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Tape Dates

Article from Making Music, July 1987

Being a brief glance back at the fascinating history of tape recorders, from mono to digital

When and how did tape recorders come about? Tony Bacon found himself in a funny room, and recorded what happened.

Well I call it a room, but it was more of a museum really, full of ancient reel-to-reel tape recorders and mixers with great big unwieldy faders. What am I doing here, I wondered, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes? Suddenly a bank of red lights flashed among the piles of elderly gear, tape reels squeaked into unsteady action, and the silence was shattered. "I want to tell you the story of tape recording," said the voice in the loudspeaker, with a noticeable lift at 3k. A bit early for that, I thought, but I admit I was intrigued.

"Relax, sit down, and I'll tell you exactly how it happened," continued the voice, clearly designed to put one at one's ease. "I take you back to Germany in the 1930s. For our purposes I will overlook the rampant fascism so rapidly gaining ground, and take you instead to the factories of AEG Telefunken and FD Baden.

"Germanic chaps were just finishing the work on a machine called the Magnetophon, when one worker, who we shall call Dieter, looked up and exclaimed, 'This is the first operational reel-to-reel tape recorder in the world! How wonderful it is to be alive in 1934!'

"Dieter was given time to fiddle around in the Telefunken workshop, so pleased were his employers," continued the voice in the speaker. "In 1942 Dieter was working on a Magnetophon in the same room as a radio transmitter. 'Screech!' went the transmitter. 'Gott in Himmel!' went Dieter, for he had stumbled upon the concept of what we now call 'bias' — recording a very high frequency signal (Dieter's transmitter) on to tape (Dieter's Magnetophon) at the same time as the main recording, which has the effect of recording sounds more accurately. Gott in Himmel, indeed."

"Hi," says a new, speedier voice. "We jump now to 1964, when Dutch electronics giant Philips began to market their new Compact Cassette. That's the thing you now happily call 'the cassette' — you've got loads of them. Back then it was a frightening new toy, invented by, inevitably, one of the firm's German engineers, possibly called Dieter — we can't be sure. Later that same decade, an American engineer called Ray Dolby came up with his first noise-reduction system for domestic tape recorders, Dolby-B, introduced by Dolby Laboratories in 1969. The simple device boosts high frequencies when recording and reduces them on playback, cutting down nasty noise in the process.

"Four-track machines had been limited to bulky, studio-bound items until 1970, when Japanese company TEAC (Tokyo Electro-Acoustic Company) launched the first domestic 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, the delightfully named A2340. Later the same year the A3340 machine was added, with simulsync switches to enable synchronised monitoring and recording between tracks — it was in effect the first tape recorder built with musicians' home recording requirements in mind. 'I did it at home on the Teac,' becomes a popular 1970s phrase to impress fellow musicians. Teac's new professional division, TASCAM (Teac Audio ServiCes of AMerica), came up with the first domestic 8-track reel-to-reel recorder in 1976, the 80/8."

The new voice, so comforting in its way, stops abruptly. I'm now properly awake — but still can't quite achieve consistency of tenses. A cassette moves into place.

"My colleague has told you of TASCAM," says the sweeter, mellower voice, "but this company's most noteworthy landmark in the history of musicians' recording came in July 1979 when they launched the first 4-track cassette recorder/mixer, the M144 Portastudio. Such a perfect description of the machine was the word 'portastudio' that it quickly caught on as a generic word for any small cassette-based multitrack.

"1980 saw Sony bring out the first personal cassette player, originally called the Stowaway but quickly changed to another now generic term, the Walkman. Dolby Labs souped up their Dolby-B noise-reduction system, too, with (wait for it) Dolby-C, and in 1981 a new-ish Japanese company called Fostex got a lot of oohs and aahs with the first-ever eight-tracks-on-quarter-inch reel-to-reel recorder. Two years later, in 1983, Fostex scored another first with their new X15, the first battery-powered 4-track cassette/mixer, setting a trend for mini-sized songwriting tools.

"Finally, we come to 1987. TOA have shown the trade early versions of an 8-track cassette recorder, the MR8T, but no clear plans for its future have emerged. More exciting is the prospect of digital audio tape (DAT), a new domestic digital recording system using small cassettes that went on sale this year in Japan (and is promised here later on). Imagine DAT applied to home recording — limitless transfers and bounces with zero quality loss, and lots of tracks on a small format tape. The future is all yours."

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987

Feature by Tony Bacon

Previous article in this issue:

> Wood Of The Month

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> Elka ER33 Expander

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