Music on tape: what’s available, who’s producing what and what can you (legally) buy?

If you’re looking for listings of current tape labels / producers, jump straight to Where to buy music on tape. For a bit more background on the market for tapes including all things vintage, along with some tech considerations, read on…

When it comes to buying music on open reel tape legally, you’ve got three main options:

  • vintage commercially-produced tapes
  • authorized current copies of vintage master tapes
  • new contemporary recordings.

Vintage commercially-produced tapes

Trawl the likes of ebay and you’ll come across plenty of old commercially-produced recordings on reel-to-reel tape. If you’re lucky you might even find the odd ‘new in box’ and as yet unwrapped gem.

The formats of these tapes will vary depending on the period in which they were made, but most stereo offerings will typically be four-track/quarter track recordings on ¼” tape at 3¾ or 7½ ips, on a 5” or 7” reel. (Read more about tape formats).

There are also quite a lot of early two-track mono tapes out there, but since you’d need a dedicated machine to play those, we won’t go into them here.

Condition is everything when you’re looking at vintage tapes, as magnetic tape is prone to degradation over time. Think of it like buying a vintage wine: consider not only age but also storage conditions. Price-wise these tapes will set you back considerably less than master tape copies (typically anything between £5-£100 depending on the album and its condition). They’re not as good as master copies of course but, condition permitting, the sound could still be superior to anything you’ll find on vinyl or digital.

The other thing to bear in mind condition-wise is the possibility of these older tapes shedding oxide onto the delicate heads of your reel-to-reel deck. If that’s the case then you might want to record a fresh copy onto a new tape.

Even if you buy a ‘new old’ tape that’s still sealed, it may still be useless – it might have been stored near a loudspeaker (or other magnet) or in someone’s loft (extreme temperature variations). It’s a bit of a lottery; really the only way to know is to buy from someone who has play-graded the tape and who you know is trustworthy.

If you’re tempted by a listing for a job lot of tapes, my advice would be to go along and inspect the goods in person. I’ve seen job lots where there’s only a handful of decent usable stuff and an awful lot of dross that’s beyond restoration or resale. But I’ve also seen some that have harboured some hidden gems – including a few original master tapes of recordings as high profile as Bing Crosby! It all depends on what you’re looking for – a cheap job lot can be a good source of reels and / or boxes to use or sell on, even if the tapes aren’t up to much!

Authorized current copies of vintage master tapes

This is what brings most converts to open reel tape and for good reason. Imagine encountering some of the world’s greatest recorded music at a never-before-heard level of quality and fidelity. To say that it’s an experience worth having would be an understatement. This will be the absolute best version of an album that money can buy, bar none.

What we’re looking at are direct copies, usually one-to-one, of master tapes from analogue recordings made up until digital recording took over during the 1980s and 1990s. In theory, any recording from that period could become available but in practice the menu is fairly limited for now. Record companies don’t tend to dig into their vaults or copyright owners hand out licenses without charging some serious bucks for the privilege so it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing authorized copies of the likes of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ any day soon (but you never know…).

Still, renewed interest in open reel tape has led to the emergence of a number of companies who re-release selected analogue-recorded albums on tape. The albums are often classics in their genre, the production usually in limited editions and the quality unbeatable. If your aim is to get up close and personal with some incredible recordings then this is about as up close and personal as you’re going to get. That longed-for experience of ‘being there’, whether live on stage or hanging out in the studio, will take on a whole new feeling of reality.

Each copy is typically made on a one-to-one basis in real time at 15 ips, direct from the first or second generation master. There’s no mixing or re-mastering involved though in some cases there may be some very gentle but faithful refurbishing if the original is a true vintage and has degenerated slightly. (Note: There’s often some confusion about terminology here – for clarification see What exactly is (and isn’t) a master tape?).

Format-wise you’re mainly looking at two-track/half-track stereo recordings, with IEC/CCIR equalization, on ¼” tape at 15 ips, on a 10.5” reel. One or two companies offer alternative formats – check individual catalogues for details.

Note: Not all master tape copies are legal. eBay is rife with unlicensed / pirate tapes, particularly 10.5” 2-track ‘master copies’. Needless to say, it’s your responsibility to ensure that what you’re buying is fully authorised, licensed and approved by the relevant record label/music publisher/copyright owner.

And not all tapes sold as ‘master tape copies’ are copies of master tapes. Check out Where to buy music on tape for a list of the companies we’ve come across so far who are (as far as we can tell without asking to see licences) issuing fully authorized master copies.

New contemporary recordings on tape

The revival of reel-to-reel tape isn’t just happening at the consumer end. There’s also a small but growing number of independent record labels who are returning to the joys of analogue recording and issuing their albums on tape (usually direct master tape copies) alongside a variety of other formats, both analogue and digital. These labels are typically owned and run by audiophile producers with a passion for excellent sound quality. Some focus on capturing exciting live performances in situ while others work in the studio. Either way, their recording processes invariably involve judicious choices of recording technique, venue and microphone placement, prioritising quality and authenticity of recorded performance for the audiophile ear over post-production polishing for mass consumption.

Artists on their labels often tend to be lesser-known insofar as they may not be huge global names, but there’s absolutely nothing ‘lesser’ about them in any other respect. Expect an exceptionally high level of talent and musicianship, delivered with a fidelity that will blow your socks off. Some offer a wide catalogue of albums spanning multiple genres from classical to jazz and pop, while others specialise in a particular niche.

Format-wise, as with vintage master tape copies, you’re mainly looking at two-track/half-track stereo recordings, with IEC/CCIR equalization, on ¼” tape at 15 ips, on a 10.5” reel. Again, one or two companies offer alternative formats – check their individual catalogues for details.

Take a look at Where to buy music on tape for a list of the labels we’ve come across so far who are issuing music on open reel tape.