The case for (or against) reel tapes

Being a long-time music collector, there are often times I am trying to locate a specific album, but come up empty.  You know the deal.  You buy a record online and find the grading to be just a little bit overstated (that VG- record on your turntable doesn’t quite reach the listed NM grading).  Or you find one locally that looks to be in perfect condition, yet ends up playing with a lot of groove burn.  And of course, this sometimes happens to be a title that was never released digitally, so finding anything acceptable is a frustrating exercise.

It is in cases like these that I have turned to buying the very occasional reel tape.  I have had luck finding a couple of “hole fillers” in the collection, but I certainly do not consider mass-duplicated reels as the be-all, end-all of recording formats.  Mass-duplicated tape is reproduced at high speed, on what I would call “general purpose” tape stock.  In other words, those reels of UD35-180 you’ve recorded yourself are far, far better than the bulk product the duplicators used.

Now, about collecting those tapes.  On the plus side, they do not suffer groove wear, surface noise or scratches.

Sadly, that’s it.

For the negatives, there are many.

First of all, how were they stored?  Magnetic tapes are prone to a lot of mishandling in storage.  In a damp environment, tapes can get mildewed.  In dry climates, the tape can actually become very brittle.  (I owned a couple of reels where the tape would break the moment I engaged the play button.)  And sure, maybe Grandpa stored his reels in his console speaker…fine, except that speaker magnet was only a few inches away, erasing some of the music.  SO at WORST, your SOUND faded IN and OUT with EACH revoLUTION of THE reel.  Or the reel could have dulled entirely.  With records, you can easily see scratches, warpage and dirt.  With tape?  You gamble.  Looks are deceiving.

Then, consider the tape stock and stability. The cheap tape stock used by mass duplicators was not known for performance, although some were better than others (RCA’s tape comes to mind).  Lesser tapes could also have issues with the adhesive binders, meaning the oxide may wear off quicker than on other, more stable formulations.

Now, about the sound.  On a good day, you might find frequency response solid up to 8kHz, maybe 10kHz on a good day, and background noise rather high.  While some claim they can no longer hear well over 10kHz and it doesn’t matter, think again–the transient attacks (of percussion instruments in particular) suffer and the music loses its impact due to that “softening” of the sound.  Worse are the tapes duplicated at 3-3/4 inches per second.  Very poor quality indeed.  Then, hide that loss of high frequency information to the veil that the excessive background noise covers the music in, and you can get a picture of how the sound is altered through the process of mass duplication.

Finally, the tape sent from the label to the duplication facility was not always of the best quality–at best it would be a copy of the master, but often they were two, three or more generations away.  So the tapes started off with a bad source to begin with.  Consider, also, how many times the master was played back or duplicated to be used as a source for the duplication system.  Consider the wear on the tape, and the speed it had to be used at in the duplicator.  It’s definitely not the gentle environment you would find at home.

In essence, the problems with mass duplication were not limited only to reels–8-tracks and cassettes suffer similarly.  Given that cassettes ran at a very slow 1-7/8 inches per second, it was through a lot of technical advancements that allowed engineers to coax better sound out of them (narrower head gaps, high-bias formulations, etc.).  But even there, cassettes still had that “blurred” quality compared to a clean vinyl record.

Tapes recorded by the end user tend to sound much better, as do tapes that are copied 1:1 in real time.  They still do not sound like the master, but they will beat any mass duplicated tape by a long shot.

Tapes are still collectible due to rarity and the perceived sonic benefits, but I personally do not consider them to be worth spending a lot on, given the variables.  If like me, you’ve found certain albums elusive in any other format, a reel may be worth the gamble.  Otherwise, I would still choose a clean vinyl pressing over the tape.