Reel Finds

This section is dedicated to interesting tape recordings made by others that I have come to possess. I've found that used tapes, especially of the reel-to-reel variety, can carry fascinating content. Most of these will have been recorded between the 1950s and 1990s, at times when reel-to-reel equipment was widely available, but relatively expensive. Nowadays, the tapes and equipment can often be found for fairly cheap (with some exceptions), especially in thrift and sometimes music stores. Granted, the equipment especially is not always in prime condition, but most tape machines are of high enough quality that they can be returned to working order unless extremely damaged.

Generally, used tapes can be sorted into the following categories:

  • Pop Music - Probably the most common thing to find, and typically the least interesting, since the music is typically easily found elsewhere (i.e. the internet). Often these tapes are in poor condition due to being repeatedly played.
  • Broadcast Material - Also common to find, since broadcasters themselves were large users of reel-to-reel tapes, and many people taped their favorite radio shows. These can be quite interesting, and chances are that if you find a tape of a radio program, it may be the only recording of it in existence.
  • Voice Recordings - Specifically, voice recordings of the non-broadcast variety. Also fairly common. Typical finds include family recordings, child banter, adult banter, church services, boardroom meetings; pretty much anything that involves voices. The older these recordings are, the more interesting they tend to be, since ways of speaking have changed noticeably since even the 1980s.
  • Bizarre Noise - More common than one might think. I have a number of tapes that I can't even begin to comprehend how they came to sound the way they do.
  • Original Music - The least common, and what I tend to look for the most.

Of course, with reel-to-reel tape, there are a number of different widths as well as speeds and track formats, which can cause some difficulty with playing if suitable equipment isn't available. As well, tapes can suffer from a few types of breakdown, most commonly binder hydrolysis ("sticky shed syndrome") which tends to affect some of the most commonly found studio tapes (Ampex 456, for example). Dried-out and poorly-done splices are also common. However, these can all be overcome. Have a look at the listings below, which are sorted based on the above categories. I try to list the format of each tape, as well as any issues dealt with. As with the equipment section, tape listings will be added as space and time permits.

Broadcast Material - "Tape for 14th Day"

Tape:Ampex 456 - 1/2" 1.5 mil polyester
Reel:10.5" metal
Speed:15 ips

This tape was given to me around 2005 by someone working for the radio and television station CFRN, long before I owned a tape machine capable of playing it. The only writing, aside from a number on the spine, consists of "Tape for 14th Day", which of course gives no clear indication of what the tape contains. Even after receiving a half inch unit, I wasn't able to play it until I had also received a food dehydrator; being Ampex 456, this tape required baking before being able to be played, due to the infamous binder hydrolysis / "sticky shed syndrome" that affects 456 especially.

As it turns out, this is the master tape for a number of advertisements. About half of the tape's running time is taken by the audio for what would seem to be an infomercial for the condominium construction company McJane Developments. The rest is comprised of radio ads, which indicate a date of 1996. These are, of course, the masters for these ads, meaning the voice and backing music can be isolated and mixed as desired. As well, some ads have multiple slightly different voice tracks recorded, for example saying different dates.

Also note that this tape was likely recorded on a 4-track recorder, since tracks 1 and 2, 3 and 4, etc. are nearly identical when played on an 8-track machine.

Ad for McJane Developments. Unlike the rest, which are radio ads, this appears to have had corresponding video.

Ad for Yamaha/Suzuki dealership. Music track, sound effects track, and two vocal tracks.

"Bear Tips" advertisement from The Bear radio station, with three vocal tracks in the first section! Note the 1996 dates.

Transferred using a Tascam 58 at 15 ips, after being baked for 4 hours at 135 degrees fahrenheit in a Nesco FD-60 food dehydrator. If you would like to mess around with the full length / all of the tracks, send me a message!

Broadcast Material - "CBC" in Trubilt box

Tape:Various Stocks - 1/4" mostly acetate
Reel:7" clear plastic (Scotch brand)
Speed:3.75 ips, 7.5 ips
Format:half-track mono

This tape was found in a thrift store in 2010 or 2011. I believe it dates from around 1963, since it features a (rather low quality) recording of a CBC "Special International Test Broadcast for Europe" which includes reference to the solar eclipse on July 20th of that year, and also mentions "President Kennedy", "Kruschev", and has an amusing section of CBC's "Teen Bandstand" program, featuring early 60s teen pop music. Scattered throughout the reel as well are extremely noisy recordings of Russian broadcasts, as well as a sections of eerie indistinguishable noise.

As can be seen in the images, the tape is composed of a wide variety of stocks spliced together. In the backlit photo, it's easy to tell which stocks likely have an acetate backing (light shines through the side), and which have a polyester backing (no light shines through). All in all, there were probably more than 50 splices, almost all of which were completely dried-out and poorly done using scotch tape. One of the pictures shows the reel on the Tandberg TD 20A pre-splice-replacement. Note the slightly uneven packing, and that there was no splice at the part where the tape sticks out in the middle of the pack. One of the most hilarious spliced sections is also shown, which is about 1 second long at 3.75 ips! Note that the splices are not edit points, since the sound is continuous over all of them. Another of the pictures shows the "best" splice in the whole reel, mainly because it was one of maybe two or three that didn't immediately break after coming off the supply reel. It was still quite terrible though, and was quickly replaced.

(Side A - 3.75 ips section) - CBC Special International Test Broadcast for Europe

(Side A - 7.5 ips section) - "The Teen Bandstand" on CBC's MacKenzie Network

Side B omitted; available by request.

Transferred using an Akai 4000DS at 3.75 and 7.5 ips. A small amount of dynamic range compression was added to the recordings in Audacity.

Voice Recordings - "Mock Board Meeting (Calgary Seminar on School Board Administration)"

Tape:Burgess 141 - 1/4" 1.5 mil acetate
Reel:5" clear plastic
Date:March 31, 1966
Speed:3.75 ips
Format:half-track mono

The title may give the impression that this recording is somewhat dull, but in fact, it is surprisingly funny. I don't think the people involved were really taking it seriously, being a "mock" meeting and all. The sound quality is not excellent; in fact, with high sound levels, a sound much like digital aliasing noise is heard (but I assure that the transfer did not introduce such). Nonetheless, the discussion can be quite interesting, especially the section on Side A concerning a school band. It's hard to tell if these were the people's true opinions.

(Side A)

(Side B)

Transferred using an Akai 4000DS at 3.75 ips. The tape appears to be recorded in half-track mono, so the 1/4 track format of the Akai would result in slightly more noise than otherwise, but it is not too significant. A small amount of dynamic range compression was added to the recordings in Audacity.

As a side note, look at how well light shines through the side of the tape pack! This is a clear indication that this tape has an acetate base; polyester tapes are opaque when viewed the same way.

Voice Recordings - "Role of the Principal"

Tape:Scotch 175 - 1/4" 1.5 mil polyester
Reel:5" clear plastic
Date:May, 1976
Speed:3.75 ips
Format:quarter-track stereo

Picked up along with the "Mock Board Meeting" tape. This tape is particularly interesting because it would have originally accompanied a slideshow (using an actual slide projector, of course), though the slides have been lost. As well, considering it would have been an educational tape played for groups of people, the production is surprisingly "amateur". The music is clearly played "open air", the slide projector can be heard changing slides in the background, and the overall fidelity is not high. Still, an amusing artifact, which can be heard below:

Transferred using an Akai 4000DS at 3.75 ips. As indicated on the card, on the tape, the left track contains "sync" pulses for advancing a slide projector, while the right contains the narration. However, I've mixed it now to have the narration centered, and while I considered omitting the sync track, I decided to include it, quiet and panned all the way to the left channel.

Broadcast Material / Voice Recordings - Civil Defence Tapes

Tape:Scotch 111 - 1/4" 1.5 mil acetate
Reel:4" clear plastic
Date:~late 1950s - early 1960s
Speed:7.5 ips, ~4.2/4.8 ips
Format:half-track mono, quarter track mono

These eight 4" reels of Scotch 111 were purchased from a local vintage camera shop. Only one of them has a significant written label on its box (though most have "7 1/2 ips" and a 3-digit number written), which reads "Tucson 1961 cont'd", although the tape is blank. In fact, six of the eight reels are blank, with only two containing recordings.

One contains a number of fairly high quality radio announcements, recorded at 7.5 ips, which feature Staff Sgt. Lou Nodelman of the "Army Public Relations Detachment in Winnipeg." He informs the public about a "National Survival Exercise" involving the sounding of warning sirens, which would indicate that enemy attack is probable. I'm guessing this recording would have been made in the late 50s-early 60s, i.e. during the somewhat early Cold War. Based on the second tape and the label, I'd say it was probably made prior to 1961. Considering this, I'm guessing that the reverberation is actually likely from the space being spoken in. It can be heard below:

The only other recorded reel contains a number of very low-signal-level voice recordings, which seem to have been made at two speeds (on two machines?): around 4.2 and 4.8 ips. Two men discuss tape machines, the "new" Kodachrome 8mm film (presumably Kodachrome II, introduced 1961), as well as indicate whom the pile of tapes originally belonged to! After being sped downwards, I have added considerable dynamic range compression and some degree of noise reduction to these, and edited the most interesting sections together to form a single track, found below:

Both were transferred using a Tascam 22-4 at 7.5 ips.

Bizarre Noise - Unlabeled in Shamrock box

Tape:Unknown - 1/4" acetate
Reel:7" clear plastic
Date:1960s - 1970s?
Speed:7.5 ips
Format:quarter-track stereo

This was part of a large $10 box of tapes, the rest of which contained pop music of the 1960s. This reel, however, has a particularly interesting recording that would fit in the "bizarre noise" category. There is a somewhat warbly drone, which is modulated by some very distorted singing/music, and occasionally interrupted by loud popping and high-pitched tones. In the 10-minute sample below, the left channel is panned more towards the center, since it is where most of these interesting sounds take place.

Transferred using an Akai 4000DS at 7.5 ips.

Anything to say about these "reel finds"? Please contact me!

Last Updated: 7/21/2016