When we say ‘tape’, we’re not talking about cassette tape, right?
Right. Cassette tape will always have a place in the hearts of those who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s taping the chart show from the radio and making mixtapes, but that’s not the subject at hand here. Nor are we discussing those 8-track bricks that came before that.
The topic at hand is open-reel, or reel-to-reel, tape, which was the primary medium for all musical recording from around the 1940s and ‘50s to the mid ‘80s, at which point digital media began to take over for recording as well as playback.
So what exactly is R2R tape?
Open-reel or reel-to-reel tape (same thing) is the format of magnetic audio tape in which the tape is held on a reel or spindle rather than being enclosed in a cartridge or cassette. Two reels are needed to record or play the format: the feed reel and the take-up reel. The feed or supply contains the tape, the end of which is manually pulled out of the reel, fed into the tape head assembly and attached by friction to the hub of the take-up reel. As the tape records or plays, the feed reel empties and the take-up reel fills. The tape machine (player and/or recorder) uses motors to wind the tape from one reel to another, passing it over tape heads to read, write or erase the tape’s information as it moves.
Magnetic tape basically comprises a thin, magnetizable coating on a long, narrow strip of plastic film. The coating on the magnetic side is a metallic compound capable of storing a specific pattern of magnetization – typically iron oxide, though chromium dioxide is sometimes used. An adhesive binder fixes the compound to the tape. Most modern tapes are also back-coated, giving the other side of the tape a slightly matt, rough-feeling surface (rather than a shiny, slippery one) which gives a number of benefits. The tape is thicker, hence is less likely to stretch or break. It grips the pinch roller better, giving better ‘drive’ across the tape heads. And the improved friction between multiple layers of tape helps with smooth winding.
But what’s all the fuss? What makes R2R so desirable?
Get a group of audiophiles together and it won’t be long before the conversation lurches towards everyone’s favourite debate: analogue versus digital. Chances are things will escalate into an argument. Sweeping statements will be made, opinions passed off as facts and insults traded, then everyone will go home having had a jolly good time and still in proud possession of the same sentiments they came with.
So let’s proceed in that spirit (albeit with tongues firmly in cheeks). But seriously folks, while this isn’t the place to thrash out the whole debate, as a die-hard analogue fan the rambler has to admit that his position is this: with open reel tape, we’re talking about the absolute pinnacle of analogue audio fidelity, period. It is my considered view that despite all of the advantages and advances in digital audio tech in recent years, master tape quality open reel tape still offers the highest, richest, most authentic quality of recorded music that money can buy. In short, it’s as good as it gets.
Now, obviously we’re not suggesting that every single tape on the market is better than every single alternative. As with any medium there’s a raft of variants at play in terms of people, performances, production, hardware, etc. What we are saying is that tape has the potential to give you the recorded music experience of your life and that there’s no shortage of excellent examples out there to substantiate that claim. The examples in question are of the master tape copy variety, typically two-track tapes at 15 ips or above (if that’s all Greek to you, check out tape formats).
Of course at the end of the day it’s a journey of personal exploration, discovery and enjoyment. For what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts on why a large chunk of our money’s on tape. But not instead of or as opposed to anything else, rather as a very welcome complement. Let’s face it, why settle for ‘either/or’ when you can have ‘and/also’.
Analogue as in ‘analogous’
It’s common knowledge that digital music uses a sampling process which distinguishes it from analogue methods of recording and playback. The term ‘analogue’ comes of course from ‘analogous’ meaning like, equivalent or comparable. When recording with magnetic tape, the magnetisation of the iron oxide or chromium dioxide granules forms a pattern or magnetic image. This magnetic image is an analogous representation of the ‘sound image’ of the music recorded. In other words, it represents the original sound waveform, having recorded the air pressure variations of the original sound.
An oft-heard argument in the analogue versus digital debate is that of analogue ‘warmth’. While it can be a tricky phenomenon to pin down, it’s one that just won’t go away. The discussion around it is a long and complex one, much of which seems to dance around the issue of technical potential versus human reality.
The thing is, the human ear and brain are analogue. Technical advances have given us a broader raft of possibilities, but the results depend on how we hear and feel sound. We’re not machines. It’s one of life’s great ironies: for decades, analogue engineers tirelessly struggled to knock out the sonic imperfections of their technology. Decades later, digital engineers tirelessly struggle to simulate some of those same imperfections back in!
Personally, the rambler’s not crazy about the term analogue ‘warmth’ (which is possibly why we keep sticking those annoying inverted commas around it). I (Dave/the rambler) feel that analogue simply sounds much more natural. More real, colourful, alive, full-blooded.
Think of it like food (another of the rambler’s favourite obsessions). The more processed something is, the less natural, real, multi-faceted the smells, flavours and textures. The added salt/sugar/chemicals might make it seem tasty enough and the convenience is undeniable, but a supermarket lasagne is never going to hold a candle to your Italian grandmother’s home-made labour of love.
Good analogue, to me, is that unbeatable lasagne.
But can’t I get ‘lasagne’ on vinyl?
To a point, yes. Certainly I’m as big a vinyl fan as the next man (just ask the removal guys after that last time I moved house). But then listen to a good tape of the same recording and try not to break something as your jaw drops to the floor. What you’re now hearing will be more natural, more dimensional, deeper and far more realistic, with a palpable sense of space and air and an absolutely unmatched level of detail. The dynamic range will leap out at you with extraordinary verve at the extremes of both treble and bass.
To appreciate why there’s such a difference we need to consider the amount of signal processing that each medium requires, since signal processing is the enemy of hi-fidelity. It goes like this… vinyl: a lot, tape: very little. And the less studio voodoo the master tape is subjected to, the better.
Think about how vinyl and tape albums are manufactured. To make a vinyl record, the master tape output has to be compressed to match the dynamic limits of vinyl. Some of the bass is slashed in the bargain (otherwise each time you a played a record the stylus would literally be thrown from the groove). Add to that a selection of other audio tricks needed to shoehorn the music into those tiny grooves and you begin to see why the signal is starting to feel distinctly smaller. Dubbing to ¼-inch tapes, on the other hand, is a far simpler task. There’s no need to squeeze or tweak the original signal so it can be transferred from the master tape relatively unscathed. So even mass-produced open reel tapes often still sounded better than vinyl records.
Of course not all tapes are equal, so you might want to check out tape formats for a brief guide to the various tape widths, reel sizes, equalization formats, tape speeds, etc.