barn find of a lifetime

The Great Barn Find Adventure Of A Lifetime – Part 1

As many of you know, I have spent my life and career working on electronic equipment. This started early in elementary school, and I was selling CRT televisions out of my parents’ basement by the end of high school in 1981. That continued throughout the 80s, until the bottom dropped out of television pricing, and I subsequently transitioned into pro audio installations and servicing.

Ampex ATR 102
Ampex ATR 102

I’ve had what I call an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with reel to reel tape decks since I was a toddler, and no one knew why. My parents were both accountants, and while we had a mono tube reel to reel in the 1960s to send tapes back and forth to my grandparents in Europe, we didn’t have a stereo until I built up my own around Grade 6. I was fascinated by the turning reels and the overall high sound quality of tape decks.

In 1991 I purchased Vancouver Audio Clinic, one of Vancouver’s largest consumer and pro audio repair shops. This was the place that I took equipment in high school when I didn’t have the skills to repair them (yet). Every time I set foot into Vancouver Audio, I wanted to work there. Back in the late 70s when I’d go to Van Audio,  the place was filled with large power amplifiers, receivers, guitar amps, cassette decks and reel to reels. Sadly, by the time I bought it, most people were abandoning the old large vintage receivers and reel to reels, in favor of 5.1 surround receivers and compact ‘BPC’ (black plastic crap) stereos, as home theatre was all the rage in the early to late 90s.

I ran Vancouver Audio Clinic for almost 4 years before I sold it. It shut down in 1995.

What I did take away from Vancouver Audio Clinic, however, was the knowledge to repair – and more importantly, to calibrate – reel to reel tape decks. I learned the importance of MRL calibration tapes, azimuth and bias, things that I more or less guessed at during the 1980s. Van Audio had a great tape deck tech, and he taught me what I didn’t know.

One of the things that kept Van Audio going is that I’d repair and sell abandoned repairs as used equipment at the front counter, with a small display area. Occasionally I’d buy used equipment from people looking to unload unwanted equipment, and that’s something I’ve continued to this day.

Studer A807
Studer A807

Fast forward to 2017, and the Reel to Reel Tech website was launched. I continued my interest in reel to reels while doing large commercial audio installations, and for the last 10+ years, I  advertised refurbished decks on Craigslist. My running joke was that in the 2000s, the only people that wanted reel to reel machines repaired were people over 50 that had one in their past, and needed a deck to play their old tapes on. Once the website launched and hit Google searches, the emails and calls increased exponentially, and I found that about half of the website inquiries came from musicians that were discovering or rediscovering good old analog sound. To date, the demand for multi-track as well as consumer decks remains high, and I buy, repair and sell a lot of decks every year. My youngest client was 18 years old, who had only worked with ProTools, and wanted to try reel to reel recording. He bought an entry level Akai reel to reel, but was back a year later to buy a 4 channel Teac 3340s for multi-tracking.

As a result of the website visibility, I receive numerous  emails from people wanting to sell me tape decks. These range from tube mono machines from the 1950s and 1960s, to high end 24 track studio machines. While every machine that comes through the shop needs servicing, I find that most of the long abandoned studio machines need a ton of work. This was due to  maintenance was not kept up on these machines, as digital started taking over in the late 1980s. It’s not uncommon for a 24 track machine to come in with 9 or 10 channels being dead. The working channels would simply get reduced in the studios as preamp modules would fail, and years (sometimes decades) later, I’d buy the machine for restoration.

I generally get a couple of emails a week from people wanting to sell me decks, and I never know what the client has. Sometimes it’s a single machine that came out of the seller’s home stereo, other times I get calls from recording studios that have several decks, plus parts, plus a ton of associated equipment.

This long preamble brings us to March of 2022, when I received a random email from a seller wanting to ‘sell off a large collection of machines that his dad had collected over a series of decades’.  Of course, this piqued my interest. The person emailing me was the son of the owner of the decks. He lived in Portland, his father lives in Texas, and the son had to make a trip to  Texas to take inventory and to capture some pictures. He told me that he’d make the trip at some point in time, with Covid of course making travel a bit more complicated as well.

 

Because of the large number of emails I deal with daily (generally 20-40 a day), if something isn’t happening immediately, I end up forgetting about it, as I did with this seller’s email. I received another email in July 2022, with the seller telling me that trip hadn’t happened yet, but it would be. Finally in November 2022 early on a Sunday morning, I  received an email with an Excel spreadsheet attached of the equipment for sale. Up to this point, I wasn’t given brand names, or even  whether the decks were consumer or pro, or a combination thereof. With literally 100-200 decks coming through the shop every year, I’ve seen a lot of the common consumer and pro models, along with various ancillary equipment, and I see multiples of many brands and models of decks every year.

 

It therefore takes a bit for me to sit there, open jawed, looking at a list of equipment. Well, this was one of those times where my jaw sat on the floor of my office while I was staring at the spreadsheet. Ampex ATR, Studer Revox, Technics, Studer, Studer, etc. There was a total of 105 items, with only two decks being consumer models, and all others being semi pro or professional makes and models. On top of that, there was service manuals, spare parts, high end test equipment, and a bunch of equipment that I’d never seen in person.

I quickly emailed the seller back, saying I’d need 24 hours to do some research on the equipment, and to study the pictures, to come up with pricing for all items. The seller replied that he wasn’t in a rush, to take my time. I spent the rest of the day cogitating on what I should offer for the long list of gear, knowing that I’d have to bring everything back through customs to Vancouver to work on it all.

From the pictures, I could  also tell  that this wasn’t a scam of random pictures gathered from the internet and  simply put  on a spreadsheet. I could see that all pictures were taken from the same area, and I’d see the corner of one piece of equipment in another picture. This was definitely legit!

I decided to approach this two ways.. to provide a purchase price if I bought absolutely everything on the list, and another price, more expensive per item, if I was allowed to cherry pick. I also would have to fly down to Texas to inspect all equipment before committing to it, and then  coordinate logistics to get all  of the items to Canada. Fortunately I have a logistics whiz that I have been working with, shipping electronics all over the globe for the last 20 years, and he was on it.

To make matters more interesting, the seller lives on a 70 acre lot, with a ½ mile long driveway in the middle of nowhere, with a couple of hairpin turns, making it impossible for a semi trailer and truck to arrive at his property. Instead, we’d have to hire a smaller 5 ton truck to drop off pallets, find a few people to pack up the equipment, and then drop all of the pallets off at a local truck dock so that a 53’ semi trailer could make the drive to Vancouver.

 

As I went through the list, I realized that it would be foolish to cherry pick as I wanted it all. Then there was the matter of finding a place to store all of this equipment without paying insane storage locker charges. I therefore made an offer that was fair to both parties, and taking into account that everything was sold ‘as is’, and the cost of trucking it to Vancouver, the customs clearance charges, along with flight and accommodation charges, and hiring labor at both ends to pack and unpack the equipment.

My logistics guy advised that a 53’ trailer would fit 26 pallets, and to try and keep the load to those 26 pallets. Spending more time poring over the spreadsheet, I figured that with careful packing, I could indeed keep the load to 26 pallets, but some would be stacked high.

I’d then also need packing material, as I’d bring nothing with me. Off to the Uline website to place a large order for packing material: Boxes, some double walled, so they could be stacked without the bottom boxes collapsing under the weight. Tape gun, tape, shrink wrap, box cutters, Sharpies to label each box, moving blankets, ratchet straps, etc etc. The bill from Uline alone came to $2,800 USD. The estimated shipping cost to Vancouver, not including customs clearance costs is in excess of $10,000 USD.

 

The seller accepted my offer, and I sent him a deposit to show that I was a legit buyer. When it comes to online transactions like this, trust and communication is everything to keep both the buyer and seller happy.

As of January 12, I have the bank draft drawn up for the balance, and there may be more pieces apparently that were not on the original spreadsheet. My flight leaves Jan 18, and I’ll spend 10 days taking inventory as well as serial numbers for the customs paperwork needed, and to oversee the packing  of all of this sensitive vintage equipment.

All equipment should be in Vancouver in the first week of February, then the long process begins of unpacking, and servicing equipment that may not have been turned on in years. I do not know the backstory currently of how the buyer managed to acquire this equipment, but I will find out, and will expand this find of a lifetime post as things occur.

 

Most of the non reel to reel related items are at www.vintageaudio.ca, and not at reeltoreeltech.com. Feel free to reach out to them if anything is of interest to you, however keep in mind that their skilled technicians also need to run through each piece of equipment before it is for sale.

Jump to Part 2 – Loading seven tons of equipment!

Defective Hitachi Brand Transistors

Here’s something to be aware of… We’ve known that a number of Akai reel to reel tape decks suffer from bad 2SC458 transistors, and up until recently, we thought that only Akai decks were affected.

For those that are not aware, Hitachi made a transistor with the 2SC458 part number. Depending on the Akai model, they were used in various circuits, usually in the play and/or record circuit, and in the case of the later higher end models such as the GX635, they were found in the forward and reverse play and record circuits. The transistor is a low voltage preamplifier transistor, and is found in the head and mic/line amplifier sections.Continue reading

Reel-to-Reel Service

We service all makes and models of reel to reel tape recorders, ranging from 1950 mono tube machines to the last generation 2” 24 track studio decks. We have 30 years of experience servicing reel to reels and other vintage audio equipment, and have all the necessary tools and test equipment to bring your machine back to life.Continue reading

Akai GX-77 Tech Info

The Akai GX-77 was Akai’s last, and top of the line 6 head auto reverse 7” reel to reel machine. It was manufactured roughly from 1981 to 1985, and is a unique tape deck in that it has a loading/roller mechanism that loads the tape to make contact with the heads. Over time, this mechanism fails due to a main worn drive belt and/or sticky white lithium grease that hardens over time. There are other unique features that may turn into problems with this deck that we will try and cover based on the decks that we’ve seen come through our shop. The deck comes apart in a unique way as well. At first glance it may appear like a daunting deck to work on, as access appears to be very limited, but once you know the trick to get at the mechanism and belts it’s not as difficult as it seems.Continue reading

Repairing stuck pinch roller on all Teac/Tascam models

One of the most common problems with many versions of Teac and Tascam models is a seized or slow moving pinch roller bearing assembly.

This causes the pinch roller to engage very slowly or not at all to the capstan. The tape may not move at all in the play mode, or it may zip through the machine quickly, depending on the type and size of reel on the deck. This affects many Teac models, but the repair is very similar on all decks.

The cause of the problem is common to all models; the white lithium grease that Teac used when assembling the machines hardens over time, seizing the sleeve bearing that the pinch roller pivots on. Fortunately, it’s a relatively easy fix, with a minimum amount of tools needed.Continue reading

Shipping Reel-to-Reel Decks & Parts

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How to Ship Reel to Reel decks (how we do it!)

 So you’ve purchased a reel to reel deck, and can’t wait to get it. Or, you’ve sold a deck, and want it to arrive safely at the destination. Regardless of whether you purchased the deck from us or not, here’s some packing guidelines:

7” decks

Generally, 7” decks are small enough to be packed in a 20 x 20 x 12” box, found at any packaging place, moving supply company, or even Home Depot usually.

Materials needed:

  • 20 x 20 x 12 box, double wall preferred
  • 2- 2’ x 4’ sheets of 3/4” Styrofoam sheet. Styrofoam insulation sheets found at a building supply place (Home Depot) are great for this.
  • Box cutter
  • Large bubble wrap, about 2’ wide x 10’ long. The bubbles within the bubble wrap are usually ½ to 1’ in diameter. Do not buy the small, thin bubble wrap used to pack small items, it won’t cushion a reel to reel enough to prevent damage
  • Packing tape- medium to heavy duty
  • Duct tape (only really needed if you’re using light duty packing tape)
  • 1 or 2” wide painters tape

(yes, as of May 2023, you’re probably into packing material costs of $40 USD. That’s what it’s going to take to safely ship the deck)

How to pack the deck

  • If the deck has any tape tension levers that move, tape them in place with painter’s tape. It prevents stress on the springs under the top cover, and reduces the chance of the levers being bent in transit.
  • Cut a couple of 2” wide strips of Styrofoam, and place them over the reel spindles. Two ¾” thick sections of styro will completely cover the spindles (poke holes into the styro before placing it over the reel tables), and tape to the front of the deck with painters tape so they can’t move.
  • We use large bubble wrap and wrap all decks in 2-3 layers of bubble wrap. We buy the bubble wrap in bulk, buying small packs from stationary stores is exceptionally expensive, so go to a packing/shipping place, and ask to buy it by the foot if you need it. It can be bought in 2’ wide versions.
  • Cut the Styrofoam sheet into sections so that you can line the box with it. Put a 20 x 20” sheet into the bottom of the box, then place the deck onto the styro sheet.
  • Using more Styrofoam sheet pieces, line the sides of the box with them, so that all 5 sides of the box are now lined with Styrofoam.
  • Use more bubble wrap to stuff between the bubble wrapped deck and the styro walls of the box, or cut more Styrofoam to build up the side walls of the box, to securely house the deck.
  • Cut one last styro sheet that fits over top of the bubble wrapped deck, so that all 6 sides of the box are now lined with styro.
  • Seal the box securely with packing tape, and if you have duct tape, put it over the packing tape for extra security that the box won’t open in transit.
  • The most important thing is that the deck is packed securely enough so that it cannot move within the box. This is SUPER important! The box WILL get dropped and kicked around in transit, and if the deck is loose within the box, any shock that the box receives will be directly transferred to the deck, causing damage.

Bubble wrapped 7” Akai deck in 2 layers of bubble wrap. Reel tables protected by 2 stacked pieces of Styrofoam over each reel table. Deck is sitting on a ¾” styro sheet, and the deck is firmly held in place by more styro sheets all around the deck.

Deck is covered with more bubble wrap, pushed down into any air space around the deck and the styro sheets. Not shown is the final piece of ¾” styro sheet that will go over top of the orange bubble wrap before the box is closed.

7” Teac X series deck wrapped in bubble wrap, with a sheet of ¾” styro underneath it.

Extra sheets of ¾” styro around the outside 4 walls of the box for extra protection. Stack the styro sheets so that the deck cannot move around within the box. Add another.

Add another ¾” sheet of styro over top of the deck to protect it on all 6 sides.

Duct tape added over top of the packing tape for extra security. We also add shock stickers (optional, found at www.Uline.com) to indicate if the box has been roughly handled in transit. The middle of the sticker will turn red if the box is dropped hard enough).

Teac X series deck placed on 2 layers of crossed bubble wrap, ready to be folder over on top of the deck.

One 3/4” piece of styro placed over the reel spindles to protect them. Put a second piece over top of the first to fully  protect them, then use  painter’s tape to hold the styro in place.

Tension arms taped in place under the bubble wrap with painter’s tape. Bubble wrap folded over the deck. Larger styro pieces placed between the deck and the outside edges of the box to firmly hold the deck in place.

10” decks

 All 10” decks require double boxing for secure shipping.

Materials needed:

  • 20 x 20 x 12 box, double wall preferred
  • 24 x 24 x 16” box, double wall. (Home Depot sells good 24” X 24” X 24” double wall boxes, and the height can be cut down to size as required)
  • 2- 2’ x 4’ sheets of 3/4” Styrofoam sheet. Styrofoam insulation sheets found at a building supply place (Home Depot) are great for this.
  • 2- 2’ x 4’ sheets of 1” styro sheets. Again, Styrofoam insulation is great, found at any building supply place.
  • Box cutter
  • Large bubble wrap, about 2’ wide x 10’ long. The bubbles within the bubble wrap are usually ½ to 1’ in diameter. Do not buy the small, thin bubble wrap used to pack small items, it won’t cushion a reel to reel enough to prevent damage
  • Packing tape- medium to heavy duty
  • Duct tape (only really needed if you’re using light duty packing tape)
  • 1 or 2” wide painters tape

inner box sealed, more styro sheets between the inside and outside box, to firmly hold the inner box in place.

Sheet of ¾” styro placed inside the top of the inner box to protect the deck.

Tascam BR20 being packed in the inner 20 X 20 X 12 box, with bubble wrap all around the deck

Tascam 32 sitting on 1” sheet of styro.  Tape tension levers taped into place with painter’s tape. NAB adapters placed onto reel spindles for protection. Put a chunk of styro over top of the remaining portion of the spindles, held in place with painter’s tape.  2 layers of bubble wrap crossed over underneath the deck. Styro sheets on the outside of the deck, between the bubble wrap and the outside box wall to hold the deck firmly in place.

Excess bubble wrap folded over the deck, with more bubble wrap packed on top of the deck.

Outer box sealed, duct tape applied around the flaps of the box, shock sticker applied.

(yes, as of May 2023, you’re probably into packing material costs of $55 USD. That’s what it’s going to take to safely ship the deck)

How to pack the deck

  • If the deck has any tape tension levers that move, tape them in place with painter’s tape. It prevents stress on the springs under the top cover, and reduces the chance of the levers being bent in transit.
  • Cut a couple of 2” wide strips of Styrofoam, and place them over the reel spindles. Two ¾” thick sections of styro will completely cover the spindles (poke holes into the styro before placing it over the reel tables), and tape to the front of the deck with painters tape so they can’t move.
  • We use large bubble wrap and wrap all decks in 2-3 layers of bubble wrap. We buy the bubble wrap in bulk, buying small packs from stationary stores is exceptionally expensive, so go to a packing/shipping place, and ask to buy it by the foot if you need it. It can be bought in 2’ wide versions.
  • With some larger 10” decks, it may be easier to line the walls of the 20 X 20 X 12 box with bubble wrap by using two pieces of 5’ long bubble wrap, running it down one wall, across the bottom, and then up the other wall. The bottom of the deck will then have two layers of bubble wrap between it and the bottom of the box. Fold the excess bubble wrap over the top of the deck, so that the deck is now encased in bubble wrap. (see pix)
  • Place the bubble wrapped deck into the middle of the 20 x 20 X 12” box. Using more bubble wrap, or sections of ¾” Styrofoam sheets, line the sides of the box so that the deck cannot move around within the inner box. Seal the 20 X 20 X 12” box.
  • Put a sheet of 24” X 24” x 1” thick Styrofoam into the bottom of the 24 X 24 X 16 box.
  • Place the 20 X 20 X 12 box into the larger 24 X 24 X 16 box. Line the open area all around the two boxes with more styro sheets, so that the inner box is snug in the outer box, so that it cannot move.
  • Cut more styro sheets to put on top of the inner box, so that they are level with the  top of the outer box.
  • If the outer box is taller than 16”, cut it down to 16” so that you have a 24 X 24 X 16 outer box, that is lined with styro all around holding the inner box securely in place.
  • Seal the box securely with packing tape, and if you have duct tape, put it over the packing tape for extra security that the box won’t open in transit.
  • The most important thing is that the deck is packed securely enough so that it cannot move within the box, nor can the inner box be allowed to move around within the outer one. This is SUPER important! The box WILL get dropped and kicked around in transit, and if the deck is loose within the box, any shock that the box receives will be directly transferred to the deck, causing damage.
  • DO NOT use those Styrofoam ‘peanuts’ to pack decks with, even if you put the deck into a large plastic garbage bag. Heavy items like reel to reel machines will crush the styro chips in transit, which will allow the deck to bounce around in the box. That’s not good! As soon as a deck can move in the box, you’re asking for problems.
  • DO NOT use crumpled newspaper anywhere in the packing process. It’s worse than the styro chips, and will crush in transit, allowing the deck to bounce around in the box.
  • We use USPS in the US, and Canada Post for shipment totals under 70 LBS rather than the couriers, and here’s why: The postal services won’t treat the package any better than the couriers, but in the rare case that there’s shipping damage, USPS will pay up. UPS and FedEx are a nightmare to deal with for insurance claims, and we’ve never gotten paid by either over the years.
  • Here’s another important point: We use only newly purchased boxes to ship reel to reels in. If you receive a box with clearly visible damage, as in a corner that is smashed in, or a hole in the box, DO NOT sign for the receipt of the box! Either insist on opening the box in front of the postal worker to ensure there’s no internal damage, or if the box is badly damaged, refuse it completely. As soon as you sign for the receipt of the unit, the post office and couriers assume you ‘received it in good order’. All insurance claims are then null and void. We do the same at this end before accepting any decks in for repair.
  • On larger reel to reel decks and any units over 70 lbs total, we use freight companies (trucking) to ship the decks. For any deck that isn’t in a rollaround cart, we use the above boxing methods, but we strap the box to a 48 X 40 pallet.  Shipping by truck is very safe, unless a forklift tine goes through the box (it’s happened to us twice in 18 years). It’s cheaper for you to pick the deck up at the truck dock, which is about $100-150 less than if the trucking company does a residential delivery. It also goes through less hands that way. Again, inspect the box for visible damage before signing the trucking waybill.
  • If we are sending to the US, we clear customs at this end, so you see the deck as a domestic shipment from Washington State. No customs charges for you!

Shipping decks to us for repair

 Whether you’re sending a deck in for repair, or we’ve purchased a deck from you, follow the above packing guidelines to ensure safe travels. Our website shows our Canadian address, but to prevent customs charges, we also have a Washington State ship-to address to make things easier and cheaper.

We clear customs when the deck gets here, and customs agents at the border crossing that we go through with decks know that I’m this crazy Canadian that repairs vintage electronics stuff

Email us at curt@reeltoreeltech.com to get that Washington State ship-to address

VERY IMPORTANT! If you are sending a deck in for repair, make sure that your name, phone number and address (and email address) are in the box on top of the deck. Send us an email as well with your contact information, as we can send you reports and estimates via email. We get everything in writing from our clients.

Please put a short description of the problem(s) with the deck into the box as well please. With 40+ emails and phone calls a day regarding reel to reels, they do all become a blur, and we may not remember all the details of the phone call or email that we had 10 days earlier. Also put a copy of the email exchange that we’ve had into the box, so we know at this end what we had discussed.

Repair Pricing

To save everyone time, and to speed up the repair process, a general cleaning testing and setup of any  2 channel/stereo reel to reel ranges from $300-350, either in Canadian or USD. (see our ‘mandatory service to tape decks elsewhere on the site for a better explanation), but in point form, this covers:

  • Testing all machine functions
  • Cleaning all controls and switches
  • Cleaning of the tape path
  • Cleaning of the pinch roller and capstan
  • Replacement of the pinch roller
  • Replacement of the main drive belt, as applicable
  • Checking frequency response of record and playback, and an email of the frequency response
  • Setting the bias and eq curves for one tape type (typically Maxell UDXL/Quantegy 456/RMGi911, etc.)
  • Test running the deck for at least 6 hours in play and record to make sure the deck is fully functional over the long term.

Phone calls, etc.

 We are on the West Coast, so we’re on Pacific Time,  the same as Seattle or Los Angeles. We work long hours, and have no problems with early evening and weekend calls. As most of you might have guessed, I am a one man show (I hide it nicely by saying ‘we’ on the website!), and will admit that I am absolutely TERRIBLE with names and faces, but stellar with phone numbers. If you call and say ‘I talked to you last week about reel to reels’, then you’ll be about the 20th person that has done that in the past week! If you say ‘Hi, I’m Ron, I’ve got that Teac 2300 that doesn’t go into play mode, and I was going to drop it off today’, then I will most likely know exactly who you are.

Note also that Canada uses the same AC voltage as the US, so we can repair your US tape deck. We also have our shop wired for 220 volts, so we can even repair decks that are set up for European voltages!

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Reel-to-Reel Head and Tape Path Cleaning

The most fundamental, necessary part of owning a reel-to-reel tape recorder of any kind is to clean the heads and tape path regularly. Here is our guide to Reel-to-Reel Head and Tape Path Cleaning.

The rule of thumb at a recording studio is to clean the tape path before every recording session – and that is with usually using new tape! Even a new tape can shed a tiny bit of oxide, which can affect tape performance. With most people, running used tape that can be up to 60 years old, it’s mandatory that the tape path be cleaned often.Continue reading