At first view it is an old technology, the machines are large and heavy, the tape is expensive, and most machines need work to retrieve their original performances…
A bit of history
The reel to reel tape recorder was invented in Germany in the late 1920s. Tapes were made by binding ferrite oxide to a long paper strip that was then magnetized by a tape head. Early open reel tape was made of paper and later from plastic based strip, which is much more durable.
Early tape recorders were made with vacuum tubes and were mono (single channel). By the mid-1950s, two-channel (stereo) machines were produced. Advancements in technology (solid state circuits, direct drive motors and other refinements) made reel to reel machines more reliable and the frequency response improved. Every professional recording made prior to the digital revolution in the mid-1980s was made on a form of reel to reel tape recorder, so the sound quality of reel to reel recordings was excellent even in the 1950s.
Consumer reel to reel machines popularity was losing favor to cheaper and more convenient cassette decks.
Most manufacturers discontinued reel to reel tape machines as the digital revolution took over.
The analog revival sees a huge resurgence in vintage stereo equipment, primarily with vinyl recordings. And as reel to reel tape machines are the ultimate source for recorded music (most quality vinyl records are derived from open reel master tapes), serious audio-enthusiasts go back using them. Musicians and recording technicians discover the subtle sound qualities available only through analog recording technologies. Studio equipment, long neglected in corners and backrooms, is brought back into service.
But they said digital was the future! Sorry, no. That was 1985 and this is now – and analog is the future!
Here is why LeSon goes back to the future by using reel to reel tape machines to enhance the sound quality of any music track:
Recording a music track on a reel to reel tape machine is a natural way of applying compression: it will naturally manipulate the audio into something that is comfortable and appealing for our ears. It smooths the high end, appearing to provide good quality “de-essing”, immediately reducing the high-end pokey frequencies that have a nice habit of making people cringe. Running any sort of track through a tape machine will reduce harshness in the high end, take out the muddiness of low end and boost the whole middle spectrum to a subtle level of warmth.
Recording on reel to reel tape is a very organic way of improving the volume and spectral characteristics of any instrument or track. The physical properties of open reel tapes have a great ability for making things naturally sound good, and can be used in a way that the preciseness of digital audio can’t always facilitate. In other words, recording on an open reel tape adds substance and persona to your music track.
This is another instance where the organic profile of open reel tape can almost immediately give everything a lift, and in this circumstance, create a wider sound field.
Finally, let’s face it – there’s something really cool about slow spinning reels, be it for a home stereo or in a studio! Furthermore, we think that good analog audio machines manufactured in the late 1970s have a built quality that can rarely be found today.
Reel to reel today
As mentioned earlier, reel to reel tape machines production is discontinued since the mid-1980s. To our knowledge, only 3 companies are involved today in releasing a new reel to reel tape machine model:
1.Horch House announced in 2017 a partnership with Revox (wow) to build a beautiful and reasonably priced machine that would only read tapes (no recording head). As they already offer full analog studio master tape copies, which is by the way the absolute best source you can get on earth, it sounds a rather good move. The machine was supposed to be released at the High End Show held in Munich in June 2017. Unfortunately, we could not see the machine when we were at the show. It seems the project is abandoned and it is sad.
2.Instead, and it was a surprise, a different machine was revealed at the 2017 High End Show: the Ballfinger. The prototype was exposed in a small stand shared with other small businesses of people passionate about analog sound. It was such a blast to interact with people with the same belief that reel to reel tapes are the best way to connect to a music piece. Apparently the production is still very limited, maybe because their production capacity is small, but mostly maybe it costs around 22,000 EUR (hiiiiiiiihaaaaa).
3. The third company is called Metaxas & Sins, and they announced the release of a portable reel to reel tape recorder at the 2018 High End Show. The machine is called the GQT Portable Recording Device No 1, which acknowledges the hardware as a Georges Quellet Tribute – Quellet being the Swiss founder of Stellavox. The GQT is based on the Stellavox SM8 recorder, and has been "designed for ultimate location recording and playback duties." It's likened to a large Swiss mechanical watch mechanism, with no computer or logic control hardware in sight. Its circuits are made up of discrete transistors and components similar to those found in 1960s to early 70s devices. Metaxas & Sins was founded in Australia by Kostas Metaxas. He is a live recording legend and tweaked his Stellavox portable recorders to have the most possible direct connection between the 2 microphones and the tape. Given his philosophy about the role of a recording engineer and his outstanding experience, we think this machine will be amazing.
Imagine if Beethoven had a tape recorder. Then you'd know exactly what he meant.
Maybe he meant 'Da da da da' instead of 'Boom boom boom boom!' Who knows?
Eddie Van Halen
LeSon & reel to reel machines
So to summarize, the vast majority of reel to reel machines available today are models that were manufactured 30+ years ago, and at best they are second hand. To select our machines, we performed an extensive research and discussed with experts about which models could suit our criteria:
1.Excellent quality tape transport system: we want machines able to handle tape gently while having excellent precision as the tape passes against the various heads (record, erase, playback). Any problem in the tape transport is clearly audible (wow and flutter) and will result in a distorted sound.
2.Excellent audio circuitry: we want machines built with quality electronics so the audio signal is treated like a king.
3.Spare parts availability: we want machines with enough spare parts available today so to be repaired if a problem occurs.
4.Service manual availability: without an original service manual with all the information needed to understand and calibrate a machine, it will be very difficult to restore it properly.
5.Compact size: on one hand pure studio machines are the best but they are bulky and weight an average of 100 kg, not ideal in a living room or home studio… and on the other hand small low-end machines will not render enough to amaze our ears.
6.Machines with a consistent equalization system and speed. Two equalization systems exist: NAB and IEC. NAB is found in most machines built in the US or Japan, and IEC is found in European machines and studio ones. Per our experience, the best sound comes from an IEC machine running at 15 inch per second or from an NAB machine running at 7.5 inch per second. Therefore we want one of each!
7.Machines with a great look: if we make so much efforts to restore them, we want them to look beautiful!
Looking at this complex equation, we found 2 models that would fit perfectly: the Technics RS1500 series and the Revox B77 MKII series. They were both built during the golden era of reel to reel tape machines, that is the late 1970s. At that time, constructors had built a great experience with previous models and had refined them to release fantastic sounding machines.
When we bought our machines, they were in excellent cosmetic conditions (they are 30+ year old and look new) and their heads (expensive parts!) were also in excellent condition. After a full-depth cleanup, they were working just fine, but you could feel they were old electronics. The remedy? Change all the electrolytic capacitors!
Part 1: replace these old electrolytic capacitors
In electronic circuits, if there is one component who does not age well, it is the electrolytic capacitor. You can it everywhere and its basic role is to charge and discharge. For example, electrolytic capacitors are used to transform AC current into DC current, coupled with other components. As years pass by, these components have a bad tendency to leak and lose their electrical properties, making the entire circuit less performant or even failing.
Inside a Technics RS 1500, there are about 130 electrolytic capacitors across 5 circuit boards. We opened the machine, dismantled everything and replaced all of them by better ones. We chose Japanese made Elna SILMIC II and Nichicon Muse models as they are specially engineered for high-end audio circuits and as they are the best.
This first part was done when, praying the gods of music, we pressed the ON button and the machine did not blow up. As we had read before that one single polarity error would blow up the circuit, the moment was intense.
Part 2: tape transport calibration
Following this massive upgrade, the machine is back to life. We can feel everything is super responsive and it is great. But when you change so many components, you need to recalibrate everything to work perfectly. We started with the breaks, then the tape tension control mechanism, and then the alignment of the tape guides.
Part 3: audio section calibration
Once the transport system worked like a charm, we tackled the audio electronics part by following the original service manual guidance. We also used the original Technics calibration tape for playback calibration, which is essential for accurate settings.
Part 4: heads alignment
Along with the audio section calibration, the 4 heads were carefully aligned according to the service manual with signal generator, oscilloscope and AC voltmeter.
After uncountable hours of work and several nervous breakdowns, the machine was in line with all the service manual recommended settings. It was time to submit our work to trained ears.
During the 25th Shanghai International High-End Hi-Fi Show in April 2017, Mr. Mundorf was flying hi and two rooms appeared outstanding to us: Analog Sound by Line Magnetic Audio had a fantastic setup based on tubes and high efficiency speakers coupled with super tweeters, and Horch House with their full analog master tapes copies. We agreed with them to do an experiment: replace the CD player of Line Magnetic Audio by our tape deck and play a Horch House tape on it. It was quite risky as the Horch House master tapes were recorded with IEC equalization and our machine is NAB. Differences are not huge but it is still clearly not ideal…
Once the machine was plugged and loaded with the master tape of One Second album by Yellow, we rewound the tape and pressed play. And there magic occurred. The sound was so dynamic and powerful that very quickly the room was packed with curious people. And what do you do when the sound is good? Well you turn that big volume knob until you can feel your bones shaking J
After Yello rocked the place, we switched to a Horch House classical music master tape. And there the equalization difference was clearly audible, so we switched back to Yellow for another electro ride.
We are thankful to Horch House (www.horchhouse.com) and Line Magnetic Audio (en.lm-audio.com) for giving us this opportunity, and we were very proud to be congratulated by experienced high-end audio professionals. It gave us the energy to find and restore a Technics RS 1506, so we are now able to record NAB tapes in 4-track in addition of 2-track.
We love and use these top-flight machines as an essential part of our music experience.