Tape Problems



As of this writing, approximately 15% of clients that have brought their decks to us for service, or that have purchased refurbished decks from us complain that the deck doesn’t sound good. Every single one of these clients have run old tape through their machine, clogging it up, which greatly affects the sound quality in record and playback mode. Read on!


All tape regardless of brand, deteriorates over time, with the exception of Maxell tape. All other brands, no matter how lor or high end, or how it was stored for the last 20-50 years can and will cause potential problems with the sound quality or the transport section of your tape deck. Before running any used tape through your machine, read the following first.


New Tape

There are currently three manufacturers of new reel to reel recording tape:

–    ATR, which is the old Ampex factory, now located in Pennsylvania

–    RTM, which is the old BASF factory, originally located in Germany, and now located in France. RTM has gone through several name changes over the last 20 years, including Emtec, RMGi, RTM, and recently changed their name again to RTM Industries SAS, with a logo change.

–   Capture and Burlington Audio tape. Both of these tapes come from a production line in Australia apparently, and little information about the factory is available. We understand (but haven’t confirmed) that the Australian manufacturer’s equipment is the former EMI tape company, originally located in the UK. EMI tape ceased production in 1981 according to online information, and at some point the equipment was started up again in Australia.

New tape performance summary

For studio and home RTR users alike, both ATR and RTM tape are the industry standards. Due to the cost of shipping, ATR is more popular in North America, and RTM is more popular in Europe.

Both ATR and RTM’s performance and specifications are very similar with compatible tape brands. ATR’s MDS-36 formula is very similar to RTM’s LPR-35 tape. ATR’s Mastertape is equivalent to RTM’s SM-911.  If your machine is biased and set up for ATR tape, putting on a roll of equivalent RTM tape will give equal performance and frequency response, and vice versa.

Capture and Burlington Audio tape is about 30% less overall in price than ATR or RTM, making it very attractive to the end user. We have done a number of performance measurements of the Capture/Burlington tape compared to ATR and RTM, and have found a significant high frequency rolloff as compared to ATR and RTM formulae, on decks set up for ATR or RTM.
While a reel to reel deck can be set up for optimal performance for Capture/Burlington tape, if an ATR or RTM roll is then put on the deck set up for Capture/Burlington tape, it will sound unnaturally bright as compared to the source.

In addition, we’ve found measurable high frequency dropouts on new rolls of Burlington tape that was purchased in April of 2023. We purchased 4 pancakes of it, and while it was hard to hear the high frequency dropouts, they certainly could be measured.

The bottom line is, if you own a good quality stereo reel to reel deck, or are using tape in a studio application, we highly recommend either ATR or RTM tape.  If however you have an older mono tube tape deck, or an older deck with limited frequency response, then there’s nothing wrong with using Capture or Burlington tape.

Used tape

There are a lot of sources for vintage tape including eBay, garage sales and your own garage. These tapes can be anywhere up to 50 years old and will likely be shedding, the deposit of oxide onto the tape heads.

The first tape to be available from the 1950s to the mid 1980s was a shade of brown, ranging from light to dark brown, where both sides of the tape is approximately the same color. Some tape can also be a wine red or rust color, and some later tapes were almost charcoal gray on each side.  Once side is duller than the other and faces the tape heads, the other side is shiny and faces away from the heads. If you’re familiar with cassette tapes, consider this tape to be of ‘normal’ bias. It’s a decent quality tape good for voice or music recording, but for the best quality recordings, use later vintage back-coated tape.

Back coated tape was introduced in the mid 1970s, and is the equivalent to chrome dioxide cassette tapes, with a higher tape output, better signal to noise ratio, extended frequency response and lower distortion. (It’s been pointed out that  the chrome dioxide cassette tape formula is closer to the early 1980s reel to reel tape called EE, but we are making the comparison of better performance only, and not the actual chemical formulation here). By the late 1970s, any high end recording was made on back-coated tape, but by the mid 1980s, some problems were discovered with back coated tape. More on this below.

Around 1980, a third reel to reel tape formula was released, called EE tape. This tape had an even better frequency response than back coated tape, however reel to reel was losing popularity at that time in favor of the cheaper and more convenient cassette format, so not many reels were sold. It was indeed better performing tape than regular back coated tape.

A typical non back coated tape, medium brown in color (can also be dark gray), showing significant shedding, where oxide has come off the tape in chunks

Non back-coated tape will deposit oxide on the tape heads and guides and rollers, so regular cleaning of the tape path is necessary. Recording studios generally cleaned the tape path before every recording session and after every reel of tape played, so this is a good practice at home as well. You cannot damage tape heads or the tape path with cotton swabs and appropriate tape cleaner or isopropyl alcohol that is over 99% pure. Note however that isopropyl alcohol CAN damage older rubber on pinch rollers. More on this in the tech section regarding cleaning the tape path.

There are too many non back coated brands to possibly list. Popular brands were Ampex, 3M/Scotch, BASF, Sony, Agfa, Radio Concertape, Irish,  Maxell, and TDK. Many off brand names were also available, as it was common practice for the major name brands to sell factory seconds tape to unknown distributors, who would then put their own name brands on this off-spec tape. Depending on the problem(s) with the tape, some would play fine, other rolls would have poor frequency response, or shed or squeal over time. No name brands were brands like Shamrock (trying to play on the Irish/Orradio brand name), Bel Cleer (yes, spelled correctly!), Emerald, Maestro, Melody, and even plain white boxes, indicating a non name brand tape.

Back Coated Tape Problems

In a nutshell,  the original formula for back coated tape was flawed, and with the exception of Maxell tape, all other manufacturers were affected by this bad formula a few years after the tape was manufactured.

‘Sticky shed syndrome,’ also known as ‘SSS’ developed a few years after it was sold. We’ve modified this term a bit to ‘SSS’ Syndrome, which stands for ‘Sticky Shed Squeal’ syndrome. Affected tapes may show one or all of these symptoms. Let’s look at these three issues:

Typical back coated tape, brown on the oxide side, black or charcoal gray on the back side

Shedding Tape: As with the non back coated tape, back coated tape can shed, and some reels will shed a lot. We’ve seen a few tapes that can literally coat the tape heads and path within 30 seconds of playing with massive amounts of oxide coming off the tape. This can reduce the high frequency output of one or more channels, and in extreme cases, will completely kill the sound output. You stop the tape, look at the heads, and see the oxide all over the tape heads. You clean the heads, start the tape again, and before the reel is finished, the heads are covered in oxide again.

Note that all tape will shed. Even brand new tape out of the box may have random oxide particles that come off the tape in the first few passes. It’s good practice to clean the entire tape path after each reel. See https://reeltoreeltech.com/reel-to-reel-head-and-tape-path-cleaning/ how to do that.

Sticky Tape: If you slide a reel of tape onto a pen or pencil and pull downwards on the tape end, the tape should unroll freely, and end up in a pile at your feet. If a back coated tape becomes sticky, the layers of tape will stick to each other, and the tape will not unroll. In extreme cases, the tape will pull off oxide from the adjacent layer of tape, causing dead spots (dropouts) in the tape, rendering it useless.

An extreme example of shedding tape

Sticky tape is caused by the tape binder (glue) coming off the tape, and coating the entire tape path. This exponentially increases the friction of the tape path, as the glue coats everything that the tape touches with an invisible coating that affects the sound quality greatly. Sticky tape can coat a tape path in as little as 20 seconds of playing.
Worse yet, with the friction increasing within the tape path, the tape can and will slow down the playing speed.  Try to rewind or fast forward  the reel of tape, and the motors can’t handle the increased friction, and fast wind will be slow, or non existent. This is due to the glue buildup in the tape path. Take the tape off the deck, clean and scrub the entire tape path to get rid of the glue, and do not put that reel of tape on the machine again until it has been baked (see below for more details on tape baking)

Squealing Tape: Within minutes (seconds, sometimes), you’ll get terrible distortion through your speakers along with a squealing sound. You turn the volume off on your amplifier, and you then hear the squeal coming as a mechanical noise from the tape transport itself. By moving the tape gently as it is playing, you’ll hear the squealing sound change. Pull the tape off the tape path, and you won’t generally see any oxide buildup on the tape heads or tape path, and you’re left scratching your head as to why your tape deck is squealing. Along with the squealing, you may find loss of high frequency response on one or both channels, and again, the tape heads and path look clean.

The problem with squealing tape is that it is the tape lubricant that is originally impregnated into the tape has broken down, or has come off the tape itself over time.  Some non back coated tape, such as Sony tape, is also known to squeal badly over time.

Typical SSS tape deposits, on the tape heads and tape guides, as well as the rollers, etc. This picture is of a Tascam 38 deck that came in for service, a ½”, 8 track machine.

EE tape

As stated previously, EE tape came out around 1980, as reel to reel was dying a slow death, due to cassette tape being significantly less expensive, and far more convenient to operate than a reel to reel deck. To our knowledge, only Maxell and TDK made EE tape. There were also some Akai EE tape reels released, however the Akai tape was made by Maxell.

EE tape uses a special equalization curve, and can only be used on reel to reel decks with an EE tape position. This includes several late model Akai and Teacs, to our knowledge, no other manufacturer  embraced the EE format. Using an EE tape on a non EE machine will result in a poor frequency response.

BASF also made EE tape apparently, but we’ve never seen one.

Fixing SSS tape

Most SSS tape will exhibit one or more of the Sticky Shedding Squealing symptoms, and sometimes, all three.

There is a cure! Note that this fix only applies to back coated tape and will damage normal non back coated tape. The solution is called ‘tape baking’. SSS tape problems are caused by the tape absorbing water vapor over time. (the tape becomes hydroscopic) As the tape absorbs water vapor, the tape’s chemical formula changes, causing SSS. By ‘baking’ a tape, you evaporate the water vapor, and the tape (usually) goes back to the way it was when it was new.

I have baked several hundred back coated SSS tapes successfully, and to date, I’ve only had two reels of tape that could not be baked to eliminate the SSS syndrome. Depending on the articles you read online, the baking time ranges from 6 to 24 hours, and with my own experimentation, I’ve found the following:

It appears that most cases of SSS syndrome can be solved by baking a tape 12-24 hours. I’ve found that 6-8 hours isn’t enough to rid many tapes of the problems. The ‘sweet spot’ for baking tapes is around 130 to 135 degrees F.


These cannot reach low enough temperatures to bake tape. If a tape is baked at temperatures over 140 or so degrees F, the tape will become permanently damaged, and the contents cannot be saved. Only use a food dehydrator or a specially designed industrial tape baking unit (big $$!) to bake tapes (the procedure is described below).

It seems that you cannot overbake a tape, since you’re simply evaporating water vapor out of the tape. I’ve accidentally baked tapes for as long as 96 hours, and the tapes continued to work fine

If a tape continues to display SSS symptoms after a first baking, there’s no harm in trying a second round of baking, and even a third. One of the aforementioned problematic reels of tape was baked three times here. While it didn’t solve the SSS syndrome completely, it did allow me to transfer the tape to CD successfully, and then I threw the tape out.

It is a really good idea to bake all used back coated tape prior to using it. The exception is tape made post 2000, as the SSS problems were solved by that time. If however you’ve gotten yourself a box of 20 year+ old back coated tape, bake it all prior to playing it on your machine.  Post 2000 made back coated tape is generally thought to not have SSS problems, however I did purchase a box of new old stock Quantegy 499 tape that was shedding slightly. I’ve had other Quantegy 499 reels test fine however.

Maxell UDXL tape is the only back coated tape that is never affected by SSS problems. Hitachi (Maxell’s parent company) got the formula right the first time, and any Maxell tape that you might find used is perfectly fine to play without baking it. Make sure though that it is indeed Maxell tape on a Maxell reel. Maxell uses a unique  semi opaque  white leader tape  on each end of the tape. If the ‘Maxell’ tape on the Maxell reel doesn’t have this specific leader tape on it, someone may have wound another brand of tape onto that Maxell reel.

Tape baking may only last 48 hours! Tape baking is not a permanent cure, but it will let you digitize, or transfer the bad tape to a new, fresh reel of tape


Tape Baking Equipment

If you have found a cache of new old stock tape, it can still develop SSS symptoms even though it’s never been used, and still is in the cellophane package. It’s fine to bake a tape while still in the sealed cellophane wrapping, the water vapor will evaporate right through the packaging.

NOTE: DO NOT BAKE non-back coated tape!  Baking will destroy the tape, rendering it useless.

Equipment: A standard food dehydrator. This raises the tape temperature to 110-140 degrees Fahrenheit and evaporates the absorbed water and the tape will usually work as new.

Take the reel of tape, whether it’s on a plastic or metal reel, and place it on one of the food dehydrator trays. You can bake several tapes at once, and you can also put tape pancakes right onto a tray. All you’re doing is increasing the temperature of the tape itself to 130-140 degrees to evaporate the water that has been absorbed into the tape itself. Once you have baked the tape, take it out of the food dehydrator, let it cool to room temperature, put it on your machine, and see if the SSS syndrome(s) are cured.

The rule of thumb is that a baked tape is only good for 48 hours before the SSS symptoms start again. Therefore, baking is generally only good to transfer valuable recordings (i.e. master tapes) to another storage format, and must be done within 48 hours of baking.

If your SSS tape is truly a master recording, whether from your high school/college days, or an actual master recording from an artist that recorded in a studio, my suggestion is to hang onto that SSS master tape, just in case the digital copy gets destroyed, or a hard drive crashes. You can always re-bake a master tape to transfer it again. If you’ve thrown out the master tape, and the digital copy crashes, you have no more recording whatsoever.

Note: DO NOT bake a tape in your oven or toaster oven!  Most ovens do not go below 200 degrees, and even if your oven has a setting of 150 degrees, the thermostat may not be accurate, and you’ll destroy your tape.

READ MORE:    All About Tape

SSS tape Q and A

Despite spending many hours every month discussing the problems with using old tape, I’d estimate that about 15% of clients hear me speak about SSS tape, yet set their deck up after it’s come back from repair or being newly purchased, and immediately put on a 40 year old SSS tape, and I get the following email:

Customer: ‘You didn’t do a very good job repairing this deck, it worked great for about 15 minutes, and now sounds awful and muffled’

Me: What tape are you using?

Customer: ‘Oh, this Ampex 456 tape that I’ve had for decades.’

Me:   That’s the problem, even running that tape for 30 seconds will clog up the heads and tape path to cause what you’re hearing. Clean the tape path thoroughly as well as the heads, and get rid of that old SSS tape and buy a new roll of ATR or RTM tape and let me know if you still have the problem.

Client a few days later ‘Man, you were right, that deck sounds great now!’

So, with a bit of humor thrown in, here’s a  Q and A regarding old tape, and another summary of what SSS tape does:

Q : What tapes goes SSS?

A: Any back coated tape (front side of the tape is medium brown, the back side is charcoal black in color) can go SSS, with the exception of any Maxell UDXL tape, and usually, most post 2000 made tape is not SSS.

Q: How can I visually tell if tape is SSS?

A: You can’t. SSS tape looks exactly the same as non SSS tape. The only way you can find out is to play the tape, and then check for shedding or gunk coming off on the tape path.


A: You could store the tape in the middle of the Sahara desert, and tape would still go SSS.

Q: I am using good quality high end tape.

A: Any back coated tape, other than Maxell and almost all tapes made after 2000 can and will be SSS. This includes Ampex, Sony, TDK, Scotch Agfa, Fuji, Concertape, and any other brands that I am missing.

Q: I found several sealed tapes, sealed,  new in the box/carton, it’s fine.

A: No, unfortunately not. Water vapor will go right through the cardboard box, the shrink wrap, and any poly bag that the tape was originally packaged in, and it will still go SSS.

Q: My deck sounded great for about 10 minutes, now it sounds dull and I can’t rewind the tape, the motors won’t move the tape

A: I’ve seen SSS tape completely clog up a machine within 20 seconds, especially if the bunder/glue that holds the oxide to the tape backing starts to shed. The binder covers the entire tape path with sticky glue, exponentially increasing the  friction in the tape path, to the point where the motors can’t move the tape. Cleaning the entire tape path, the guides, rollers, and tape lifters that lift the tape off the heads, will get all the gunk off, and the deck will be back to normal.  The tape binder is completely invisible, so even if the tape path looks clean, the binder can still cause lots of problems. Isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs will take that glue and oxide right off. Keep cleaning until no gunk comes off the tape path!

Known Problematic Tape Brands

Non back coated tape

Sony PR-150 known to squeal a lot due to defective tape lubricant

Concertape.- Factory second tape from any number of sources, including computer data tape. Avoid!

Expect all non back coated 40-70 year old tape to shed some oxide particles. This is normal, and is due to age. This tape can be run just fine on your machine, but clean the entire tape path after each run of tape.

Back Coated Tape ( A partial list only)

  • Ampex- all types, the worst offender of SSS tape, bar none
  • 3M- almost all types, although a few reels appear to be fine for some reason
  • Concertape- Some Concertape was back coated as well
  • Sony ULH tape- notorious for SSS
  • EMI tape
  • Agfa
  • TDK – most of their back coated tape (LX and GX) can go SSS, and/or develop white mold on the edge of the tape, a problem unique to TDK
  • BASF- some 910/911 reels, some back coated BASF is fine. GP9 suffers from SSS

For a far more detailed list of degrading tape, see:



I often ask people when the last time was that they’ve cleaned their tape path, and inevitably I get the ‘ummmm.. I can’t remember”. Not cleaning your tape path (see this article on how to do it):


It is just like running your car without ever changing the oil. One SSS tape, and the tape path is covered in gunk, whether visible or not.

My Own Theory re SSS Tape

I do have a theory regarding preventing SSS tape, and this is only a theory. Since I was in high school, I have always stored tape in a ‘played’ mode, rather than fast forwarding or rewinding a tape, then putting it back into the box for months or years. I have many tapes that should be SSS at this point, that are still playing fine, although I do have some others that have gone SSS since I purchased them new back in the early 1980s. My theory is this:

When you play a tape, the takeup tension on the tape is usually going to be 40-100 grams. In fast forward or rewind modes, the tape tension can be 400-600 grams. My theory therefore is that tape that isn’t stored in a FF or REW mode isn’t under nearly as much stress, and therefore is less prone to SSS symptoms. Again, this is my personal theory only, but whenever I get in collections of tape when purchasing tape decks,  I always play tape all the way through, especially if I’m going to keep a tape for my own collection. I strongly recommend playing tape all the way through, even if there’s no merit to this theory whatsoever.

Nu Finish Car Polish fixes SSS tape!

I’ve read several articles online where users have put Nu Finish car polish on a rag, and then run SSS tape through the rag, which supposedly cures SSS tape, by sealing it. While we have not tried this method, keep in mind that car polish is a fine abrasive, which smooths out a car paint finish. We therefore cannot recommend using Nu Finish on any tape or on any reel to reel tape deck. USE AT YOUR OWN RISK!