There’s reasons why we don’t use tape recorders any more.

About a month ago I bought a ZOOM multi track as a portable loop machine for live performance; if you care you can read more about that in an earlier post. It’s a compromise between old techniques and current technology and it works very nicely once you defeat the machine’s desire for grids. By any measure the ZOOM is going to be a great success.

But I don’t measure things. I am driven by birds and they were not satisfied.

I ended up back on eBay looking at tape machines. Open reel tape machines were used as high end sound recorders up to early 1990′s when digital recorders started to become affordable, and they have lived difficult lives since. If you’re lucky, a fan might have collected the machine and kept it in occasional use. More likely it was dumped in a mouldy closet for spare parts, like the ones at my work, some of which now leak a green slime. In any case they are 30 years old or more and the circuitry may have rotted. Even so they can be very expensive.

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The ideal tape recorder pop group.

Tape is well known for having a different loudness contour to digital, in that overly loud recordings tend to compress rather than distort. That’s not difficult to emulate, so not my main interest. Instead I intend to resume work I did with editing and looping where the physical tape acts like the clay of a sculpture. Tape has weight, and momentum. Edits are messy in a good way. I did a lot of this from ’77 to ’84 and eventually wanted to do something else. It was necessary to sell the machines. Now I can use my day job to finance another look.

I saw a TEAC A6300 machine for a reasonable price, recently serviced and I thought – look, this probably is the point at which you just do or just don’t. Because the repair men are dying out, and if it’s serviced it’s probably the last time. People that are paying $5 for my old albums are probably in favour of my using their money on this. So I pushed the button.

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40 kilometres on the train. What I didn’t expect was to find a front room teeming with tape recorders of every size, shape and description. I complemented the vendor on his clutch of Revox A77s. He said he once owned twelve of them. His hobby is buying tape recorders, fixing them and selling them to buy even more tape recorders. Some are easily fixed, others are too badly damaged and are cannibalised. In every case he has all the capacitors replaced because they are weak spot in this era of electronics.

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I explained how Eno used two A77s to make loop music. This didn’t seem to connect with him at all, but when I explained I too made music just with tape recorders he must have thought I was a kindred weirdo.

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The A77 racked up, with my 8 track cart machine and DVD recorder.

The conversation turned to the A77 on the floor, which could be had for a reasonable price considering it has been shipped from Germany and completely serviced. The Revox A77 is an older machine sold in a few different configurations; this particular one is the professional version on which the tape runs at 15 inches per second. It’s the kind that we would hire each time we finished an album and unlike the TEAC I’d ordered it can be used to transfer old master tapes. It’s the servicing that made me think do this now, it will not come again.

Getting two tape recorders back home on the train wasn’t an option.
Biggest taxi fare of my life.

One thing that you forget when you have used laptops for a while is that older studio gear takes up a lot of space, runs hot and is heavy. Then there’s a bunch of cables that have to go back and forward which are tangled and buzzy. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of infrastructure – racks, cables, a patch bay. If you don’t have this structure, you’ll be flummoxed.

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You will need a patch bay, unless you really like crawling around the back of racks.

Here I have the DVD TV sound ‘normalled’ to the TEAC then to the Revox feeding out a main output to the ZOOM. That follows the idea of making tape loops from TV and feeding that out to mastering. Let’s make a loop!

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So the tape goes through the heads and up around a bust of Napoleon. I don’t know whether that’s mandatory but I’ve used this same bust for 30 odd years so it may as well be. If you don’t have a bust you will need something else slippery to hold the tape up the top. Note at the right of the machine is a stack of fresh 8 track carts. The felt pads that hold the tape against the heads has rotted, and so they’re not usable as carts, but are filled with rare unused Ampex Grand Master tape.

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The main out is patched into the ZOOM, although I can patch every machine at once. Very likely I’ll take the ZOOM recording over to a computer to fix up the results. This isn’t about analogue purism.

The 6300 turns out to be a good looper. Didn’t know how to punch in and out until I saw the little levers bottom right that turn off the channels – so it’s easy enough to turn off either or both channels while the loop is being made. It makes a click, as if I care.

Here’s what it sounds like. Not a good piece of music, just a test.

So then, what’s the point? For most people, not much. Tape doesn’t sound better than well produced digital, there’s hum, hiss and everything takes ages to set up. A laptop is faster, more convenient and precise – and that’s the tipping point – the lack of precision is a way to stir up accidents and ideas. The loop cannot be triggered or aligned, it will follow its own orbit. It will slip across the heads, slurring the sound, and making bad overdubs. This is the point.

Further to my live performance idea, I’m getting the bits together for a sequel to HH, called H3H. HH featured Revox tape recorders but the sound was actually 8 track cart. For H3H I want the sound without the icon, you will hear tape but you will see something far less obvious. In general I want H3H is to be much less predictable – following the principles of inscrutability.

The birds are pleased with this.

6 thoughts on “There’s reasons why we don’t use tape recorders any more.

    • The Zoom can do that no problem. Each of the channels is really a sampler, and so you can arm all the tracks and hit start – they will keep time and you can fade in/out the tracks as desired. Still haven’t managed a 24 track loop because there’s a whole bunch of planning involved.

      That’s not to say it can’t have a bunch of things out of time if it’s in the mood.

  1. There were a bunch of those A6300s in my childhood. My folks owned a regional radio station so I spent a lot of time hanging around people producing ads for cart playback. And in fact entire programmes with one of the earliest radio automation systems, all driven by a rotating cart carousel.

    Don’t remember Napoleon being involved though. He might’ve been on St Helena for a spell in the late 70s perhaps?

    You should be able to source those felt pads somewhere if you do want to use the carts.

    • Were they A6300′s? The guy gave me a catalogue from 1979 with all the TEAC models including some that were more professional and suited for radio. (I didn’t realise the 80-8 preceded the 4 track 3440). This machine seems to be a middle of the pack, pretty fine but not too fancy.

      I managed to break the cart when I was making loops, well at least it plays at the wrong speed now. Got it open, having a look.

  2. I am certainly interested to hear more, especially if this leads to a followup to HH.

    In my household in the we had an Akai Roberts Crossfield 770 which I remember was tall and had a compartment on the side for microphone storage. There was a metal flap on the top of the thing which covered up the speakers. Loads of fun to play around with, and I wish I still had it. Unfortunately I found out my dad threw it out a few years back.

    • All I am promising at this time is that it will take less than 12 years. I am getting faster.

      Equipment names are funny. “Akai Roberts Crossfield 770″ sounds like a math rock band. Earnest. Facial hair.

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