Adventures in audio tape

Yesterday Bloomberg ran what was essentially a PR piece for Ballfinger, a German maker of rarefied audio equipment, including reel-to-reel stereo tape decks that start at $11,000. The thesis: reel to reel is making a comeback.

This is of course a bullshit trend story. I am sure the people who buy $10,000 glass-platter turntables will give these a look, but there is no way that reel-to-reel tape is coming back in any meaningful way. I say this as a recent returnee to vinyl (at a somewhat lower price point), and as someone with a fair tolerance for fiddly audio-visual equipment. But these are beautiful decks, and they remind me of a long-dormant soft-spot in my heart for reel-to-reel.

I’ve always appreciated the inherently mechanical aspect to music, and therefore I have some affection for elaborately mechanical analog reproduction methods. One of my earliest musical memories is my great-uncle David playing “Abbey Road” on a reel-to-reel deck when I was ten or so, sitting on the carpet in front of the stereo. To this day the opening measures of “Come Together” call to mind dreamily turning tape reels.

Uncle David was a German Jewish immigrant, a Holocaust survivor by way of the East End of London who found his way to business success and, ultimately, Palo Alto. He and my great aunt Anne, who was English, traveled extensively and radiated sophisticated late-seventies cosmopolitanism in an era when my own family was scruffily academic. David had the first electronic calculator that I ever saw, a delightful piece of technological sorcery. I will forever associate visits to his house with Japanese prints and the aroma of ginger ale. In such a context, reel-to-reel was almost inevitable.

David also used that reel-to-reel deck to introduce me to “The Goon Show”, the legendary BBC radio comedy starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. He ran me a cassette copy of his reel of four episodes, and I listened to that cassette for twenty-five years until, when it was on the threshold of disintegration, I finally digitized it.

David’s was the only reel-to-reel deck I ever saw that was part of someone’s everyday stereo setup. However, after a long detour through the benighted era of cassette tape (Mix tapes! Dolby B noise reduction!), reel-to-reel came back into my life during grad school, in the early nineties, when I did college radio. Most of our audio production was done on quarter-inch reel, and I spent countless pre-digital hours slicing up Ampex 456 with razor blades, hanging the clips from wires, and splicing them back together with Scotch Tape. I even made some money on the side editing for Antenna Theater, an outfit from Marin that recorded books on tape using reel-to-reel.

In those days my friends and I also used reel-to-reel for music production. My buddy Gabe and I had been college bandmates in my undergraduate days. That was the era of four-track cassette recorders, the production media of choice for threadbare ‘80s garage bands everywhere. If nothing else, four-tracks enforced a certain ingenuity, as you figured out how many generations you could ping-pong tracks before the only thing you heard was tape noise. Fortunately, this was a skill I’d honed in junior high school, recording audio science fiction epics on dual cassette decks with my nerdy tween friends.

After college Gabe and I kept jamming, and there was a brief moment between the Tascam four-tracks and the rise of digital when he had an eight-track reel-to-reel in his bedroom. This was the coolest bit of band equipment that any of my friends had ever owned, and it expanded our production horizons dramatically. We mixed down to Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes, another short-lived tape format that inhabited the lacuna between the fall of analog and the rise of accessible digital audio workstations.

Gabe’s eight-track also taught us the eternal lesson that, no matter how many recording tracks you have, it’s always exactly one less than you need. This was especially true when you had to give a track up to SMPTE time code, which we used to synchronize the analog tape deck with a digital keyboard and drum machine. SMTPE time code sounds like something Jeff Goldblum would tell you portends an alien invasion, and it would inevitably bleed into the neighboring tracks because we couldn’t spare a guard track between the time code and the music. I can still hear it when I listen to those songs. Gabe would soon abandon the analog eight-track for an Alesis ADAT, a contemporary of DAT that used VHS tapes to record eight digital audio tracks. This worked every bit as well as you imagine a recording technology based on VHS media would, but it had a digital sync clock and didn’t need SMPTE, so there’s one more recording track for you if you can un-jam the machine.

In that era I also spent time in SF State’s recording studio, working with two-inch, 24-track tape on a giant, two-horsepower deck. It was a beast the size of a Viking stove — the reels alone weighed ten pounds when fully wound. All of us with long hair, men and women alike, were advised to keep our ponytails and dreads well away from the reels during transport if we wanted to go through life with scalps. It was huge fun. Finally, we had all the tracks! The instructor, John Barsotti, who’d been a professional engineer, had a first-generation copy of the Billie Jean master on a half-inch stereo reel at 30-inches-per-second, basically the maximum useful ratio of tape surface area to signal achievable. He played it for us in the control room over the big Tannoy monitors and it absolutely blew my mind. I’d heard the song dozens of times before then and been indifferent to it, but I’ve been a fan of Billie Jean ever since. Ah-HOOO!

But, as anyone who remembers “be kind, rewind” knows, tape is a pain, and not just because it has to be rewound. Tape degrades. Tails in? Tails out? Where on the reel is the cut you’re looking for? Tape is not just the platonic example of a linear media, it’s actually linear. The deck jams and tape stretches and snaps. It’s bulky and weighs a ton. It fouls during rewind or fast forward and suddenly the studio is knee deep in tangles of it. Digital tape formats were only ever awkward placeholders for something better. For production purposes, tape was rightly displaced by random access digital. I went from cutting 456 to using SoundTools on an Intergraph workstation and it was like being born again.

I’m sure these new reel-to-reel decks will find their place. There is an eccentric for every audiophile market, no matter how niche. People do buy old TEAC decks and scour flea markets and e-Bay for secondhand reels. And I am sure there are people out there who will buy these Ballfinger decks, if for no other reason than they are gorgeous objects that also play analog music at ridiculously high quality. (And I live in Silicon Valley, a place with a well documented weakness for gorgeously over-engineered frippery.)

But it won’t be me. My wife has already warned me that under no circumstances am I to buy an expensive German tape deck. Or, for that matter, any tape deck. I’ve been enjoying my LPs, but, nostalgia notwithstanding, the old razor-nicks on my hands say I gotta draw the line at tape.

Also posted on Medium.

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