Reel to Reel: 100 Years of Experiments
It wasn't as if an engineer somewhere sat down, designed the perfect
reel to reel tape recorder, patented it and took it to market. The history
of magnetic recording goes back over 100 years and is fraught with misfires,
disasters, wars, corporate confusion, governmental interference and
a lot of luck.
Historian Peter Hammar credits practical analog magnetic recording to
a chap named Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish engineer who patented the "Telegraphone"
in 1898. Poulsen intended his magnetic recorder to be used as an automatic
telephone answering machine and an office dictation device. His original
patent is quite prescient, covering audio recordings made on stainless
steel wire, solid steel tape and coated disks not unlike today's PC
hard drives. He even foresaw the concept of tape coated with magnetizable
particles, a product still in use today.
But early recording inventors had to overcome hurdles like inherent
noise and distortion of the recording medium. They also had to create
record/playback heads that focused the magnetic field and wouldn't rip
up the recording medium, and they had to make machines affordable for
The European influence
Between 1898 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the notion of
a cheap and re-useable method of recording sound was very attractive
and experiments were conducted in America, Europe and Japan with wire
and solid steel tape as recording media.
Marvin Camras (1916-1995), a Chicago electrical engineer, used magnetized
wire to record his cousin who wanted to be an opera singer. In 1939
he discovered an idea that made his prototype wire recorder almost qualify
as high fidelity: A.C. bias.
"Bias," whether A.C. or D.C., is simply an electrical current
added to the recording signal to help "organize" the magnetic
particles to reduce noise and distortion. Camras recorded tones from
an oscillator sweeping well above the frequencies he knew the wire recorder
could reproduce. But he found that by adding this very high frequency
to the recording signal, he could remove a lot of the background noise
and distortion inherent in magnetic recorders of the day, a breakthrough.
As early as 1928 Germans were working on tape recorders using solid
steel tape. Fritz Pfleumer (pronounced FLOY-mer), a Dresden engineer
and audiophile, sought a cheaper re-useable recording medium. He hated
the expense and bulk of solid steel tape and tried paper coated with
iron power as a recording medium. He was on the right track.
Pfleumer sold his idea to AEG, the German General Electric, in 1932.
Working with the German radio network, AEG developed a workable tape
recorder. They called it, "Das Magnetophon," or the "Magnetic
Phonograph." BASF supplied the acetate-based recording tape.
In 1939, the same year Camras in Chicago discovered A.C. bias for wire
recording, Berlin radio engineer Walter Weber discovered that A.C. bias
added to the noisy tape recorded signal created nearly perfect fidelity.
By 1941, German radio broadcasts featured tape delay Magnetophon broadcasts
that sounded live, a first in the history of recorded sound.
San Francisco audio engineer Jack Mullin, an officer in the U.S. Army
Signal Corps during World War II, heard these broadcasts from his base
in England and wondered what kind of device the Germans were using.
As the war ended in 1945 Mullin toured occupied Germany and visited
a German radio station, by then in Allied hands. He saw the AEG Magnetophons,
took notes and in his new lab in Paris that summer built Americanized
versions of the device.
He acquired and shipped enough parts to California to make two more
machines, but with his own electronic design using American tubes and
other components. When he arrived back in the states, Mullin and his
partner Bill Palmer built America's first high fidelity professional
tape recorders. In the late summer of 1947 they used their two prototypes
to record singer Bing Crosby's show, igniting a revolution in American
radio and recording.
Post World War II
After the war, the Allies voided all German patents, allowing America
to dominate the development of reel to reel magnetic tape technology.
The Mullin-Palmer prototypes inspired a small Calif. electronics maker
named Ampex to build America's first commercially available professional
tape recorder, the Ampex Model 200A, in 1947. By late 1948, a variation
of this design which was first delivered to ABC radio, was in use by
all U.S. networks and many radio stations.
By 1950 the price of professional reel to reel machines began to drop
and tape became the standard even for the smallest radio stations. The
Ampex 200A was the size of a washing machine and its 1949 successor,
the Model 300 wasn't much smaller. But the Ampex Model 600, released
in 1954, was portable. It became the basis for home stereo players using
pre-recorded tapes in 1957.
Tape recorder historians Steven Barncard, Park Seward and Howard Sanner
were kind enough to supply additional information from this point in
the history of the reel to reel.
Twice as much sound
The term, "stereo" refers to a recording with two simultaneous
tracks of different musical or spoken information. One track for each
Alan Blumlein at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1931 conducted some
early stereo experiments using record-once electrical transcription
disks, but the commercialization of stereo didn't occur until Ampex's
1957 home tape player made it practical. By 1958, stereo tape recordings
were in wide release and musicians tried to outdo each other with dramatic
stereo effects. A typical illusion created by stereo was brass bouncing
from left to right or voices gliding from side to side.
If you want to blow your mind, hunt down some recordings by Mexican
bandleader Esquivel, or a series of albums on the Command label called,
"Persuasive Percussion." The latter were the brainchild of
composer Enoch Light and pushed stereo to the limits of human imagination.
The concept of stereo was the next logical step from monaural recordings.
But recordings at this time were still very much live performances captured
in sound. All the musicians played and sang at the same time, much as
you might hear at a concert.
In the mid 1950s several people simultaneously got the idea to add "overdubs,"
after the basic recording was complete. How did the producers accomplish
this? The solution was to have a third recording track available. Then
the artist could record an extra layer of sound while listening to the
previous ones in headphones or over small speakers in the studio. All
the recorded tracks could then be mixed (combined) to a stereo recording
which would be pressed onto disk or distributed on tape. This opened
a world of possibilities.
Howard Sarser claims to have developed the first three-track recorder.
Ampex also experimented with this idea as early as 1950. Sometimes these
third track overdubs would be speeded up voices a la "The Chipmunks"
which could not possibly be recorded concurrently with the band. Sometimes
the extra track was reserved for the vocalist or a solo instrument.
Both Mercury Records and Capitol Records were making three-track recordings
as early as 1955. Later, Phil Spector's "wall of sound" albums
were recorded on Ampex three-track machines.
Beginning in 1959, a four-track machine using half-inch wide tape was
in use. Four-track recorders with one-inch tape provided better quality
and were used by groups like The Beatles to record albums like "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The mop tops used a Studer machine
to work their magic.
Working with Ampex engineers in 1954, pioneering guitarist and inventor
Les Paul rigged up an eight-track, one-inch machine he called, "The
Octopus," but even by 1958 the machine was not ready for prime
In 1968 PAMS, a Dallas recording studio, made use of the only custom-built
10-track machine, although by 1967 the Ampex MM-1000 introduced the
16-track two-inch format, followed by 32 tracks in 1980 and 48 tracks
(Sony "Dash" on half-inch digital tape) in 1984. When prices
for digital recording came down dramatically, producers were able to
have as many tracks as they wished. But that didn't mean music automatically
Many incremental improvements were made in transport design, head quality
and use of noise reduction over the years, but no matter how many recording
tracks were available in the studio, the end product still had to be
reduced, or mixed down, to two-track stereo for pressing onto albums.
One brief exception to this rule was the fleeting use of "quad"
recordings in the mid 1970s, but that's a different article.
Ken R. is a former disk jockey and studio owner who wishes he had
digital recorders in the 1970s. It would have saved a lot of razor blades