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!

Repairing the motorized tape tension levers in the Akai GX-747

While many say that the Akai GX-747 flagship deck was too complicated, and that users should look for the lesser GX-635, 636 or 646 (and they’d be partially right!), a properly working GX-747 is an excellent performer, and will last many years.

The most common fault in the GX-747 are belts that have stretched within the mechanism of the automated tape tension levers. When they are working properly, tiny motors and gears move the tension levers to a rest position of 9:00 for the supply, and 3:00 for the take-up, making tape threading easy. Once a function is pushed after the tape is threaded, these motors and gears move the tension levers into place, to tension the tape.

Once the belts stretch even a little bit, or the tension lever assemblies stiffen up due to hardening white lithium grease, the tension lever arms will never trigger the micro-switches that are at the ‘load’ position, and the arms will continue to move back and forth, non stop.

If the belts are stretched to the point where they don’t move the tape tension levers at all, the deck transport won’t function at all.

Fortunately the cure is simple..replace the belts, and lubricate the tension lever assemblies.

Tools needed:

  • metric Allen key set
  • metric socket set
  • Philips screwdriver-very long thin needle-nose pliers, or long tweezers
  • tiny straight blade jeweller’s screwdriver
  • can of DeOxIt D5 contact cleaner
  • cotton swabs
  • 2 new SBX 1.9 belts
  • 1 new SBX 5.25 belt

 

Remove the plastic tape head cover by removing the two Allen screws:

 

 

Remove the pinch roller screw on cap, and undo the 8mm nut underneath the cap. There’s likely a very thin washer under the nut/bolt assembly, as well as one under the pinch roller. Put those aside. If you put all the small parts on a white paper towel, they’ll be really easy to see once it’s time to reassemble everything.

 

 

Remove the escutcheon that holds the tape head cover by removing two Allen screws as well as the two Philips screws. Since it’s difficult to grab the two plastic knobs with the cover in place, just wiggle the cover off, and the knobs will come with the cover. Make sure the knobs don’t shoot off as they come off the control shafts!

 

 

Remove the top cover, taking off the 6 Allen screws that hold it in place. Make sure you don’t lose the plastic washers under the screws, they are impossible to find aftermarket!

Take off both wood side panels, as you’ll need those to access the sides of the tape tension lever assemblies later.

Remove the back cover of the deck.

Put the deck on its back, facing up.

You now have access to the two tape tension lever assemblies. Both are identical, but are mirror images of one another. They are held in place with two Philips screws and one 5.5 mm nut.

The take-up tension arm has a small rubber belt that goes between the optical rotating disc and the back of the tape tension arm. Remove that belt, and put it aside. That’s the 5.25” belt. Replace it, most of them are still fine however, as there’s no tension on that belt.

 

 

You can start on either side of the tape deck by removing the two Philips screws and the hex nut holding the tape tension lever in place. There are two C shaped washers under each Philips screws that will drop to the chassis when removing the tension lever assembly. Fish those out, and put aside. There’s a spring under the nut, underneath the tension lever assembly. That can stay in place, you won’t be moving the deck from its face up position.  The tension lever assembly is now loose, and can be lifted upwards so that the motor case that goes through the chassis on each side clears the chassis.  That’s about as far as you can bring the tape tension levers out of the chassis. The motor and microswitch wires that go through the chassis will limit your ability to take the tension levers from their mounting position, but it will be enough to replace the belts. The picture below shows the loose tape tension lever assembly.

 

 

The first thing to do is clean off as much yellow grease as you can from the plastic portions of the tension lever as shown below. I generally squirt some DeOxIt onto the cotton swab tip, so that it puts some lubrication on the plastic while cleaning off the old grease. Or, use a clean cotton swab to clean off the grease, then give a tiny squirt of DeOxIt onto that plastic track to re-lubricate.

 

 

The tape tension motor assembly is held to the main tape tension frame with two Philips screws. Take out those screws to expose the gears, motor, and offending belt. Note again that the motor wires run through the chassis. Too much stress on them, and they will break, meaning you’ll need to re-solder them back on.

 

 

There’s a tiny washer/clip that holds the topmost gear in place. Using a small flat blade screwdriver, gently pry that washer off. Careful, it can spring off and shoot into the depths of the deck, and you’ll never see it again!

 

 

Put that washer aside. That allows you to pull the two gears out, so that you can access the belt. Replace the belt.

 

 

Reassemble the gears. The easiest way to put the washer back onto the top gear is to wet your finger, as the washer will stick to your spit, then press it down on top of the shaft, clicking it into place.

 

 

Reassemble the motor assembly back onto the tape tension lever.

Now, manually move each tape tension lever as to the 9:00 position for the supply reel, or 3:00 for the take-up reel, and let go. The tension levers are spring loaded, and should rotate around the idler wheel, in well under a second from end to end. If they move slowly, or if they are stuck completely, that means the white grease has partially seized up the mechanism, and will put excess stress on the new belts.

There’s a gap in the plastic parts of the tension levers as shown below. Look into that hole, and you’ll see two sections of the plastic tension lever that you can shoot some DeOxIt into, through that hole. Work the levers from side to side, and you should see the tape tension levers free up.

 

 

The die-hards will say that the proper way to lubricate the tension levers would be to completely disassemble them, and I agree, however since parts for the GX747 are very hard to come by, and since a lot of the plastic parts can get a bit brittle due to age,  do the disassembly if you wish, but at your own risk. Break a part of the tension lever assembly, and you’ll be out of a working GX747. I’ve found that the lubrication method works great, and I have yet to see a deck come back with the same problem.

Start putting the tape tension lever back in place. The hardest part is getting the C shaped washer in place under the tension lever metal, while putting the screw through the metal into that threaded standoff. Here’s the least frustrating way to do it:

Place the tape tension lever in place, and put in the two Philips screws, but only by a thread or two. That allows you to lift up the tape tension lever, with enough room to slide the C washer under it. Use the needle-nose pliers or tweezers through the side hole of the chassis to maneuver the C washer into place:

 

 

The nut that has the spring under it is to adjust the tape tension lever to be level, and so that the tape falls directly in the middle of the tape reel. With the top cover still off, load a tape, and confirm that the tape tension motors are working the way they should. Assuming they are, hit play on the tape, and adjust that nut so that the tape tension lever assemblies are flat, and that the tape hits the take-up reel equally between the flanges in both the forward and reverse play directions.

Once you’ve confirmed the proper operation,  reassemble the deck, and enjoy!