the open reel story

 

Akai 4000DSSound recording was tricky before tape. You only have to look at Thomas Edison’s cylinder phonograph recorder from 1877 to see how crude it was. Ten years later, Emile Berliner’s direct-to-disc recording system appeared, but was also far from ideal. Grooves were direct-cut acoustically onto 78 RPM discs by huge horn ‘microphones’, with no electronics involved. Poulsen’s magnetic wire recorder followed in 1898, the first recognisable ancestor of the modern tape recorder, but a fossil by comparison. Then variations like the Marconi-Stille system appeared using 1/2 inch steel tape, which when it broke had to be welded back!

After the first commercial electrical recording in 1925, the whole equation changed and by the early thirties discs were routinely cut electrically with valve amplifiers powering the cutters. Then in 1934, Telefunken and EMT developed a new system using paper tape coated with magnetic oxide running past a pick-up head. Despite its tendency to snap, things at last looked promising. Finally modern tape using magnetic oxide coated to a plastic base arrived. More durable than paper and less dangerous than wire or steel, it established a sound recording medium that took over fifty years to replace.

In 1947 EMI recording studios abandoned direct-to-disc, and suddenly the likes of Bing Crosby were recording onto ‘high fidelity’ magnetic tape. Like every new technology, it met with resistance. Recording engineers didn’t like it because they couldn’t read recording levels from the disc’s groove patterns, while musicologists bemoaned the end of ‘live’ performance – artists no longer had to perform perfectly first time as mistakes could be edited out later.

By the late fifties, tape technology had come on in leaps and bounds. Superior coatings meant studios no longer needed to spin the tape past at 30ips, and 15ips became standard. Better heads and electronics began to offer real hi-fi quality, and recording techniques improved noticeably. Costs came down and soon open reel tape made the transition from a professional to a domestic format; ‘tape recorders’ became the latest consumer durable, and countless designs appeared either ready made or in kit form. British companies like Collaro, Garrard, Windsor, Pye and Vortexion began marketing units built into a case, complete with amplifier and speaker. EMI offered a range of  ‘Stereosonics’ pre-recorded tapes, and the golden age of open reel was on in earnest. Although popular machines like Grundig’s TK85L cost upwards of £70 – a lot of money in those days – home recording took off, the novelty of buyers recording themselves and their favourite bands proving hard to resist.

Another reason for tape’s explosion in popularity was, ironically, records. First seen in 1948, long playing 33 1/3 RPM microgroove records offered greatly superior sound and long playing times. Like Compact Disc three decades later, they provoked plenty of interest in home music reproduction, fuelling a mini audio boom in the process. LP’s main drawback however, was the ease with which it could be scratched, or damaged by the primitive pick-up cartridges of the day. Recording your expensive new LP on reliable, durable open reel tape was the answer, and machine sales soared.

By the mid sixties, tape decks were getting cheaper still, and £60 would buy you a solid multi-speed recorder with valve amplifier, ‘full-range’ speaker and glowing ‘magic eye’ level meter. Although the first Japanese decks were appearing, they were tinny by comparison to British machines from Ferrograph, Cosser, Pye and Murphy, and garnered little respect in the trade. Meanwhile, the popularity of the new stereo LPs, first introduced here by Pye in the early sixties, further fuelled the market. A number of exotic stereo machines followed, probably the most famous of which was the Swiss Revox G36. Its superb build and serviceability made it a sensation with both recording studios and well-to-do enthusiasts, and it later went on to become a cult machine.

By the early seventies, a stereo tape deck was the mark of any decent hi-fi system. New decks from Japan like Akai’s 4000D [pictured] and Sony’s TC366 brought new levels of quality to the bottom end of the market. At the high end, Revox’s A77 and B77 cleaned up against the competition, forcing European rivals from Tandberg to Philips to develop ever more sophisticated machines. Auto-reverse appeared, making open reels at least slightly more convenient, and enabled double length recording times. Duly, multi-head, multi-capstan machines appeared and everything got bigger, better and more complex!

Open reel seemed unassailable. Budget decks were worthy of real hi-fi status, while high end models vastly outperformed all other formats including LP. But then something strange happened – ‘hi-fi’ cassette decks appeared. At first they were considered a joke. After all, Compact Cassette was the preserve of cheap mono portables barely up to recording speech. Owners of big open reels sneered derisively – how could a tape format that ran at 1 7/8 inches per second on tape half the width of domestic open reel possibly be taken seriously? It was hissy, unstable and had a dreadfully limited bandwidth.

But two things happened to change the odds. First, Dolby Laboratories, purveyors of noise reduction systems to professional studios, licensed ‘Dolby B’ noise reduction for use on cassette machines, significantly lowering cassette’s hiss levels. Second, a small Japanese company called Nakamichi started producing cassette decks like no one before them. They caused a storm in professional circles, and stories spread about top Nakamichi cassette decks actually outperforming the then king of domestic reel-to-reels, the Revox A77! Open reel had been dealt a body blow from which it would never recover.

Soon, Japanese manufacturers were making affordable three head, dual capstan Dolby decks. As prices plummeted, new chrome tape formulations from BASF and Philips and Ferrichrome from Sony boosted cassette’s performance still further. Purists once committed to open reel went soft and swapped to high end cassette decks. Reel-to-reel sales plummeted and by the late seventies the writing was on the wall. Ironically though, in open reel’s dying days some of the very best decks were made – Japanese giants like Technics, Teac, Akai, Pioneer and Sony all offered super-sophisticated, mega bucks machines with stunning sound quality. It was too little too late though, because demand was drying up.

Even in open reel’s natural habitat of the recording studio it was under siege, as digital PCM recording using Sony U-matic video machines took over. As digital recording eliminated all of open reel’s faults at a stroke, recording engineers took the new system’s superiority as read. After all, with no tape hiss, wow and flutter or crosstalk, digital was perfect, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, enlightened studio engineers didn’t discover digital’s failings until analogue tape recording had all but disappeared from the world’s top studios. A great shame, but given that it was one of audio’s most basic technologies, it’s remarkable that it lasted as long as it did.

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