Along with the craze for analog summing, it seems we are seeing the comeback of reel to reel. Now, except if you are more than half a century old, it is not likely that you have ever put your hands on one of these machines. So here is some information you might find useful on the subject.


Why should I care ?

Well, that is a good question…

Especially since using a reel to reel machine in the home studio of the 21st century is:

  • Expensive – Purchase price is not the main issue… It is all about the maintenance and the tapes. Depending on the model you set your heart on, you will have more or less difficulty finding a valid reliable technician. For example, there are no 3M technicians available in France.
  • Tedious – Tape is a physical recording medium… And we have been spoiled by the instant ease of mouse-driven DAW recording, that going back to reels may be a shock to you. It is similar to vinyl versus CD. There is setting up, rewinding, locating, cutting, cleaning, aligning, etc
  • Space-consuming – In the large studios of the past, the tape machines were housed in separate rooms, with a two-way communication system to the control room… which would literally “control” the young assistant in the tape machine closet: “push play, please…” This is because tape machines are bulky and relatively noisy affairs.
  • Degradation – Tape is magnetized to store sound information. Playback inexorably de-magnetizes it. So, in the good old days of tape, the recording engineer had to keep in mind that every time he/she played back a bit of tape, he/she was eating up some small percentage of the definition (especially in thethe high-end). And I don’t mention the effect of time, overlap, etc.
  • Noise – The noise floor with tape is much higher than in the digital domain. In other words, you hear the media you are recording on if your levels are too low.

But still… They are reasons to add a reel to reel machine to your arsenal:

  • The headroom – As this is not digital media, tape has much more headroom… which leads us to the two next advantages of tape…
  • The compression – Recording to tape at high levels will gently and musically compress your track. This is the big argument for recording to tape today!!!
  • The distortion – Once again, recording to tape at high levels will add gentle and musical distortion to your track.
  • It can be instrument – A reel to reel tape can be hacked to become an instrument, a sampler, a loop generator, a effects processor… There is a lot of creative analog fun to have there 🙂

So depending on your budget and music style, this may be something to order for next christmas…

Whether you spend 300 Euros/Dollars on a entry-level machine (Revox B77 are common) or 2 000 Euros/Dollars machine (Studer A80, Ampex ATR-102) to record your masters or anywhere in that range and up for a 4, 8, 16, 24 track tape recorder.

Important: in any case, in 2015, you will be dealing with used gear… Don’t forget to check the price and availability of parts and tape… And determine who will maintain the beast!

Here are some good instructional videos you may want to watch to deepen your knowledge of the subject: