Reel to Reel - The Heart of Analog Audio Recording

Feb 25 08:49 2011 Jeff Noctis Print This Article

Open reels were a popular recording and prerecorded tape format for many years. The idea for it was built on the wire recorder and was the primary reason wire recorders vanished from the market in the early '50s. Reels remained popular through the '70s but finally succumbed to the popularity of cassette tapes.

What kind of mental picture comes to mind when you think about "reel to reel"? Some of us conjure up the video projectors with the great spools of film rolling between the reels - others think about the reel to reel recorders that were commonly used in classrooms. It really depends on the era and how willing you are to show your age.

The History of the Reel to Reel - Over 60 Years Young

Prior to reel to reel tape decks people were using recorders with spools of wire. Wire recorders were first invented in 1898 and became popular in the consumer market during the 1940s. However with the invention of the open reel tape deck and its release to the public in 1948 the wire recorder declined into obscurity.

Why the Switch

The audio fidelity between wire and tape was comparable but open reel tape gained favor quickly not only due to the quality of the analog sound but also in how easy it was to edit the tape. To edit a wire recording the wire had to be cut and then joined by tying the two ends together in a knot. While this worked,Guest Posting it wasn't ideal - splicing magnetic tape was much easier and resulted in a higher quality edit.

With magnetic tape on an open reel, the audio could be quickly edited on the fly by making a simple cut, then rejoining the tape with a thin adhesive called a "splice." Because most commercial reel to reel recording devices came with a splicing block, a skilled individual could rapidly edit audio in a very precise fashion.

The Birth of Something New

The reel to reel as we know it today has roots in Germany during the World War II era where it was then known as a Magnetophon. The technology was captured during the war period by the U.S. Army Signal Corps under the eye of American audio engineer Jack Mullin. Seeing potential in the design, he worked to improve it and develop a commercial use for the machines in the US.

In 1947 he pitched the recorder to MGM studios where he caught the attention of Bing Crosby. Impressed with the design and also with the potential of the product, Crosby invested in the production of the device through a company known as Ampex. Crosby then went on to be the first American to master commercial recordings on tape - including pre-recordings of his radio programs. The continued research and production by Mullins and Ampex led to the development of commercial stereo and multi-track audio reel to reel recorders.

Reel to Reel Audio - For the Love of Quality

Audiophiles and industry manufacturers quickly realized that the performance of a recording was directly affected by both the speed at which a recording was handled and the width of the tape itself. People embraced the quality of the reel to reel tape system but with all the components of reel to reel there was a potential for variances that could directly affect quality.

- Tape formulation (backing and thickness)
- The design of the reel to reel recorder
- Machine speed stability
- Head gap size & quality
- Head design and quality of technology
- Alignment
- Tape tension regulation
- Track width

Each of these can affect quality and signal-to-noise ratios. Because of the variances, especially with the type of tape, its make-up, and width, a recording studio or commercial operation would often set their machines up and align them to handle a specific brand of tape. Unless a change was necessary, they stuck to that brand and model. This helped to eliminate a number of variances that negatively impacted sound quality.

The Difference in Reel to Reel Tape Speeds

As mentioned, the faster the speed of the recording, the better the quality. The downside to this method is that it uses a lot more tape. A slower speed would in turn use less tape but there is a higher signal-to-noise ratio that reduces the sound quality. Slower speeds were far more common when the quality of sound was less important:

* 15/16ths of an inch per second (in/s) or 2.38 cm/s *

Common for lengthy recordings or logging. This could include long lectures or radio addresses where a station needs to "log" its entire output.

* 1? in/s or 4.76 cm/s *

The speed would lend itself well to extremely long speeches that need some measure of improvement over the quality of the above. This was considered to be the slowest domestic speed that most found to be acceptable.

* 3¾ in/s or 9.52 cm/s *

This was typically the most common domestic speed when it came to recording and playback because it offered a fair amount of quality in terms of speech and general recording purposes where reel to reel is concerned.

* 7½ in/s or 19.05 cm/s *

While this is considered to be the highest domestic speed for the best quality in general recordings, it was the lowest acceptable speed for professional recordings such as dubs or commercial announcements.

* 15 in/s or 38.1 cm/s *

The most common speed for professional reel to reel recording. This speed was typical of music recording as well as most commercial radio programming.

* 30 in/s or 76.2 cm/s *

When the most quality was in demand for a specific recording, this was the chosen speed. While it used a great deal of tape it provided much more professional sound necessary for clear recordings of such pieces as classical music.

The Power of Reel to Reel

While digital recording adds a lot of convenience to the modern recording process, there's a reason why analog & reel to reel technology still exists today. Audio enthusiasts recognize now the same thing they saw then - analog audio in a reel to reel setup has a very rich, robust and melodic sound that many believe can't be achieved with digital technology. To some, with a trained ear, they would tell you that digital technology offers substandard sampling when compared to analog.

The reel to reel tape recorder was made available to consumers for use in their homes for a period of approximately 25 years (from the mid 50's through the 70's) before it was pushed aside by the convenience of the cassette tape. Prerecorded music reels were still sold into the '80s but were much harder to come by. Still, those audiophiles with a love for sound as well as those in the professional recording industry recognize the power of reel to reel recording and the commercial use of this system.

This is why many artists continue to record both in digital and analog formats, using reel to reel commercial tape recorders in studios even today.

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Jeff Noctis
Jeff Noctis

Audible Forensics is not only a forensic audio company but in addition we are experts with audio transfer and digitization services. We can transfer your microcassettes, standard cassettes, 8-tracks, minidiscs, and reel to reel to CD or a digital file format. We also offer transcription services if needed.

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