Pictured on the right is the infamous Otari MX5050BII reel-to-reel tape recorder. This machine, in its many variations, has been a solid part of the broadcast industry since the 1970’s. As far as I can tell, it’s the last tape machine to go. We sold a bagillion open reel machines.

As broadcasters… what have we lost?
– wow and flutter
– tape hiss
– splicing blocks, white china markers, and razor blades
– stretched or broken tape
– alignment and calibration
– incompatible head configurations
– denatured alcohol, cotton swabs, and head cleaning

Don’t get me wrong. I grew up with tape. It was an exciting technology that got me interested in audio gear. The list above weren’t considered to be “faults”, but just part of the experience. If you wanted to record your stuff, this was what you had to work with.

Then came the digital revolution. We started recording on CD’s, minidiscs, flash memory cards and hard drives. Compared to analog recording methods, it was cheaper, smaller, easier to do complex editing, and the sound didn’t degrade with each successive copy.

Hard drive space was relatively expensive at first, so many broadcasters would store the digital audio as .mp3 files to save space and cost. This caused poor sound quality by the time the .mp3 audio was re-inflated,  re-compressed, and otherwise manipulated on its way to the listener.

When the cost of digital storage came down, it became practical to store the audio in an uncompressed format (.wav as opposed to .mp3, for example.) Finally, the audio being delivered to the listener was again worthy of being called “broadcast quality.”

On a nostalgic level, I will miss analog tape. (Analog tape is still alive and well in many recording studios. But it’s pretty well gone from broadcast.)

The editing skills, and the maintenance routines gave me a very close relationship with the audio. That’s somehow gone in the digital world. That’s progress, I suppose.

Do you have interesting memories of working with analog tape? Share them with the rest of us.

4 thoughts

  1. I’m a baby Boomer who was first introduced to tape recording at around age 8 when a neighbor brought his machine over to the house one evening. Clearly born a geek, I began reading about how recording to tape worked (and, ultimately, how phonograph records were made, how microphones worked and how radio was broadcast).

    My parents bought me an inexpensive portable tape recorder than ran on two C batteries, I think, and which used 3-inch reels. This got me off and running and, in a short time, I read about and taught myself how to edit. In school I was introduced to the Wollensak. Made at that time by 3M, it was a workhorse. And built like a tank, it had great sound.

    After graduating high school I got my first radio job, and I worked with Revox machines. I don’t know the model number, but the machines sat upright and weren’t at all easy to edit on. But I’d been editing at home for years already and when my next job came along in 1977, my skills were put to the test. It was a company that produced business communications, and I was Audio Producer. We had two early Otari machines, both MX-7000 (10.5-inch reels, 3.75/7.5/15 ips). One was a quarter-inch half-track and the other was a half-inch 4-track. I did most of my editing (speech and music) on the quarter-inch machine, and quickly became the guy with numerous pieces of tape of varying length hanging around my neck at any given time. I became a very adept editor and I regarded it as an art form. Friends and others would be in awe when I played an original recording followed by the edited version.

    I still have my Teac A3300SX (10.5-inch reels, quarter-inch half-track (7.5/15 ips) and it’s in excellent condition. And sealed in a plastic bag are two Editall splicing blocks, a 5-inch reel of paper leader tape, a roll of 3M splicing tape, and a couple of surgical razor blades. Oh, and I also have several reels of tape containing some favorite recordings, of course. And in my thirty-some years of editing, I never cut my fingers.

    There is no doubt that my experience recording and physically cutting tape made my transition to digital recording and editing a breeze.

    I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

  2. The one thing I will miss the most about analog reel-reel tape machines is how IMPRESSIVE they looked running! I remember many a time when the public radio station I used to work for would offer public tours. I would load every machine in the control room with one of those giant Ampex 457 reels of tape, and run all the machines simultaneously, just to make it look like we were doing “serious stuff” at the time. I think we called it “making radio” or something like that. Of course, over the years, the reel machines were replaced with Digital Audio Tape, then a hard drive-based automation system, and the impressiveness went away. Now, unless someone deactivates the screen saver on the monitor to show the automation, the control room looks absolutely “dead.”

  3. What do we get rid of? the beautiful, fat, gorgeous sound of saturated tape that made even the weakest voice sound wonderful. I still use analog tape and constantly receive listener comments on the great sound. Machines may not be manufactured, but old guy engineers like myself will keep them alive for decades…because that’s how long it will take digital technology to reach the sampling and reproduction point of these old beasts. The younger generation that’s grown up with crummy low quality digital audio is always amazed at how great this gear sounds.

    I still have a pile of tube gear that sounds great too…perhaps they’ll bury it with me so I can have decent audio in the afterlife.

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