What is a Reel-To-Reel Tape Deck?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2019
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Reel-to-reel tape decks were the first type of mass produced audio replay devices offered to the general public in the early years of the 20th century. Using magnetic tape wound onto reels, the tape deck often served as a recording device in addition to being a reel-to-reel tape player. The high sound quality of the tape deck made it ideal for home recording purposes. In addition, recording companies often offered professionally recorded music and speech recordings that would play on the reel-to-reel tape players of the day.

Originally developed in the 1930s, the reel-to-reel tape deck provided an alternative to the use of acetate recordings, or records. Unlike records, the tape format allowed individuals to record music and public discourses with ease. The machine resembled the film projectors of the day, in that two reels were utilized for recording and replay. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, municipalities, high schools and even churches would make use of a reel-to-reel tape deck to make audio recordings of important events.

The reel-to-reel tape deck was helpful in professional recording circles as well. The high quality of the format helped to form the basis for creating master recordings that were archived and used to make the acetate masters that later would be used for pressing long playing records. The quality of the technology was so high that professional recording studios continued to use the tape decks until the latter part of the 1980s when digital recording techniques became the norm.


In the general consumer market, budget priced versions of the reel-to-reel tape deck caught on with the public during the 1950s. As the home recording method of choice, the tape decks remained popular until the introduction of the cassette tape in 1963. Even with the ease and convenience of the cassette, the reel-to-reel tape deck remained a favorite among garage bands and others who wanted the superior sound quality offered by reel-to-reel tape.

While the reel-to-reel tape deck is rarely used in private settings today, it is not unusual for musical artists to still make use of the device. The sound quality captured on the tapes is still considered to be among the best possible, even with today’s digital technology.


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Post 2

I'm a few years too young to remember when reel to reel tape decks were common, but an older cousin had one. He had a couple of albums that were on reel to reel and played them for me. I was completely fascinated by the process.

Of course, I was enthralled by anything that produced a musical sound. I love music and the process of playing reproduced music never ceases to amaze me. I don't completely understand how it works, but I certainly do enjoy the results!

Post 1

A reel to reel tape deck is analog, and even though digital may be a more precise format, there's a warmth and feeling from analog that you just can't get from digital. That's why a lot of independent artists are releasing their work on vinyl albums, even now.

I remember seeing an interview with Brian May of Queen, where he talked about recording "Bohemian Rhapsody," and how overdubbing the vocals and choral parts over the main parts nearly wore out the tape itself! He said you could almost see through it. That was probably an exaggeration, but not by much.

Listen to the results on vinyl though, and you can hear the difference the reel to reel makes.

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