Open-Reel Renaissance (April 1978)

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Author: Gary R. Gruber, Ph.D. Editor, Stereotape Review 191 Throckmorton Ave. Mill Valley, Calif. 94941


Two years ago, after more than a decade of production of pre-recorded, 7 1/2 ips, open-reel tapes, the Ampex Corp. bowed out of the business.

Ironically, however, the last set of pre-recorded reels Ampex produced, Solti's Beethoven Nine Symphonies, were sonically and interpretively the best they had ever produced.

During the last years of production Ampex even developed a national tape club but, in spite of the efforts of Ampex's Russ Fields and Mike Ayers, the operation was closed down. That was over two years ago, and with Angel, Columbia, and DGG out of the open-reel tape business, the only company left in the production of prerecorded open-reel tapes was Stereotape, which at the time wasn't producing any Dolby B tapes and was gradually offering fewer selections on the open market. For a time it appeared as though the medium of prerecorded open-reel tapes was coming to a dismal end.

Reel Renaissance

At the same time, Barclay-Crocker on the East Coast was contemplating entry into the open-reel market. Sonar, also on the East Coast, was still producing some open-reel tapes, and Stereotape, on the West Coast, was planning a revival of open-reel production.

About a year ago, Barclay-Crocker produced their first open-reel tapes and. at the same time, Stereotape also resumed production. Barclay-Crocker, with the Musical Heritage Society, Vanguard, Unicorn, Desmar, and Halcyon labels, is geared towards the more esoteric tastes, while Stereotape with London, DGG, RCA, etc. attracted the standard classical and popular tastes. Both companies Dolbyize their tapes so the noise level is quite low.

Some tape enthusiasts used to complain that they had trouble guessing where the program on the first side of some reels began and, occasionally, they had to Fast Forward the tape on the first side in order to reach the first selection. That was because the second side of the tape contained a longer program. Barclay-Crocker has virtually eliminated this problem with what they call the "sonic sentry." The way this works is, when the second side of the tape has a longer program than the first side, you are instructed to put your tape deck in the Fast Forward mode and listen for a high frequency oscillating tone. When you hear the tone, stop the tape and start your machine in the normal playback mode.

As far as the samples I've reviewed, Stereotape always seems to start their programs at the beginning of the tape, making it unnecessary to employ a process similar to Barclay-Crocker's "sonic sentry." Both companies let their program on the first side end where the program on the second side begins. If you do not have a reversing mechanism on your tape deck, all you need to do is flip the reels over to continue with the second side.

All Barclay-Crocker and Stereotape reels are Dolby B encoded and if your deck is equipped with Dolby, just put the switch on. However, if it is not, you may reduce the treble controls on your amplifier slightly.

Open Reel vs. Cassette

Many readers may ask the following pertinent question: With the technical advances recently taken with the pre recorded cassette tapes, is the sound really that much better on the new open reels? To answer this question honestly, I must say that some cassettes, particularly Polydor's DGG, London, Advent, and Angel, elicit some startling sonics. But the new open reels produced by Stereotape and Barclay Crocker do show the differences between the new open reel and the current cassette. The sound on the open reel is fuller with a greater dynamic range and the distortion at high volume levels is noticeably less. As an example, the Advent cassette recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony with Leopold Stokowski (E-1046) is technically superb, while the Barclay-Crocker open-reel tape version (D-1007) of the same Desmar recording is technically ultra-superb! The Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Berman and von Karajan on the DGG Polydor cassette (3300-677) is big sounding and quite breathtaking, however, the Stereotape open-reel version of the same DGG recording (DG-2530-677) is even more so.

Physically, we should expect this difference since the 7 1/2 ips open-reel tape travels past the playback head four times as fast as its cassette counterpart. Also, the width of the open reel is greater than the width of the cassette tape, providing for retention of better and more signal. The structure of the cassette invites more wow and flutter-many times you will need a cassette deck that will adjust for azimuth angle of the tape head for each tape played on the machine.

Finally, the tolerances on an open-reel deck are less critical than those on a cassette deck. This is the reason why some cassettes jam, squeal, or have much more drop-out of signal than an open-reel tape does. Of course, if you want convenience, you can't beat the cassette; in this regard, the cassette is better than either the record or the open reel. But, if you want to come closest to realistic sound, then the open-reel format is best, especially when you are listening to large orchestral pieces or operatic works.

Epilogue It is now apparent that the open reel pre-recorded tape format is here to stay. Hopefully, in the near future, Stereotape and Barclay-Crocker will produce tapes by the companies of Angel, Philips, Argo, Das Alte Werk, Telefunken, Orion, and Columbia. In any event, what is now being produced is quite satisfactory and should indeed quench the ever increasing thirst of the demanding audiophile and music lover.

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Table 1

Here are some outstanding new reels produced by Barclay-Crocker (B) and by Stereotape (S). I have rated each of these tapes by E* for super-excellent, E for excellent, G for good, and F for fair, concerning interpretative performance (P), sound quality (Q), and signal-to-noise ratio (N).


The above recordings are well worth the investment. Some record outlets carry the Stereotape reels. However, it would be best to write to these addresses for ordering information and catalogs: For Stereotape Releases: The Reel Society, 8125 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, Cal. 91605 For Barclay-Crocker Releases: Barclay-Crocker, 11 Broadway, Room 857, New York, N.Y. 10004

Table 2

"The Reel Revolution," as Russ Fields of the Reel Society put it, "rolls on." Here are some interesting tapes that will be available in the next few months. Again, (B) denotes Barclay-Crocker, and (S) denotes Stereotape. (Although Barclay-Crocker is producing new tape releases steadily, I did not get an advance release sheet at the time of writing this article, thus accounting for many more Stereotape selections here).

Vaughan Williams: Fantasy on a Theme of Tallis; Dvorák: Serenade, Stokowski, Desmar 1011 (B) The Best of the Grateful Dead, WST-2764 (S) This is Duke Ellington, E PP2-6042 (S) Dvorak: Slavonic Dances (Complete), ST 801 (S) Chopin: 24 Preludes, Polonaises (Pollini), ST-803 (S) Bernard Herrman conducts great British Film Scores, Psycho and other film scores, ST 902 (S) Mahler: Symphony # 2, Mehta/VPO, CSAO 2242 (S) Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 5, Solti/C5O, CSO 6983 (S) `! Rimsky-Korsakov: May Night (Complete), DG 3652104 (S) Wagner: Die Meistersinger, Lon OSAO 1512 (S)

(Source: Audio magazine, Apr. 1978)

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