A Sony TC-630 reel-to-reel recorder, once a common household object.Note the distinctive Scotch tape spool at left.7" reel of 1/4" recording tape typical of audiophile/consumer/educational use 1950s-60s

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Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders

Reel-to-reel or open reel tape recording refers to the form of magnetic tape audio recording in which the recording medium is held on a reel, rather than being securely contained within a cassette. more...

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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 recording head assembly, and attached by friction to the hub of a second, initially empty takeup reel. The arrangement is similar to that used for motion picture film.

The reel-to-reel format was used in the very earliest tape recorders, including the pioneering German Magnetophons 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 which were introduced in the early 1960s. Thus, the term "reel-to-reel" is an example of a retronym.

Inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders were widely used for voice recording in the home and in schools before the advent of the Philips "compact cassette" in 1963. Cassettes quickly displaced reel-to-reel recorders for consumer use. However, the narrow tracks and slow recording speeds used in cassettes compromised fidelity. Reel-to-reel was the main recording format used by audiophiles and professionals through the 1980s, when digital audio recording techniques began to allow the use of other types of media (such as DAT cassettes and hard disks). Even today, many artists of all genres swear on the analog tape's "musical", "natural" and especially "warm" sound. Due to harmonic distorion, bass can thicken up, creating the illusion of 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 and blues artists find very pleasing.

The earliest reel-to-reel systems used metal wire as a medium (see wire recording), which is robust, but suffers from a number of problems &mdash it takes up a lot of room on the spools, so recording time is limited; fidelity is poor; it requires a strong current to imprint the signal onto the wire; it is hard to physically cut and splice to effect an edit; the wire was easily kinked, causing dropouts. The invention of a plastic tape coated in a ferromagnetic material (initially iron oxide) solved these problems, opening up the use of tape recorders in studios. Wire is still used as a medium in some older black box aviation recorders, since the recorded information is more robust, and can even withstand fire to some extent.

The great advantage of tape for studios was twofold &mdash it allowed a performance to be recorded in a more manageable form than cutting a disc directly, 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.

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See also...
Akai, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics
Ampex, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics
Other Brands, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics
Pioneer, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics
Revox, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics
Sony, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics
Teac, Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorders, Vintage Electronics

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