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In use, the supply reel or feed reel containing the tape is mounted on a spindle; the end of the tape is manually pulled out of the reel, threaded through mechanical guides and a tape head assembly, and attached by friction to the hub of a second, initially empty takeup reel.
The reel-to-reel format was used in the earliest tape recorders, including the pioneering German-British Blattnerphone machines of the late 1920s which used steel tape, and the German Magnetophon machines of the 1930s. Originally, this format had no name, since all forms of magnetic tape recorders used it. The name arose only with the need to distinguish it from the several kinds of tape cartridges or cassettes such as the endless loop cartridge developed for radio station commercials and spot announcements in 1954, the full size cassette, developed by RCA in 1958 for home use, as well as the compact cassette developed by Philips in 1962, originally for dictation.
Reel-to-reel tape was also used in early tape drives for data storage on mainframe computers, video tape recorder (VTR) machines, and high quality analog audio recorders, which have been in use from the early 1940s, up until the present. Studer, Stellavox and Denon still produced reel to reel tape recorders in the 1990s, but currently only Nagra, Otari, and Mechlabor continue to manufacture analog reel-to-reel recorders.
The earliest machines produced distortion during the recording process which German engineers significantly reduced during the Nazi era by applying a high-frequency bias current to the recording head along with the desired signal. American audio engineer Jack Mullin was a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. His unit was assigned to investigate German radio and electronics activities, and in the course of his duties, he acquired two Magnetophon recorders and 50 reels of I.G. Farben recording tape from a German radio station at Bad Nauheim (near Frankfurt). He had these shipped home. Over the next two years, he worked to develop the machines for commercial use, hoping to interest the Hollywood film studios in using magnetic tape for movie soundtrack recording.
Mullin gave a demonstration of his recorders at MGM Studios in Hollywood in 1947, which led to a meeting with Bing Crosby, who immediately saw the potential of Mullin's recorders to pre-record his radio shows. Crosby invested $50,000 in a local electronics company, Ampex, to enable Mullin to develop a commercial production model of the tape recorder. Using Mullin's tape recorders and with Mullin as his chief engineer, Crosby became the first American performer to master commercial recordings on tape and the first to regularly pre-record his radio programs on the medium. Ampex and Mullin subsequently developed commercial stereo and multitrack audio recorders, based on the system invented by Ross Snyder of Ampex Corp. Les Paul had been given one of the first Ampex Model 200 tape decks by Crosby in 1948 and went on to use Ampex eight track "Sel Sync" machines for multitracking. Ampex went on to develop the first practical videotape recorders in the early 1950s to pre-record Crosby's TV shows.
Inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders were widely used for voice recording in the home and in schools before the Philips compact cassette, introduced in 1963, gradually took over. Cassettes eventually displaced reel-to-reel recorders for consumer use. However, the narrow tracks and slow recording speeds used in cassettes compromised fidelity. Columbia House carried pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes from 1960 to 1984.
Following the example set by Bing Crosby, high-speed reel-to-reel tape recorders rapidly became the main recording format used by audiophiles and professional recording studios until the late 1980s when digital audio recording techniques began to allow the use of other types of media (such as Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes and hard disks).
Even today, some artists of all genres prefer analog tape's "musical", "natural" and especially "warm" sound. Due to harmonic distortion, bass can thicken up, creating a fuller-sounding mix. In addition, high end can be slightly compressed, which is more natural to the human ear. It is common for artists to record to digital and re-record the tracks to analog reels for this effect of "natural" sound. In addition to all of these attributes of tape, tape saturation is a unique form of distortion that many rock, blues and funk artists find very pleasing.
The earliest reel-to-reel systems used metal wire as a medium (see wire recording), which is robust, but suffered from a number of problems – poor fidelity, required a strong current to imprint the signal onto the wire, editing inconvenience (needing physical cuts to effect an edit), and potential kinking or even tangling of the recording wire. The invention of cellulose acetate plastic tape coated with iron oxide solved these problems, opening up the use of tape recorders in studios.
The great advantage of tape for studios was twofold – it allowed a performance to be recorded without the 30-minute time limitation of a phonograph disc, and it permitted a recorded performance to be edited. For the first time, audio could be manipulated as a physical entity. Tape editing is performed simply by cutting the tape at the required point, and rejoining it to another section of tape using adhesive tape, or sometimes glue. This is called a splice. The splicing tape has to be very thin to avoid impeding the tape's motion, and the adhesive is carefully formulated to avoid leaving a sticky residue on the tape or deck. Usually, the cut is made at an angle across the tape so that any "click" or other noise introduced by the cut is spread across a few milliseconds of the recording. The use of reels to supply and collect the tape also made it very easy for editors to manually move the tape back and forth across the heads to find the exact point they wished to edit. Tape to be spliced was clamped in a special splicing block attached to the deck near the heads to hold the tape accurately while the edit was made. A skilled editor could make these edits very rapidly and accurately. A side effect of cutting the tape at an angle is that on stereo tapes the edit occurs on one channel a split-second before the other. Long, angled splices can also be used to create a perceptible dissolve from one sound to the next; periodic segments can induce rhythmic or pulsing effects.
The performance of tape recording is greatly affected by the width of the tracks used to record a signal, and the speed of the tape. The wider and faster the better, but of course this uses more tape. These factors lead directly to improved frequency response, signal-to-noise ratio, and high-frequency distortion figures. Tape can accommodate multiple parallel tracks, allowing not just stereo recordings, but multi-track recordings too. This gives the producer of the final edit much greater flexibility, allowing a performance to be remixed long after the performance was originally recorded. This innovation was a great driving force behind the explosion of popular music in the late 1950s and 1960s. The first multi-tracking recorders had four tracks, then eight, then sixteen, twenty-four, and so on. It was also discovered that new effects were possible using multi-tracking recorders, such as phasing and flanging, delays and echo, so these innovations appeared on pop recordings shortly after multi-tracking recorders were introduced.
For home use, simpler reel-to-reel recorders were available, and a number of track formats and tape speeds were standardised to permit interoperability and prerecorded music.
Reel-to-reel tape editing also gained cult-status when many used this technique on hit-singles in the 1980s.
The first prerecorded reel-to-reel tapes were introduced in the USA in 1949; the catalog contained fewer than ten titles with no popular artists. In 1952, EMI started selling pre-recorded tapes in Great Britain. The tapes were twin-sided and mono (2 tracks) and were duplicated in real time on modified EMI BTR2 recorders. RCA Victor joined the reel-to-reel business in 1954. In 1955, EMI released 2-track "stereosonic" tapes, although the catalog took longer to be published. Since these EMI tapes were much more expensive than a vinyl LP record, sales were poor; still, EMI released over 300 "stereosonic" titles. Then they introduced their Twin Packs, which contained the equivalent of two LP albums but playing at 3.75ips.
The heyday of prerecorded reel tapes was the mid-1960s, but after the introduction of less complicated cassette tapes and 8-track tapes, the number of albums released on prerecorded reel tape dropped dramatically despite their superior sound quality. By the latter 1960s, their retail prices were considerably higher than competing formats, and musical genres were limited—classical, soundtracks, original cast albums, major pop stars—to those most likely to appeal to well-heeled audiophiles willing to contend with the cumbersome threading of open-reel tape. The introduction of the Dolby noise-reduction system narrowed the performance gap between cassettes and open-reel, and by 1973 the prerecorded open-reel offerings had almost completely disappeared, even from record stores and audio equipment shops. Columbia House advertisements in 1978 showed that only 1/3 of new titles were available on reel-to-reel; they continued to offer a select number of new releases in the format until 1984.
Sales were very low and specialized during the 1980s. Audiophile reel tapes were made under license by Barclay-Crocker between 1977 and 1986. Licensors included Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Argo, Vanguard, Musical Heritage Society and L'Oiseau Lyre, so there was a large selection of high quality performances with great artists. Barclay-Crocker tapes were all Dolby encoded and some titles were also available in the dbx format. The majority of the catalog contained classical recordings, with a few jazz and movie soundtrack albums. Barclay-Crocker tapes were duplicated on modified Ampex 440 machines at four times the playing speed, unlike popular reel tapes which were duplicated at 16 times the playback speed. All of the known pre-recorded reel-to-reels on the market are all documented at the Reel To Reel Index Website which focuses on the last reels made during the 1980s and includes photographs of all of them. David Winter also released the complete list of 1950's EMI and Barclay-Crocker tapes.
Otari, Inc. makes the MX5050 1/4" recorder.
Stellavox makes the modular TD-9 1/4" recorder and the portable SD-9 1/4" recorder.
When Ampex broke apart in the 1990s, Quantegy Inc. was formed, later becoming Quantegy Recording Solutions in 2004. Quantegy (and formerly Ampex) led the field in reel-to-reel technology, and Quantegy was the only company left making reel-to-reel tape in the world for a period of two years. In 2007, Reel Deal Pro Audio purchased the majority of Quantegy's reel to reel audio tape and accessories and began to sell it on their web site.
In 2006, Recorded Media Group International (RMGI) in the Netherlands began manufacturing EMTEC specification tape in Oosterhout and was then the only open reel tape manufacturer in the world. In January 2012 Pyral SAS in France bought out the manufacturing equipment and intellectual property of RMGI with the intent to manufacture the tape in France. http://www.rmgi.eu/rmgi.asp?Id=25 The RMGI plant at Oosterhout was closed in April 2012. http://www.rmgi.eu/rmgi.asp
ATR Magnetics LLC began manufacturing analog open reel tape in 2006 and is now in full production of all sizes of professional open reel recording tape.
Jai Electronic Industries in India are currently making audio tape in 6.35 mm(1/4") and 12.7 mm(1/2") width, and perforated 16 mm and 35 mm audio tape for the film industry.
Pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes are also available once again, albeit somewhat expensively as a very high-quality audiophile product, through "The Tape Project". Since 2007, The Tape Project has released their own albums, as well as previously-released albums under license from other labels, on open-reel tape.
In general, the faster the speed the better the reproduction quality. In addition, higher tape speeds spread the signal longitudinally over more tape area, reducing the effects of dropouts that can be audible from the medium. Slower tape speeds conserve tape and are useful in applications where sound quality is not critical.
Speed units of inches per second or in/s are also abbreviated IPS. 3¾ in/s and 7½ in/s are the speeds that were used for (the vast majority of) consumer market releases of commercial recordings on reel-to-reel tape. 3¾ in/s is also the speed used in 8-track cartridges. 1⅞ in/s is also the speed used in Compact cassettes.
In some early prototype linear video tape recording systems developed in the early 1950s from companies such as Bing Crosby Enterprises, RCA, and the BBC's VERA, the tape speed was extremely high, over 200 in/s, to adequately capture the large amount of image information. The need for a high linear tape speed was made unnecessary with the introduction of the now-obsolete professional Quadruplex system from 1956, which segmented the fields of a television image by recording (and reproducing) several tracks at a high-speed across the width of the tape per field of video by way of a spinning headwheel with 4 separate video heads mounted on its edge (a technique called transverse scanning), allowing for the linear tape speed to be much slower. Transverse scanning was superseded by the later technology of helical scanning, which could record one whole field of video per helically-recorded track, recorded at an angle across the width of the tape.
Even though a recording on tape may have been made at studio quality, tape speed was the limiting factor, much like bit rate is today. Decreasing the speed of analog audio tape causes a uniform decrease in the linearity of the response, increased background noise (hiss), more noticeable dropouts where there are flaws in the magnetic tape, and shifting of the (Gaussian) background noise spectrum toward lower frequencies (where it sounds more "granular",) regardless of the audio content. An MP3 of a noisy rock band at a low bit rate will have many more artifacts than a simple flute solo at the same bit rate, whereas either on low-speed tape will have the same uniform background noise profile and high frequency saturation (weakened high end response) but no dynamic distortion patterns.
A recording on magnetic audio tape is linear; unlike today's digital audio, not only was jumping from spot to spot to edit time consuming, editing was destructive—unless the recording was duplicated before edit, normally taking the same amount of time to copy, in order to preserve 75-90 percent of the quality of the original. Editing was done either with a razor blade—by physically cutting and splicing the tape, in a manner similar to motion picture film editing—or electronically by dubbing segments onto an edit tape. The former method preserved the full quality of the recording but not the intact original; the latter incurred the same quality loss involved in dubbing a complete copy of the source tape, but preserved the original.
Tape speed is not the only factor affecting the quality of the recording. Other factors affecting quality include track width, tape formulation, and backing material and thickness. The design and quality of the recorder are also important factors, in many ways that are not applicable to digital recording systems. The machine's speed stability (wow-and-flutter), head gap size, head quality, and general head design and technology, and the machine's alignment (mostly a maintenance issue, but also a matter of design—how well and precisely it can be aligned) electro-mechanically affect the quality of the recording. The regulation of tape tension affects contact between the tape and the heads and has a very significant impact on the recording and reproduction of high frequencies. The track width of the machine, which is a question of format rather than individual machine design, is one of two major machine factors controlling signal-to-noise ratio (assuming the electronics have high enough S/N not to be a factor), the other being tape speed. S/N ratio varies directly with track width, due to the Gaussian nature of tape noise; doubling the track width doubles the S/N ratio (hence, with good electronics and comparable heads, 8-track cartridges should have half the signal-to-noise of quarter-track 1/4" tape at the same speed, 3-3/4 IPS.) Tape formulation affects the retention of the magnetic signal, especially high frequencies, the frequency linearity of the tape, the S/N ratio, print-through, optimum AC bias level (which must be set by a technician aligning the machine to match the tape type used, or more crudely set with a switch to approximate the optimum setting.) Tape formulation varies between different tape types (ferric oxide [Fe2O3], chromium dioxide [CrO2], etc.) and also in the precise composition of a specific brand and batch of tape. (Studios therefore generally align their machines for one brand and model number of tape and use only that brand and model.) Backing material type and thickness affect the tensile strength and elasticity of the tape, which affect wow-and-flutter and tape stretch; stretched tape will have a pitch error, possibly fluctuating. Backing thickness also affects print-through, the phenomenon of adjacent layers of tape wound on a reel picking up weak copies of the magnetic signal from each other. Print-through on analog tape causes unintended pre- and post-echoes on playback, and is generally not fully reversible once it has occurred.
Electronic noise reduction techniques were also developed to increase the signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range of analog sound recordings. Dolby noise reduction includes a suite of standards (designated A, B, C, S and SR) for both professional and consumer recording. The Dolby systems use frequency dependent compression/expansion (companding) during the recording/playback, respectively. DBX is another noise reduction system that uses a more aggressive companding technique to improve both dynamic range and noise level. However, DBX recordings do not sound acceptable when played on non-DBX equipment.
In the late 70s there was also the German Telefunken-made HighCom NR system, a broadband compander, which was technically very advanced and reached a signal-to-noise ratio in the range of a CD (approximately 100 dB). That was a gain in dynamics of roughly 25 dB that outperformed the well-known Dolby B by far. HighCom was included in more sophisticated cassette recorders, mostly alongside with the various Dolby systems. Even though this applied to the consumer market, there was no tape hiss at all that an ear could realize. Another advantage was that recorded tapes could be exchanged amongst HighCom recorders without any loss of quality in sound. The "pumping effect" mostly reported from critical sound material (e.g. drums or any percussive instrument) with advanced dbx NR which was also a serious competitor did not show in properly calibrated HighCom recordings. HighCom was utilized in professional recording studios and (German) radio stations in its professional versions HighCom II and HighCom III. It was licensed by Nakamichi around 1980 but did not penetrate the market, possibly due to the less aggressive marketing strategies typical for German companies at that time compared to the widely known Dolby systems.
Dolby B eventually became the most popular system for Compact Cassette noise reduction. Today Dolby SR is in widespread use for professional analog tape recording.
As studio audio production progressed and became more and more advanced, it became desirable to record the individual instruments and human voices separately and mix them down to one, two, or more speaker channels later, rather than in real time in the studio before recording. In addition to allowing recording engineers and producers to experiment with different mixing arrangements, effects, etc. on the same performance and to produce multiple versions of a recording (without having multiple duplicates of all the studio control room equipment used for mixing), multi-tracking enables the use of non-real-time effects or effects that cannot be produced in the same studio where the musicians perform. Reel-to-reel recorders with eight, sixteen, twenty four, and even thirty two tracks were eventually built, with as many heads recording synchronized parallel linear tracks. Some of these machines were larger than a laundry washing machine and used tape as wide as 2 inches. A single new reel of 1" or wider tape, could easily cost $100 to $200. Still, in professional studios, most tapes were recorded only once, and all recording was on new tape, to ensure the maximum quality, as studio time and the time of skilled musicians was much higher than the cost of tape, making it not worth the risk of a recording being lost or degraded due to using media that had been previously recorded upon.
As professional audio evolved from analog magnetic tape to digital media, engineers adapted magnetic tape technology to digital recording, producing digital reel-to-reel magnetic tape machines. Before large hard disks became economical enough to make hard disk recorders viable, studio digital recording meant recording on digital tape. Mitsubishi's ProDigi and Sony's Digital Audio Stationary Head (DASH) were the primary digital reel-to-reel formats in use in recording studios from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. Nagra introduced digital reel-to-reel tape recorders for use in film sound recording. Digital reel-to-reel tape eliminated all the traditional quality limitations of analog tape, including background noise (hiss), high frequency roll-off, wow and flutter, pitch error, nonlinearity, print-through, and degeneration with copying, but the tape media was even more expensive than professional analog open reel tape, and the linear nature of tape still placed restrictions on access, and winding time to find a particular spot was still a significant drawback. Also, while the quality of digital tape did not progressively degrade with use of the tape, the physical sliding of the tape over the heads and guides meant that the tape still did wear, and eventually that wear would lead to digital errors and permanent loss of quality if the tape was not copied before reaching that point. Still, digital reel-to-reel tape represented a significant advance in audio recording technology, and most who could afford to record using digital tape generally did.
Early reel-to-reel users realized that segments of tape could be spliced together and otherwise manipulated by adjusting playback speed or direction of a given recording. In the same way as modern keyboards allow sampling and playback at different speeds, a reel-to-reel could accomplish similar feats in the hands of a talented user. Consider:
In addition, multiple reel-to-reel machines used in tandem can also be used to create echo and delay effects. The Frippertronics configuration used by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp on numerous of their 1970s and '80s recordings illustrates these possibilities.