Mandatory/Typical Service to RTR decks

Mandatory and Typical Service To Various RTR decks (listed by brand and model)

Since the launch of the website in March of 2017, incoming repairs has gone up exponentially.. and the decks have all become 6 years older in that time. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of common failures in many brands and models of decks, and a bunch of oddball failures that aren’t seen often. Sometimes these oddball failures are caused by hack technicians that don’t know what they are doing, and on occasion it’s due to a customer getting in and adjusting things that they aren’t supposed to touch.

Part of the problem with servicing a reel to reel, is that it’s similar to servicing a vintage car, as there’s both electronics and mechanics involved. Since most people know more about cars than the internal workings of a reel to reel recorder, I’ll list some parallels below. With reel to reel decks, many are being pulled out of storage after 20-40 years, and things have failed while in storage that worked just fine when it was last played.. in 1988. Therefore, there may be far more problems lurking ‘under the hood’ of a tape deck than the owner is expecting. Bearings seize, belts get loose and break, pinch rollers crack and deteriorate, not to mention that transistors, capacitors,  and chips can go bad, or may fail a few hours after the deck is turned on after several decades.  That’s why I test run decks for a minimum of 10-12 hours after a repair job, to make sure all functions of the deck will work for the long term.

There are thing to consider as well regarding RTR repairs- do you want to keep the deck for the long term, did you find it cheap, want it working to flip it at a profit, or do you want to simply digitize a few tapes, and then you’ll sell the machine after you’re done? Let’s look at each scenario:

Soundtech 1500A tape deck analyzer. A must for serious reel to reel repair!

Long Term tape deck service

Assuming you want to keep (and use) the machine for a few years, I’d strongly recommend doing as much preventative maintenance as possible as outlined below, with the tech checking other possible failure points down the road.  I also recommend to everyone that regardless of how long you keep a tape deck, to run it at least once a month.  Even if you’re not using the deck regularly, playing one reel of tape through the machine every 30 days keeps things lubricated, and the deck is far less likely to fail compared to if you put  it to use for a few hours, and then move it into storage for a year or three.

Repairing a deck in order to sell it for a profit

While this scenario is possible, given the mandatory service work that’s needed to be done to any deck that hasn’t been serviced in decades, the repair costs quickly add up, and it may be cheaper/more profitable for you to sell a deck in ‘as is’ condition, whether it plays a tape or not. As an example, let’s take a later model Teac X3 7” reel to reel that you find at a yard sale for $50. You take it home, and it doesn’t work. It powers up, but doesn’t play. Let’s assume that the main drive belt has turned to goo,  the pinch roller has hardened, and the deck’s tape path is full of oxide and SSS tape. With a full calibration, brake adjustment, new pinch roller and belt, and a solid test run, it’s easily going to have a $300-350 USD repair bill attached to that scope of work. On a good day, the deck will sell on eBay, Reverb or elsewhere online for $400-450. You’re thus at a $100 profit at best, at worst case, you’ll break even. Compare that to  the sale of an as-is, non-working Teac X3, and it will likely fetch $100-200 USD without any repair work being done.
On the other hand, if you find a Pioneer RT-909  at a garage sale for $100 in nonworking shape, it’s easily worth putting $500 into a repair job, as the resale value is generally $1400-1800USD for a low hour properly functioning unit.

Digitizing tapes to a computer

Needing a working deck to digitize some tapes

I often get people bringing a deck in for a service so they can digitize a few hours (sometimes a few hundred hours!) of tapes. Often I’m told ‘just get the play function working, I don’t need to record anything’. While there are certain models of tape decks that were made with  play circuitry only, those are far and few between. Since the record function shares a bunch of circuits and parts with the play circuitry, you’re not cutting a lot of corners by only servicing a deck for play mode only.  The transport still needs to be in 100% working form, and the power supply needs to be free of noise and hum in order to properly play back a tape. Plus, there’s not a lot of demand for a ‘play only’ deck, so if you’re going to sell the deck after digitizing your tapes, you’ll want the record function of the deck working as well as the play function.

The bottom line is, there generally is no ‘quick fix’ to repair a 40-65 year old reel to reel deck. Granted, not everyone wants a reel to reel for the next 10 years, I have many clients that only want to digitize about 20 hours worth of tapes, then they’ll sell the machine, or take it to the recycler once they are done. The problem is, many functions within the deck are tied to one another, so  repairing only a portion of the deck may likely have a breakdown happen within a few hours of the deck coming back to life. I’ll always have a discussion up front based on  how far a repair/overhaul should go, but in a lot of cases, the repair ends up being more than what a client expects. A stereo consumer machine made by Sanyo (who also made a lot of decks for other brand names in the late 1960s to mid 1970s) will need as much work as a more recognized Akai or Teac to bring it back to proper operating condition. I tell all clients that even a basic repair of a reel to reel will easily take 2-4 hours of labor, not to mention parts, to check all functions and to bring it to proper operating condition. With shops charging anywhere from $50-150 USD an hour, you’re immediately into a deck for $100-600 just for labor, not to mention parts on top of that labor charge.

If forced to give a number for a ‘general checkup’, assuming a full recapping isn’t required, and that the deck is more or less functioning well, a typical deck would need the pinch roller and belts changed, all functions tested, and the deck calibrated to the customer’s tape of choice.  The tape path needs to be cleaned, ditto for noisy controls and switches.  Brakes need to be tested and checked and adjusted for proper braking. Then the deck needs to be thoroughly test run for 10-12 hours to ensure long term reliability. A minimum charge for the above would be $300-350 USD/$450-$500 CDN. Many techs charge more, you might find a retired tech working for fun from home that can do it for less. Finding a qualified reel to reel tech with all of the proper calibration tapes, and the knowledge of setting up a deck is getting harder and harder to find.

It’s also impossible to diagnose a 50 year old tape deck remotely without seeing it. I get calls every week asking me to give an estimate before they bring or ship it in. The same symptom (let’s say ‘no record’), could be as simple as a dirty tape path, to a defective part that is no longer available, in which case the deck is a write-off. No good tech is going to commit to an email diagnosis, and there’s far too much mis-information from online ‘techs’ that read somewhere that every vintage piece of electronics needs a full recapping (see another article on the website here for my viewpoint on that).

Mandatory Parts Replacement on Almost every Deck

Pinch Rollers, idler wheels and Belts

Pinch rollers, idler wheels, and belts are made of rubber, which deteriorates over time. Think of these as the belts and tires  on your car.  You wouldn’t run your car at highway speeds on 40 year old tires, and you know that belts need changing regularly on the engine, it’s the same with a reel to reel. A pinch roller can get hard, gooey, or become out of round after being in storage for 20-30 years, causing all sorts of tape and audio problems. Generally speaking, I automatically change the pinch roller on any deck that comes into the shop.


Pinch rollers with the rubber gone to goo

Idler wheels were used in lower end decks that used a single motor to drive the entire transport to transfer power from the motor to the capstan and to the reel tables. As with the pinch rollers, the tires can become hardened or glazed, and they no longer grip the motor shaft as they should. Using sandpaper to rough up the rubber surface is a hit and miss method, with Sony idler wheels specifically not responding well. The only way to properly deal with worn idler wheels is to send them to Terry’s Rubber Rollers in Michigan for recoating. By the time you factor in shipping, each idler will run around $75 USD to recoat. Most decks will have more than one idler wheel, so the costs add up quickly

The same holds true for belts. Some decks have no belts in them if the transport uses direct drive motors, however older decks can use up to 4 or 5 belts in them. Almost always I will change all belts in a deck as part of a routine servicing. With many decks,  you can see the unevenness in belts as they are run through the various functions, as the stretch over time, and wobble around throughout the transport. Keep in mind that while a counter belt isn’t mandatory to digitize tapes with, a working counter will increase the resale value of the deck should you choose to sell it down the road.

Felt and Cork

Prior to direct drive reel motors, earlier decks used a lot of felt and cork in the transport to act as reel brakes and as slip pads to transfer motor power to reel tables. As you might suspect, over time, the felt and cork starts falling apart, and needs to be replaced.  It’s finicky work,  labor intensive, and a lot of techs (myself included) don’t like working on these types of decks, simply due to the age of them.

Lamps and Bulbs

Many incandescent bulbs (and some LEDs) are now burned out due to age. Again, it’s not a mandatory item to get serviced, however a deck with all functioning bulbs just looks nicer, and increases the resale value of the deck. With some 24 track decks having 2 bulbs per VU meter, that’s 48 bulbs that need replacing, as every meter bulb in any deck has the same hours on it as the rest, so I change them all. Some people change the bulbs to LED. I personally don’t like the cold look of most LED replacements, so I stick with the warmer incandescent bulbs. With a typical incandescent bulb lasting at least 30 years in a deck, there’s a good chance that they’ll never need changing again in the life of the deck if changed out today.

Noisy  controls and switches

Nothing is more annoying than turning a level control on a tape deck, and hearing the loud static coming from your stereo speakers, threatening to blow the cone of your woofer across the room due to a noisy control or switch. Not only is it unpleasant to listen to,  the loud noise can cause your amplifier to clip (redline, in carspeak), which can cause speakers to blow. Every control and switch gets cleaned automatically when a deck comes in.


DeOxIt D5 control cleaner. No bench should be without it.

Bad Bearings

It’s not uncommon now to get a deck in with a bad motor bearing or three. This can cause excessive wow and flutter if it’s a capstan motor bearing, and in the case of direct drive reel motors, the rewind and fast forward can be noisy simply due to the grumbling sound coming out of worn ball bearings. In the case of a deck having been stored in a damp crawlspace for years, I’ve seen bearings seize right up, causing poor or no transport movement. Bearings are changed as required.

Bad Capacitors

See the website article about whether to recap or not, based on 40+ years of servicing many forms of pro and consumer audio. Electrolytic capacitors aside, the motor run caps in older pre-1974 decks is relatively common. Failure to replace them can result in main motor failure or overheating/stalling.

The various stages of the exploding Rifa caps. Looks good, then cracks, then.. BOOM!

Previous Service done by a Tech that didn’t know what he was doing.

As unprofessional as it is to bash competitive technicians, as of today, 2023, it is increasingly difficult to find a technician that knows how to properly repair a reel to reel tape deck. Many competent techs have retired, or have passed away, leaving fewer and fewer techs available to work on these machines. At least once a month, I see a deck come in for service that has ‘recently been worked on’, yet the deck clearly has problems in it. From stripped screws to misaligned heads, to improper belts being installed, to deck calibration  being a mile off from what it should be,  not every vintage technician has the required MRL calibration tapes to properly set up a machine. Be careful who you take a deck to for servicing. While basic repairs such as belt replacement can be done by almost anyone that can turn a screwdriver, the calibration and mechanical setup of a higher end consumer or pro deck needs any number of skills and expertise that the corner repair guy may not have.

Click on the links below to review specific issues with brands and models…….




European Decks







Teac X series