Tale of The Tape

plasticreelThere are an almost limitless number of tape brands on the market. While it’s impossible to cover every brand, we can certainly give a good overview of many of them, to give you an idea of which tapes to buy, and which ones to stay away from.

Paper or Plastic

The first tapes were paper-based. Paper tape varied from light to medium brown in colour, and you can see light glow through it if you hold a reel up to a light source. Tape from this era is now brittle and breaks easily. Care must be taken when handling paper based tape.

In the 1960s tape was made with plastic or polyester. This tape base is far more durable than paper tape, and ranges from light to dark brown depending on the age and manufacturer. Generally speaking, the darker the tape, the newer it is, although there are exceptions. The quality of older plastic tape is the equivalent of a ‘normal bias’ cassette tape and good for both speech and music use. The tape tends to be relatively stable, and even 50 year old tape can still be good to use today.

This older tape can reach saturation, or the point at which it distorts around +3db, so you don’t want to peak the level meters on your reel-to-reel when recording as you’ll hear this distortion.

bigmikeBeware of ‘no name’ brand tape, or ‘white box’ tape. It was relatively common that if one of the major manufacturers had a bad batch of tape, they would sell it to other vendors who would market it cheaply under obscure names. While many reels still work well today, the frequency response of a no name brand tape may not be as good as a name brand counterpart.

Popular brands: Ampex, 3M/Scotch, Sony, Irish, TDK, Maxell, BASF.

Back-coated tape

Sometime in the mid 1970s, engineers developed back coated tape, which quickly became the industry standard and preferred tape in both recording studios and at home. Back coated tape still has a brown oxide side, which faces the tape heads, but the back side of the tape is a charcoal gray or almost black color. This back coated tape allowed recordings to be made at a much higher level than normal tape, which improved the signal to noise ratio, the frequency response was better, and recordings resulted in less distortion. Referring again to cassettes, back coated tape was the equivalent of chrome tapes. Back coated tapes were priced at a premium due to the better performance. Back coated tapes could be recorded typically at +6db to +9db.

Popular brands: Sony, Ampex, 3M, BASF, Quantegy, RMGi, ATR.

New Tapes

rmg-tapeA handful of companies manufacture new tapes including RMGi, and ATR. Both are excellent back coated tapes, and are available in a number of tape formats and sizes. These tapes are available from select suppliers in many cities, or can be found on eBay.


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Reel to Reel Tech is a dealer of RMGi brand tape – contact us for pricing.

READ MORE: Tape Problems