Revox A77 playing my old tapes

Rig 1 - Revox to laptop via Creative SBX converter. An electrical island with a single earth so least hum and buzz etc.

I’ve got going on one of my long-standing tasks at home: dubbing my analogue tape archive to digital. The earliest tapes go back to 1960 but the ones I’m most interested to hear are from my uni days at Nottingham and shortly afterwards. This was a period of fantastic development in music and these tapes track my emerging, and diverging, interests. This Revox tape recorder was my first big purchase from wages, before even a motorbike.

Revox A77 playing my old tapes

Rig 2: - Revox to Soundcraft Delta mixer, record to file server. Best for tapes that need minor restoration.

Tape boxes from Agfa, Ampex, BASF, EMI, Scotch, Sony etc

Lacing up Revox A77

Lacing a reel of SPR50LHR tape

So I’m set up with my 1970’s Revox A77, I’ve had it since 1973 and it’s been serviced a couple of times; I think it’s now on its third set of heads - it’s the half-track version. Once I found the cables and cleaned the dust away, its oversized capstan motor lumbered in to life. Good old-time Swiss engineering. No smoke amd no updates! Connected with a freshly unpacked phono plug cable to an outboard analogue to digital converter working to either my laptop or my sound mixer and file server.
Quaint and nostalgic hearing tape dropouts again, that’s where one (or both) audio channels goes muffled because of tape dust in the tape path. The first tape I played is of an album that I have since bought on CD, so the quarter-inch tape is relatively superfluous. Also, it was a favourite so that tape has been played a lot, resulting in so much dropout that it was impossible to get a clean transfer of many songs. But fine as proof of concept. And a reminder of how much brilliant work those sound restoration specialists do to keep old recordings playable.
Moving on to big 10½ inch reels, a much better result. Just the usual problems of stopping Windows putting bits of the PC to sleep and keeping direct sun off the equipment. All my splice edits have held so far except one; the technique was to cut the tape with a razor blade where you needed to edit and join the two pieces with special adhesive tape.
My tapes have all been stored start out, which is the wrong way, so there is some pre-echo but not particularly troublesome. I should have stored them end out.
Emotionally this is a rediscovery. Many of these tapes are original recordings, I put the microphones out, ran the PA if it was a gig and recorded the result if requested (eg students union tech committee) or given permission by the artiste. Or talked with family and friends, recording to a portable open reel recorder, like a journalist. Others are compilations of mine and friends’ LPs etc for time at home with friends or as masters for tapes for car cassettes or early Walkman players. Either way, this is hearing recordings that I haven’t heard for a minimum of twenty years. On the classical side, a pleasure to hear again some old favourite concerts broadcast by the BBC, including their classical recording technique, so much less interventionist than now. On the other hand, manual gain-riding sticks out a mile.
Then there’s the analogue way of working. To enjoy music in good quality at home you had to commit to hi-fi. Tape, like vinyl LPs, has to be handled with great respect. The reels are weighty but the tape itself is fragile and lighter than a feather. Dust is the enemy; high fidelity depends on close and constant contact between the moving tape and the fixed head which is “reading” the magnetic flux pattern recorded invisibly on the tape.
And there is the source material to record. That was 100% analogue too, with all the character that each process adds to the sound. Tape (and the electronics) had noise. I was always careful with my recording levels; I’d built from scratch my own PPM (peak programme meter) using a circuit published in (I think) Wireless World. These days I’d maybe balance more by ear. I only had access to a compressor/limiter towards the end of this era, some might say so much the better, particularly for classical, but a good one is useful for live recording.
I haven’t heard an LP through a typical university student’s turntable and cartridge for many a year. It’s kind of homely: a bit of rumble, tracing distortion and peak distortion as well as snap, crackle and pop. I’m surprised how little of that there is but of course me and my friends never smoked and we treasured our LPs. I can hear the same distortions on the recordings of tracks I compiled from the radio Top 40 programmes as party tapes; some are being played off broadcast tape cartridges which sound pretty worn.

Cotton buds used cleaning the tape path
The tapes so far have been in playable condition. My tapes (and the Revox) have always been inside my house and protected from the sun and damp. There’s been one reel with a lot of dropout. One other where it has stretched, probably by bad winding in the past. The pitch changes with the stretch and oxide is falling off the backing. That’s with a tape type that I didn’t usually use so I’m not too concerned, except that much of that recording is just gone and there is no other copy. I reached about two-thirds through and thought “time to stop, this is never going to entertain me again”. But it’s gutting to see the old recording, that I made when aged 20, literally dropping off the tape, for ever. Playing one roll like that requires a lot of cleaning of the tape path, during and afterwards. But overall, almost all are in good-as-new condition.
I’m not converted back to analogue but in replaying these tapes that are the product of much of my non-academic energy at Nottingham I am finding again the enthusiasm for the craft of sound engineering. I was lucky to get to use some of these skills in my professional life; but these tapes that I made for myself represent in some ways my best efforts in sound. Great to hear my own work more easily off file server but it’ll be very hard to throw out all the old reels with my lovingly-written track lists.

In 1983, I bought a digital audio recorder: Sony PCM-F1 and SL-C9 Betamax..