We’re assuming here that your main aim is to listen to music on tape and perhaps also to make the occasional home recording rather to make professional studio recordings. In which case there are really two key things to focus on. First, the range and capabilities of the machine in terms of what sizes, speeds and formats of tape it can play. And second, if you’re buying a vintage machine, its condition and what it’s likely to take to bring it up to good working order.
‘I want it all and I want it now…’
Let’s start out by pondering the issue of your deck’s range and with the basic question: what do you want to listen to? When it comes to music on tape, there are two main areas of tape nirvana to consider.
The first, where the real heights are to be found, is master tape. Or rather, in most cases, direct master tape copies which are currently produced by a range of companies who offer either re-releases of old classics or new recordings of contemporary artists.
The second is vintage commercially-released tapes which were mass produced for domestic listening (mainly from the 1950s through to the 1970s, though a smaller number were made before and after).
You might be wondering why you need to think about such things now – surely your average R2R deck is going to be able to handle any/both? Well, not necessarily. So if you don’t want to risk seriously limiting your listening pleasure then you need to be sure to choose the right tape deck from the get-go (unless of course you’re in the happy position of being able to buy more than one!).
At this point it’s probably worth reading up on tape formats and also having a quick skim over music on tape: what’s available to get a better feel for what we’re talking about here. Or, if you’re already up to speed with such things, we can dive right in.
Here’s a quick summary of how the two types of tape tend to differ. (There are of course exceptions, but these are the typical scenarios; also we’re focusing on stereo here, not mono).
Master tape copies
|Vintage commercially-released tapes|
|Reel size||10.5”||5” or 7”|
|Reel (hub) format||NAB||CINE (Trident)|
|Tape speed||15 ips||3¾ ips or 7½ ips|
So what does this mean in terms of choosing a deck?
Let’s start with the most restrictive parameter: the tape format. Here’s where you’re most likely going to have to make a tough choice, because most two-track tape machines can’t play four-track tapes and vice versa. However, there is hope… a few notable exceptions include the Technics RS-1500 and 1506, the Otari MX-5050BII and the Teac X-1000M, all of which were designed to play both formats (the Otari also has switchable NAB/CCIR equalization, making it a bit of a gem in terms of versatility). But these are very much the exception rather than the rule. (If you know of any others, do drop us a line). Otherwise you’re just going to have to save up for a duo of decks.
Thankfully, the remaining parameters are somewhat easier to accommodate and, if you choose your deck wisely, you should be good for listening to whatever floats your boat.
Most tape machines were designed for ¼” tape so you shouldn’t have a problem there. In terms of tape speeds, reel sizes and such things, much will depend on when the machine was made and whether it was intended for the domestic or the professional market.
There’s also the issue of tape operating levels (also known as ‘reference fluxivity’) to consider. This is quite a complex one to explain – for more details check out our dedicated blog on the subject: Tape operating level aka ‘reference fluxivity’: what’s it all about (and why should you care)? Basically there are two key decisions in which you need to consider operating levels. First, when choosing a deck, make sure it has adjustable output levels so that you can enjoy tapes with varying operating levels without compromising on sound quality. Second, when having your deck calibrated during initial set-up and subsequent servicing, you need to decide what operating level to calibrate it to. Find out more in the blog.
A quick tour of the vintage machine types
Back in the heyday of tape there was no shortage of manufacturers and models and hence there’s a broad array of vintage machines on offer. As the tape revival grows, more old machines are being pulled out of attics and store-rooms, dusted off and put on the market so at this point the choices almost seem to be expanding. But obviously it’s a limited supply and so, as demand grows, the better options will get snapped up and latecomers to the market may well be left with slim pickings.
Broadly-speaking, vintage open reel decks can be grouped into three main types: portable decks, domestic decks and professional decks. And at the pro end, we can drill down further to distinguish between two-track and multi-track machines. The divisions between them aren’t absolute (and here we’re focusing on stereo rather than mono) but they can help to give you an idea of what’s out there. For the modern-day audiophile on the hunt for a first deck, the main area of interest will be the top-end of the domestic decks and the two-track end of the professional machines. But let’s take a quick look at them all, just for the heck of it.
Available from the 1960s, these machines were designed to be moved around (as the name suggests) and were manufactured for both domestic and professional use. Truly portable machines ran on internal batteries (and usually only recorded in mono) whereas others, while still moveable, ran off mains power. Given the nature of portable machines, obviously their size and weight had to be limited which in turn limited the size of reels they could accommodate. Battery-powered models were normally restricted to 3” or 5” reels while the mains powered versions could often take up to 7” reels. Tape speeds were also at the lower end, around 1⅞ to 3¾ ips, hence no better than compact cassettes or 8-track cartridges. It’s therefore unlikely that a domestic portable machine is going to be suitable as a first deck for the present-day audiophile. At the professional end, Nagra and Stellavox both made professional portable recorders. Most were mono (typically used by reporters) but they also made some stereo machines. These can be superb and operate at 15 ips, but that’s still not going to be much use if you can only play 5” reels.
Most standard domestic stereo decks were designed to take four-track/quarter-track reels of up to 7” and most offered recording/playback speeds of 3¾ and 7½ ips. A few of these domestic decks could handle up to 10.5” reels but of those, many still tended to offer only 3¾ and 7½ ips speeds, not 15 ips. That said, there are many and varied exceptions, and this is where things get potentially interesting for the present-day audiophile. At the upper end of the domestic market you can find two-track/half-track machines that can play 10.5” reels and offer speeds of 3¾ ips, 7½ ips and 15 ips.
Professional decks were designed for making master recordings and so high sound quality and fidelity were key. If the enjoyment of master tapes is high on your list of priorities (and why wouldn’t it be), then the chances are you’ll be looking at a semi-pro or professional deck. The vast majority of professional stereo decks record and play two-track/half-track tape (though do watch out for the occasional studio deck used for making four-track/quarter-track tapes for duplication for the domestic market). Studio decks offer higher speeds (typically 7½ and 15 ips, possibly even up to 30 ips) and take 10.5-inch reels.
Moving up the professional ladder we get to the world of multi-track decks which were designed to handle more than stereo’s two channels. Those that used quarter-inch tape typically had four or eight channels while those decks that were designed to take wider tape (from half-inch up to two inches) might have 16, 24 or even (rarely) 32 tracks. But unless you’re in a high-budget professional studio set-up it’s unlikely you’ll be in the market for one of these fantastic beasts!
For more details of the many and varied tape deck manufacturers and brands, covering both the vintage and the newly minted, see R2R decks: new & vintage brands.
“Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in…”
Next there’s the all-important matter of the machine’s condition. Obviously if you’re buying a brand new modern machine (more about those at R2R decks: new & vintage brands) then you don’t need to worry. But in the majority of cases you’re going to be looking at a vintage model which may have been made anywhere between the 1950s and the mid-1990s, at which point worldwide production ceased. Two words to bear in mind: buyer beware.
Reel-to-reel equipment that’s in pristine condition is quite a rare find. If you do happen to find a machine in first-class nick, you’ll pay top dollar for it. There’s a LOT of complex engineering in a tape machine, far more than in a turntable or an amplifier. So if you’re buying anything other than a just-refurbished-by-an-expert model, there will be issues. Among other things, a 40+ year-old tape machine will invariably require new rubber belts, cork brake pads, pinch rollers, and recalibration. Capacitors will also need to be replaced to bring the deck back to factory specifications. Among the more expensive parts to replace are the tape heads so it’s important to know if they’re worn before purchasing any machine.
Basically, unless you’re an expert, it’s strongly advisable before you reach for your wallet to have a qualified technician inspect your chosen deck and give you a repair and/or restoration estimate (whether back to basic working order or to as-new factory specifications). If that’s not possible, ask a technician to give you a list of questions to put to the seller, and preferably put them in writing in an email. Chances are, unless you’re buying from a qualified technician, many of the answers will be ‘not known’. If you still decide to go ahead with the purchase, at least factor that into price negotiations.
It’s also worth asking about previous owners and how and where the machine has been used. A lot of second-hand professional machines from studio or broadcast environments will have had a hard working life and will no doubt be showing the wear and tear.
If you’re looking for a qualified tape technician check out R2R engineers for a list of those we’ve either had good experiences of, or heard good things about.