Equipment: Cassette vs. Open Reelby Terry G. G. Salomonson
This article will probably hit at some very deep seated gut feelings both pro and con on both sides of the issue. I do not know any way to slowly back into this subject without raising the hair on the back of collect necks all over the country. But, here goes.
I started into collecting old time radio programs several decades ago. The choice of which format to use in recording, collecting, trading, and just preserving was simple. It was the machine of choice, the best machine easily available to all, the most cost effective format: the reel-to-reel format.
First, reel-to-reel equipment was readily available everywhere. The cost for equipment started at about $100.00 for a good basic deck and climbed up to about $650.00 for decks with various features such as pitch, quarter track recording, sound on sound, sound with sound, auto-reverse, 10.5" reels, reverse recording, etc. Many other items and features loaded these decks up (and the costs), but these are the basic features and needs for the average OTR collector. And after all, the serious HiFi or Stereo enthusiasts, used reel-to-reel equipment. If you don't believe it, just look at almost any movie or television program of the time. If there was a great stereo system to be viewed, you better believe you were looking a reel-to-reel deck.
We didn't really need the frequency ranges that these decks handled, as we were more concerned with the voice range. The more expensive decks provided the recording range of 20 to 25,000 hertz which was lower and higher than we would worry about.
Wow and flutter were generally lower than we could detect by ear and if the deck had pitch control capabilities, we could correct speed problems generally within about + or - 5%. We had the recording world be the tail. Most of these decks were built pretty good and would last for years of trouble free recording and playing back our collections.
On top of all that, the reel-to-reel tape was very cost effective to the collector. I remember buying factory fresh and sealed 1800' Capital 1 mil .25" tape for about $1.25 per reel. To be truthful, I was buying the reels at the Air Force Exchange, but whenever they were sold out, I could still go locally and buy the same quality grade tape for about $1.75 to $2.00 per reel.
At the same time, you could also buy very good cassette decks for $50.00 to about $325.00. I had several cassette decks along with all the other stereo and quadraphonic equipment that I had purchased while in the military. For the most part, the cassette decks that were available to the home market at that time, were pretty straight forward. Playback and record. The more expensive decks would auto-reverse, usually in the playback mode only. Single track recordings were not one of the features that you could find and pitch control was another.
The more expensive decks usually featured a front loading door rather than top loading the cassettes. Also, the high end decks gave you the ability to use Dolby and to select different types of extended range cassette tapes which were starting to become popular. Sometimes that only button that you had on the cheaper decks (besides the standard "piano keys") was the reset counter button. But development was starting to begin with seriousness from some to the top-of-the line manufacturers. Most of the development was focused in two areas: tape transport and the record/playback heads.
At this period of time however, most of the collectors were collecting and trading on reel-to-reel tapes. Rare was the mention that the willing trader used only cassettes. There were a few collectors, as I remember, that traded reels at cassette speeds. They were recording programs at 1 7/8 ips on open reels. There were a few open reel decks that gave you the ability to change the size of the capstan post, thus changing to a few non-normal speeds. This lead to a great amount of hours on one 1800' reel, 12 hours to be exact, but most collector did not have open reel machines that would run at that speed. So the providers of these reels had a very limited audience of collectors to trade with. The collectors that were trading with them, had to "double speed" these reels to the common 3 3/4 ips mode, but a lot of quality was lost in the slowing down to 1 7/8 and then speeding up to 3 3/4 ips speeds.
Twenty years ago, 98 per cent of the collectors that I dealt with, collected reel-to-reel only. The other 2 per cent collected very limitedly on reels, but their main focus was cassette collections. Their problem in getting material was that most of the collectors collected and traded only on reels. So they had a reel machine to copy reels from to their cassette collection, but they were very isolated from the rest of the collectors without providing reels. What many collectors did not realize then, is that some of these same cassette collectors were using their one reel deck (the one that they made their reel-to-cassette copies from) to also record the requested trade material to send back to the reel collector. The reel collector didn't realize that their "new" material wasn't from a reel-to-reel copy at 3 3/4 or 7 1/2 ips, but from a 1 7/8 ips cassette recorded on to a 3 3/4 ips reel-to-reel machine. Some of this material started circulating among many reel collectors with speed and pitch problems that took years to weed out. Older reel decks in all likelihood just added to the over all problem with their own speed and pitch problems due to worn out belts, worn and not true round rubber capstan rollers, etc. But mixing the (superior) reel machines and the (technically inferior) cassette decks just didn't help the problems at all.
Eight track tapes were also popular at that time. Mostly developed for the car, attempts were made to popularize this format in both the stereo and quadraphonic modes. I had purchased both formats, as it was believed at the time that quadraphonic was the next major leap forward in the modern sound system. (Like Beta for video tape, it died quickly). There were a few collectors that tried the eight track route, but it became apparent very quickly, that this format was not friendly to the OTR collector. The track widths were wider than cassettes and the speed was double that of cassettes, 3 3/4 ips, so the recordings were slightly richer than you could realize from the cassette format. One major disadvantage, you couldn't reverse the tape and repairs, or editing was either difficult, or impossible.
For the next ten years (mid 1970-s to mid 1980's), two things happened on both the reel and cassette markets. Fewer and fewer reel-to-reel decks were being designed and promoted to the consumer market and the costs started to increase on the desks with the features that we needed. At the same time, cassette deck designs were improving, but the consumers were given two designs to chose from. Small fairly cheap consumer decks with very few features, and a more expensive design with better record/playback heads and transport systems.
With these changes, the OTR collector also changed. Many more moved away from the reel machines and turned increasingly to the cassette format. It seem like a logical move. Cassette players were increasing installed in our automobiles instead of the formerly popular eight track decks. Also, virtually everyone had one, if not, more than one cassette deck. They were appearing in the home, the car, as portable units, system models, etc. You could give OTR programs on cassettes to anyone in the family and be confident that they would have a machine to listen to them on. Quit a lot of research and development had been accorded the cassette format. Most of the development had been on producing the best recording/playback heads possible. Extended frequency ranges were improved upon, harder heads for longer life started the cassette units to move in the direction of the reliability and performances of the reel decks. The tape transport systems became more reliable and the wow and flutter specs doubled and tripled over the best performances of four and five years before.
Most of these improvements were in the units that had a price range of $150.00 to $500.00 at the time. Together with the improved electronics and the continuing reduction in size and weight, these cassette decks were being favored more and more by not only OTR collectors, but the consumer buying public. Within several more years, three head cassette decks were available and the pricing started to come down, making what before would have been studio only decks, high end consumer decks.
Now the collectors market started changing to cassettes and away from the traditional reel-to-reel market. And with the slow down in reel purchases, the manufacturers started reducing the variety of different models they produced and marketed. Pioneer, Akai, Sony, TEAC and many other reel-to-reel manufacturers offered fewer and fewer models and finally withdrew from the consumer market all together. Within a four year period, if you could find reel-to-reel machine on the stereo electronic dealers shelves, you would have seen prices travel from $150.00 for a low end unit to $600 and $700 for not much more than a basic unit.
Decks with the traditional 10.5" reels, with pitch control, individual track recording control, etc., started at about $1,500.00 and climbed quickly. Basic record and playback units were harder to find, and when you could find them the prices became shocking. And indeed, the OTR consumer market had changed within about a five year period to about 90% cassette oriented and today it's probably closer to 98%, or more.
Many collectors, like myself, who collected thousand of reels of programs, still can not get away from the reel format. The storage area required alone is smaller than thousands of cassettes holding the same amount of programs. But the cost of equipment maintenance is becoming staggering. In some cases, you can not even find the parts to maintain older equipment. The cost today for good new production reel-to-reel decks start at $2,500.00 and can quickly move into the $4,000.00 neighborhood. On top of the price of a reel deck, the cost and finding a source for good reel tape has become a major problem. Fewer and fewer of the tape manufacturers are turning out 1/4" reel tape. The used government tape sources have all but dried up and the typical cost for a new case of ten 1/4" tape pancakes averages about $115.00. When you wind that down to 7" reels, your cost is starting to bounce between $6.00 and $7.00 per reel, or more.
Several years ago, I purchased a TASCAM 122 MkII three-head cassette deck to do my mastering on. The cost for that deck was $1,200.00. But you can adjust recording bias, calibration tones allow you to record the highest levels without distortion and by using a good music grade tape, you can preserve these OTR programs in the best sound with virtually no tape hiss that you would have expected ten years ago.
Recently, I upgraded my master cassette recording deck the newer TASCAM 122 MkIII. I still use my 122 MkII deck, but the newer MkIII does have some upgraded features and improved automatic functions. The cost has gone up a little from the earlier deck. The editing capabilities, biasing control, meter adjustments, dolby selections of B or C, pitch control, etc., make these units a must for the serious OTR collector/trader, or like myself, a provider of this material to the collecting community. I also have a three head Sony K707ES cassette deck that includes the ability to provide recordings not only in dolby B and C, but also S (for those that would need that).
So, where does all this lead us. I can never totally give up my reel decks and master reels, but the cost to the active or new collector would point them in the cassette direction. There are pluses and minuses, but the bottom line fact is, they are not producing affordable reel decks and probably never will again. Cassette development have given us a great advantage and as close to the reel world as possible for a lot less money. Analog cassette may not be the total future. DAT cassette decks and tapes are coming down in prices, but that might not be the future for the OTR collector. DAT cassette prices average about $10.00 per one hour tape. That's the same price if you were to buy (in bulk) 20 music grade analog cassettes. The future may be with recordable CD's, or in the newer DVD technology. But for now, I would have to recommend analog cassette format for the OTR collector of today.
Next Part XIII - Radio Science Fiction
If there is an area of information that you, the new or well established collector, would like to see in this series, please feel free to write me. Any questions, comments, or suggestions will be carefully considered. I can be reached through this internet web site or the following addresses:
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Last Updated: 04/27/15 07:37:41 PM