reel to reel tape

Reel-to-reel audio tape recording

Reel-to-reel, open reel tape recording is the form of magnetic tape audio recording in which the recording medium is held on a reel, rather than being securely contained within a cassette.

In use, the supply reel or feed reel containing the tape is mounted on a spindle; the end of the tape is manually pulled out of the reel, threaded through mechanical guides and a tape head assembly, and attached by friction to the hub of a second, initially empty takeup reel. The arrangement is similar to that used for motion picture film.


The reel-to-reel format was used in the very earliest tape recorders, including the pioneering German Magnetophons of the 1930s. Originally, this format had no name, since all forms of magnetic tape recorders used it. The name arose only with the need to distinguish it from the several kinds of tape cartridges or cassettes which were introduced in the early 1960s. Thus, the term "reel-to-reel" is an example of a retronym.

Reel-to-reel tape was also used in early tape drives for data storage on mainframe computers, video tape machines, and later for high quality analog and digital audio recorders in the 1980s and 1990s, before hard disk recording effectively eliminated the need for reel-to-reel technology.

Stellavox, Nagra, Denon and Otari are currently making analog reel to reel recorders.

The format was commercially developed in the late 1940s by American audio engineer Jack Mullin with assistance from Bing Crosby. Mullin had been a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. His unit was assigned to investigate German radio and electronics activities and in the course of his duties he acquired two Magnetophon recorders and fifty reels of I.G. Farben recording tape from a German radio station at Bad Nauheim, near Frankfurt. He had these shipped home and over the next two years he worked to develop the machines for commercial use, hoping to interest the Hollywood film studios in using magnetic tape for movie soundtrack recording.

Mullin gave a demonstration of his recorders at MGM Studios in Hollywood in 1947, which led to a meeting with Bing Crosby. Crosby immediately saw the potential of Mullin's recorders to pre-record his radio shows; he invested $50,000 in a local electronics company, Ampex, to enable Mullin to develop a commercial production model of the tape recorder. Using Mullin's tape recorders and with Mullin as his chief engineer, Crosby became the first American performer to master commercial recordings on tape and the first to regularly pre-record his radio programs on tape. Ampex and Mullin subsequently developed commercial stereo and multitrack audio recorders, based on the system invented by musician Les Paul, who had been given one of the first Ampex Model 200 tape decks by Crosby in 1948. Ampex went on to develop the first practical videotape recorders in the early 1950s to pre-record Crosby's TV shows.

Inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders were widely used for voice recording in the home and in schools before the Philips "compact cassette", introduced in 1963, took over. Cassettes quickly displaced reel-to-reel recorders for consumer use. However, the narrow tracks and slow recording speeds used in cassettes compromised fidelity.

Following the example set by Bing Crosby, high-speed reel-to-reel tape recorders rapidly became the main recording format used by audiophiles and professional recording studios until the late 1980s when digital audio recording techniques began to allow the use of other types of media (such as DAT cassettes and hard disks).

Even today, many artists of all genres prefer analog tape's "musical", "natural" and especially "warm" sound. Due to harmonic distortion, bass can thicken up, creating the illusion of a fuller-sounding mix. In addition, high end can be slightly compressed, which is more natural to the human ear. It is common for artists to record to digital and re-record the tracks to analog reels for this effect of "natural" sound. In addition to all of these attributes of tape, tape saturation is a unique form of distortion that many rock and blues artists find very pleasing.

Euphonic distortion and noise levels aside, high-quality analog tape currently outstrips the transparency of all but the best digital recording/playback systems: digital systems can suffer from (among other problems) clock jitter, inferior analog circuitry, inferior digital filter design, improper wordlength conversion, and/or lack of correct dithering. Dramatic improvements in the average quality of digital hardware design are narrowing the gap, though, and might soon eliminate the quality distinction altogether.


The earliest reel-to-reel systems used metal wire as a medium (see wire recording), which is robust, but suffers from a number of problems – fidelity is poor, it requires a strong current to imprint the signal onto the wire, it is inconvenient to physically cut and splice to effect an edit, and the wire can kink or even tangle. The invention of cellulose acetate plastic tape coated with iron oxide solved these problems, opening up the use of tape recorders in studios. Wire was also used as a recording medium in black box voice recorders for aviation in the 1950s.

The great advantage of tape for studios was twofold – it allowed a performance to be recorded without the 30 minute time limitation of a phonograph disc, and it permitted a recorded performance to be edited. For the first time, audio could be manipulated as a physical entity. Tape editing is performed simply by cutting the tape at the required point, and rejoining it to another section of tape using adhesive tape, or sometimes glue. This is called a splice. The splicing tape has to be very thin to avoid impeding the tape's motion, and the adhesive is carefully formulated to avoid leaving a sticky residue on the tape or deck. Usually, the cut is made at an angle across the tape so that any "click" or other noise introduced by the cut is spread across a few milliseconds of the recording. The use of reels to supply and collect the tape also made it very easy for editors to manually move the tape back and forth across the heads to find the exact point they wished to edit. Tape to be spliced was clamped in a special splicing block attached to the deck near the heads to hold the tape accurately while the edit was made. A skilled editor could make these edits very rapidly and accurately. A side effect of cutting the tape at an angle is that on stereo tapes the edit occurs on one channel a split-second before the other.

The performance of tape recording is greatly affected by the width of the tracks used to record a signal, and the speed of the tape. The wider and faster the better, but of course this uses more tape. These factors lead directly to improved frequency response, signal-to-noise ratio, and high-frequency distortion figures. Tape can accommodate multiple parallel tracks, allowing not just stereo recordings, but multi-track recordings too. This gives the producer of the final edit much greater flexibility, allowing a performance to be remixed long after the performance was originally recorded. This innovation was a great driving force behind the explosion of popular music in the late 1950s and 1960s. The first multi-tracking recorders had four tracks, then eight, then sixteen, twenty-four, and so on. It was also discovered that new effects were possible using multi-tracking recorders, such as phasing and flanging, delays and echo, so these innovations appeared on pop recordings shortly after multi-tracking recorders were introduced.

For home use, simpler reel-to-reel recorders were available, and a number of track formats and tape speeds were standardised to permit interoperability and prerecorded music. [The first prerecorded Reel To Reel Tapes were introduced by RCA Victor Record Co. in 1954.] Reel to reel was still popular through to the end of the 1970s, despite the ubiquitous cassette, mostly because of the superior quality of open reel recordings. Audiophiles are willing to accept the relative fiddliness of open reel tape to gain better quality reproduction. Reel-to-reel tape editing also gained cult-status when many used this technique on hit-singles in the 1980s.

When Ampex broke apart in the 1990s, Quantegy Inc. was formed, later becoming Quantegy Recording Solutions in 2004. Quantegy (and formerly Ampex) led the field in reel-to-reel technology, and Quantegy was the only company left making reel-to-reel tape in the world for a period of two years. In 2006 Recorded Media Group International RMGI in the Netherlands, began manufacturing EMTEC specification tape in Oosterhout and is now the largest open reel tape manufacturer in the world.

ATR Magnetics of York, PA, longtime service and modification shop for multitrack and master recorders, began manufacturing analog multitrack tape, and in November 2006 began beta testing a new formula.

Tape speeds

In general, the faster the speed the better the sound quality. Slower speeds conserve tape and are useful in applications where sound quality is not critical.

  • 15/16 inch per second (in/s) or 2.38 cm/s — used for very long-duration recordings (e.g. recording a radio station's entire output in case of complaints aka "logging")
  • 1⅞ in/s or 4.76 cm/s — usually the slowest domestic speed, best for long duration speech recordings
  • 3¾ in/s or 9.52 cm/s — common domestic speed, used on most single-speed domestic machines, reasonable quality for speech and off-air radio recordings
  • 7½ in/s or 19.05 cm/s — highest domestic speed, also slowest professional; used by most radio stations for "dubs", copies of commercial announcements; Through the early-mid 90's many stations could not handle 15 IPS.
  • 15 in/s or 38.1 cm/s — professional music recording and radio programming
  • 30 in/s or 76.2 cm/s — used where the best possible treble response is demanded, e.g., many classical music recordings

Quality aspects

Tape speeds are similar to today's MP3, where the sampling rate may be 44.1, but the bit rate is 32, 64, 128, etc. Even though a recording on tape may have been made with studio quality, tape speed was the limiting factor, much like bit rate is today. A recording on magnetic audio tape is linear; unlike today's digital audio, jumping from spot to spot to edit was not only time consuming, it was destructive -- unless the recording was duplicated before edit, normally taking the same amount of time to copy, in order to preserve 75-90 percent of the quality of the original.

As a musical instrument

Early reel-to-reel users realized that segments of tape could be spliced together and otherwise manipulated by adjusting playback speed or direction of a given recording. In the same way as modern keyboards allow sampling and playback at different speeds, a reel-to-reel could accomplish similar feats in the hands of a talented user. Consider:

  • Delia Derbyshire, who performed the original Doctor Who theme by recording various sounds including oscillators and then manually cutting together each individual note on a group of reel-to-reels.
  • Revolution 9 by The Beatles, where many effects were produced using a reel-to-reel and tape editing techniques.
  • Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix, where much of the drum track was recorded, then played backwards on a reel-to-reel.
  • Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For the Money, both of which featured edits too numerous to mention, in addition to multiple instances of speed alteration and intricately layered samples upon samples.
  • Musique concrète in general.
  • Pink Floyd's cash register intro to their track "Money" was made using a loop of "splices" which was continually run through the reel to reel mechanism.
  • Mission of Burma, whose fourth member Martin Swope "played" a reel-to-reel tape recorder live, either playing previously recorded samples at certain times or recording part of the band's performance and playing it back either in reverse or at different speeds. When the band re-formed in 2002, audio engineer Bob Weston took over Swope's role at the tape deck.
  • Manic Street Preachers song You Stole The Sun From My Heart main rhythmic beat is played by a reel-to-reel tape player
  • Aaron Dilloway, founding member of Wolf Eyes, often utilizes a reel to reel tape machine in his solo performances.
  • Yamantaka Eye of the band Boredoms uses a reel-to-reel tape as an instrument in live performances and in post-production (a good example would be in the track 'Super You' from the album Super æ).

Reel-to-reel recorder brands

See also

External links

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