Analogue Tape Terminology
Acetate Tape refers to the material used as the base for tapes manufactured from the early ’50s through the 1970s. During the 1970s, polyester became the preferred base material for analogue tape. It’s worth noting that each material has exhibited problems over time.
Acetate becomes brittle if the oxide has dried out. The acetate base can deform, causing a condition called cupping. Too much moisture during storage can cause a condition known as “vinegar syndrome” in which the acetate base releases acetic acid and the tape will have a vinegar odour.
In the world of magnetic tape recorders, azimuth refers to the alignment of the gap in the record and playback heads relative to the direction of travel of the tape itself. The head gap represents the centreline of each head and should be precisely 90 degrees to the tape. Any variation will result in a loss of high frequency information. Azimuth is one of the adjustable parameters of each head and there are specific methods to check and adjust for the proper alignment.
Many brands of professional polyester audio tape had a coating on the backside (opposite the oxide) that was electrically conductive and performed some important functions:
1) The foremost purpose was to help prevent static build-up, which could cause arcing and subsequent audible snaps in the recording. 2) While helping to eliminate static, the same back coating allowed for more even packing of the tape on the reel. 3) The back coating also served as an insulating layer that helped prevent print-through, a condition in which the recorded magnetic field migrates from one layer of the tape to another.
In a tape recorder, bias is a high frequency Alternating Current (AC) signal that is applied to the record and erase heads during recording. The frequency of the bias signal is supposed to be at least 10 times the highest audio frequency capable of being recorded by a given recorder (but rarely is). A typical bias frequency is anywhere between 40 kilohertz (forty thousand cycles per second) and 100 kilohertz (KHz). The reason for the bias signal is to magnetize the ferrous iron particles in the oxide in a manner which provides the best linearity for recording. The fact is, anything that can be magnetized does not magnetize in a linear fashion. Early attempts to record without a bias signal on an oxide containing iron particles resulted in poor frequency response. Applying a DC (Direct Current) bias proved to be of little benefit. The first patent for AC bias for use in electronics was filed by W. L. Carlson and Glenn L. Carpenter in 1921. However, it was Walter Weber who applied the technique of applying AC Bias to magnetic tape recording.
This is a condition where the chemical binder in the oxide has absorbed moisture over time to a point that causes a chemical change in the composition of the oxide itself. This often results in “Sticky Shed Syndrome.” Another variation in the decomposition of the oxide results in a milky-colored stain on the surface of the oxide that dramatically increases the friction during playback, often causing the tape to come to a stop.
In the world of magnetic tape, this refers to the strength of a given magnetic field (erasure) required to reduce the recorded magnetic field (signal) on the tape to zero after the oxide has been driven into saturation. Tapes using an oxide with greater coercivity generally require a stronger Bias signal.
On a tape recorder, the Capstan is the rotating vertical shaft that pulls the tape past the heads. The tape is usually squeezed between the Capstan and a rotating wheel known as the Pinch Roller.
A device that emits a strong enough AC magnetic field to completely erase magnetic media or magnetized metal parts.
Simply stated: “The process of removing magnetism from any material that can be magnetized.” In the world of tape recording, tapes are demagnetized by being exposed to an AC field strong enough to overcome the coercivity of the tape. This process is accomplished by the erase head during recording. On tape decks, the metal parts that come in constant contact with the tape (particularly, the tape heads themselves) can become magnetized over time and have to be routinely demagnetized using a portable degausser. The process of demagnetizing the heads and various parts of a tape deck has its own learning curve. If done improperly, one can actually magnetize the intended parts and cause harm to tapes that are subsequently played on that machine.
A dropout is a brief loss or sudden decrease of signal level (volume) most often caused by a defect in the oxide. Dropouts can also be caused by damage to the tape itself, a temporary clogging of the record head during recording, or, likewise, a clogging of the play head during playback. Tape defects can cause frequency-selective dropouts such as a brief loss of high frequency information. Tape speed can be a factor in the effect of tape-defect related dropouts as the condition is less noticeable at higher tape speeds.
In the world of audio, Dynamic Range is defined simply as the range of volume from the loudest to the softest of sounds. Dynamic Range is expressed in decibels (dB), which is a logarithmic scale. We often refer to Dynamic Range in terms of the difference between the loudest undistorted signal that can be recorded down to the noise level (floor) of a given medium. Analog tape is capable of a dynamic range of roughly 70dB. A Compact Disc has a theoretical dynamic range of 96dB. The average human can hear a dynamic range of approximately 140dB.
The erase head on an analog tape recorder is somewhat self-explanatory. It does its job by being energized by the bias oscillator with enough voltage and current to saturate the tape with the bias frequency. The erase head is only energized during recording. Otherwise, it would be erasing tape all the time! The erase head is also the first to come in contact with the tape during playback or recording. If you view the heads of a tape deck straight on, the erase head will be on the left.
Tape recorders are designed to pass the tape across the heads at a very constant speed. Any changes in the tape speed of a pre-recorded signal are perceived as changes in pitch. If these speed changes occur very rapidly, the effect is a “fluttering” sound; hence the term. Flutter can be caused by something as simple as a piece of tape that becomes inadvertently wrapped around the capstan or a very worn pinch roller. A type of tape degradation known as “Sticky Shed Syndrome” can cause flutter, as the tape itself tends to chatter across the heads.
Tape guides are generally stationary posts that are placed very near the heads to keep the tape in proper vertical alignment. Worn guides cannot only lose their ability to keep the tape properly aligned, but can actually damage tape as it is passed across them.
Tape that has been wound onto the supply reel is “Heads Out.” In order to indicate the state of the tape, the loose end is usually folded and fastened to the reel with adhesive paper tape in such a manner that the folded and taped end will face the operator when the reel is placed on the machine (or a table, for that matter). This makes it easy to identify which way to mount a given reel of tape onto the tape deck.
IPS (Inches Per Second)
The linear speed of the audiotape as it is played on the tape deck. Tape speeds vary from as slow as 15/16 ips to as much as 30 ips. Generally speaking, the faster the tape speed the better the sound quality. Tape speeds of 3-3/4 and 7.5 ips were common for consumer tape recorders, while professional machines typically operate at 15 and 30 ips.
Leader is used to separate specific segments of audiotape such as each song on music masters. It is a paper or plastic product cut the same width as the tape. Leader is typically added to the beginning of a reel and sometimes to the end. Some manufactured tape comes with leader already attached to the tape. Some plastic leader is printed with markers for every second of time and is called “Timing Leader.”
This is a process whereby the tape is wound from one reel to the other at reduced tension and at a speed that is much slower than full rewind speed, typically around 45 ips. This results in a very even wind on the take-up reel, and a tails-out configuration is desirable for long-term storage.
The tape lifters are vertical posts that usually reside near the heads and are energized during fast-forward or rewind. During this process, the lifters move the tape away from the heads to prevent wear during the high speed shuttling of the tape from one reel to the other.
Numerous articles and books have been written on this subject, and it is difficult to summarize Noise Reduction in a few sentences. When it comes to tape recording, there are two basic approaches: Single-Ended and Dual-Ended.
Single-Ended systems generally deal with tape hiss and other anomalies after the fact or after the recording is made. Today’s digital editing software is often designed to be able to improve upon recorded anomalies after the fact and is a good example of a single-ended approach. A number of hardware devices were made for single-ended noise reduction by companies like Burwen, DBX, Phase Linear and SAE and can still be found on the vintage hardware market. These hardware devices work in “real time,” meaning that the recorded audio has to be played through them for processing.
Dual-Ended noise reduction involves processing the audio signal before and after recording. Ray Dolby was one who first applied this process in 1966 with the introduction of Dolby “A” type noise reduction, intended for use with professional audio tape recording. Dolby Laboratories subsequently introduced noise reduction processes for the consumer market and became a household word. Besides Dolby Laboratories, DBX and Telefunken produced very effective dual-ended systems that were used in both professional and consumer recording.
This is the composition that has been applied to the side of magnetic tape that contains the magnetic recording. Oxide consists of a slurry containing the metal particles, a binder solution which helps adhere the oxide to the backing, lubricants to make the dried solution both flexible and less physically noisy when passing across the heads, and several other chemical compounds. The actual composition of oxide remains a closely guarded secret by the various manufactures of magnetic tape.
The Pinch Roller (sometimes referred to as a ‘puck’) on a tape deck is the round wheel that presses the tape against the capstan to move the tape across the heads. Pinch rollers are freewheeling and are usually made of rubber or a semi-soft composite material.
If you were able to view the construction of a play head, it would look somewhat like a horseshoe with several turns of fine wire wrapped around it. The tape is pulled across the gap of the horseshoe shape. The actual gap is tiny (microns across, in fact) in order to concentrate the magnetism that has been imparted onto the tape by the record head.
This is how the tape winds up on the take-up reel after being played. A “Play Wind” is considered to be desirable for storage. The reason is that if print-through occurs, the print-through information will be after the recorded audio and be masked or sound like echo. If the tape is stored heads-out, the print-through information can precede the recorded audio on the tape and is known as pre-echo.
This refers to the type of base material used for audio and videotape since the late 1960s. Polyester, sometimes referred to as PET, is a substance known scientifically as Polyethylene Terephthalate (I know, I can’t pronounce it either). Polyester tapes have shown to have adhesion problems as the oxide absorbs moisture over time, and the unfortunate result is that the oxide separates from the base, literally falling off in some instances or causing an unfortunate condition called “Sticky Shed Syndrome.”
When audiotapes are tightly wound on a reel and/or stored for extended periods of time, the adjacent layers can sometimes influence each other. That is, one layer can partially magnetize an adjacent layer. This condition can be more predominant if the recorded levels are extremely loud or “hot” or with thinner varieties of tape. The use of conductive back coatings on many brands of professional tape helped alleviate this condition. If the tape is wound heads-out, the partial magnetization will sound like pre-echo. This is one of the reasons for storing audiotapes tails-out. If print through occurs in a tails-out wind condition, it is either masked or sounds more like natural echo. It has been recommended by some that stored audio tapes be periodically rewound and stored again using a play wind or, preferably, a library wind, a very labor intensive process which is, in practice, rarely done.
The main difference between a record head and a playback head is the size of the gap between the poles of the head itself. We’re talking microns here. However, the gap on a record head is typically wider than that of a playback head.
This is the state reached with magnetic tape when the oxide has been magnetized to the point where it cannot be magnetized any further. Exceeding this threshold with an alternating current magnetic field (via the record head) will cause the magnetic particles in the oxide to become disoriented, and audible distortion occurs.
Speaking strictly in engineering or scientific terms: “signal-to-noise ratio refers to the strength of a given signal to the background noise associated with that signal.” Signal-to-Noise Ratio can be applied to everything from astronomy to analog and digital recording. It is often abbreviated as SNR or S/N.
Sticky Shed Syndrome
This condition is particularly damaging to the tape being played, whereby the binders and lubricants in the oxide have absorbed enough moisture over time to cause the oxide to become soft. When played on a tape recorder, the characteristic symptom is a squealing or squeaking sound, which modulates the audio being played. The tape will often shed oxide on all of the stationary parts of the tape deck it comes in contact with. The temporary fix is to carefully bake the tape under controlled conditions.
An effect (sometimes a mistake) whereby a signal is recorded onto an existing recording. When played back, both signals can be heard but not separated. This process is made possible by disabling the erase head when applying the second signal to an existing recording.
Tape that has been wound onto the take-up reel of a tape recorder is “Tails Out.” In order to indicate the state of the tape, the loose end is usually folded and fastened to the reel with adhesive paper tape in such a manner that the folded and taped end will face the operator when the reel is placed on the machine (or a table, for that matter). This makes it easy to identify which way to mount a given reel of tape onto the tape deck.
The process of baking analog tape involves raising the ambient temperature of the tape to 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit (48.8 – 54.4 degrees Celsius) in a very low humidity environment for specific amounts of time based on the width of the tape, the thickness of the tape, and the size of the reel. The process was first proposed (even patented) by Ampex in the early 1990s. This procedure can only be applied to polyester based tape. Acetate based tape can be damaged by this process.
The sudden change of pitch of a recorded signal caused by physically altering the tape speed for a very short duration of time. The reasons for the occurrence can be everything from mechanical failure to the tape itself being stretched. Wow can also be created purposely by applying enough pressure to the supply reel during playback to momentarily alter the tape speed.
On an audio tape recorder, Zenith refers to the relationship of the vertical alignment of the heads and tape guides to the deck plate or mainframe in order to provide even contact over the entire surface of the tape. Zenith, like Azimuth, is usually an adjustable parameter of each tape head.
[The following Analog Tape Terminology has been graciously provided by Corey Bailey, where it was originally published on his website at www.baileyzone.net/glossaries-tape.htm.]