The Reel History of Analog Tape Recording

[Editor’s note – in order to fully appreciate the Tape Issue, we thought it prudent to provide at least a bullet-point, 10,000-foot view of how this whole crazy thing got started. This is an abbreviated history of the format and recording in general, but should give you a basic understanding of where things came from. Enjoy.]

Magnetic reel-to-reel recording began with giant epiphanies of enlightenment beginning in 1898 when Danish visionary Valdemar Poulsen developed and patented the first magnetic wire recorder known as the “Telegraphone” [pictured above]. The fidelity of wire recording by 1945 was equal to that of a phonograph record.

Next, the BBC worked with Marconi to develop a recorder that was capable of recording 100 Hz – 6 kHz and began to take orders in 1935 for the behemoth Marconi-Stille recorder. It used steel razor tape 3 mm wide running at 300 feet per minute.

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Cigarette paper manufacturer Fritz Pfleumer knew about Poulsen’s wire recorder. He had the idea to coat iron oxide on very thin paper and he received a patent from Germany in 1928. In 1932 German Company AEG was granted the right of use and AEG and BASF combined skills to develop magnetic recording to be used as the first analog tape recorder, the Magnetaphon K1.

The Magnetophon K1 was first demonstrated in Berlin in 1935 running at 30 ips (inches per second) and had the same functional design that would be used until the end of the analog recording era. The Magnetophon K1’s functionality was a major leap but had limited use due to a major noise floor problem.
In 1940, Walter Weber (while working at the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG)) discovered how to apply AC Bias in order to get rid of noise by superimposing a frequency while recording.

During World War II, the Americans were unaware of the AC Bias application and the advancements in German tape technology that had been made by 1943; thought the German radio stations were employing live musicians.

When the Germans surrendered, the occupying forces took control of the radio station at Bad Nauheim and John T. “Jack” Mullin, who was serving in the U.S. Signal Corps with the specific instruction to plunder and send home German Technology, was on his way home to San Francisco when a British Officer talked him into going to the radio station and listening to the improved Magnetophon K1.

Upon hearing the reproduction, Mullin confiscated two machines and 50 rolls of Farben recording tape and broke the machines down into 16 boxes, which he sent home to California after photographing all the schematics.

The machines were capable of producing up to 10 kHz. Mullin then figured out how to get the recording frequency up to 15 kHz, making his pair of hot-rodded Magnetophons the two greatest hi-fidelity recording machines to exist post-war.

Mullin demonstrated them in San Francisco and attracted the attention of the Ampex Corporation. known for their use of Alnico 5 magnets. In 1947, Jack Mullin was hired on the spot by Bing Crosby to record his radio show. Bing Crosby found out that Ampex was interested in building a version of the machines, so he paid $50,000 for the first two Ampex Model 200 Recorders. This was the seed money for mass development and mass production.

Previously, guitarist and inventor Les Paul had developed “Sound on Sound” recording techniques, using recordable disc media, but this process suffered from significant sound degradation. Bing Crosby gave Les Paul one of his Ampex 200 machines and soon Les Paul developed phasing, tape delay and other tape techniques still in use today (or replicated today through digital means).

The genesis for an 8-track, tape-based multi-track recording machine came to Les Paul in a dream in 1953, when the idea came to him to stack the recorder’s heads one on top of each other. Ross Snyder at Ampex was thinking about the very same thing but the process of alignment and synchronization took some time to develop, and it was finally patented in 1955. Les Paul took delivery in 1957 of the first Ampex Sel-Sync 1-inch 8-track machines for the price of $10,000.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Ampex stepped up 8-track 1-inch production due to demand, with the MM 1000 model known for its flexibility and simplicity before introducing a 16-track version in 1967. The 1970s-era Ampex MM1200 2-inch 16-track and 24 track are still considered the best sounding recorders of their time.

MCI built the first 24-track recorder (using 2-inch tape) in 1968, which was installed at TTG Studios in Los Angeles. MCI was later bought out by Sony in 1982. The introduction of SMPTE time code allowed studios to run multiple machines in perfect synchronization, a big breakthrough for the time.

Jumping back in the timeline a bit to 1949, Willi Studer developed his first tape recorder, the “Dynavox,” which was renamed after the founding of ELA AG in 1951 by Willi Studer and Hans Winzeler as the Revox T26. The Studer 27 began mass production in 1952. In 1960, the Studer C37 began production and the frequency response still stands up to just about any media. The Studer J37 4-track (which was used at EMI by The Beatles through Sgt. Pepper’s) began production in 1964.

Studer began production of its own 2-inch 24-track machine, the Studer A80, in 1970. They subsequently went on to release the first microprocessor-controlled recorder, the Studer A800, in 1978. The final step forward for Studer was the Studer A820 in 1985, as they began to move their operations into digital technology.
By the late 1970s, Ampex faced tough competition from both Studer and Japanese manufacturers such as Otari and Sony. In 1979, Ampex introduced their most advanced 24-track recorder, the model ATR-124. It was considered to be the finest analog recorder of its type. However, sales of the ATR-124 were slow due to its high cost. Ampex withdrew from the professional audio tape recorder market entirely in 1983.

TEAC/TASCAM aimed their equipment at secondary markets with lower specs but great reliability so that a tech would not be needed to maintain gear. This proved to be a lucrative market where competition grew from Fostex, Otari and Akai. Semi-Pro formats reached their zenith with the Fostex E16 1/2-inch, with its SMPTE controller and the TASCAM TSR 24 1-inch, which was nearly dead on arrival in 1990 as affordable digital technology entered the market. It was during the 1980s and early 1990s that home recording took off, largely due to TASCAM’s portable ‘Portastudio’ units, employing a compact cassette recorder as opposed to larger open reel systems. And from there, there rest is history…

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