For years, reel to reel magnetic tape was the standard for audio recordings. Professional recording studios and serious audiophiles alike used it for all types of recording. Even though reel to reel recorders have been largely replaced by more modern methods of recording, such as CDs, there are still recording studios and audiophiles who like the old format.
Like any magnetic recording medium, reel to reel recorders store the full analogue wave by using a very small electromagnet the head to create a magnetic field, which magnetises the ferrous oxide rust on the tape. During playback, the magnetic data on the tape creates a magnetic field that the head converts back to electrical signals.
Reel to reel offers the advantage of being a quality analogue recording medium. While many rave about the clarity of digital recordings, audio signals are analogue, not digital. Any digital recording is a modification of the original sound wave that converts it to digital data. When it is time to convert the data back into analogue sound waves, the wave is reproduced from the digital data. While this produces a very clean sound wave, it is not exactly the same as the original. For this reason, many audio enthusiasts prefer the true sound of analogue recording methods, such as reel to reel.
Common Magnetic Recording Formats
While a reel to reel tape recorder is considered the best type of magnetic recording equipment on the market, it is not the only type of magnetic recorder available. A number of other formats have been and still are used. The earliest form of magnetic recording was the wire recorder, invented in 1900 by Valdemar Poulsen. The wire recorder used a wire instead of a magnetic tape. It was not until the 1930s that magnetic tape was invented and perfected.
The Compact Cassette, or cassette tape, is the most common form of magnetic recording. Invented in the 1960s as a recording system that was simpler to use than reel to reel, cassettes sacrifice recording quality for simplicity of operation. Nevertheless, the sound quality produced by cassettes is good enough that millions of prerecorded audio music cassettes were produced and sold from 1970 to 2000.
Although never as popular as the Compact Cassette, 8 track tapes had the advantage of providing continual music, without interruption or any action required on the part of the listener. These tapes are on a continuous loop; tape is pulled from the centre of the spool, played, and returned to the outside. A lubricant on the tape allows it to slip against itself, constantly tightening the spool.
Reel to Reel
Reel to reel provides the highest recording quality among the magnetic recording methods. However, it is the least convenient to use and is not portable. The higher quality comes from a combination of the tape speed and width. The higher the tape speed is, the lower the signal to noise ratio is. The wider the tape is, the better the frequency response is and the lower the distortion is.
Important Factors in Selecting a Reel to Reel Recorder
When selecting a reel to reel recorder, one must start by considering the intended use. Reel to reel recorders vary considerably in price, quality, features, and formats. The most important difference between one reel to reel recorder and another is recording quality. As each feature is discussed, the effect on recording quality is mentioned.
The most common width of reel to reel tape is 0.63 centimetres. This width allows four tracks, used for stereo recording in both directions. Standard reel diameter is 19.05 centimetres While there are both larger and smaller reels available, they are rare today. Studio reel to reel recorders can be larger, to include 1.27 cm, 2.54 cm, and 5.08 cm models. For these studio units, as many as eight tracks can be recorded on a tape for later editing down to stereo.
Tape width affects the frequency response of the recording. The wider the individual tracks on the tape are, the higher a frequency response the tape can provide. As a standard 0.63 cm tape has four tracks, it provides the same frequency response as a 1.27 cm eight track studio unit because the studio unit only records in one direction. By comparison, a 2.54 cm eight track tape can have each track be double the width of that on a standard 0.63 cm tape.
As frequency response increases, distortion decreases. Essentially, distortion is the recording medium's inability to properly record the full waveform.
Half Track or Quarter Track
The number of tracks on a tape is an important factor. A tape must be played on the same type of recorder that recorded it; otherwise, the recorder cannot "read" the tape. Most reel to reel recorders are quarter track, meaning that they have four tracks, including two in each direction, each of which uses about a quarter of the tape width a small space is left between tracks.
Professional 0.63 cm recorders used in recording studios may be half track, as opposed to quarter track. This means that each track is twice as wide, increasing the frequency response and reducing distortion. However, the tape can only be played in one direction. Tapes recorded on a half track recorder cannot be played on a quarter track recorder and vice versa.
Eight track recorders are actually "eighth track" recorders, although this term is not commonly used. Instead, they are referred to as "eight track, half inch" recorders not to be confused with 8 Track tape cartridges.
Many reel to reel recorders offer the user the option of selecting the tape speed that the recording and playback are performed at. The faster the tape speed is, the lower the signal to noise ratio is. This ratio is the amount of noise produced in the final wave, as compared to the amount of soundwave. The downside is that at higher tape speeds, a small amount of low frequency signal is lost. Tape speeds are stated in inches per second IPS or IP/S. The most common tape speeds and their usage are as follows:
Used only for very long recordings, such as logging a radio station's output or data recording for monitoring systems
1 7/8 IPS
Slowest consumer speed available, for long recording times. This is the speed that cassette tapes operate at
3 3/4 IPS
Most common consumer speed. If a reel to reel recorder does not have a speed selection, it operates at this speed
7 1/2 IPS
Highest consumer speed and slowest commercial speed. Provides higher quality recordings
Professional music recording and radio programming speed
Used when the best possible treble and lowest signal to noise are needed
A high quality consumer reel to reel recorder normally provides two to three speeds. The first two that are 3 3/4 IPS and 7 1/2 IPS. If an additional speed is provided, it is 1 7/8 IPS; however, serious audiophiles never use this slower speed.
Number of Tape Heads
Both cassette and reel to reel recorders have been manufactured in two head and three head versions. If a recorder is not stated as being three head, it is assumed to have only two heads. The difference is that in a two head machine, the same head is used for both recording and playback. In a three head recorder, there are separate record and playback heads. This allows the user to listen to the actual recording that is being made via headphones, rather than listen to the input to the recorder. In this way, the quality of the recording is checked as the recording is made, resulting in higher quality recordings.
Bias is a signal that is interjected into the audio signal during recording and then stripped away on playback. It forms the "base frequency" for the recording, with the purpose of reducing distortion in low frequency sounds. Normal bias is a 100 KHz kilohertz signal that is added to the audio wave. There is also a "high bias" available for use only with special recording tapes that are designed for high bias. These tapes have the legend "high bias" marked on the box. If a reel to reel is designed to accept these high bias tapes, it has a switch for selecting between normal and high bias levels. If no switch is present, then the recorder only uses normal bias.
There are three types of magnetic recording tape in use today. They are referred to as "Type 1", "Type 2", and "Type 4". The type refers to the magnetic material used on the tape for capturing the audio wave. There was also a "Type 0" at one time, which was the original ferric oxide tape. However, this type is no longer available. Generally speaking, the higher the type number is, the better quality the tape is considered to be.
Standard normal bias ferric oxide rust tape. Reduces noise and helps to increase the signal to noise ratios to help with the range of analog recordings.
Chromium dioxide tape, which is often identified by its chemical abbreviation of CRO2 or just "chrome". Chromium dioxide is mixed with the ferric oxide. Many say that this formulation increases wear on the heads, reducing their life.
"Metal" tape. Metallic particles rather than metal oxide particles are used in the tape.
Recorders that are designed to accept Type 2 and Type 4 tapes have switches allowing selection of both high bias and tape type. If a recorder does not have these settings, it can not work properly with these tapes.
Dolby Noise Reduction
Dolby noise reduction was invented by Dolby Labs to reduce the signal to noise ratio inherent in all magnetic tape recording. "Tape hiss" is a high frequency white noise that is present in all recordings performed on magnetic tape. Dolby's system functions by amplifying high frequency sounds during the recording process and then reducing them on playback. This keeps the high frequency sounds at the correct proportion to all other sound, while reducing the high frequency tape hiss.
Dolby Type B is the most common noise reduction system used for tape recording. A later version, "Type C", which provides an even further level of noise reduction, was also created. Some recorders provide the option of using either Type B or Type C. If a recorder does not offer this option, but only offers Dolby noise reduction, it is Type B.
VU meters volume units are a means of gauging the amount of sound volume that is being recorded. They provide a relative reading, measured in decibels. The sweep of the meter has an area to the right that is coloured red. The idea is to allow the meter's needle to sweep all the way to the edge of the red area at the highest volume levels, without entering it. Any time the needle enters into the red area, the signal can be "clipped", causing distortion.
VU meters are used in conjunction with internal volume controls for establishing an ideal recording level. Units that do not have VU meters have a built in "automatic level control" that sets the volume level. This is not as accurate as using a VU meter.
Selecting a Reel to Reel Recorder to Meet Your Needs
Although any reel to reel recorder may be used for any recording purpose, the needs of different individuals vary based on how they are planning to use their recorder.
Home Studio Recording
When using a reel to reel recorder for home studio recording, it is important to get the highest quality recording possible. This would mean buying a half track recorder or one of the larger tape formats, if they can be found. In addition, the fastest possible tape speed is needed to reduce the signal to noise ratio. Having Dolby noise reduction built into the recorder helps with this as well. Triple heads help ensure the recording quality, allowing the user to check the recording as it is being made. Finally, VU meters are essential to prevent overdriving the tape.
Like those who are using a reel to reel recorder for home studio recording, serious audiophiles also want the highest possible recording quality. While a large format or half track recorder may not be necessary, it is a good idea to look for a recorder that records at 7.5 IPS. Dolby noise reduction and the ability to use chrome or metal tape are useful as well.
For casual listening, the most important characteristic is a slow tape speed, such as 1 7/8 IPS. This allows for the longest tape play time without having to turn the tape over. At this tape speed, Dolby noise reduction is almost essential. However, other extra features are not going to be necessary.
Buying Reel to Reel Recorders on eBay
Although reel to reel recorders are not manufactured today, you can still find used units on eBay. A keyword search for "reel to reel recorders" from anywhere in eBay can find them, but it also finds anything else having to do with these recorders, including music. To find reel to reel tape recorders, and their accessories, on eBay is a very simple process. Simply open up the eBay homepage and enter "Reel to Reel Tape Recorder" into the search bar.
When buying a used recorder, there is always some risk involved. The three major problems found with used recorders are worn out belts, worn out capstan rollers, and worn out heads. All three of these components are replaceable. It is best if you can receive some sort of guarantee from the seller that the unit is fully functional upon arrival.
Reel to reel recorders provide the highest quality magnetic recording medium available. While many have switched over to digital recording, there are still many serious audiophiles who say that the recording quality of reel to reel is superior to that of digital. While digital has lower noise, it has to convert the analogue audio signal into a digital format. Those who favour recording on tape state that this adds distortion to the recording.
The major things to look for in a high quality reel to reel recorder are an adjustable tape speed, an adjustable bias, VU meters, and Dolby noise reduction. These features help ensure a high quality recording.
Tape formats wider than 0.63 cm are normally only used in recording studios. These recorders are not intended for use in day to day recording and playback, but rather only for recording raw audio sound to create a master. The increased cost and difficulty of procuring tapes for these units makes them impractical for common use.