It feels like eons ago, but at one time, reel-to-reel (or R2R) tape was the pinnacle of audio engineering – the earliest form of magnetic tape used for audio recording.
Released back in the 1940s, R2R saw its popularity soar as it competed with vinyl for several decades.
However, by the 1980s, R2R had seen its run come to an end in large part due to cassette tapes and other more mobile-friendly audio formats. Fast Forward a couple decades, and in the 21st century a special niche has been carved out by audiophiles and hipsters for these antiquated Mickey Mouse ear audio tape reels.
But how long did a reel-to-reel tape last? Length-wise? Life-wise? Let’s find out.
Handling & Care
First off, in order to get the most out of reel-to-reel tapes, you’ve got to know how they’ve been stored and cared for. If they’ve been neatly packed on metal reels, tails out and in an upright position inside their proper packaging, then there’s a good chance they’re still playable. Heck, the audio quality might even still be decent. Especially if they’ve been stored away from magnetic fields in a temperature controlled room without direct sunlight.
Secondly, you’ve got to take into consideration how the tapes were handled during playback. Proper alignment and tension on the machines helped with the longevity of the tape’s life. And if they were played on a machine with rollers, instead of stationary guides, this helped with lifespan as well.
If all this TLC was taken into account, then most reel-to-reel tapes can undergo many plays without noticeable loss of hi-frequency signal, giving you around 50 or more plays without noticeable degradation. Not bad but not great either, but hey, we’re talking about some old machinery here.
So, if 50 or more plays is the pinnacle playback before degradation may be noticeable a decibel or two, what is the half-life for a good tape? Like all analog media, that answer isn’t set in concrete because there are so many outside factors that affect it; however, if the situation was ideal, a good half-life would be around 200-500 plays with around 1,000 plays considered the end of life (EOL) for a tape.
Tape thickness and lifespan
Elongated playback quality and half-life doesn’t just have to deal with proper handling, storage and care. It also takes into consideration the thickness of the tape itself. For example, a ½” tape is a thicker reel-to-reel tape with the tracks wider and further apart. Due to this, the interaction among signals on the tape will typically last longer through numerous playbacks than a thinner ¼” tape. Meaning, the thicker the tape, the longer the lifespan.
In addition to tape thickness, recording speed plays a part in the preservation or degradation of reel-to-reel tapes, especially if the tape has been re-recorded several times. The more layers of recording you impose on your tapes, the more you’re degrading the sonic quality and so forth.
Digitizing Your R2R Tapes
Let’s just get the cat out of the bag now – reel-to-reel tapes won’t last forever. In fact, if you’re sitting on a trove of reel-to-reel gold, there’s a strong chance they’re already on their last leg. After all, a large piece of analog media that’s 70 years old doesn’t stand much of a chance, regardless of how properly it was cared for. But there is good news!
Legacybox can help you preserve those reel-to-reel tapes through digitization. Just send in your reels and our professional preservationists will get to work cementing the legacy of your audio via thumb drive, DVD or digital download. So if you’re into the R2R aesthetic, stick to displaying it versus playing it – leave that part up to us.