When I was about 12, I became obsessed with having a reel-to-reel tape recorder (the only kind available at the time). The Wollensak was the most popular, but I preferred a larger, bulker unit from Voice of Music, shown here:
Instead of having a meter needle to track volume level, it had a green vacuum-tube display that operated on either side of a vertical line like butterfly wings. This was in the arched control unit just to the right of the pushbuttons in the photo above. The idea was to set the volume so that the loudest parts of the music would have the wings come together from horizontal to vertical so they were just touching. The two plastic disk-type knobs to the left of the buttons kept track of minutes and hours of elapsed time. And yes, it came with the microphone shown in the rear compartment, which was of pretty decent quality.
I got a lot of mileage out of my machine. One of the main uses I applied it to was recording dozens of reels of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which broadcast from Philadelphia in those days on my local Philadelphia ABC affliate (WPVI, Channel 6). I did this because (a) I was really into Rock’N’Roll, like about 98% of the other kids my age, and more importantly, because (b) “everyone” who was supposed to be an authority on this kind of thing was absolutely certain that this “junk” music would never last, and that in fact it would fade away and be forgotten, discarded like old newspapers. I tended to doubt that, but at 12 years old, I was willing to give those authority figures the benefit of a very big doubt. Besides, I had a ball doing the recordings, and was glad to have an extensive music collection without having to pay for it [I had no idea I’d be able to do that again 50 years later….]
I kept those tapes, and still have them along with the VoM tape recorder, although I’ve never gone back to play them. I’ve been too busy, I have CDs full of DooWop and 60s music that are more accessible, and plenty of other things to do. But I am still pleased I put in the time and effort to make that historical record, even if it is now more of an “archive.”
Technical and Other Details
One of the things I most recall about creating this archive is the unmistakable acetone smell or odor of the mylar or acetate quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape itself. I assume most of you have handled and used tape cassettes from the 1970s and later. These also had that smell to a certain extent, but reel-to-reel tape had a much more pungent aroma.
Both mylar and acetate substrates were commonly available. The mylar was just a tad thinner, but stronger, although it had a tendency to stretch a bit (not good!). This was the tape of choice for the longest length reels. But there were other considerations. A one-hour tape (at the faster speed for better recording quality) was more durable and easier to mount, wind/rewind, and to splice than a two-hour double-length tape. Mylar, being a bit stronger, was the choice for the longer, and acetate — much cheaper — was my choice for the shorter length.
But there was another consideration: while you could get more bang for the buck with a two-hour tape, since it was thinner you also had to be aware of the possibility of the recorded signal “bleeding through” the tape onto the next wrap of the reel, which created an unacceptable (to me) delayed slight-echo effect. It was delayed nearly two seconds, so it was hardly an echo. It was simply bleed-through interference. It helped not to have the tape too tightly wound, but you couldn’t always control that. And having it too loose was even worse. It took practice, but I did manage to get rather good at handling these reels. Over time, though, if the tape is not played, or at least wound-rewound at high speed, it tends to bleed through anyway. I’m beginning to remember why I didn’t really ever play this archive much after it was filed (I played it a lot in the period I was recording it, of course!).
I also annotated what I was recording on the back of the reel box, which was wide-lined just for that purpose. I could also put the start and end date on the spine of the box for easy reference.
Finally, there were occasions when I wanted to edit something out. I got pretty good at manually manipulating the start/stop of the recording to eliminate dead air, peripheral noise, and irrelevant content (like a TV commercial in real-time [pun intended, I guess!] although there would have been archival value in those commercials, too!). When I needed to edit something, though, I would take the tape out of the recording/playback head path and loop it down onto a “splicing block” (shown below) which would allow me to make diagonal splicing
cuts, remove the offending segment, and then tape the two ends of the reeled tape together with special splicing tape. I got pretty good at that, too.
It was certainly possible to do the recording with some degree of discretion and precision. Specifically, on the VoM recorder, you could play the tape to the point you wanted to start recording, hit the “hold” button, and have the recorder primed to start the recording process immediately upon release of the holding status. Otherwise, if you just stopped the tape, then hit “record” when you wanted to start recording (which involved pressing the red Record button AND the Play button together (see photo at top) it was much harder to get a precise start, and you were likely to loose a second or two, which is annoying. Practice makes perfect!
A lot of the recording I did was “over the air,” i.e. with microphone placed near the TV speaker. That worked better than you might suppose, because most of the recording was done when no one else was around, and the phone didn’t ring much in those days. When I was perhaps 14, I started doing the recording via a direct hook-up between the TV’s audio-out jacks and audio-in sockets on the tape recorder. Obviously, this was preferable. The quality was certainly better, but the over-the-air sound quality was not really that bad.
I mentioned the “bleed through” problem above for completed tapes left unplayed for long periods. In getting material for this blog post, I read that there is a method to actually "bake" an old tape (in the oven!) for a short period before playing it, which helps to restore its freshness. For mylar that’s fine; for acetate, not so much, because it’s flammable! Which reminds me of when I was a movie projectionist in college running a professional 35 mm movie projector powered by a carbon arc light generated from small sticks of carbon that had to be “ignited” before each reel was run (there were always at least two projectors, sometimes three; while one was playing you set the next one up, and rewound what just played from the other projector once you started the second one - projectionists don’t get to “watch the movie!”). Now that I thought of it, I’m going to have to do a separate blog post on that experience (and “post” is the word, since the guy who taught me how to do all that was Mark Post)! The point here, though, is that 35 mm acetate movie film was common until the late ’50s, and had to be handled with great care because the carbon arc that created the powerful projector light was extremely hot To take out a “used” carbon stick, which you had to do at least once a film, often more frequently, you used heavy gloves like fireplace mits, and even then, handled the carbon stick itself with small tongs. If it sounds like a blacksmith shop, that’s not too far from the truth!