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Home /History / The History of Reel-to-Reel Audio

The History of Reel-to-Reel Audio

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By Dillon Wallace

When you think about old analog equipment, your first thought probably springs to old videotapes, like the VHS or maybe film reels, such as Super 8, right? Or maybe you think of audio cassettes and 8-track tapes?

There’s a lot of history to unpack in old tape and reel formats, but one vintage format that doesn’t get the credit it deserves is the reel-to-reel (or R2R) tape recorder.
 

So let’s take a deeper look into this old underdog to learn a little bit more about audio back in the day.

 

The beginnings of R2R

When we say the beginnings of R2R, we literally mean the earliest tape recorder format. It was inspired by and pioneered from the German-British Blattnerphone in 1928 and the Magnetophon in the 1930s. Back when they actually used steel tape. After several iterations throughout the next several years, R2R really started making innovative strides during WWII. In fact, Nazi Germany discovered that applying a bias signal to the tape helped dramatically reduce the ambient distortion during the recording process. The quality became so good that R2R recordings surpassed the quality of most radio transmitters at the time. 

 

Thanks to American audio engineer Jack Mullin, who also happened to be a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWII, he decided to take two of these German Magnetophon recorders and tape back home with him. Over the next couple of years, he learned the ins and outs of the equipment and developed the machines for commercial use, in large part hoping he could interest Hollywood into using magnetic tape for its movie soundtrack recording.

 

Bing Crosby and his stake in R2R

So Mullin was responsible for trying to commercialize the R2R, but it was Bing “The Crooning King” Crosby who saw the immediate potential for Mullin’s recorders to pre-record his popular radio shows. With a $50,000 stake in the up-and-coming R2R technology, Crosby enabled Mullin to develop and produce commercial models of tape recorders through a local electronics company called Ampex. The rest is history.

 

Rise and fall of R2R 

By the 1950s, the technology was common enough that inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders were being used for everything from voice recordings in the home and schools to use for business dictation and more. But like all great technology, there’s always a newer, greater version that’s waiting to replace it. And with the introduction of the Philips compact cassette in 1963, R2R machines began to phase out, especially for general consumer use. However, the new compact cassette – convenient as it was – had narrower tracks and slower recording speeds. As a result, the fidelity was compromised. So for the high fidelity snobs out there, R2R was the only way to truly listen to your favorite tunes. Even better audio quality than vinyl.

 

Bring your R2R tapes back to life

Whether through hipster popularity or anti-music streaming, analog media formats have found their way back into our ears with the resurgence of vinyl and cassette tapes. No, reel-to-reel hasn’t made a comeback and it probably never will – it’s just too cumbersome to port around. It’d be like having old fashioned 8mm projectors make a comeback … which, honestly could happen. But, in the meantime, if you’ve got any R2R tapes lying around collecting decades of dust and neglect, send them our way. We’ll digitize them for you and you can relive a relic of yester-decade like it was just yesterday.

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