Learn Basic Tape Machine Maintenance & Repairing Tape Decks For A Cause

by | May 29, 2015 | Home Recording

PLUS: Teaching Valuable Skills to Those Who Face Barriers to Employment

Troubleshooting used to be a part of daily life for anyone who owned a piece of electronic equipment – especially tape decks.  There was always a chance of dirty contacts or tape paths, bad tubes, alignment issues, or the ever-present user error.

Recently my dad, a man who lived and breathed the evolution from tube to solid state, pulled out his Hi-Fi gear and seemed befuddled when he couldn’t plug his record player directly into his speakers. “The connectors are not the same!” he exclaimed. In my best “I can’t believe you, Dad” tone, I explained that you need a phono preamp and an amplifier (or a receiver) to achieve proper sound levels from a source…duh. His personal plight is no different from the droves of people who have (re)discovered that special feeling from owning Hi-Fi stereo equipment.

That special feeling always stirred my passion for repair, and fortunately I got a chance to share it with the right kinds of people at Isidore Electronics Recycling.  Isidore hires people who face barriers to work and develops their troubleshooting skills using discarded electronics.  Employees start off in de-manufacturing where end-of-life materials (e.g. metals, plastics, and components) are recovered and saved from landfills and incinerators.

After a stint in “deman,” individuals who are so inclined may move into refurbishment to achieve our main goal: reuse.  This is the department affectionately referred to as Repairadise.  The focus there is to use the one thing I remember from high school – the scientific method – to troubleshoot everything from tape decks to cell phones to big old military type equipment.  Each repair requires different tricks, but all require a mindset that is primed to troubleshoot.

Unfortunately, some of our employees haven’t grown up in environments where there is an emphasis on troubleshooting or embracing your failures.  So, we start by teaching that re-examining why something didn’t work is a chance to gain real knowledge and insight into a problem. That knowledge can then be molded into techniques. And, eventually, it can be applied to help solve different problems. For some people it can take time to accept this, but once they do, that’s when real growth and, eventually, mastery can come.

All this, along with some good old tried-and-true methods, can produce sweet jams in no time.  For example, if your tape deck is having an issue, it’s best to clean it BEFORE you try to troubleshoot it.  That’s because tape decks are sensitive, especially to dirt, imperfections, and certain types of opera reissues.  I’ve never seen the process explained any better than on the back of my old Fisher walkman manual, something I still refer to to this day:


Note: head cleaning tapes suck, do it by hand with swabs.  If things are really gnarly, break out the good stuff: GC Radio Service Solvent (also removes super glue and paint!) in combination with Rubber Renue.  WARNING: Both of these items have dangerously inebriating vapors and they can also “melt” certain types plastic, like cassettes cases or the front panel of your tape deck.

I use the Service Solvent on the tape path and Rubber Renue on idlers and pinch rollers.  It can take a few passes to get it back to normal.  If cleaning doesn’t solve your issues, there are many different possibilities.  In general, loose belts and spent idlers are prime replacement targets.  If replacing those doesn’t work, that’s where the fun part comes in: it’s now you and your troubleshooting skills against the tape deck.   Remember the best troubleshooters always ask questions and when presented with a sketchy conclusions, learn, and never back away till the good tunes roll.


Brian Fox has been designing and fixing electronics professionally for over 15 years.  Currently he is the general manager of Isidore Electronics Recycling, where he is trying to save every last bit of electronics from an untimely demise.  You can see what he’s fixing or who he’s helping on Instagram @isidorerecycles