If you’re under 40, you probably do need to be a professional musician or broadcaster who works in a studio that still cherishes analogue merely to comprehend the concept of “open-reel tape” (a.k.a. “reel-to-reel”). Even hipsters hoping to revive the worst of all formats – music cassettes – would scratch their heads at a spool of tape, despite their beloved cassettes being nothing more than tiny reels in convenient plastic shells.
The return of the most delicate, but most considered, kind of audio
We’ve discussed this before, but thinking out loud, I’ve just got to ask: is the public’s continued regression back to simpler technology merely a love for retro? Or is it a long-overdue backlash? We might even witness a new “fear” to join FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out): I call it FOBCAL, which has nothing to do with denial of overeating junk food. It stands for “Fear Of Being Called A Luddite.”
From important concerns, such as worries about social media giants spying on us, to the merely pleasurable, like the return of the vinyl LP, there’s certainly a move to deny the dystopian prophets Orwell, Dick and Huxley the realisation of their predictions. Just this month, there were worrying reports of further intrusion into our lives courtesy of “virtual assistants” like Amazon’s Echo. Big Brother has been joined by sister, uncle and everyone else in Silicon Valley.
Because of both fragility and complexity, many were baffled by the return of the LP. We live in an age wherein many teenagers cannot operate a landline phone and present a look of bafflement when faced with a VHS tape. (I suppose Baby Boomers would have reacted the same way upon seeing a clothes mangle.) For them, LPs are positively Jurassic next to CDs, and even the latter look antediluvian to one who streams his or her music. So who on earth would welcome the return of the costliest, most fragile music format of all time?
Reel-to-reel tape is a litany of negatives: expensive, delicate, fiddly, susceptible to heat, magnetism, stretching, breakage and other forces that conspire either to erase a recording or ruin the tape itself. You have to feed the tape onto the “take-up” spool, which, while easier than threading a needle, is tiresome. The machines are bulky and need constant maintenance. As with bank cards, magnetism is tape’s Kryptonite.
There’s even more to mitigate against a revival. Blank tapes are now hard-to-find and cost a small fortune. Surviving pre-recorded tapes from back in the day are also hard-to-find, as they were never popular, and are simply old and probably worn-out. But the renewed interest in this format – akin to a revival in 8mm film to replace the 4K video recorder in your phone – has been accompanied by two enablers that make this format viable (if you have the money).
Make no mistake: reel-to-reel tape is a high-end exclusive in the 21st century. As with any format, first comes the music to play on it, and it’s obviously pointless recording off air, or from your streamer, or CDs, just for the sake of having it on tape. Thus, the fire-breathing, hard-core audiophile – motivated by sound quality that simply is not available form any other source (analogue OR digital) – is limited to used pre-recorded tapes from the 1950s-1970s, or the new ones from specialists.
Around a half-dozen labels, including Hemiolia Records, Acoustic Sounds and Fone, are producing magnificent rock, jazz and classical tapes. The sound quality is breathtaking. Alas, the cost of blank tapes, limited sales potential, a work-intensive means of duplication, etc, mean high prices: US $200/€200 to US $600/€600 for individual tapes. These are, then, like celebratory wines: kept for special occasions. The difference is, you can play them again, as opposed to ending up with an expensive empty.
Two similar paths exist for the necessary hardware. The world is filled with second-hand machines and a network of specialists has emerged in the USA, Europe and the UK, tape stalwarts who will restore your machines. Google “Open Reel Tape Deck Service” and you’ll find a list of saviours for the format. At the risk of overburdening them with work, I useAudiophiles Clinic but there are others who can salvage a vintage ReVox, TASCAM, Studer, Technics, Sony or other recorder.
Then there are the brand-new machines, with price tags that will exclude all but the most devoted of music lovers from entertaining their purchase. So far, rumours have abounded about either new or revived machines appearing, but one company has done it for real:Ballfinger in Germany.
Already on the market is the magnificent M-063, a customisable machine aimed at professional users, but configurable to work for civilians like me. The build quality is staggering, and the options list long enough to suit even those who wish for a playback-only machine – why pay for the recording circuitry if you’re only using it for pre-recorded tapes?
Waiting in the wings is a space-age machine from Metaxas, seen in prototype form at the recent Munich High-End Show, while the Ballfinger display was filled with production models. Other exhibitors used refurbished open-reel machines as their sources for demonstrations, instead of CDs or LPs, so this underground movement is more than wishful thinking on anachrophiles and other “nostalgists” accused of being lost in the past.
Why the revival of something so costly and inconvenient? If you get the chance to hear reel-to-reel tape, you’ll find that the sound quality is simply without peer. Let’s put it this way: open-reel tape is to vinyl what Château Pétrus is to Irn Bru. Yes, it’s that good.