Reel-to-reel audio tape recording

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A Sony TC-630 reel-to-reel recorder, once a common household object.
Note the distinctive Scotch tape spool at left.

Reel-to-reel or open reel tape recording refers to 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 "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 recording 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.

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.

Inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders were widely used for voice recording in the home and in schools before the advent of the Philips "compact cassette" in 1963. Cassettes quickly displaced reel-to-reel recorders for consumer use. However, the narrow tracks and slow recording speeds used in cassettes compromised fidelity. Reel-to-reel was the main recording format used by audiophiles and professionals through the 1980s, when digital audio recording techniques began to allow the use of other types of media (such as DAT cassettes and hard disks). Even today, some acts like Lenny Kravitz still record on reel to reel tapes though many mix the tapes on computers.

7" reel of 1/4" recording tape typical of audiophile/consumer/educational use 1950s-60s
7" reel of 1/4" recording tape typical of audiophile/consumer/educational use 1950s-60s

The earliest reel-to-reel systems used metal wire as a medium (q.v. wire recording), which is robust, but suffers from a number of problems - it takes up a lot of room on the spools, so recording time is limited; it requires a strong current to imprint the signal onto the wire; it is hard to physically cut and splice to effect an edit; the wire was easily kinked, causing dropouts. The invention of a plastic tape coated in a ferromagnetic material (initially iron oxide) solved these problems, opening up the use of tape recorders in studios. Wire is still used as a medium in black box aviation recorders, since the recorded information is more robust, and can even withstand fire to some extent.

The great advantage of tape for studios was twofold - it allowed a performance to be recorded in a more manageable form than cutting a disc directly, 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.

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 8, then 16, 24 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.

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. 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.

Tape speeds

In general, the faster the speed the better the sound quality. Slower speeds conserve tape and are useful in applications where sound quality is not critical.

  • 15/16 inch per second (ips) or 2.38 cm/s — used for very long-duration recordings (e.g. recording a radio station's entire output in case of complaints)
  • 1 7/8 ips or 4.76 cm/s — usually the slowest domestic speed, best for long duration speech recordings
  • 3 3/4 ips or 9.52 cm/s — common domestic speed, used on most single-speed domestic machines, reasonable quality for speech and off-air radio recordings
  • 7 1/2 ips or 19.05 cm/s — highest domestic speed, also slowest professional; used by some radio stations for speech programs
  • 15 ips or 38.1 cm/s — professional music recording and radio programming
  • 30 ips or 76.2 cm/s — used where the best possible treble response is demanded, e.g., many classical music recordings

Reel-to-reel recorder brands

See also Tape editingda:Spolebånd


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