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Vintage Reel to Reel Tape Recorders

Vintage Tape Recorder Hall Of Fame
Check out MORE reel to reel tape recorders!

Visit the Vintage Tape Recorder Hall Of Fame here at Clydesight! See photos and read specs on some of the most unique tape recorders ever made, both reel to reel and cassette. Look up machines by name and model number and see restoration and project videos!


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Tape recorders from the ClydeSight collection.

These units are NOT for sale

Wollensak 1288 vintage reel to reel tape recorder

The Wollensak 1288 reel to reel tape recorder from 1965 - with hybrid tube/transistor amplifier. 3-watt/channel.  Stereo 4-track, 2 speeds 7-1/2 and 3-3/4 ips, 1 combo erase/rec/play head, 7-1/2" reel capacity. 1-motor, double idler drive. Power assist controls, walnut woodgrain cabinet. External speakers. Moderately heavy 28 lbs

Click here to see videos of this tape recorder restoration!

TEAC  reel to reel tape recorder

A TEAC 4010-SL reel to reel tape "deck" (no amplifier or speakers), circa 1972.
Stereo 4-track, 2 speeds 7-1/2 and 3-3/4 ips, 3 heads, bi-directional playback, 7-1/2" reel capacity. 3-motors, belt drive.
Polished reflective metal face plate, woodgrain cabinet.
Extremely heavy - 50 lbs

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Click here to watch YouTube video of this machine!

Lloyds cassette recorder

A Lloyd's portable cassette recorder in leather outer case, circa 1967.
Monaural, 2-track, 1 speed 1-7/8 ips, 2 heads, unidirectional, standard compact cassette. 1 motor, belt drive. Battery and AC power.
Light weight, 3 lbs with batteries.

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Click here to watch YouTube video of this machine!

Webcor reel-to-reel tape  recorder
An early Webcor home reel to reel vintage tape recorder, circa 1952.
Mono, 2-track, 2 speeds 7-1/2 and 3-3/4 ips, 4 heads, bi-directional record and playback, 7-1/2" reel capacity. 2 motors, idler drive, tube amplifier.
Extremely heavy, 45 lbs.

RCA reel-to-reel tape  recorder

A portable RCA reel to reel vintage tape recorder circa 1970.
Mono, 2-track, 2 speeds 3-3/4 and 1-7/8 ips (capstan sleeve change), 2 heads, unidirectional, 3-1/4" reel capacity. 1 motor, belt drive. Battery and AC power.
Moderately heavy 5 lbs with batteries.

Granada reel-to-reel tape  recorder

A portable Granada reel to reel vintage tape recorder circa 1967.
Mono, 2-track, 2 speeds 3-3/4 and 1-7/8 ips (capstan sleeve change), 2 heads, unidirectional, 5 " reel capacity (3-1/4" reels shown here). 1 motor, idler drive. Battery and AC powered. Polished "chrome" face plate, all wood cabinet,
Moderately heavy 8 lbs with batteries.

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Click here to watch YouTube video of this machine!

A reel to reel tape recorder is a piece of audio equipment that records and plays back sound via a spool of magnetic tape. The full spool is loaded onto the machine (usually on the left side) and the tape is "threaded" past a recording and playback head assembly (which records or reads the magnetic patterns on the tape) and capstan/pinch roller assembly (a steel shaft that ensures constant tape motion) to an empty "take up" reel which collects the tape and winds it. The magnetic tape, usually made of extremely thin plastic (polyester, acetate or mylar) has a magnetic oxide coating. During recording, as the tape passes over the record head, electromagnetic alterations rearrange the magnetic orientation of the oxide particles on the tape, forming a pattern. During playback, a read head (often the same as the recording head) electromagnetically senses the variations in the magnetic particles on the tape and passes the alterations to an amplifier circuit, and the result is sound.

Wikipedia has a good basic article on the reel to reel tape recorder, and the Web site "How Stuff Works" has a detailed explanation of this sound recording process, focusing on the cassette format which, due to greater convenience and smaller size, replaced the reel to reel format in the home recording arena starting in the late 1960's.

From circa 1950, the reel to reel tape recorder market was big business. These machines still exist today and are popular in the vintage audio equipment market, although their home use popularity has waned in favor of digital devices. They still have an important use and function in sound recording which has not been eclipsed by digital applications.

The vintage tape recorder was developed for multiple uses; recording studios, radio stations, TV stations, electronic music production, home audio, language and speech training in schools, business presentations, police and medical records --anything where audio information would need to be recorded and shared as entertainment or information. Many sound studios, radio and TV stations still use reel to reel magnetic tape recorders, as do many doctors offices and police stations.

During the 1950's through the 1980's, the "home" reel to reel tape recorder market was huge, and many companies were players in the field. Machines were made in Germany, Holland, England, the U.S. and Japan among other places. Names such as: Webcor, SONY SuperScope, National Panasonic, Ampex, Roberts, AIWA, Grundig, Telefunken, Wollensak, Craig, TEAC, Uher, and many others dominated the market.

Reel to reel tape recorder advertising was a very big business, and the machines were a profitable market. Vintage tape recorder ads can be found for purchase on E-Bay, and looking at the offerings will give you a feel for how important this market was. You will find several ads for Wollensak reel to reel tape recorders among those available.

Pricing for a reel to reel tape recorder (in 1960's dollars) ranged from $15 for a cheap, portable, and almost useless battery powered "rim drive" mono machine that used small reels (3" most commonly) to $500 and more for a high end AC powered stereo tape recorder with powerful capabilities making it high end audio equipment. Oddly, as impractical as the cheaper battery powered tape recorder was, even with its poor quality - hardly even qualifying it as legitimate audio equipment -such reel to reel tape recorders are considered highly collectible and can be found on E-Bay, many are listed as a vintage tape recorder - sometimes going for very high bids.

In the beginning of the reel to reel tape recorder era, monophonic sound, 2-track tape recorders were the only available machines. Then came mono Hi-Fi recorders which had a broader frequency response (usually 40 to 18,000 Hz) for better audio quality (the Wollensak model T-1500 is a fine example of such a machine), and finally stereo (some of the Wollensak T-1500 machines were equipped for optional stereo, but required a separate audio amplifier) and even surround sound 4-track reel to reel tape recorders appeared, at ever increasing prices. Some of these prices are still quoted in the vintage audio equipment market, depending on the machine, especially if it was designed for professional use.

The reel to reel tape recorder market was eclipsed by the compact cassette market. These machines and tapes are still widely available. A cassette tape recorder is simpler, smaller, and lighter than a reel to reel tape recorder, and many have excellent audio characteristics. Indeed, stereo cassette decks have replaced reel to reel tape recorders as high end audio equipment. The mechanics of their transport mechanisms are almost identical in principle to those used by reel to reel tape recorder. In fact a cassette tape recorder is simply a reduced size version of the reel to reel tape recorder -  with the convenience of the reels being encapsulated inside the cassette shell. Of course, Wollensak had machines in this market as well, based on the Philips-Norelco (North American Philips Company based in Holland) design.


Reel to Reel Tape Recording—WHY?

It is hard for many people today to imagine using a reel to reel tape recorder for a home application, except perhaps as vintage audio equipment, but at the time these machines were popular, they were the "electronic fad" of their day. Hobbyists had them as a staple of their audio equipment (along with amplifiers, tuners and turntables) collections. The reason was simple.

At the time, there was no such thing as video recording for the general consumer, and digital recording was a long way off. Everything was audio and analog based. By comparison, today one can as easily record music onto a video cassette as one can record a video program. Similarly, one can record audio and video or either onto a hard drive, such as a TIVO unit or a DVD or CD.

In the heyday of the reel to reel tape recorder, one could hear music from four or five sources, the radio (AM and FM), vinyl records (from 78 to 33 1/3 rpm (rotations per minute) LP (long play) records), TV broadcasts, and a "live event" - as well as other tape recorders.

The standardization of speeds - from 1-7/8 through 7-1/2 ips (inches per second) for a home unit made machines and tapes of various styles and sizes compatible -- although most home units only had 2 speeds, 3-3/4 and 7-1/2 ips (inches per second). The 3M company produced a line of small 3-1/4" reels of magnetic tape under the "Scotch®" brand called "Living Letters". The idea was to use a portable reel to reel tape recorder to dictate letters instead of writing them. One could then send the tape to a friend or loved one and they could hear the person's voice. Since many portable battery machines had the slow speed of 1-7/8 ips available (this allowed more content to be recorded on the tape), some large home reel to reel tape recorders included this very slow speed to improve compatibility.

But the 2-track and 4-track arrangements (which arose with the development of stereo machines) that differentiated mono and stereo reproduction created incompatibility problems because of the way the tracks are laid down on the tape. While a stereo machine could play back a mono tape, a mono machine could not play back a stereo tape (one of the tracks would always play in reverse at the same time as the forward track.)

Click here for a detail sheet on reel to reel track arrangements (556KB PDF document).

The compact cassette design ensured compatibility among all cassettes - mono and stereo - by requiring a different arrangement of tracks on a cassette tape. A manufacturer could not license the rights to produce a cassette recorder without following the compatibility rules. In the early days, many cassette recorders did not have the fidelity or transport stabilization to match most home reel to reel machines. Eventually this was improved.

People often made their own reel to reel recordings from radio or TV and so on. If one was watching a variety show featuring a favorite singer, the only way to preserve the performance at home was with a reel to reel tape recorder.

Of course, there is a legal question about recording copyrighted material from an external source, although in general, the copyright laws allow one to make a recording for personal archival use. So people bought reel to reel tape recorders to record music as archives from the radio or TV, and from the phonograph, as well as to make "sound movies" of special events (such as a birthday party) at home for their own personal use.

At the time, TV programs and movies were not available as DVDs, so the only way to record the audio portion of a program was with a tape recorder. And although record producers did not like it, people often recorded songs from the radio. Radio stations countered by injecting announcements (name of song, artist and so on) at the beginning or end, not only advertising the song, but making it impossible for a recording to be used for any but personal use. Many people would listen to a song on their tape machines, and then buy the recording, since they often didn't make very good recordings by themselves.

In the case of the phonograph, tape recording was almost essential. Vinyl records can wear out quite easily because phonographs use a needle mounted in a tone arm to physically track within the record "groove". The "groove" is like a bumpy road with hills and valleys. If the tone arm is too light weight, a complex musical passage groove would be so "bumpy" it could cause the tone arm to "jump" out of the groove -- called skipping.

Many common phonographs of the 1960's had a high tone arm tracking weight to prevent "skipping", and every time a record was played, the diamond needle would carve away microscopic bits of the record groove. Thus the first playing of a record was the best quality, and the sound deteriorated on subsequent playings, affecting mostly the "high end" of the sound. If one wanted to preserve the best quality (the first playing) of a vinyl record, a tape recorder was the only solution. One could play a record and record it at the same time, then put the record away and listen only to the tape recording.

In today's all digital world with non-contact laser pick-ups (as in a CD or DVD) or all digital reproduction (as in computer data -- MP3 files and so on), the problem has been solved, and thanks to computer memory and digital storage, the idea of a reel to reel tape recorder for the home can seem ludicrous and awkward. One can easily store Gigabytes of sound on a single MP3 player which fits in a shirt pocket. By comparison, the same storage on magnetic reel tapes could fill a room!

One aspect of the home tape recorder market was recording of family events, school lectures and so on. The reel to reel tape recorder was perfect for this application. In the modern world, the cassette recorder fills this personal need, being cheaper, more portable and much more convenient than a reel to reel tape recorder. However, professional recording studios, police stations and others still use the reel to reel tape recorder (i.e. 911 calls are always recorded, often on large 10-1/2" reels of recording tape). Some electronic musicians find great appeal in reel to reel tape recorders as vintage audio equipment for the quality of the sound they produce and for special effects (sound-on-sound, sound-with-sound, reverb effects and more).

Reel to reel tape recorders can do one thing that modern digital recording lacks by design. They visually display their operation. One can easily see the reels going round and round during record and playback. For some, this has a visual appeal. But of course we are ever moving into the video world where we see action or a story and sound is an accompaniment to it, so we would not spend time looking at a machine working, we would look at the story the machine is telling.

And if that story is historical, in videos or films, the appearance of a reel to reel tape recorder in use adds a sense of reality. The film, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever", starring Barbara Streisand, showed an AMPEX reel to reel tape recorder being used by a psychiatrist to record sessions with a patient. Of course, the popular TV show, "Mission Impossible" always had a small self destructing reel to reel tape recorder! (Please note that actual reel to reel tape recorders did not self destruct or explode like they did on the show.) These were made when reel to reel tape recorders were a common part of daily life. In the movie, "Sleeper" starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Woody's character is given a job threading a gigantic reel to reel tape recorder. Of course, he cannot do it, and gets tangled up in the tape. In another scene, he tries to escape the building by being lowered out the window suspended by the tape. Diane makes the mistake of hitting the Fast Forward button, and Woody's character goes flying! It's very funny, but is fast becoming an "in-joke" with audiophiles as reel to reel tape recorders become scarce.

A film about the 1960's would need a facsimile of a reel to reel tape recorder, if not a vintage one itself, if such a machine was being used as part of the plot.

Mayfair 1602 reel to reel vintage tape recorder circa 1967. Mono, 2-track, 2 heads, unidirectional, 3 " reel capacity. 1 motor, rim drive. Battery powered. Winner of Museum of Modern Art Industrial Design Award. Also sold under name: "Juliette"

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It can be argued that a reel to reel tape recorder has a certain pleasing aesthetic shape and look. In the late 1960's, a battery powered reel to reel tape recorder that used 3-inch reels made by Mayfair of Japan (also branded under the name "Juliette") received a design award from the Museum of Modern Art in New York! It looked great, but was a "rim drive" tape recorder (no capstan for constant speed), and had poor audio quality. It was the aesthetic appeal of the design that got the award. It had a wide aspect ratio (like a plasma TV), in-line reels, with two control knobs located on the far right side. The color contributed to the appeal - it was an avocado green color with tan accents, and the reel tables were shiny chrome. The speaker was mounted underneath, so it did not show. You can sometimes find these machines on E-Bay.

There still is some appeal and use for a reel to reel tape recorder, and they are collector's items for fans of vintage audio equipment, much like vintage automobiles and other collectibles are popular for nostalgic and collectable reasons. E-Bay is, of course a prime source for such audio equipment.

However, most sellers on E-Bay haven't got a clue about these machines, and some make impossible claims for a vintage reel to reel tape recorder, usually quoting the specs found in the manual (if they have one), specs that after years of aging are hardly valid without some repair and restoration.

For some buyers, the appeal of the vintage reel to reel tape recorder lies in nostalgia; for others, it is the appeal of the collectable. Of course anyone making a movie centered in the 1960's time period would need a tape recorder from that same period to add "authenticity" to the look of the film - as a "prop". One vintage reel to reel tape recorder being sold on E-Bay had been used as a prop in a play!

Visit E-Bay and search for "tape recorder" and look at the offerings and activity - it's rather surprising how many people have an interest in these machines!

Some reel to reel tape recorders have many bidders, and there are plenty of sellers. Most sellers have no idea what the machine they are selling does, or how to use it, and they don't test the machine other than to power it up, so buyer beware.

You can also find tapes for these machines, both blank and pre-recorded on E-Bay.

E-Bay Note:

If you are interested in the machines or tapes you find on E-Bay, be careful when making a purchase. These machines are old and often not cared for. The majority of them will not work properly. Sellers will often claim that they "work" because they can turn them on. There is a lot more to it than that. There can be problems with the mechanical transport, the amplifier and so on.

In the case of tapes, many are used and worn, and depending on storage, some are quite brittle and can break in use.  Look for signs of water damage on all these items, many have been stored in basements!

If you have questions, contact the seller and judge the quality by the seller's response. Beware of comments such as "looks like it should work" and "the previous owner told me it worked perfectly." This means nothing. Some sellers are amazingly lazy. If you see a listing for a cassette machine and the seller says "I could not test this because I don't have any tape", beware! There is no excuse, given the availability of cassette tapes, for such a statement.

Be prepared to do some repair work if you want to actually use a machine you purchase on E-Bay.

In spite of the "march of technology", reel to reel tape recorders still exist and have use in the modern world, although they are becoming quite rare. Blank tape is particularly hard to find, and often is outrageously priced. The cassette recorder still proliferates, and it is a logical development of the reel to reel machine (basically, it IS a reel to reel machine, the reels are contained within the cassette). The cassette offers greater convenience (threading a reel to reel tape recorder can be an annoying challenge) at a smaller size with better performance.

Of course, digital recording will eventually replace these formats and the incredible convenience of CDs and DVDs is beyond question. MP3 players, with literally no moving parts, take audio equipment technology to an even higher level of convenience and tiny size. Where this will all end is anyone's guess, but of course one thing is certain -- the march of progress will continue as long as technology continues, and potentially, we all will benefit, as we have in the past.

We live in a world of sound. Reel to reel tape recorders were and continue to be one way of preserving that sound for posterity or just a "trip down memory lane." A vintage tape recorder can bring hours of pleasure and memories to many.

But as time passes and people who either owned or grew up with a reel to reel tape recorder pass away, so too might the appeal of these machines. As a one time significant product and valuable audio equipment, the vintage tape recorder should be preserved and remembered, even if only personally. These machines are a part of our technological history and as such deserve recognition. This is, in part, the spirit behind the restoration/rebuild of the Wollensak 5750 tape recorder.

Oddly enough, E-Bay is helping in this area by "recycling" these machines for many. Nostalgia has some degree of influence over our lives, and these machines can stir great nostalgia for many. Often in the listings one will read "My dad had this machine", or "I grew up using this machine", or "It has been a part of my audio system for years." Reel to reel tape recorders had an impact on many lives, and perhaps, will continue to do so in a very different way in the future, possibly looked upon as icons from the past and valued as such. As vintage audio equipment, they are still in demand. Technically, their mechanics are amazing for their time, electronically they brought beautiful sound to many. We should never forget that, for when we look at or listen to a tiny MP3 player and see a reel to reel tape recorder, we can say, "This is where it came from, this is our technological ancestry."

And some of them had a beautiful appearance as well. The Wollensak 5750 is one such machine. Which is why the author bought one for restoration, for the sheer beauty of the thing.

Please DO NOT ASK US how to sell your old machine or tapes or records. We will NOT respond to selling or value estimate inquiries.

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