People who know me also know that I believe that older technologies can be just as relevant today as they were when they were originally implemented. However, I don’t personally believe that is true about analog tape in regard to efficiency or practicality. But I will say one thing: It sounds really good!
Metax & Sins has recently announced that they plan on creating a limited edition reel to reel tape machine that plays and records 10.5″ open reels in a stylish design, based on a previously existing Stellavox portable tape recorder. I think this is pretty cool, and I’d love to get my hands on one. But you know what they say: If you have to ask the price…. Well, independently of this announcement, I have my own interest in tape, and have had for a long time.
In Years Past
When I was a kid, tape was just what there was to record with. I remember making demos with the built in mic of a boom box, or with a mini cassette recorder. Then I figured out that you could get a better sounding recording with a microphone plugged into the boom box, instead of the built in one. Like many, I discovered that recording a track, then placing that tape in the “play” deck and recording a new track while playing that one back onto a new tape in the “record” deck was a way to “overdub”. And it was cool, but didn’t sound good. I purchased a “Dolby” tape machine similar to the one pictured below at a garage sale for $20! It could record two tracks pretty well, had different kinds of noise reduction, and a couple of cool looking faders and meters. Thinking about it now, it was likely something to record a master mix onto, but I didn’t know anything about that at the time.
I then happened upon a Sony reel to reel recorder at a thrift store which cost me $25. This was a lot of money in those days, so it would have been the better part of any money I may have had at the time. This reel to reel recorder had a few cool characteristics that enabled me to experiment with while relaying things between the two machines. If only I had a mixer and some decent mics I could have really made better use of these, but this was great for the time, and better than anything anyone else that I knew had.
Fast forward about 20 years. At this point I am working professionally in audio, have used lots of professional multi-track machines in studios, but no longer have any tape machines of my own. I really only had my equipment for work, my guitar, computer, some books, and my clothing. Not really a lot else at that point. But a friend of mine was really into vinyl and we would hang out and listen sometimes. I had records growing up, but had to get rid of all of them when I moved to Europe, so it had really been many years since I had heard great sounding music outside of a recording studio. Blown away, I decided to get myself a nice Vintage stereo receiver from the 70s, and a Technics turntable. My reintroduction to a home stereo system, this time as a hi-fi enthusiast, had begun. I ended up with a Yamaha CR1020 Receiver and a Technics SL1200 MK5, both of which I found for reasonable prices on craigslist 🙂
Shortly after, a Production Sound Mixer in Florida was selling off some of his late fathers gear (who was also a Sound Mixer), one item being a Nagra recorder. It was a model IV-B, which I take to mean “basic” because it is a single speed, no frills, machine that is easy to operate and has only one mic pre installed. Something a reporter or budget conscious novice may have purchased. He really wanted me to buy it, and he was offering it to me for dirt cheap, so I figured “why not?”. It was completely unused too, basically brand new.
By this time, I was working on a job at a studio in Hollywood that a friend of mine had referred me for, and as a “thank you”, I gave him a couple of LPs: Blind Faith, and CSNY “Four Way Street”. While working the gig, we were talking about how good vinyl sounded and such, and I remembered my old reel to reel tapes, and off handedly remarked “well if you think vinyl sounds good, you should hear reel to reel tape!”. That is really what set it all in motion.
We actually walked over to Amoeba Records on our lunch break to see if they had any tapes. They only had a few, but I purchased a couple of Joan Baez tapes, and he found a Frank Sinatra tape. We set out to discover what some good machines might be, and I always remembered Akai making some pretty good looking machines. I found a guy in Lancaster who had a special love for Akai GX series tape machines, and would buy any that he found and get them working 100%, then sell them. He had a few different models, and set them up and allowed us to play with them, telling us about the differences in the models. I decided to get the Akai GX 646 because it had everything I was looking for, and was essentially the same machine as the 747 but without the minor additions that to me were of no consequence, and it was a lot less expensive! But did it end there?
I began trying to acquire tapes, and they certainly are harder to find and a lot more expensive than when I was a kid! But here and there I’d find one that was reasonably priced, but really, those factory tapes don’t have a lot of selection.
To own a reel to reel tape machine in the 60s meant that you had a comfortable living and could afford another car payment every month. But if that was your situation, you were probably not listening to music that was very hip. So classical, show tunes, and a lot of artists that no one remembers today are the bulk of what is available. However you can find some cool stuff like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, or even Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. The thing of it is that those tapes can get really expensive. There is also another dilemma: Tapes come at different speeds, which translates to differences in quality, and yes, therefore price.
Factory tapes are available at 3 3/4 ips (inches per second) and 7 1/2 ips. The average price in 2015 of a Beatles “Abbey Road” tape at 7 1/2 ips was about $120! Imagine paying that much for every album that you want to buy! Does it sound good? Yes. Is it worth it? Well, that’s up to you. But just remember that if you want to get into this sort of thing, you need a working tape machine, which is hard to come by, and you need to try to source tapes that are 40-50 years old, which may or may not even work because you really don’t know what you’re getting until you try them, and you are limited to what was released on tape at that time, which was not every artist on every labels catalog. So yeah, there’s a lot to go by. But I was already on my way, so I figured I’d just stick to buying tapes occasionally, when I could find one that I wanted that was reasonably priced.
However, I knew that this was not going to be a sustainable way of enjoying music. Who knows how many times I can play these tapes before they wear out, or just get too brittle and snap, or stretch? And how long do I have until my tape deck, which is as old as I am, gives out? My friend and I were inclined nevertheless to move forward, and we decided that we were going to set about dubbing the tapes, and then just listening to the dubs instead of the originals. But to do this we would need two professional, or at least semi pro tape decks of the same make and model. After doing some research, and getting some consulting by a local tape transfer expert, we concluded that two Technics RS1506 machines would be a good way to go. These are consumer machines, but rated so high that they are considered as pro as a consumer machine can get, or at least as good as a professional machine. So within a couple of weeks, the two of us actually sourced a couple of them, and ran a number of tests to determine what issues, if any, that they had. Both seemed to perform pretty well!
Next step: choosing a tape stock. Luckily for us, new tape is being manufactured. RMGI-USA is making tape based off of old known and trusted formulas. We ordered a reel of tape that we did not already have, and also tried out a number of tape stocks that we had accumulated, and were very surprised with the variety of results. Out of the vintage stock that we had, we favored Maxell over Ampex, however what is available today are mostly 3M or Quantegy formulas. The 911 tape sounded good, but it had some subtle qualities that are hard to explain that we didn’t fully like. Note that these sorts of differences would be undetectable unless one were to A-B the source material and the dubbed tape. My feeling is that 468 tape is about the best sounding tape that you are going to find today, and luckily for me, this would prove to be at my advantage later on.
Unfortunately, life cannot revolve around ones hobbies, especially when it is time consuming, costly, and takes up a lot of space! So I wouldn’t really get back to this for a while, except for acquiring the occasional tape to enjoy.
Now, back to that Nagra. As soon as I purchased that Nagra, everyone in my professional community started to think of me as “The Nagra Guy” and I was suddenly deemed a specialist, collector, and expert. To tell you the truth, I was none of those things. I had one machine that I got for a song, and it was looking pretty sitting there on my book shelf. However, as soon as one would come up for sale, people would alert me to it. A friend of mine had a beautiful Nagra IV-E, which was another single speed, no frills machine destined for reporters, but had a special red colored top, that he was trying to sell. He offered it to me, but was asking a lot for it. Remember, I was not a collector at this point, and did not want to spend a lot of money. He then put it in consignment at a local audio dealer, and wouldn’t you know it; nearly every person that walked into that store took a photo and texted it to me! I still wasn’t interested, but around this same time, yet another Nagra came up for sale by a colleague. I told him that I wasn’t really interested, but if he would be willing to let it go for the price I had payed for my first one, I’d take it off his hands. He agreed, and now I had two. This was a Nagra IV-L, which was a more serious machine. It did multiple speeds, had pilot one, two mic inputs, and the whole works. This was a real production machine.
As time went on, the price on that Nagra IV-E kept crawling down, as no one was interested. Finally, the seller reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to make him an offer. I think he was camped out at the Dekota Pipeline protest, so I knew that he needed some funds. Reluctantly I offered him more than what I wanted to pay, since he was a friend and I knew that he needed the money, but it was a lot less than he was hoping to get. He agreed however, and then there were three.
Not long after, another one came up for sale, this time it was to be an older model III. It was being offered with an SLP Synchronizer, and a few other gadgets, all for a pretty low price. So I agreed to adopt yet another, and then there were four. Around the same time, I walked into an audio dealer looking for some wireless equipment, and the first thing I saw as I walked in was a Nagra IV-LE. I was stunned because I had never come across a Nagra there before, and also because it had been there for a couple of days and no one had told me about it! So I asked and they said that it was busted, and offered it to me for the lowest I’ve ever heard of anyone selling anything of the sort. I couldn’t refuse. So I took it home, plugged it in, and everything worked fine on it, except that one of the mic inputs was scratchy, but the other was fine.
Now I know that some of you know that I have a very special mixing board that I use. Well, to make a long story short, the guy that I bought it from asked me earlier last year if I’d be interested in his Nagras. Now, he and only a few other people, have these very special Nagras that were hot rodded by Dan Dugan. I told him that I didn’t think that I need any more Nagras, but if I were to have one, I think his was the one I’d like to have. Unfortunately for me, he seemed to really want his moneys worth. I told him that I really couldn’t afford what he was asking, and said that he best look for someone else who could spare that kind of money. He asked me what I could afford, and that number was too low for him. Later he came to me with a compromise on the numbers that was closer to favoring me, stipulating that it would basically also come with all of his cables, accessories, spare parts, schematics, and whathaveyous. I agreed, and then there were seven! The latest two are 4.2 and S-TC versions, both hot rodded. Not to mention that these two machines are biased for 468 tape!
A Hot Rodded Nagra is something that Dan Dugan did to only a few machines, and essentially it made the already amazing sounding Nagras sound even better, and perform to even more strict specifications than even the Swiss could come up with!
OK so at this point, enough is enough, I don’t need seven. That last one that I got, the IV-LE, I could spare it. I had some offers on it for a lot more than what I spent on it, but I decided to gift it to a long time friend for his birthday.
Back to those hot rodded nagras, and this is what ties the whole story together with those new Metax & Sins machines that were recently announced.
I had been reading lately about The Tape Project, and a number of other specialists and collectors and record labels producing tapes, and the thing they all have in common is that they are all really into 15 ips 2-Track 1/4″ tape on 10.5″ reels. All of this comes together to the fact that my Stereo hot rodded Nagra can record at 15 ips Nagramaster, and can be played back on my Technics RS1506!
The Technics RS1506 plays 4-Track tapes like the ones that I have been collecting. It can also record the same format, and it sounds really good. But the headstock has a switch that allows it to PLAY 2-Track tape, and this machine does all three speeds: 3 3/4, 7 1/2, & 15 ips. Just like my Nagras. The problem is that my Nagra S-TC cannot accommodate 10.5″ reels, however there are adapters out there, but they are expensive. The good news is that they are not nearly as expensive as that new Metas & Sins machine will be, and in the meantime, I can record onto two 7″ reels and splice them together onto a 10.5″ reel if I wanted to.
Going back to that relationship between the Nagra S-TC and Technics RS1506: I searched high and low to see if anyone had ever tried recording onto a Nagra and then playing back on a 2-Track machine. Apparently no one has ever done this, or at least not written about it. But I tried it, and it worked! I also researched sourcing new recordings on 2-Track tape, and although there are record labels that sell in this format, they are only for their own original artists, mostly Classical and Jazz. Some special sources will sell you a copy of a master tape of your favorite album for hundreds of dollars each. So again, selection is limited. However, there is a guy who refurbishes RS1506 tape machines and rebrands them as his own, and he also sells tapes. His machines are said to be very good machines, and for the price that he is asking, I’d certainly hope so. Now about those tapes he sells, guess how he sources them? He records a CD from a random Philips DVD player onto tape and sells them, and people claim that his tapes sound amazing. So I thought I’d give it a try, and go one step further.
I have a Tascam CC-222 MKIII, which is a Cassette and CD player. It also records in both directions, and is a really cool, really smart, good sounding tool that I used to always see in recording studios (I purchased this because I actually did not have a CD or Cassette player, and hadn’t had one for many years, though I still had all my old CDs and some cassettes!). I popped in a CD, wired it directly to my Nagra S-TC line-level mixer inputs via its proprietary tuchel connector, and recorded the CD onto a new 468 formula tape at 15 ips Nagramaster without the limiter. At that speed you only get half the album, but this was a test, so when the tape rolled out, I rewound it and strung it up onto my Technics RS1506. The playback was stellar. Words cannot describe. That tape really does something to the sound. A CD is only 16 bit 44.1kHz, which is about the lowest quality I’d ever want in a format, but it seems that the tape not only filled in the samples, it also seemed to give back its dynamic range, and give the overall dead 1s and 0s a whole new life.
I sort of half expected this, because as a prank I’ve brought a Nagra into work, recorded onto it from a mix buss out of my Sound Devices 788T Digital Recorder, and handed it in to the DIT, who was a kid who had probably never seen an analog format (or even a physical format) in his life! The guy was young enough to have grown up with an iPod as all he knew. But he was being a little punk, thinking that he was a technological genius compared to us 30 somethings! lol… So yeah, I handed in that reel and watched him have a heart attack while the rest of the crew that was in on it laughed hysterically! From that experience, I knew that tape would make it sound somewhat better, because just listening to some of the dialogue tracks that I was recording, I could tell that the sonic qualities were different and pleasant to the ear.
I was relaying this discovery to a friend one night, and that got him thinking. So a day or so later, he contacted me and asked if he could listen to some tapes. We had never sat down and listen to any tapes together, so he really didn’t have much of an idea of how good they could sound. Like me, he had no home stereo other than some little bluetooth thing, and hadn’t really heard good sounding music outside of a recording studio in many years.
So when he came over, we started with a tape at 3 3/4 ips: Not very remarkable. Then we went to a 7 1/5 ips tape: Astounding! He was blown away by the difference, and remarked that there was so much on the tape that he had never noticed before listening to the same music on other formats. Then I played for him that 15 ips tape that I dubbed from a CD. At first I thought maybe he didn’t like the music or something because he was completely silent. But he was so blown away that he just didn’t have words! Then he asked if it were possible to try recording some things that he had on his phone. I thought that might be an interesting challenge: recording from a phone, digital compressed music onto 15 ips Nagramaster 1/4″ tape! He made a little playlist and we recorded it, and then played it back. I gotta say, it did not sound bad! We were both very impressed.
So I guess I may have to get one of those 10.5″ reel adapters for my Nagra at some point. But to close all this whimsical rambling out, you can see where I started and what lead me to being enthusiastic about tape today. If you are interested in joining me on this journey, or just want to trade tapes, feel free to get ahold of me and we can work something out. If you can believe it, I have left a LOT of details out of this story in order to make it a relatively short read. But if you are curious about anything in particular, feel free to write me. I am interested in anyones comments, questions, etc. as long as they aren’t hate letters or naysayers looking to belittle my experiences with things that they’ve read on forums or wherever. I’m not interested in those opinions, I’ve heard them all.