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ben 29th Jan 2014 12:49 pm

Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
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Note: this general guide is aimed at the inexperienced who may have stumbled across quarter inch domestic reel tape for the first time. Given the vast array of tape machine designs, makes and models, please bear in mind that parts of this may not be relevant to you.

You have tapes; what next?

So you’ve found a pile of dusty reels of tape which you believe might contain Great Uncle George’s 10th birthday party, or perhaps a long lost episode of Top of the Pops. Problem: you need to get them onto a more contemporary format or your PC. How you proceed depends largely on whether you already have a machine to play them on (possibly even that used to record them initially) or not.

You have the machine.

This makes things easier, as it is likely to offer the same speeds, track configuration and reel size capacity as the tapes you have.
Before rushing to try and play them, however, bear in mind that not only is this forty-year-old technology but it has also likely been standing idle for decades. Caution is advised.

- Get hold of some unimportant tape (from ebay for example) for test purposes, before even thinking of playing any potentially valuable tape. That way you avoid the risk of having your memories chewed up or erased before you’ve even begun!

On this note, do not assume that what is printed on the reel or box coinicides with the actual tape on the spool. It is common for tapes to be stored on another reel after playback, for example. If you have several, check them all, and listen through both sides and all tracks.

- Check the mains plug is fitted with a 3 amp fuse. Then try plugging in the machine and switching on, using all your senses! Keep a watchful eye out for any smoke, listen for any unhealthy noises and be aware of burning smells or other signs of distress. Pull the plug if in doubt.

- If there are no such problems, then, still without a tape, try pressing fast forward, rewind and play to see if the drive moves. Note that some Tandbergs, Sonys and Akais (and others) need a tape threaded to move. In which case proceed to the next step.

- Thread a junk tape. Never done it before? See this video or the pics below, and try again. If you are lucky, you will get correct movement with no tape spillage and sound.
If not, you will need to either post the make/model/symptoms here for guidance or seek another deck of similar characteristics, or get someone to do the transfer for you.

ben 29th Jan 2014 1:03 pm

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
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- Before risking your treasured tape, it is highly recommended that you clean the tape path. This will ensure best sound and may avoid irregular tape running. Never done it? The picture below shows typical parts you need to clean.

You will need some isopropyl alcohol form a chemist’s and some Q tips. Head cleaner solution (VHS kits for example) will suffice. Moisten the cotton bud and gently wipe the surface of the heads and guides. At this stage do NOT get any on the rubber roller, as if it is already deteriorating you may accelerate this process.

Stubbon deposits may need a bit more elbow grease! Pay attention to the upper and lower edges of guides where you may see encrusted oxide. Use a fingernail if necessary to dislodge it.

When the bud is dirty, use a fresh one. Allow five minutes or so for the alcohol to evaporate before using.

Note that you may need to remove the head cover to gain access; some models allow this, others don't.

ben 29th Jan 2014 1:27 pm

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
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- You will now need to buy or make up a lead to connect to the PC (in which case one end needs 3.5mm jack plug) or Hi fi/other recorder (2x RCA Phono). Electronics places such as Maplin sell a variety of adaptors, as do online vendors and even Poundland may be useful if all you need is a jack-to-RCA cable. By all means check here first if in doubt, though.

This brings us to the next point: Mono or stereo?

A detailed description of the various track formats and channel options is the subject for another thread due to the complexity involved, and is not necessary at this stage. What follows is a general overview.


Until the early 1970s, most domestic recorders were single channel mono. This is usually the case with ‘suitcase’ style types made by the likes of Grundig, Elizabethan, Telefunken, Thorn/Ultra/HMV/Marconi/Ferguson, Fidelity, etc. (see pictures below).

You will need an output at (or near) what is known as 'line level'. There will be a socket, often marked RADio, AMP, Pre-amp, Line Out, Tape Out or by a symbol -Grundig often used two wavy lines for 'Ausgang' (Output) on early units; Philips used other symbols. See images below for sockets and pin-outs.

Do not use any loudspeaker outputs, as these will cause distortion due to impedance mismatch.
Beware! Many of the multi-pin DIN sockets may have DC voltages on some pins which will destroy any audio equipment erroneously connected to them. The Philips diagram below has such a socket, marked innocuously as 'Stereo'!

To get sound from a mono machine to both channels on a modern audio system, you need to wire the recorder’s single channel output to both Left and Right stereo channels together. If you are not handy with a soldering iron, then use a commerically available lead/adaptor to your PC. Record in single channel to software like Audacity or Nero wave editor and later convert the sample to dual channel mono.

ben 29th Jan 2014 2:04 pm

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
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By the 1970s, Japanese manufacturers such as Sony, Akai, National (Panasonic), and Sanyo began to produce mass-market domestic Stereo recorders. Examples of popular models were the Akai 4000 series and the Sony TC377/399.

The likes of Revox were also very popular, though usually found in Broadcast and semi-pro circles. European firms like Philips, Grundig and Telefunken also produced Stereo units at this time.

In general, broadcast gear uses half track at 7 1/2 or 15 i.p.s; domestic users favoured quarter track using a top speed of 7 1/2 i.p.s. Better machines allow the use of 10 1/2" metal NAB spools.

These stereo units tend to use the RCA Phono connectors which were becoming established by now. These require little further description; connection via RCA to 3.5mm jack lead is usually all that is required.

Many European units still used DIN, in which case, the steps and precautions mentioned above apply.

Playing mono tapes on such machines often requires a track /channel selector to be set to left or right; there may be a Stereo/mono switch; some will simply output the signal on the left or right channel, in which case the points made about connections in the 'mono' section above apply.

You do not have the machine.

The first thing to do is measure the diameter of the reels you have. If 5 ¾” or below, you have considerable choice; if 7” or higher, you must be sure that what you buy can accommodate them. Many 1960s 'suitcase' style units do not take spools greater than 5 3/4"; very few doemstic decks accept the 10 1/2" NAB reels.

If you do not know from the tape boxes what speed or track configuration was used, then you must buy the most versatile deck you can find, just in case. Look for three speeds (1 7/8, 3 ¾, 7 ½ i.p.s.) and four track (switches marked 1-4, and 3-2) or ‘stereo’. A two-track (also called half track) tape will play on a four track (quarter track) unit, but not vice-versa. Ideally buy only after trying the unit out by playing a tape, to make sure it works.

As mentioned above, broadcast machines use 7 1/2 i.p.s. or 15 i.p.s speed, and for 10 1/2" NAB spools, you will be limited to the likes of Revox and some models by Sony, Teac, etc.

If you have tapes recorded at the non-domestic 15 i.p.s speed and your recorder only goes up to 7 1/2, you can record to PC at this speed then use software to increase the playback speed of the file. Some adjustment of the EQ may also be necessary.

A note on Philips and Ferrograph Series 7 recorders.

These recorders (examples pictured below) can present more problems than most because internal rubber belts, clutches and idler tyres tend to disintegrate into the most horrendous black tar, necessitating extensive disassembly, cleaning and rubber replacement. Not usually a job for the inexperienced! The goo will also ruin clothes, furnishing carpets etc. in seconds - Don't ask me how I know!

Unless the machine you intend to buy is fully restored, it may be better to look for other options.

ben 29th Jan 2014 2:28 pm

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
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So, you played a tape to test the recorder, got connected up - yet things aren't running smoothly (in all senses of the term!)

A common problem blighting some types of tape is Sticky Shed Syndrome ('SSS'). Symptoms include squealing and grinding noises from the tape itself, grinding to a halt in fast wind, distorted noisy sound, or loss of sound as the heads clog. You will see sticky black deposits on the tape path. Video.

This problem is due to a type of binder used in the tape manufacture which absorbs moisture, affecting the tape surface.
Tapes which have suffered this include Ampex 406 and 456, Sony SLH and PR150, and many Scotch. Shamrock and Tandy Concertape were supposedly ex-Ampex stock and also tend to suffer bad SSS. Most SSS tapes were made in the 1970s and early 1980s.

If you experience this problem, stop the tape immediately to avoid destroying it, and if possible rewind by threading the tape directly from one spool to the other, avoiding the tape path. Needless to say, the whole path must be cleaned thoroughly before next use.

Important content can be recovered by 'baking' which is covered here. A treatment involving a car upholstery cleaner called 'Nu finish' is also under investigation, but this is messy and time consuming.

Broken tape
You may find that upon playback or fast wind, the tape breaks. This may be due to fragile acetate tape, a splice which has disintegrated (often happens where the coloured leader or switch foil meets the tape) or in the worst case, a crude join with adhesive tape or 'sellotape', which has oozed and made adjacent tape layers stick together.

It is recommended that only proper splicing tape is used to join tapes. Available from online pro-audio suppliers and ebay vendors. Be sure to cut away all affected sticky parts before use. A brief guide is attached below.

Nickthedentist 29th Jan 2014 3:13 pm

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
Good work Ben! Mods, can we make this "sticky", please?

ben 30th Jan 2014 1:28 am

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
2 Attachment(s)
Notes on DIN connectors

Commonly found on European equipment, the DIN system gets its name from the Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Standards Institute). Although designed with simplicity of connection in mind, numerous permutations mean that working out what signal goes where can be daunting. The plugs tend to be one of three types:
- Input only (usually called Mic or Phono or Disc; may be high level and low level). This type of socket does not concern us for now.
- Output Only (may be called Monitor). Less common.
- Combined Input and Output (often called Rec/PB, Radio, Diode). This is of interest.

For our purposes, i.e. getting an (approximate) line level signal out of a tape machine, we need to look at the common three and five pin connectors.

Generally, the earth/ground is easiest to identify. Usually Pin 2, sometimes the metal barrel/body of the plug is used too. If making a 3.5 mm jack lead, Pin 2 is always connected to cable shielding. The output signal goes to the tip of your 3.5mm jack plug.

One crude way to find out where the signal is on your recorder's DIN plug is to use a cheap set of amplified PC speakers. Solder some sewing needles or pins to their line input cable (one needle on the red/white inner cable, the other to the shielding).

The needle with the shielding can be inserted into Pin 2, then the other four holes can be probed one by one until audio appears. If you accidentally touch the wrong pin, you won't have damaged any expensive equipment!

Here are a few model-specific pinouts:
(Remember: pin 2 is Ground)

-On a mono unit using a 3 pin DIN, often called 'Radio' or 'Diode', the output signal can be found on Pin 3 (the case on the Tandberg series 15 example seen below).

-On the Philips EL3548 mono unit with a 5 pin DIN ('Diode'), either pins 3 or 5 can be used for signal Output - both wired together internally. Pictured in post #3 above.

-On the Philips N4308 (6 pin DIN) the output is on Pin 3 on either the RADIO/PHONO or STEREO sockets. Note: Pin 5 of the latter has a 26v supply, so be careful! Pictured below.

-The simpler Philips N4307 has a sole DIN socket. Output on either Pin 3 or 5.

-On a stereo unit such as the Sony TC 377 using a 5 pin DIN for Rec/PB, it is often the case that pins 1 and 4 are left and right input, and 3 and 5 are the left and right signal outputs. Therefore, we only need three of the five pins: 2, 3, and 5.

majoconz 31st Jan 2014 1:17 am

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
Excellent sticky, Ben - well done.
If you have a tape deck that works well mechanically but the amplifier/power supply is beyond repair, I have had good results by disconnecting the playback head and feeding the signal directly into a phono preamp. Evetually I found a kit that had the correct RIAA curve components for the tape speeds - worked really well and was so low in power requirements that I ran it from 2 PP3 batteries - no hum loops there!
Incidentally I use a bit of software called "RipVinyl" - obviously for records but work well as it splits up all the tracks into single files so you don't have to muck around with Audacity - ISTR that it saves as Wave files so no loss of quality.

AndiiT 1st Feb 2014 11:40 pm

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
Excellent thread Ben.
Just a quick note, on some Grundig machines although a 5 Pin DIN socket is fitted they are only wired for 3 pin use the extra two pins being dummy ones to allow a 5 pin plug to be mated with the socket; The TK 146 is certainly wired in this way.

Also as has already been mentioned, similar to certain Philips models some Grundig machines also have voltage on the pins of certain sockets for use with an additional amplifier etc.



julie_m 2nd Feb 2014 12:29 am

Re: Transferring reel tapes to PC or other formats - first steps
Note also that some valved tape recorders' amplifier outputs have a very high output impedance, intended to connect straight to the grid of a valve; and the fairly low input impedance of most computer sound cards will pull the signal down too much. If this is the case, you will have to use the speaker output. A modern, short-pinned phono plug might actually be better here, if it makes contact without disconnecting the internal speaker.

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