Obsolescence Week: reel-to-reel tape | Bleader

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Obsolescence Week: reel-to-reel tape

Posted By on 03.07.12 at 08:00 AM

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Hot Rocks on reel-to-reel
  • "Hot Rocks" on reel-to-reel
In the music world, technologies that go obsolete have a tendency not to stay that way. Pretty much every piece of performance or recording gear that's ever been made outdated by something newer and allegedly better has, after a period of dormancy (and affordability to less cash-flush musicians and aficionados), roared back into fashion at price points that would have been completely unbelievable before. Consider analog synthesizers, which were considered the cutting edge in sonic tech right up till the moment digital synths hit the marketplace, when they suddenly became next to worthless in the popular opinion of music pros. When a younger generation of musicians started picking them up secondhand a decade or so later they became immensely fetishized, and now the idea of picking up a Moog or an ARP in a pawn shop for less than your monthly electric bill seems like a deranged fantasy.

The same combination of nostalgia and fashion affects gear for playing back recorded music. The widespread adoption of MP3s and iPods has had the weird side effect of bringing first vinyl and then cassettes back from the brink of extinction, making them relevant enough to inspire so many trend articles that you almost wish they'd vanished for real. There are even hints that the compact disc, which hasn't even fully gone out of date, is poised for a revival at the hands of contrarian music fashionistas.

There are still a number of physical media formats that remain unrevived, mostly because they never made it out of the niche audiophile market and into widespread usage. There's DAT, for instance, which became a standard in the recording studio and in Japan but never found any traction with the average consumer here. (A friend of mine recently discovered an in-dash DAT player, which is like something out of a beautifully weird dream.) Lilkewise the mini disk, SACD, and digital cassette all number among the many other formats that failed to spark a revolution in the way we listen to music.

In terms of outdated formats, though, it's still extremely difficult to beat the reel-to-reel tape, which is cool on a whole number of different levels, combining an audiophile geek vibe with an image that's virtually impossible to separate from the concept of swinging, hippie-era bachelor pads, which as anyone who's ever flipped through an old Playboy from that time knows is the reel-to-reel's natural habitat. There's also a considerable appeal to the fact that the format is just wildly inefficient. The machines are gloriously massive and unwieldy compared to any piece of audio gear this side of the Victrola, and the tape runs through it raw and naked and exposed to the elements, leaving it open to an infinitude of opportunities to snarl or snap or break down in some other way.

My dad was something of a swinging audiophile hippie, and one of the things I inherited from him after he died last year was the remnants of his old reel-to-reel collection. It's small, but the selection of artists is top-notch, ranging from the Stones and Zeppelin to Leonard Cohen and Eddie Harris. Right now the tapes are just sitting on a shelf looking cool, since I don't actually own a reel-to-reel player yet. If I did find one in working condition that I could afford, which is more difficult than you might imagine, I'd probably have to remove my TV from my home entertainment setup in order to make room for it. I don't think that would be a bad trade.

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