Friday, August 31, 2012

Remembering Open Reel Tapes

Given that at this very moment, the music industry is currently retooling their product outlet into the online digital music download and streaming service realm, will the open reel tape go down in history as the best domestic music recording and playback format ever? 

By: Ringo Bones 

With the music industry now too busy to profit from the recent success of post Napster legalized online digital music download and music streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify and We7 over physical media, many true-blue hi-fi enthusiasts and serious audiophiles now wonder if one asks which domestic music format has a better sound quality than the good old vinyl LP – more often than not – they will be answered with the open reel tape. But is this symptomatic of the apparent lack of innovation in the music industry? 

Here in South East Asia, SACD and 24-bit 192-KHz sampled DVD Audio became as ubiquitous as hen’s teeth since 2005. I mean have you ever seen a Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne greatest hits compilation on SACD discs released by Sony Records on your local record store, never mind the Tower records and HMV here in Singapore and Hong Kong? And those “software doodads” supposedly to make your digital music downloads sound better than vinyl LPs - like the Burwen Bobcat – quite pricey at the time when I last saw it being demonstrated around Hong Kong and Singapore back in 2007 seemed to vanish without a trace back in 2011 with no cost-competitive alternative being offered. When it comes to “better-than-CD-music”, your only choice here in SE Asia are those weekend audiophile swap-meets where used vinyl and – if luck allows – used mint condition prerecorded open reel tapes are traded in a flea-market style setting.  

Commercially-produced prerecorded open reel stereo tapes for domestic use adopted the quarter-track – i.e. playable in both directions – format and companies like Barclay-Crocker gladdened the hearts of audiophiles by issuing many fine tapes right up to the demise of the format in 1986. Sadly, I only have 4 Barclay-Crocker style prerecorded open reel tapes – Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, An RCA Classical Music recording/compilation titled Music For Frustrated Conductors that came with a conductor’s baton in its packaging (I wonder how will RCA package this album for cassette or CD format?) and an Ampex open reel alignment / test-tape that came with the Teac X-3 Open-Reel Tape Deck I bought in a swap meet back in 1998. Sound wise, prerecorded open reel tapes have much more air and space in their recorded acoustic when compared to their vinyl equivalents. Though the open reel version of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet have a definite DAT (as in 16-Bit 48-KHz sampled Digital Audio Tape mastered) timbre. 

Back in the mid 1990s, even a dog-eared condition but functionally perfect two speed - as in playable at 3 3/4 i.p.s. and 7 1/2 i.p.s. quarter track open reel tape decks started to fetch second-hand prices way above their Blue-Book resale values. “Notorious” examples are the Revox B77 and A77 open reel tape decks, models from Sony and Akai that dates from the early 1980s – and the Philips Black Tulip Open Reel Tape Deck, a superbly built 3-head machine (like the Teac X-3) that never really took off in its day started selling at over 200 US dollars. Vacuum-tube based tweaks could easily drive the second-hand sale price into the 1,000 US dollar price range.  

If you think listening to prerecorded Barclay-Crocker Open Reel Tape albums on your two-speed quarter-track stereo open reel tape deck is an adventure in itself this day and age, just wait when you try to record live music being performed by your local wunderkind in one. Believe it or not, an intrepidly diligent open reel tape enthusiasts can still find an unopened Scotch 111 blank open reel tape in most weekend audiophile swap meets here in SE Asia. The Scotch 111 open reel tape was often described by seasoned live recording enthusiasts as a “hoary old product” - even in the 1960s part of the Golden Age of Stereo because it had the history that descended linearly from the infancy of tape recording in the United States. Probably as far back as the post-World War II half of 1945 when Jack Mullin of 3M bought one of those “captured” Nazi-era German-made open reel tape recorders back to America to be demonstrated in front of the general public and prospective audiophiles in San Francisco. 

During the Golden Age of Stereo, not even the creator and manufacturer of the Scotch 111 open reel tape, the 3M Company, would argue that it was an “outstandingly good tape”. There were certainly other products available that offered much greater potential performance when it was finally discontinued around the latter half of the 1970s. But for a long time, the Scotch 111 reigned as the standard tape – because according to first-hand users – it was fairly consistent and widely available and it was the direct evolutionary heir to the first American ventures into magnetic recording. Open reel tape deck recorders worldwide were adjusted to suit the Scotch 111’s characteristics and when you were in doubt as to what open reel tape to use for a particular recording application, you could almost always fall back on the old Scotch 111 with a reasonable expectation of getting the magnetic recording job done adequately.     


May Anne said...

According to some forums, Barclay-Crocker prerecorded open reel stereo tapes became widely available around 1977 and the company ceased producing the format around 1987. Barclay-Crocker Open-reel prerecorded stereo tapes dethroned by Sony-Philip's CD?

Ringo said...

The peak commercial heyday of Barclay-Crocker open reel stereo tapes was between 1977 to 1987. The premium versions of Barclay-Crocker open reel tapes are dubbed from the original 2-channel stereo master tapes at 4X speed - instead of the 28X speed as was commonly practiced then. Most popular noise reduction encoding systems used on Barclay-Crocker open reel tapes are Dolby B type noise reduction and dbx. Budget stand-alone Dolby B and dbx decoder boxes manufactured during the 1970s and 1980s were more often than not - not the last word when it comes to sound quality. And professional grade Dolby B and dbx gear used in most professional recording studios usually cost around 50,000 US dollars back then.

April Rain said...

Barclay-Crocker open reel tapes - their Classical Music releases go at 7 and 1/2 inches per second, while their pop and rock releases go at 3 and 3/4 inches per second.