electronic noise reduction techniques were also developed to increase the signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range of analog sound recordings. Dolby noise reduction includes a suite of standards (designated A, B, C, S and SR) for both professional and consumer recording. The Dolby systems use preemphasis/deemphasis during the recording/playback, respectively. DBX is another noise reduction system that uses a more aggressive companding technique to improve both dynamic range and noise level. However, DBX recordings do not sound acceptable when played on non-DBX equipment.

Dolby B eventually became the most popular system for Compact Cassette noise reduction. Today Dolby SR is in widespread use for professional analog tape recording and is only surpassed in quality (although difference is almost negligible) by digital audio technologies.

Multi-track recorders

As studio audio production progressed and became more and more advanced, it became desirable to record the separate instruments and human voices separately and mix them down to one, two, or more speaker channels later, rather than in real time in the studio before recording. In addition to allowing recording engineers and producers to experiment with different mixing arrangements, effects, etc. on the same performance and to produce multiple versions of a recording (without having multiple duplicates of all the studio control room equipment used for mixing), multi-tracking enables the use of non-real-time effects or effects that cannot be produced in the same studio where the musicians perform. Reel-to-reel recorders with eight, sixteen, twenty four, and even thirty two tracks were eventually built, with as many heads recording synchronized parallel linear tracks. Some of these machines were larger than a laundry washing machine and used tape as wide as 2 inches. A single new reel of 1" or wider tape, blank, could easily cost over $100, to $200. Still, in professional studios, most tapes were recorded only once, and all recording was on new tape, to ensure the maximum quality, as studio time and the time of skilled musicians was much higher than the cost of tape, making it not worth the risk of a recording being lost or degraded due to using media that had been previously recorded upon.

Digital reel-to-reel

As professional audio evolved from analog magnetic tape to digital media, engineers adapted magnetic tape technology to digital recording, producing digital reel-to-reel magnetic tape machines. Before large hard disks became economical enough to make hard disk recorders viable, and before recordable CD technology was introduced, studio digital recording meant recording on digital tape. One elite brand in this field was the Nagra brand, whose pioneering digital reel-to-reel tape recorders were created after their original analog reel-to-reel units were developed. Digital reel-to-reel tape eliminated all the traditional quality limitations of analog tape, including background noise (hiss), high frequency roll-off, wow and flutter, pitch error, nonlinearity, print-through, and degeneration with copying, but the tape media was even more expensive than professional analog open reel tape, and the linear nature of tape still placed restrictions on access, and winding time to find a particular spot was still a significant drawback. Also, while the quality of digital tape did not progressively degrade with use of the tape, the physical sliding of the tape over the heads and guides meant that the tape still did wear, and eventually that wear would lead to digital errors and permanent loss of quality if the tape was not copied before reaching that point. Still, digital reel-to-reel tape represented a significant advance in audio recording technology, and most who could afford to record using digital tape generally did.

As a musical instrument

Early reel-to-reel users realized that segments of tape could be spliced together and otherwise manipulated by adjusting playback speed or direction of a given recording. In the same way as modern keyboards allow sampling and playback at different speeds, a reel-to-reel could accomplish similar feats in the hands of a talented user. Consider:

  • Jimi Hendrix's album Are You Experienced, on which the guitar solo and much of the drum track was recorded, then played backwards on a reel-to-reel.
  • The Beatles recorded many songs using reel to reel tape as a part of the creative process. Examples include "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Yellow Submarine" which used a technique where stock recordings were cut up and then randomly reassembled and overdubbed on to the songs (On "Mr. Kite", recordings of calliope organs and on "Yellow Submarine" recordings of Marching Bands).[1] On "Tomorrow Never Knows" multiple tape machines were used all interconnected patching tape loops that had been prepared by the band. The loops were played in a variety of ways such as backwards, sped up and slowed down. To record the song the machines, which were located in separate studio rooms, were all manned by individual technicians and played at once to record on the fly.[2] "Strawberry Fields Forever" combined two different taped versions of the song. The versions were independently altered in speed to end up together miraculously both on pitch and tempo.[3] "I am the Walrus" used a radio tuner patched into the sound console to layer random live broadcast over an existing taped track.[4] "Revolution 9" also had many effects produced using a reel-to-reel and tape editing techniques.
  • Delia Derbyshire, who performed the original Doctor Who theme by recording various sounds including oscillators and then manually cutting together each individual note on a group of reel-to-reels.
  • Aaron Dilloway, founding member of Wolf Eyes, often utilizes a reel to reel tape machine in his solo performances.
  • Yamantaka Eye of the band Boredoms uses a reel-to-reel tape as an instrument in live performances and in post-production (a good example would be in the track 'Super You' from the album Super æ).
  • The Gasman who produced much of his early work on Planet Mu Records splicing old reel-to-reel classical music into loops.
  • Mission of Burma, whose fourth member Martin Swope "played" a reel-to-reel tape recorder live, either playing previously recorded samples at certain times or recording part of the band's performance and playing it back either in reverse or at different speeds. When the band re-formed in 2002, audio engineer Bob Weston took over Swope's role at the tape deck.
  • Musique concrète in general.
  • Pink Floyd's cash register introduction to their track "Money" was made using a loop of "splices" which was continually run through the reel-to-reel mechanism.
  • Steve Tibbetts is a recording artist that includes tape editing as a significant portion of the creative process.
  • Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For the Money, both of which featured edits too numerous to mention, in addition to multiple instances of speed alteration and intricately layered samples upon samples.

In addition, multiple reel-to-reel machines used in tandem can also be used to create echo and delay effects. The Frippertronics configuration used by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp on numerous of their 1970s and '80s recordings illustrates these possibilities.

Reel-to-reel recorder brands

See also


  1. ^ Emrick, Geoff. Here, There and Everywhere, p.168
  2. ^ Emrick, p.113.
  3. ^ Emrick, p.139.
  4. ^ Emrick, p.215.

External links


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