Tape machine

Tape recorder

This article deals mainly with analog tape recorders for audio applications; information on digital recording, recording of video signals, and recording of data can be found in other articles.

A tape recorder, tape deck, reel-to-reel tape deck, cassette deck or tape machine is an audio storage device that records and plays back sound using magnetic tape, either wound on a reel or in a cassette, for storage. It records a fluctuating signal by moving the tape across a tape head that polarizes the magnetic domains in the tape in proportion to the audio signal.


Early tape recorders were created by replacing the steel wire of a wire recorder with a thin steel tape. The first of these modified wire recorders was the Blattnerphone, created in 1929 or 1930 by the Ludwig Blattner Picture Corporation. The first practical tape recorder was called K1 and demonstrated in Germany in 1935. Friedrich Matthias of IG Farben/BASF developed the recording tape, including the oxide, the binder, and the backing material. Development of magnetic tape recorders in the late 1940s and early 1950s is associated with the Brush Development Company and its licensee, Ampex; the equally important development of magnetic tape media itself was led by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (now known as 3M).

Description of operation


Electric current flowing in the coils of the tape head creates a fluctuating magnetic field. This causes the magnetic material on the tape, which is moving past and in contact with the head, to align in a manner proportional to the original signal. The signal can be reproduced by running the tape back across the tape head, where the reverse process occurs – the magnetic imprint on the tape induces a small current in the read head which approximates the original signal and is then amplified for playback. Many tape recorders are capable of recording and playing back at once by means of separate record and playback heads in line or combined in one unit.


Modern professional recorders usually use a three-motor scheme. One motor with a constant rotation speed provides traction for the capstan. This, usually combined with a rubber pinch roller, ensures that the tape speed does not fluctuate. Of the other two motors, one applies a very light torque to the supply reel, and the other a greater torque to the takeup reel, to maintain the tape's tension. During fast winding operation the pinch roller is disengaged and the reel motors provide the necessary power. The cheapest models use a single motor for all required functions, coupled to the capstan and reel spindles as needed with mechanical clutches and belts. There are also variants with two motors, in which one motor is used for rewinding only.

Later developments

Since their first introduction, analog tape recorders have experienced a long series of progressive developments resulting in increased sound quality, convenience, and versatility.

  • Two-track and, later, multi-track heads permitted discrete recording and playback of individual sound sources, such as two stereophonic channels, or different microphones during live recording. The more versatile machines could be switched to record on some tracks while playing back others, permitting additional tracks to be "laid down" to match previously recorded material such as a rhythm track.
  • Use of separate heads for recording vs. playback (three heads total, counting the erase head) enabled monitoring of the recorded signal a fraction of a second after recording. Mixing the playback signal back into the record input also created a primitive echo generator.
  • Dynamic range compression during recording and expansion during playback expanded the available dynamic range and improved the signal-to-noise ratio. dbx and Dolby Laboratories introduced add-on products in this area, originally for studio use, and later in versions for the consumer market. In particular, "Dolby B" noise reduction became very common in all but the least expensive cassette tape recorders.
  • Computer controlled analog tape recorders were introduced by Oscar Bonello in Argentina. The mechanical transport used three DC motors and introduced two new advances: automated microprocessor transport control and automatic adjustment of bias and frequency response. In 30 seconds the recorder adjusted its bias for minimum THD and best frequency response to match the brand and batch of magnetic tape used. The microprocessor control of transport allowed fast location of any point on the tape.


The storage of an analogue signal on tape works well, but is not perfect. In particular, the granular nature of the magnetic material adds noise to the signal, which is usually heard as tape hiss. Also, the magnetic characteristics of tape are not linear. They exhibit a characteristic hysteresis curve, which causes unwanted distortion of the signal. Some of this distortion is overcome by using an inaudible high-frequency AC bias signal when recording, though the amount of bias needs careful adjustment for best results. Different tape material requires differing amounts of bias, which is why most recorders have a switch to select this (or, in a cassette recorder, switch automatically based on cutouts in the cassette shell). Additionally, systems such as Dolby B, Dolby C and Dolby HX-Pro have been devised to ameliorate some of the noise and distortion problems. Variations in tape speed cause flutter, which can be reduced by using dual capstans. Higher speeds used in professional recorders are prone to cause "head bumps," which are fluctuations in low-frequency response.

Variety of tape recorders

There is a wide variety of tape recorders in existence, from small hand-held devices to large multitrack machines. A machine with built-in speakers and audio power amplification to drive them is usually called a "tape recorder" or – if it has no record functionality – a "tape player," while one that requires external amplification for playback is usually called a "tape deck" (regardless of whether it can record).

Multitrack technology enabled the development of modern art music and one such artist, Brian Eno, described the tape recorder as "an automatic musical collage device".

Use of tape recorders

An important use of tape recorders is the recording of video. Video cassette recorders differ substantially from audio recorders due to the use of a rotating magnetic head that uses a helical scan over the tape medium. Helical scans increase the relative speed of the tape surface over the head.

While they are primarily used for sound recording, tape machines were also important for data storage before the advent of floppy disks and CDs, and are still used today, although primarily to provide an offline backup to hard disk drives.

Tapedeck speeds

There are many different tape speeds which are in use in all sorts of tape recorders. Most often these speeds appear on tapedecks. But – while meaning the same speed – many tapedecks are either in centimeters per second (cm/s) or in inches per second (in/s).

To overcome this, here is an overview:

cm/s in/s
1.2 15/32
2.4 15/16
4.75 1 7/8
9.5 3 3/4
19 7 1/2
38 15
76 30


See also: tape formats

See also

External links

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