“Through the past, darkly”: Ken Kessler ponders the condition of pre-owned tapes and what it can tell us about their history

If you read Ken Kessler’s ‘Off the leash’ column in the May issue of Hi-Fi News, you’ll know that he recently added another 200 open-reel tapes to his collection, along with a dozen used LPs. Sorting through his haul to separate the gems from the dross, the near-pristine from the unplayable, he noticed something interesting about old tapes and vinyl LPs that have been well preserved, versus those that have suffered with the passage of time and usage.

What both formats taught me,” he wrote, “was not that ‘good audiophile behaviour’ was necessarily widespread way back when, but that the more expensive or ‘grown up’ the disc or tape, the more likely it was to have been handled properly.” Here, he ponders the issue further…

Ken Kessler

When the time comes, someone will, I hope, be driven to write the history of open-reel tape: the science, the discoveries, the hardware, the commercial releases, blank and pre-recorded tape, accessory brands, and not least the renewed interest. We have already had amazing, dedicated (if hard-to-find) volumes covering ReVox/Studer, Stellavox, Ferrograph and other brands, but as time flies past, it will be harder to find out information about defunct or dormant brands such as Vortexion, Webcor or Eltra.

Any intrepid historian will thus need access to the archives of Ampex’s current parent company, Maxell, TEAC, TDK, Scotch, and the like which have moved on to different technologies, e.g. data storage media. As for Sony, Pioneer, Akai, Denon, Philips, Grundig, Tandberg, and other consumer brands which produced decks for domestic users (as well as studios), they need to be addressed, too.

Add to that covering the two primary sources of pre-recorded tape from the Original Analogue Epoch: the major labels such as RCA or Capitol, which still exist, and the early audiophile labels like Audio Fidelity or Command, which started the whole thing. The researcher will struggle with the latter, many of which are either completely gone, or have been absorbed by the multi-nationals.

My own interest in tape is such that I may never again record anything, as I have no desire to copy from LPs or CDs just for the hell of it. I realise that there are those who can, with demonstrable proof, suggest that recording, say, an LP to tape at 15ips ½-track might sound better and/or more euphonic. Regardless, what follows solely involves the commercially-available tapes from circa-1954 to the early or mid-1980s.

A few on Dave Denyer’s shelves

Any following observations are speculative, but based on experience, research and supposition. Even so, I am not claiming them to be definitive: this is just one person’s take on the era of mainstream, pre-recorded tape, armed with hindsight. My hoped-for future historian will need a separate chapter, though, for the current purveyors of 15ips ½-track pre-recorded tapes, of which Dave Denyer has easily identified at least 40 brands, starting with the pioneers like the Tape Project, Foné, Opus 3 and Analogue Productions, up to the more recent Chasing the Dragon and Hemiolia. I have yet to hear a bad tape from any of them, but the content is subjective and wholly to one’s personal taste.

What I am providing here, then, is more about context. It should account for some of my findings in acquiring – exclusively – pre-recorded tapes from the 1950s until the early-1980s, when the record labels stopped producing reel-to-reel in the wake of the cassette as the dominant recording medium, and CD’s arrival in 1982/3. At this stage, I do NOT wish to discuss the utterly vile swill issued on 5-inch spools in the UK, which consisted of mono recordings on cheap stock. They do, however, beg a crucial question: who on earth did EMI think was buying pre-recorded open-reel tapes back in the 1950s and 1960s?

The unarguable rightness of tape

This British pandering to the lowest common denominator forms the basis of understanding another question: how is it that – of just under 2,000 tapes I have acquired since 2018, almost entirely via eBay and from at least 50 different sellers, of which 700 tapes have now been tested and played – only 17 had to be thrown because they were beyond salvation? By that I mean half-erased, recorded-over, chewed up, spliced more times than the edits on “Strawberry Fields Forever”, spooled inside-out (yes, there were morons that stupid) or so covered with mildew as to fill up the room with the stench of death.

Some off Ken’s tapes yet to be tested – 21 per box – and this is only 10 per cent of his stash

Of the remaining, fully-tested copies which haven’t been turfed out, less than one in 20 gets a red sticker on the box to denote either slightly chewed or stretched tapes, drop-outs or missing ends, e.g. the loss of part or all of the first track on Side-1 (and thus the last track of Side-2). Regardless of earning my red warning sticker, for the most part these remain playable. It’s odd what some of us will put up with, though no more odd than finding a copy of a long-desired rare LP, but with one track suffering a tick.

So much, then, for all the ill-informed bleating I’ve received about print-through and pre-echo (virtually non-existent, despite the arguable means of storage over six or more decades); tape hiss (no more offensive than vinyl whoosh); oxide shedding (NONE so far); etc, etc. I speak as one who has gone through – I suspect – more tapes than most collectors and am happy to report that open-reel tape naysayers are for the most part full of bovine faeces. I can’t be the only lucky one.

To put this into perspective, if you acquired 700 used LPs, how many would be beyond redemption? I don’t mean a known, curated collection from an enthusiast, with all of them mint, but 700 LPs from eBay, charity shops, or even second-hand record stores, which are always economical with the truth about the actual condition (outside of Japanese record stores, that is). Thus I started think about how is it that the survival rate of these tapes is so high, when the general belief is that open-reel tapes are as fragile a format as you can get? Even cassettes have a protective shell.

Why the high survival rate?

First of all, some background to the tapes which form the basis of these conclusions. With the exception of four tapes, all are US-made, the majority on Ampex stock, from only three or four duplicating companies. (The four oddities are one cherished Japanese open-reel and – oddly enough – three classical 7½ips ½-track tapes on 7in spools made in the UK in the mid-1950s, before the dreaded 5in garbage emerged; yes, I was surprised, too.)

Early audiophile label open reel tapes

Next is a lesson in commerce. 90-95% of the tapes are ¼-track, the remainder being early ½-track 7½ips tapes as was the norm before the record labels got cheap and decided to go ¼-track to save tape, and ultimately dropping the speed to 3¾ips except for top artists. Of the ¼-track (or “4-track” according to most labelling, though that means something else in studios), I haven’t calculated the ratio of 3¾ips tapes to 7½ips. Suffice to say there was no consistency, with some superstars like Sinatra, Streisand, etc, having tapes at both speeds on the same label.

Here it is interesting to note how this was genre-related. It is obvious that the earliest audiophiles, and therefore the owners of costly open-reel tape decks, were, for lack of a better term, ‘grown-ups’. I say this because, in the USA, the mass popularity of, and accessibility to, separates didn’t take place until the second half of the 1960s, when Japanese brands lowered the prices, and companies like Tech-Hi-Fi attracted university students with affordable systems.

[Note: The penetration of hi-fi into younger, less affluent sectors occurred first in the USA. The UK was at least 10 years behind the USA for this phenomenon. I speak as one who went to university in both countries in 1970-1974; nearly every room in my dorm in the USA had a proper separates hi-fi system, e.g. Dynaco amp, AR speakers, Dual turntable. The British students I knew had Pye Black Boxes at best.]

A stack of first gen audiophile open reel tapes

Thus, the music which was offered for the first generation of reel-to-reel tapes included the cliché material targeted at the beardy audiophile stereotype: jazz, classical, popular (e.g. Sinatra), and soundtracks or stage musicals, all of which were sonic spectaculars for showing off one’s McIntosh amps, Bozak loudspeakers, etc.

Rock music simply did not matter until 1) the Beatles arrived and showed the record labels how much money was there to be made, 2) the LP became popular among younger buyers, displacing 7-inch singles, and 3) enough younger listeners had hi-fi systems. That said, precious few youngsters had open-reel tape decks because of cost (which includes both the lower prices of turntables and of LPs vs tape decks and tapes), and limited repertoire. However, it is worth noting that when the Beatles were first issued on open-reel tape, Capitol produced 2-on-1 tapes at 3¾ips, but then most of their albums were reissued as standalone titles at 7½ips … once it was clear that there were enough tape decks out there to support it.

To be continued, as Ken ruminates on the matter further… watch this space!


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.