Surreal reel-to-reel

November 24, 2006

I borrowed a reel-to-reel tape recorder from work to begin transferring performances I’ve had from tape to digital. As I reacquainted myself with this old technology, streams of old terminology thankfully came back into my memory: rock to stop, head out, tail out, 7 1/2 and 15 ips, big reels and small reels, DBX, and the whole family of Dolby noise reductions that came in and out of fashion.

Some of the transfers were fine. Some recordings had a loud and low room tone, something I now can clip out of the recording, and same with a recording that has an annoying 60 cycle hum. Now you just run a plugin and presto: gone!

One tape sounded particularly ‘under water.’ I thought to myself, hmm, maybe this has some noise reduction on it that is not indicated on the box. I looked at the tape recorder and to my horror saw thousands of little brown oxide fragments of tape, like mud snow all over the desk. I looked at the playback heads, and it was covered with icky goo. I looked at the rubber covered capstan and found the rubber to now have the consistency of wet licorice. I covered the rubber wheel with some white thin “white out” tape that seems to be doing the job. There are squeaks and noises that pop up from time to time, but it IS working. Sheesh. It will be good to say farewell to this technology.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brad Wood November 25, 2006 at 12:27 am

Doug Sax* points out that LP metal masters are the most impervious to decay. In principle, digital media, when backed up before the “Perfect Sound Forever” has lost enough information to be unrecoverable through error correction, should endure indefinitely. But who’s going to mind that store? We’ve all got better things to do. And when the big computer achieves consciousness it all get incinerated anyway…wait, no, that’s just a movie.

Sax also remarked that magnetic tape sounded terrific a few hours later, and by several days later was…ummm…not so great, compared to the recollection of the live mike feed. Some of the more modern formulations were especially subject to this. Meanwhile, fortunately, some older stuff (from the ancient RCA Red Seal era for example) although plagued with hiss from the inevitably noisy electronics of the time, nonetheless held up extraordinarily well with age, long enough to be remastered and dazzle with both the sonics and the spectacular performances. There’s a long list from those halcyon days, but one recording that I suspect Roger either knows or would enjoy is the Reiner/Chicago Song of the Nightingale/Lt. Kije pairing. Yum.

* Mastering engineer extraordinaire, famous for the Sheffield Direct-to-Disc LPs. Roger, do you remember when you were over at Devonshire and I put on the Sheffield Leinsdorf/LA Phil excerpts from the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet? You were pleased (I think it may have been after you voiced a gentle chide about how all I tended to put on was ~early music).

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