Having been noodling around with my old Otari MX-55, I thought I’d share a couple of little conclusion I have drawn regarding different NAB spools, tape and general operation.
Don’t bother with new-old-stock (NOS) tape
Unless you’re specifically experimenting with the different sounds or qualities of these older tape stocks, buy new. I have found it’s not actually any more expensive than the ridiculous prices that are charged on various auction sites to get brand new tape stock, and doing so supports the couple of manufacturers that still make this stuff.
Most Ampex tapes you’ll come across suffer from Sticky-Shed Syndrome which renders them useless, and tapes from other manufacturers can degrade in a bunch of new and entertaining ways. Most recently, I had some 1993-vintage 3M 996 master tape with a sticky backing that took an awful lot of careful cleaning to get rid of the transport stiction it created.
Do yourself and your hobby a favour. Go to someone like Thomann and pick up a few rolls of brand-new Pyral/RMGI SM911 – at writing it was something like £20 a spool and can comprehensively outperform a lot of the older tapes. It doesn’t crap all over your tape transport either!
If I’m being honest, the exception I tend to make for this rule is Zonal 645 – it appears to age very well and in a very stable manner, and its characteristics are not too far departed from contemporary stock. It’s still worth re-biasing and turning the levels down a little for it, but it’s generally a good tape in my limited experience. Note that stock that is currently being sold on auction sites as new appears to be new-old-stock of some indeterminate vintage, and also tends to have splices every 600 feet or so, implying that larger spools have been made up from many 5″ reels spliced together. Nothing wrong with that per se, but nonetheless it can be avoided altogether by buying new.
Learn to re-bias and re-calibrate your deck
Adjusting your recorder to take advantage of modern tape stocks really pays dividends. The SM911 mentioned above can record at +9dB over without distortion, and by re-calibrating the deck, you can easily drop the noise floor of your recordings whilst maintaining correct meter indication (rather than having them buried at the right-hand side of the scale). I can only really speak for my Otari deck, but the manual makes doing this preposterously easy.
Also, if you can, pick a tape stock and stick with it. Bias your tape recorder to the tape manufacturer’s specification, re-equalise the playback circuits and you’ll have quite frankly astounding recordings compared to some of the older formulations. My Otari loves SM911. ATR Master Tape, not so much, but both sound far better than their older siblings.
Get a really nice take-up spool
This sounds a bit superficial, but I’ll explain.
I have found there are four types of NAB spool: Plastic, crap, decent and excellent.
Plastic spools have their place. They’re cheap, but can warp over time and start chewing the edges of tape. They are very light, however, and can be useful when whizzing around a tape when editing content, especially if you have a shuttle control on your deck.
The crap spool category tends to relate to spools having flimsy, thin steel flanges that are more air than steel: large windage holes and so on. They flex disproportionately, don’t tend to run true and get bent easily, again causing the spool to chew on the edge of the tape as it is wound to or from the spool. Older AGFA steel spools seem to fit this category, although I’m sure there are others.
Decent spools were generally produced by many of the big name name brands: BASF / EMTEC / Pyral / RMGI, 3M, Ampex, Zonal, TDK and so on. They tend to be made of much thicker steel than their crap counterparts and generally have smaller windage holes, both of which result in a far more sturdy flange which can both protect the tape in storage (if it’s inadvertently stored horizontally) and not bend enough to catch the tape during operation. They also have the advantage that there is plenty of space for labels and so on.
Finally, you get the really nice “excellent” spools. Specifically, I came across a pair of 3M 996 gold spools recently and they really do make a difference. Not only do the flanges conform to the “decent” requirement of being thick, unyielding and solid, the edges are very nicely radiused to help minimize tape damage should it come into contact with the spool. What’s more, it’s held together with no fewer than 12 screws into the hub making it extremely solid, and the hub itself is of a different construction to normal 1/4″ NAB spools: the hub is recessed around its circumference and the flanges sit over this recess, indexing them precisely to the reel’s axial centre, meaning zero wobble or lateral movement can occur. Finally, and best of all, the circumferential surface of the hub upon which the tape mounts is rubberised, allowing it to get a good grip on even the most shiny leader without having to wrap miles of it around the hub before it grips sufficiently,
Put leaders on your tapes and keep them in boxes
Mechanical damage is a real danger to open-reel media, so anything you can do to prevent it is helpful. Generally, tape recorders have been designed over the years to minimise stress during transport operation – it’s during loading and unloading problems can occur.
Splicing leader on to your tapes allows you load the reel without handling the recording tape itself. You can easily transfer oils and dirt from your fingers to the tape, and that will potentially result in drop out, tape damage or even head damage in extreme cases.
Using a leader means that you only ever handle sacrificial material during the threading process, leaving the actual recording media unmolested.
The box thing again is for protection, but in this case it can help spread the load of mechanical handling and keep the whole reel reasonably dust- and dirt-free, all of which results in a happy tape recorder.
Finally, leaders can signify which end of the tape you’re at (useful if you subscribe to the “tails-out” storage philosophy) and provide a nice, clear index for resetting the tape counter. Finding a track within the tape then becomes a whole lot easier, rather than having to reset the counter based on an audio cue if you’re using a leaderless tape.