Analog Audio

A few years ago, a friend gave me a reel-to-reel (RTR) tape deck, a Sony TC 530. I don’t quite remember the circumstances, but I do recall liking the design; it was a heavy beast, around 40lbs., and had two speakers built in to the cabinet as well as two detachable, outboard speakers that could be positioned remotely. It was only a dual head design, but seemed capable enough.

Sony TC 530 closed up

Closed TC 530, external speakers showing

I brought it to my Dad, who had some tapes lying around that I thought he might enjoy listening to. This was a good move! Some of Dad’s tapes were of his marching band from college, but one of them was a tape of his parents. When he and my Mom were living in San Diego in the late ’50s, and his parents were in Pennsylvania, they would send tapes back and forth. So, he threaded this tape into the deck, and heard his parents talking to him again. Fantastic! He made digital recordings and put the deck in the closet.

removing the speakers

Removing the satellite speakers

A few weeks ago, I was looking at http://bottlehead.com/, a supplier of audiophile kits that I really am going to buy someday, when I came across their newest project: The Tape Project. These guys are re-releasing old, classic recordings on RTR tape, taken straight from the studio masters.

loaded with tape

Loaded with tape

I remembered from my early forays into the audiophile universe that RTR was thought of as the peak of the listening experience. So, after gasping at The Tape Project’s prices, and then deciding that a few classical tapes from eBay might be a better way to get my feet wet, I called Dad to see if I could get the deck back. He was more than happy to oblige, as it cleared out closet space.

(I should point out from the get-go that The Tape Project’s tapes run at 15 inches per second, and the Sony’s maximum speed is 7.5 ips, so I won’t be tempted. Of course, at $300 per tape, I wasn’t likely to be anyway. Crikey!)

Next, I ordered a few tapes from eBay. They’re surprisingly easy to find, and even got one with the original shrink wrap still on it! I also found a nearly intact Ampex tape care kit on eBay, which included a demagnetizer and a splicer. (I stewed over the demagnetizer for a bit. The “Han D” demagnetizer seems to be the one to beat, but in the end I decided that Ampex probably knew what they were doing, and the entire kit was half what the Han D cost.)

Ampex demagnetizer

Ampex demagnetizer

Things started rolling in, and I got to cleaning. Armed with plenty of Q-tips and a bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol, I got quite a bit of grime off the heads and capstan. Surprisingly, the interior of the deck was in great shape. From all I had read about the quality and longevity of the grease, I was expecting a gooey mess and a lot of work ahead of me. (I used to work in the robotics industry and know a few things about grease.)

interior of the tape deck

Interior, motor side

Even the belts seemed to be in good shape, with almost no deformation and good grip.

interior, tape side

Interior, tape side

No discoloration in the wiring or anything. It basically needed dusting and a bit of oil here and there.

Interior view panel side

Wiring in good shape

The main drive wheel looked a little dicey, but it seems to stick well.

main drive unit

Main drive

Time to put it all together and give it a try. I hooked it up to my stereo and pulled out the tape I dubbed “the beater”. It was the Broadway cast album of My Fair Lady, an album I had listened to many times (in my youth, I thought I related to Henry Higgins – a person fastidious with language who just couldn’t understand women), so I figured I could easily catch any pitch or quality issues. Just to be sure, I queued up the vinyl version of the album for comparison.

First surprise – it sounded great! There was way more depth than the vinyl, although it was a bit harsh in spots where I assume the tape was worn or the deck couldn’t handle the signal levels. Not sure what was going on there.

Second surprise – it wasn’t the same performance! It wasn’t wildly different, but the tape clearly got an alternate take of each song. It was the same cast and orchestra, just a slightly different performance. I double-checked this, thinking my memory was faulty, but it wasn’t.

Then came the disappointment. Midway through the first side, the speed began to drop. I have pretty good pitch, and am easily bothered by such things, but this wasn’t all that subtle. This was a show-stopper. I rewound and tried again, wondering if perhaps the tape was just stretched at the end. No, now the beginning of the tape was slow as well. So, something in the motor. What?

A quick search yielded the possibility that the motor capacitor had gone south, and a fellow on eBay was selling such things, so I ordered one and installed it. That improved things a lot. I got through all of side one, and a bit of side two before things started to slow down. So, back to the drawing board.

However, I am very impressed with the sound, and will continue troubleshooting. I’ll post more as I figure things out.