Intrepid R2R junkie Ken Kessler didn’t always have a bountiful stock of tapes. Everybody has to start somewhere, after all. Here, Ken casts his mind back to the early days of his open-reel tape habit and recounts how he got started building up a collection of pre-recorded reel-to-reels.
When Tim de Paravicini demo’d a mint copy of the Capitol (US) pre-recorded reel-to-reel tape of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, little did I know that it would reawaken in me a passion that had fallen by the wayside. I hadn’t used an open-reel deck since 1998 at the latest (I know this because that’s when my decks went into storage), and I hadn’t actually looked at my meagre collection of tapes for the same amount of time.
As a result of that analogue epiphany, I spent the entire flight back from the 2017 Tokyo High End Show wondering how I was going to get a copy. I had already checked Discogs and eBay to find that pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes were on the ascendant, that Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin titles were the most costly, and that the Beatles weren’t far behind.
Surely, you’re thinking, Beatles tapes should be worth more since their hard-core fans outnumber Floyd and Zep fans. True – but you can also guess that more Beatles reel-to-reels were sold than Floyd or Zep titles, so rarity works in their hyper-inflation, a genuine case of supply-and-demand. I saw copies of Dark Side of the Moon for $1,000. That said, $200-$600 was the initial price span for a copy of Pepper, and I wasn’t interested in dropping that kind of cash.
Lo and behold, I got home, rushed upstairs to my tape library and found not only a copy of Sgt Pepper, but also Beatles VI, Let It Be and the US collection, Hey Jude – all 7½ips Capitol copies. Alongside them were also Aretha Gold, Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits and one or two others. That was it, my whole collection. My tape decks almost outnumbered my actual tapes.
To my surprise, all were in superb condition. Having retrieved my ReVox G36, which I’d left with Tim de P for servicing sometime during Tony Blair’s tenure, I gingerly spooled up my copy of Pepper, set up the stacked BBC LS3/5As as used by Tim for the demo back in Tokyo, and hit ‘Play’.
My-oh-my-oh-my – it wasn’t just as good as I remembered from the show, it was even a tiny bit better because I had augmented the stacked LS3/5As with the AB1 woofer columns.
Like a recently-deflowered virgin, I embraced reel-to-reel feverishly, playing all of the tapes in my library to find that they, too, slaughtered the LPs. Sorry, but that is understatement, not hyperbole. It wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t moot.
Anyone who can’t hear the difference needs to find a new hobby. Or a box of Q-Tips. The sound was simply glorious, transparent and authentic. I wanted more.
First, to the Tonbridge AudioJumble, where I grabbed a handful of tapes, six months later finding 11 more from the same vendor. At this point, I should mention that all of mine are US copies. The 3¾ips mono UK tapes in those little boxes from EMI and World Record Club are, in technical terms, unmitigated shit. The tape is crappy, the sound miserable and their only real worth is as funky objects to display in a stack in some hipster’s hovel. Avoid, unless you like gumming up your tape heads.
My eleven acquisitions included Motown and Atlantic soul, psychedelia and other treasures from the 1960s. Aside from one tape missing the first few feet of the opening track, all were worth the tenner-apiece I paid. Yup, I wanted even more.
Next, I discovered the joys of eBay, initially for pre-recordeds, but also to build up a stock of blank tape. Unlike some people, I have no fetish for utterly unused, still-sealed tape because I am a realist. Tape is more robust than people think, and real-time erasing of used tape in fine condition has invariably rewarded me with clean-sounding copies. Why do I want blank tapes? To back up my precious pre-recorded commercial copies, which must have a finite lifespan.
It was here that I met my first challenge, my first major disappointment. Like the time I failed to read the entire review on booking.com and ended up in a brothel, I learned my first eBay lesson. But that’s another story. Tune in for the next installment and I might just tell it to you…
After working as Assistant Editor for the short-lived Stereo – The Magazine, Ken Kessler joined Hi-Fi News & Record Review in 1983, where he still serves, latterly as Senior Contributor. In 2013, he was appointed Editor-at-Large of the watch magazine, Revolution. A collector of old hi-fi components with a passion for the history of audio, Ken is the author of Quad: The Closest Approach and McIntosh… For The Love Of Music, and co-author of Sound Bites and KEF: Innovators In Sound. He is currently working on another four audio histories.