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Classic Reel to Reel Tape Recorders Are Impressive Machines!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

While I came of age during the digital age, I did grow up in the analog world of VCRs, bulky video cameras, mechanical typewriters and Kodak camera films! I'm a bit of a geek who likes to indulge in all things retro and find gratifying going to outdoor sales in search for old bits of clever technology that doesn't use computer controlled systems.

One of the first times I remember seeing a reel to reel machine was, funny enough, in a Knight Rider episode back in the 1990's...I just remember that hypnotic sound was so full and vibrant! I believe the reel to reel featuring on that episode was a Pioneer RT-909 so ever since I've been wanting to get my hands on one of them!

Unfortunately, I haven't been lucky to find that model but was lucky to find a classic Akai 1730d SS 4-track reel to reel tape recorder (with GX-heads), which can be used for playback or record as a "regular" 4-track 2-channel stereo mostly with combination for pre-recorded tapes.With the Akai 1730d SS model, I actually have the option to record only on one channel or on all channels at the same time, which is great!
What I find fascinating about reel to reel tape deck recorders is how the very first ones didn't actually use tape but wire. Another interesting fact is why tape is brown in color, and that's because the tape film is sealed in with magnetized iron oxide dust particles. So, as tape passes through the recording head, it gets magnetized according to the signal coming through the microphone (which acts as the transducer) converting that sound into an electric audio signal that is then amplified (via a pre-amp) and then printed to tape. That's basically how a classic reel to reel tape recorder works.

How to Thread A Reel To Reel Tape Deck
The reel to reel tape recorder has typically three heads: recording head, playback head and an erase head (to erase the tape). The tape always runs from left to right so it comes off the supply reel through the first head (the erase head), then the recording head and lastly the playback head. Sometimes the recording head and playback head double up as one. The Akai 1730d SS model has actually 2 erase heads.


To thread a classic reel to reel tape recorder you simply thread the tape from the supply reel under the head cover, out between the capstan and the pinch roller, then over the guide roller switch (which engages the mechanism) and then wind the end of it on the take-up reel. The reel to reel tape deck can use different size reels such as metal NAB hubs (10.5 inches), 7-inch plastic reels and even smaller reels. The Akai 1730s SS model actually only takes 5 or 7-inch reels.

Standard Features Of A Vintage Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorder
Classic reel to reel tape recorders vary slightly in designs but the main features are as follows:
  • Reel-size button (to change from small to larger reels)
  • Speed Tape (to adjust the speed of the tape). It's typically between 15 IPS and 7.5 IPS. Bear in mind though that a cassette deck tape moves at a speed  1.875 IPS (inches per second)!
  • Capstan (controls the speed the tape goes through), 
  • Pinch roller (engages with the capstan pinching the tape), 
  • Guide roller (some reel to reel tape recorders such as the TEAC 3340S have two of these guide rollers)
  • Supply reel and Take-up reel
  • Index counter (to give you an idea where a track starts or ends)
  • Rec, Stop and Pause buttons 
  • Rewind, fast forward and play buttons
  • Output level dials and input dials (for the mic and line level adjustment)
  • RCA line inputs and outputs for connecting to a mixing console 
  • Record mode switches (to switch recording between channels)
  • Channel plugs for the mic level inputs (to plug in a standard SM59 mic you will need a XLR to quarter-inch adapter)
The beauty of a classic reel to reel tape recorder is its ability to record, playback, re-record and delete different tracks at the same time without affecting the other tracks. If you are familiar with how tedious the process of recording music was in the 1920's, you can imagine what a world of difference the invention of the multi-track recorder made for artists when the multi-track recorder came into being in the mid 1950's. This meant artists could record a sound on one track and record themselves singing along on the other track. Reel to reel tape recorders typically had two to four channels for multi-tracking.

I've always wanted to go back to a retro setup and own a reel to reel tape deck to experience true vintage audio, the old-fashioned way and now I can! Oh by the way, that Knight Rider episode I was telling you about that was featuring the reel to reel machine, it's called "soul survivor". Here it is below:

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