One of the many reasons that digital media became so popular so quickly was its near-indestructability. Open reel tape, on the other hand, needs a bit of tender loving care. Think of your tapes like vintage photographs, first edition books or original artworks.
Here are a few basic essentials for keeping them in tip-top nick.
Keep ’em clean
Store and use magnetic tape in a clean, smoke-free, food-free environment. Avoid contamination with dirt, dust, fingerprints and airborne pollutants.
Cleanliness is important because minute debris can reduce the quality of replay by interfering with the intimate contact necessary between the tape’s surface and the playing head (and if you’re recording, the same principle applies).
Run a clean machine
As well as keeping your tapes free of contamination it’s vital to keep your deck debris-free. A regular cleaning routine is essential to keep the tape path spotless, not only to ensure tip-top sound quality but also to prevent potential damage to both machine and tapes. During use, tapes will shed tiny particles of oxide leading to a build-up of deposits. Oxide build-up on tape guides and heads can do more than just muddy the sound, it can play havoc with your deck’s tension sensors etc, and ultimately lead to a machine malfunction. Old tapes in particular can shed at a higher rate. So the heads and guides must be kept scrupulously clean otherwise these deposits will find their way around the deck and your tape collection.
Fortunately you don’t need a raft of specialist tools or materials. A pack of lint-free cotton buds will do the job, which you’ll dip in some isopropyl alcohol. Since you’re going to be getting into some small areas and tight corners, a good light source and a small portable mirror can come in handy too. Unwaxed dental floss can also be useful for getting into the edges of the tape guides. Needless to say you need to take care. If you’re new to the job, the first step is to familarise yourself with your machine’s tape path. You’ll need to identify every part of the machine that comes into contact with the tape as it plays, since each of these will need to be cleaned. If in doubt, check with a qualified tape engineer and/or (if possible) consult the service manual for your particular machine.
How often should this cleaning be done? Some sources suggest daily! The rambler does it at the beginning of every review-oriented tape listening session and otherwise at least every two to three times I turn on the tape deck. Usually, I just use one cotton bud to give everything a wipe and it comes up almost clean. But if I leave it for too long, or if I’ve played a shedding tape, it can take many cotton buds’ worth before they come up clean i.e. the cotton bud, after wiping everywhere, is clean and hence there are no more deposits present. This is what you’re aiming for – don’t just clean until the used cotton bud is ‘less dirty’, keep going until it is completely clean.
To avoid stray magnetism, keep tapes away from magnetic fields. Never store them (or even place them) on top of electronic equipment or near to televisions, machinery, etc.
If you’re travelling with tapes, watch out for luggage screening detectors since some of them use powerful magnetic fields. Walk-through metal detectors, on the other hand, tend to use smaller fields and so should be fine. We’ve rarely had problems with tapes shipped internationally, but as a precaution a good recommended level of protection for shipping is 50mm / 2 inches of nonmagnetic material all around. It may not be strictly necessary, but better to be safe than sorry.
It’s also a good idea to demagnetise the tape heads and guides from time to time (also known as ‘degaussing’). If they become too magnetised this can show up sonically as a dulling of the sound and a loss of detail. Worse still, it can partially erase your precious tape, so the ‘loss of detail’ becomes permanent! A hand-held demagnetiser won’t set you back a great deal but should be used with care, since it’s possible to end up magnetising your machine by mistake instead, which could damage your tapes. Again, if in doubt, have a qualified tape engineer show you the ropes first time around. Professional studios would probably do this daily (or at least weekly). The rambler does it before using a calibration tape or calibrating for recording, and otherwise perhaps every two to four weeks. Some people say every six months is sufficient and I’m not one to argue, but ‘better safe than sorry’ seems like a good policy to follow.
Take care not to drop tapes or subject them to any other similar shock.
Cool & dry
Tapes don’t like too much heat or moisture and are best not subjected to rapid temperature changes. Store them in a cool, dry area. Avoid direct sunlight, radiators and other heat sources. Avoid damp or humid conditions.
Avoid contact with water.
Minimise handling of the tape itself. Avoid touching the surface of the tape or the edges of the tape pack unless absolutely necessary. If you do need to touch the tape, wear lint-free gloves.
Use good quality reels, boxes and accessories and always return tapes to their containers when not in use.
Store tape reels on end, in a vertical position, not lying flat.
Don’t get wound up
Take care when winding and rewinding tapes. Tapes perform best and are least vulnerable to damage when they’re smoothly and evenly wound. Both excessive and insufficient tension are to be avoided.
Master tapes are best stored in a ‘tails out’ position. Remember that we’re talking about two-track/half-track tapes that have just one side; ‘tails out’ is the ‘played’ position. This helps to keep the tape pack smooth and evenly wound – more so than if it’s just been rewound or fast-forwarded. So when you come to play the tape you’ll need to start by rewinding it, and when you’ve finished playing, don’t rewind before putting it away.
If tapes are to be unused for a long period it’s advisable to rewind them periodically (at least once every three years is recommended, depending on tape and storage conditions).
Ditch the glitch
Don’t use tapes with any wrinkling or surface scratches, or with nicked or dented edges or other impairments, as they will leave behind debris that risks damaging both your tape deck and other tapes.
Cut off any damaged leader/trailer ends.
A word on the dreaded ‘sticky shed syndrome’
Over the years magnetic tape can suffer a type of deterioration known as ‘sticky shed syndrome’ which is a serious problem as it renders the tape unusable. It’s caused by the absorption of moisture by the tape’s binders (the compounds that bind the magnetizable coating to the physical tape and/or the back-coating on the outside of the tape). Sticky shed syndrome became a major problem for the recording industry in the 1980s and 90s due to the binders used in many master tapes. Fortunately it was discovered that careful ‘baking’ of the tapes could drive out the moisture and render the tape playable, at least temporarily, which allowed a new copy to be made. Which was lucky, otherwise who knows how many masters may have been lost forever!
By the early 90s, tape manufacturers and recording studios had learnt their lesson and binder formulations were changed, so all of the master tape copies being made now are made onto new tape stock which doesn’t suffer from the dreaded syndrome.
But buyer beware: if you discover a collection of old master tapes for sale at a great price, think on. They may well be genuine masters but they may also be unplayable. And don’t imagine that you can just shove them in the oven and all will be well. ‘Baking’ is a high-precision business using laboratory quality equipment for exact temperature control and timing. Not one to try at home!