The Enduring Appeal of Magnetic Audio Tape Series – VI

Magnetic Audio Tape Sound Quality

Open reel analogue tape is capable of capturing and replaying a very wide dynamic range—far greater, in fact, than can be captured and reproduced on a vinyl record. It is therefore entirely possible, even with quite moderate open reel recording equipment, to make copies of vinyl albums and tracks with no loss of audio quality whatsoever.

The exceptional audio capability of magnetic tape was recognized by Bing Crosby in 1947, whereupon he invested $50,000 in a new tape manufacturing company—AMPEX—and became the first artist to commercially master his studio music and live radio broadcasts to tape.

Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
Ampex Advert Tape Sound Quality
Ampex Advert

ampex200designers

To this day, some sound engineers still use magnetic tape for recording live music, and the use of analogue tape for mastering is regaining popularity. It’s worth remembering that virtually all music recorded from the 1950’s through to the early 1980’s was recorded to magnetic tape, and this huge catalogue includes some of the cleanest production you will, or could, ever hear.

There’s no doubt that open reel is the King of Tape, when it comes to sound reproduction. However, the popularity of the Philips Compact Cassette after it was introduced in 1963 soon led to the development of high quality equipment—both for professional and domestic recordists—which could, and would, give open reel a run for its money.

The Philips EL 3300 cassette tape player and recorder at the Berlin Radio Show in 1963 Source: Philips Company Archives
The Philips EL 3300 cassette tape player and recorder at the Berlin Radio Show in 1963
Source: Philips Company Archives

Most of the professional open reel tape manufacturers saw the potential to market their products to a growing number of audiophiles. These makers, such as Revox/Studer and Teac/TASCAM, were creating a variety of cassette decks to suit all needs and all pockets. Additional tape inputs began to be integrated into HiFi amplifiers, allowing both open reel and cassette to exist side by side (if space allowed). What generally let down the cassette market was the poor quality of prerecorded tapes, compared with the high quality of playback machines available, particularly in the late 1970’s. These machines exposed poor recordings, and although there was some effort made to improve sound quality (such as the use of Type II tape and HX-Pro, Dolby-S, and so on), it’s fair to say that prerecorded cassettes are rarely top quality, sound-wise.

Nevertheless, the machines were capable of much better recordings. Nakamichi made a reputation for high quality cassette audio machines, incorporating such features as auto-calibration of tapes, azimuth adjustment and even unidirectional recordings using the UDAR system found on its RX models. The Nakamichi Dragon, the CR-7, and the beautiful and luxurious 1000ZXL Limited are all capable of breathtaking performance and look stunning, too.

Nakamichi 100ZXL
Nakamichi 100ZXL

So the next time someone tells you “tape is so hissy”, just shrug and put it down to their ignorance (or send them this article).

Nostalgia

In addition to the look and sound of tape decks there is the appeal of nostalgia. For those of us growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, tape was the mobile medium. We had 8-track players and later cassette players in our cars, and took our compilation tapes with us to parties and picnics.

Car 8-track
Car 8-track

We wrestled with tangles of brown tape that had been sucked into our in-car players and used a pencil to take up the slack in the tape before putting it into the player. 

cassette-tape-and-pencil

Such is the appeal of tape nostalgia that there remains a healthy market for used in-car tape systems from those decades. Several Japanese audio manufacturers, such as Pioneer (e.g., the FX-K9) and Nakamichi (e.g., the TD-1200 II), made in-car cassette tape systems capable of extremely high quality reproduction, even though cars were (and mostly still are) inhospitable to hifi.

Bremen SQR 49
Bremen SQR 49

 

Nakamichi TD1200-II
Nakamichi TD1200 II

In addition, firms such as Blaupunkt (e.g., the Bremen SQR 49), Alpine and Clarion focused their considerable expertise on building great tape decks for the mobile audiophile.

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Tape Sound Quality & Nostalgia
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