Will Magnetic Tape Eventually Go Full Circle

I was born in 1959. I have seen many technologies go full circle. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, tubes were pretty much pronounced dead. In the mid 1980s turntables were a thing of the past. Reel to reel tape was replaced by cassettes.

In pro sound, acoustic pianos were replaced by electric pianos. Hammond organs became too "big and bulky" and could be purchased for less than a thousand dollars or, were literally given away. Synthesizers took the place of Rhodes and Hohner pianos promising "one keyboard can do it all". Studer and Wollensack "consoles" were replaced by 64 track digital mixdown boards.

Now? Tube amps are some of the most highly sought after amongst audiophiles. There are now more manufacturers of turntables, tonarms, cartridges and analog "tweaks" than ever before.

Hammond organs in fully restored condition are selling in excess of $10,000. The most respected Rhodes pianos are the 1966 tube amp models now selling for $2500+. And, both Hammonds and Rhodes pianos are in extremely high demand and highly sought after. Hell, even Steely Dan recorded their latest release insisting on analog tape, and they had to search high and low to find studios still skilled and capable of using such technology.

Will tape eventually find it's way back? Don't laugh. If I told some of you older audiophiles back in the mid 1980s that by the year 2000 turntables would experience a major regain in popularity, would you had believed me?

Let's consider a few things: You can record ANY two channel format onto magnetic tape, analog or digital. Copy protection? Would become an irrelevant point. Near the tail end of cassette recorders being produced, some extremely impressive machines were available. 65db dynamic range, 20hz-20,000hz frequency reponses, Dolby B,C,DBX, and HX (headroom expansion) noise reduction systems were regularly installed on the higher end recorders. Signal to noise ratios were far superior to ANY analog rig.

My last cassette recorder, a Sony ES TC-K870 (which I still own), would actually calibrate, bias and EQ, (automatically!) to any tape being used on that particular recording. It even had "CD direct" inputs and would make tapes almost indistinguishable from the original recordings.

And the funny part about all this? "Music piracy" was unheard of back then. Music companies focused no efforts on "copyright protection", because then, it was not an issue.

O.K. So tapes only lasted about 10, 15, 20 years before sonic degradation set in. That would be about the only fallshort I could think of. Cassettes were small, at least smaller than a CD. They played in portable players, car players and home systems. Blank cassettes, even the best (remember TDK "MARs" with their "aluminum laboratory reference tape mechanisms") were very inexpensive to purchase.

Is this whole thread THAT far fetched? Will music companies eventually find ways to incorporate copy protection onto LPs also?(shudder) Is Buscis2 off on another crazy ass rant?

In 2010 will we all be raving over the latest Tascam 3 head, dual capstan, auto reversing, outboard power supply, self calibrating cassette machines? Stranger things have happened.

What are your views?

I don't think so. Much as I would like this to happen...

Tunrtables ARE moving -- but, THEN, TTs were part of the mass market, now they're more "lifestyle" or "specialist" products (i.e. a niche market). OK, there ARE LP's coming out now, all of a sudden! Remember, however, that while cutting LPs USED to be capital intensive, machinery became cheap when large corps (like DG) switched from vinyl to cd and smaller Cos could now have that machinery: the process shifted from capital intensive to labour intensive...

Cassettes were a mass product, and convenient -- later on, cd's came & they were MORE convenient (to use & sell). CD's alone are easier to store than LPs & cassettes. Plus decks have too many mechanical parts that are difficult to produce cost effectively. Plus mechanical devices can be maintained, if you have tape heads -- i.e. they can last forever marketing-wise. That's no way to make money! A cdp is cheap to produce and can be thrown out --i.e. it's expensive to repair vs the cost of a new one. A new one can now take the place of the old one -- hopefully a "multiplayer" that steers consumers into buying more and different new software.

Reel to reel were once the ONLY long-playing medium. But they're bulky, expensive, mechanical, and need a lot of accessories and maintenance. So who's going to mass-market these -- would anyone buy them (other than professionals -- i.e. NOT mass market)?? Unfortunately, these machines were, arguably, the best reproduction medium under certain circumstances (hence their use by professionals)...

And think of music: go back to cassettes??? Where's the constant "innovation" touted by the industry? Why would large corps go BACK to a medium that has already generated income... when you can keep your R&D people working on new things that your marketers will market and consumers will (hopefully) buy...

Isn't it better to come up with a NEW medium, that's allegedly innovative and "better" (more convenient, looks/sounds better, or whatever the USP the brand manager can think of) and make some extra money RERELEASING existing music/ films (i.e. no producer, mastering, etc, cost). And you put your marketing $ into creating a "new market": generating income with minimum cost.
Now THAT's something SE (as in NYSE) analysts like to see... and helps raise share price...

Contrast that with the image of, say, the CEO of Sony Corp announcing a return to magnetic tape. Huh???

I'm sounding like an old-timer full of nostalgia for things past:)
But a old copy of a master tape heard on a pristine Studer in my system sounded better than my TT. Oh well..
Some relevant factoids (specific to reel-to-reel rather than cassette):
* On the Yahoo reeltoreel forum, someone is floating the query/concept of producing a new reel-to-reel deck, and getting positive responses.
* I've bought at least 30 prerecorded reels on Ebay in the last six months and, believe me, the price is going up. Only one of these, BTW, has been in any way defective, and that one was clearly defective when new.
* 25-to-40-year-old decks are going for VERY healthy sums on Ebay.
* In most cases where I have R-R, vinyl, and CD versions of the same disc/tape, the R-R version is the clear winner, sonically.

God knows you don't buy a tape deck for convenience, so the continued interest in these things bespeaks the realization that they offer something pretty special. In any event, they don't seem to be going away any time soon, even as the decks and the tapes themselves get older and older.
Magnetic tape already went full circle. It was called eight track;^) Of course it only went full circle for a little while, until it bound up and broke. The most horrendous format the world has ever seen.
Greg and Dopogue, you both make some very valid points. But, point/counterpoint. Dopogue, in response to your last statement, you also don't buy a turntable for it's convenience. We all know it's a giant pain in the ass to have to jump up in the middle of a musical performance to flip the record over.

Greg, your comments regarding corporate profit were extremely insightful. Although, the music industry is presently grasping at straws with the multi format SACD, DVD-A, HDCD, etc. in order to establish multiple income streams. Do you think that just possibly, if the music companies were to have the slightest hint that the public would embrace magnetic tape technology, that they wouldn't be back on that bandwagon also?. I mean, several of the biggies are now producing records once again!

I think copy protection would once again be their biggest fear.

I have had discussions with several retailers regarding the renewed interest in turntables. They have explained to me that even the non-audiophile individual wants to "listen to their records again" because "they like the way they sound".

And Dopogue, you hit the nail right on the head regarding the appreciation in the values of R to R. Obviously prices are appreciating because of higher demand. These buyers could very well be people thinking outside the box. Cassette vs. R to R? That's an issue in itself. The point being, there are many of us who still consider older, and as some feel, "antiquated" technology is still far superior. Hence tubes , records, and turntables. And........ R to R.

Bottom line? if the music companies felt that there was profit to be made, they would be all over it. All they would need to see is an opportunity.
Elgordo, I was hoping someone wouldn't mention that. It causes all of the above statements to lose any and all validity.
Buscis2, vinyl is a LOT more convenient than R-R tape. To play the second "side," you have to run the tape all the way through. To find a specific track anywhere on the tape, good luck. If you're not prepared to sit through both sides of the tape (assuming it's a 4-track tape). don'tg even think about playing it. and threading a tape is a lot less convenient than playing a record, plus there's likely to be 3-5 minutes of dead air before the music begins on side 1.

Oh, and the decks themselves are high-maintenance relative to turntables. So you REALLY gotta love this medium to even think about getting into it. Yet more and more audiophilkes seem to be doing just that. Dave
No, but until sample rates match up to the "pixal" count of analog, magnetic tape will be with us. Sound is recorded on analog magnetic tape much like FM broadcasting, with a high frequency carrier modulated by the audio. The bit rate of digital consumer formats to date cannot fully match the ability of analog magnetic tape to capture and reproduce the analog waveforms, ultra complex audio waveforms rife with harmonics and overtones. Not the cassette tape, in this case, but half inch format two track at 15 or 30 ips.
Think of digital as sampling the complex waveforms, taking snapshots of them if you will, and converting to binary format. Playback requires taking the data and turning it back into analog waveforms that get amplified and drive speakers. Leaving inherent tape noise and all the other negatives out of the equation, how many samples is it going to take to accurately sample the original waveforms in the first place? How accurately are the samples going to be put back together to reconstitute the original? Answer: more samples than the mathematics predicts. My guess is that sampling into the gigahertz range will be necessary.

About life of magnetic tape: the long life of mag tape you mention really applies to the tape formulations prior to the high output tapes that came along in the late 60's and 70's. The Elvis masters are a good example. Some of this Scotch (3M) product holds up even today. The higher output formulations had a problem with the binder becoming unstable resulting in it falling off the plastic backing.

The Hammond B3 is a good example of analog versus digital.
I have yet to hear a digital sampler synth or other keyboard that claims to be "THE" B3 sound live up to the claim. The harmonic richness of the tone wheels and draw bars played through a vacuum tube amp cannot be easily emulated. Close, but no cigar. More often, not close.

This same analog versus digital thing is what is keeping vinyl LP's alive. Despite the drawbacks: dust, inner grove distortion, degradation, etc ad infinitum, the LP delivers the analog sound, sound pleasing to the ear, sound that is analog all the way.

Kind of like the difference between a filet mignon and a chopped up, reconstituted, reformed filet mignon. It just ain't the same thing, try as you may.

It's getting better, but...

Don't get me wrong. I love the convenience of the CD, and DAC technology keeps coming along.

Maybe in 10 or 20 years the debate will be over. We'll see. Meanwhile, analog remains the format of choice for lots of mastering applications, often demanded by the producer or artist. It won't take over the world, but by the same token, it won't go away either.
Don't forget that we audiophiles, or just those who CAN appreciate improved sonic reproduction are a tiny niche market that may only represent <1% of the total electronics entertainment business. We own, or can appreciate the equivalent of Ferrari's, Porsches, BMW's, etc. vs. the average public that just wants some overpriced crap car for basic transportation. I really love the fact that most people who buy an SUV will NEVER take them off road! Digital and home theater are the revenue generators for the next few years. People want something new and trend setting, even if the new technology is inferior to the old! As Borsteen said, "You sell the sizzle, NOT the steak!"

Some observations on tape medium: Buscis2, I still have a TDK MAR metal tape! They had milled aluminum housings instead of the plastic ones. They were not cheap, however! The standard TDK metal tape could be had for $3- to $5-, while the MAR with the aluminum housing went for $16- in the early '80's! But what a piece of workmanship! I NEVER bought a pre-recorded cassette, since most were encoded with Dolby B (if you were lucky), not Dolby C, and were dubbed at high speed. Take into account the poor quality of the plastic housing, and parts tolerance resulting in azimuth alignment problems, and you had a frequency response of 10-12 kHz (maybe) on the pre-recorded commercial junk. DCC, MoFi, and Nakamichi did make some really great pre-recorded cassettes. Another problem was that of the head azimuth alignment on the recording machine, and that of the playback machine. For those of us who recorded cassettes at home, to be played back on our car decks, the azimuth difference could easily drop the frequency response to 15 or 16 kHz. I always had my home machine aligned with my car deck (before installation). Unfortunately, the azimuth angle could change, due to climatic conditions, or amount of tape on the take-up spool! I ended up with the Nakamichi TD 1200II reversible car deck, with continual automatic azimuth alignment (a mobile version of the Dragon!) Not cheap, $1200- in the mid '80's, but the best of the best...and never equaled! Toward the tail end of the cassette format, I believe that S/N ratio was 73 dB on some of the better Nakamichi home decks.

All magnetic tape will degrade over time! Similar to old color movie film-stock. There are many thing that you can do to preserve magnetic tape (low humidity storage, "Tails Out" storage...NEVER REWIND BEFORE STORAGE, store away from magnetic sources[including all electronic devices]), but eventually, the magnetic material will start to separate from the Mylar or similar backing. Certain magnetic material (KrO2) could be very abrasive on some heads, and certain types of record/playback heads are known for rapid wear. Regular head cleaning and degaussing are a must.

I have had more experience with professional reel to reel tape decks (Ampex 440's), which is in another league than consumer machines. They were 1/2 track, used 10" metal reels with speeds of 7 1/2 and 15 I.P.S. or ones that were actually using 15 and 30 I.P.S.! Half track and high recording speeds allowed for VERY hot recording levels without tape saturation, great S/N ratio, and very wide frequency response. Add professional DBX encoding/decoding, or professional Dolby type A noise reduction at 30 I.P.S., and tape "hiss" completely vanished on the master tape. Unfortunately, home machines playing 1/4 track 7" reels at 3 3/4" were a far cry from the fidelity of professional machines. Dopogue, I think that the reason that your R-R recordings sound better than vinyl is due to the fact that R-R pre-recorded tapes were taken from 2nd or 3rd generations of the master tape. Vinyl pressings had to actually re-master the master tape. Due to the many limitations of vinyl pressings, the "artistic" interpretation of the vinyl mastering engineer, and the marketing pressures of the record companies executives, whose primary concerns WERE NOT fidelity and sonics, most '70's and '80's rock and vinyl pop albums are but sonic shadows of the master tapes!

8 track tape was a revolution for car audio! At last, you were not dependent on a DJ for your music, commercials were eliminated...IF you could handle a song switching tracks in the middle, and the ensuing 5-10 second delay for the resumption of play, and the unavoidable and inevitable mechanical misalignment of tracking! I couldn't; but car cassette players were just around the corner!
Does anyone remember the EL cassette? It was a large cassette that resembled a video tape. I think the tape was 1/4" or maybe larger. The "concept" was basically a cassette that had reel to reel tape loaded into it. I remember seeing one around 1975. Obviously, it was a marketing failure but I think that the concept was sound, in fact I have seriously considered the marketability of a similar machine using vhs cassettes. The player would be a two track two channel machine that used analogue style convential tape heads and not vhs rotary heads. So, now we are talking about 1/2" tape ran at 30 i.p.s. or higher on a mass marketed media that is available everywhere!!! I think that there would be a large demand for high quality pre-recorded tapes. When you consider what the best digital transports, upsamplers and D.A.C.s cost, plus all the required cables $$$, and most people still say that a budget turntable sounds better than all of that if you can even afford it, I think my idea starts to seem reasonable. If that is not exciting enough, realise that it is a RE-recordable format, analogue to analogue or digital to analogue and is backwards compatible with all blank vhs tape. It might in fact sound so good that people would want to make digital copies from the analogue source for their cd,mp etc.players;) P.S. Does anyone besides me realise that the real reason for 5.1 SACD is for automobiles and not home theatre? It is just my opinion, I may be wrong...
Interesting read for sure. Especially since it was written in 2004 when the last of the good (read: not great) Sony ES machines (TC-KA3ES) could be found on the internet and at discounters for a mere 200 bucks - and because the writer picks 2010 as forwarding looking date.

Well, it's 2010. Resurgence? Not quite. Interest and demand for used decks and NOS tapes. Certainly.

I found this article searching on the model number TC-K870ES, which happens to be my all-time favorite deck. The amazing thing is that next year my 870 will be 20 years old and it still performs extremely well. Tapes I made back in the early nineties on the same deck still play like the day I recorded them. The compact cassette is a great platform but the true need for portability, capacity, conveniece of use and relative indestructability has brought digital to the forefront and the masses are responded. Tape is niche. Which is cool by me. But turntables have a different alure if you ask me and the whole tape deck thing doesn't seem to compare in my estimation.

It will be interesting to revist this thread in 10 more years...
One last comment (as I read all the other comments after my first response...). As for TDK MA-R's being milled aluminum, that's incorrect. Those metal frames were a diecast alloy, which included some aluminum in the pot metal formulation.
Wow, a Golden Oldie. Forgot I even posted on this thing, 6 years ago, with a general downer message about how open reel is the ultimate hair shirt medium. While it still is, I've probably bought 200 tapes since then, switched my Teac X-1000R for a much better sounding Otari MX5050 BII, and am now enjoying even better sound via a tubed tape head preamp that a friend built. I honestly never knew tapes could sound this good. Dave