Magnetic tape recording

Magnetic tape

The applying of magnetic tape necessary for sound recording traces its roots to 1930. With the development of music recording companies and radio broadcast companies magnetic tape has been also evolving. This tape enabled producers and artists to make audio recording and even re-recording losing in quality as little as only possible and facilitate rearranging and editing considerably. Other recording technologies, such as wire recorders and transcription discs, also existed at that time. However, they didn’t have so much capabilities and top quality in comparison with magnetic tape. After some improvements of reproduction quality of reproduced sound, magnetic tape has become the analog sound magnetic recording medium of the best quality from those existing on the market at that time. But at the very beginning of the XXI century, digital recording technologies generally started to exclude out analog magnetic tape in different sound recording spheres of use.

Before magnetic tape has been invented, magnetic wire recorders achieved great success showing the conception of magnetic recording. However, these recorders have failed to provide the level of quality compatible with the broadcast and recording standards that were valid at that period. Some people and companies found forward-looking solutions for applying of the magnetic wire recorders. But others tried to research the technology’s variations. One of the most significant variations was that fact that the oxide powder could be applied to a long strip of paper. This development laid foundation for a wide range of innovations and currently existing magnetic tape recording is the result of all these innovations.

Magnetic recording originated in 1877 and the American engineer Oberlin Smith is its developer. Valdemar Poulsen who is a Danish engineer put into effect this development in 1898. Magnetic tape recording, along with its predecessor, which is analog magnetic wire recording, engages the application of a magnetic medium. It moves with a steady speed passing a record head. An electrical signal that is designated for recording passes to the record head comprising a magnetization pattern that resembles the signal. After this a reproducing magnetic head gathers changes that happened in magnetic field from the tape and makes its converting into an electrical signal.

Ludwig Blattner Picture Corporation represented the Blattnerphone in 1939. This new unit contained a wire recorder improved to apply a thin steel tape replacing steel wire.

Clarence N. Hickman of Bell Labs finished the development of a telephone answering machine grounded on a prototype model steel tape recorder in 1931. This device didn’t spread widely, as AT&T regulations prohibited its application on public telephone lines.

The British Broadcasting Corporation broadcasted with the help of a tape recorder for the first time in 1932. It referred to a Marconi-Stille recorder which was a large tape machine using steel razor tape (3x0.08mm). For reproducing the high level of audio frequencies, this machine had to work at 1500 mm/second past the record and reproducing magnetic heads. That’s why for a half-hour program it was necessary to have the tape the length of which was almost equal to 3 km, while its weight amounted to 25 kg. To ensure security these recorders were brought into action just by means of distant control in a separate locked room. Because of the sharp edges that resembled razor, high speed and springing, in case of the tape breakage during operating it was a high probability that the tape would reel out, fall off and lead to serious injuries. In addition, the ways of recording could cause substantial information losses and very bad quality of audio due to their peculiarities.

A steel tape recorder was worked out in Germany by the mid 1930s by the developers of the C. Lorenz company. This recorder enjoyed a wide popularity among German radio companies and European telephone service providers. The original commercial tape recorder was introduced in 1946. Few more models of the recorders were introduced during the several next years. At that time paper done over black oxide was used for making very first tapes.

Magnetic tape recorder in the form it currently exists was designed in Germany in the 1930s. It was the result of cooperation of BASF, AEG and RRG developers. AEG developers were first to develop practical magnetic tape recorder, known as K1. They were also first to release this recorder in 1935. Eduard Schüller worked out a record and reproducing magnetic head shaped like a ring. So, the head shaped like a needle that very often cut the tape was replaced by a new head. Friedrich Matthias was a developer of the recording tape comprising the base material, the binder and the oxide. Walter Weber invented the AC biasing method. It enabled to considerably refine the quality of sound. The recorders which existed in the mid 1940s had the entire range of the most important technological capabilities and characteristics of advanced analog magnetic recording. They laid the foundation for further innovations in this sphere.

Commercialization of magnetic tape recording

After the Second World War commercialization of magnetic tape recorders was on fast-forward. Thus, the Brush Development Company and Ampex highly promoted the innovations of magnetic tape recorders that happened in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Also, Mining and Manufacturing corporation has implemented significant improvements of magnetic tape media.

John T. Mullin and Bing Crosby, two Americans, provided a great input in commercialization of magnetic tape. Mullin took the developments of German engineers as a basis and started to improve them and enhance their performance. His main target was to persuade Hollywood studios that they really need magnetic tapes to record movie soundtracks. Mullin introduced to the public his devices for two times, and these introductions became determinative, as American audio companies were deeply impressed by Mullin’s developments. The sound quality of the magnetic tape recorders was so high that people thought they were listening to live performance. Fortunately, demonstrating his device, Mullin met Murdo Mackenzie, who was a technical director of Bing Crosby at that time. Mackenzie was a person who arranged meeting between Crosby and Mullin. Crosby became a person who made a great impact on the further development of the magnetic tape recorder.

Bing Crosby believed in great commercial potential of the new devices. At that time large radio networks didn’t allow to apply disc recording in a great number of programs, as they had a quite bad quality of sound. Live music standard was country-wide for American radio. Crosby didn’t like that state of affairs. He tried to obtain a permit to apply transcription discs but his efforts were not successful in general. So once Crosby has seen the magnetic tape recorder offered by Mullin, he understood that the new device would allow pre-recording of radio shows and a sound quality would comply with a live music standard. Also, he understood that magnetic tapes might be replayed a great number of times without any substantial quality losses. Mullin was appointed at a position of a chief engineer by Crosby and has to pre-record the Crosby’s shows.

1 October 1947 became a remarkable date in the development of magnetic tape recorders, because at that day the first magnetic tape broadcasting was carried out in America. Crosby was the pioneer among the large American music stars who started to apply tape for pre-recording radio broadcasts. Also, Crosby was the first person who commercialized tape recordings. The radio shows of Crosby which were taped became a biggest-ever event in radio. After a while, other radio networks all over the country started to require a right to use the top quality tape for pre-recording their broadcasts. As a result, the recording prohibition was canceled.

Crosby aspired to accelerate the application of the new magnetic recorders. That’s why he decided to make the investments into the Californian electronics company Ampex using own money. The amount invested was equal to $50,000. After short period of time Ampex became the leading company all over the globe which developed tape recording. 1948 was market with the release of extremely popular Model 200 tape deck. It was designed straightforwardly from improved Magnetophones of Mullin. Without waxing too poetic, it was a revolution in the sphere of recording and radio technologies.

In cooperation with Mullin, Ampex worked out two-track stereo recorders very quickly and soon after this the company designed three-track recorders. In the early 1950s, the usual audio tape recorder for professional use applied ¼" wide tape on 10½" reels. A capacity was 2400 feet, while a usual speed was 15 in/s. In order to achieve the top quality of reproduction, the speed was 30 in/s. Portable and domestic recorders applied three, five and seven inch spools or reels. Very first devices for professional use had single sided reels. However after short period of time double sided reels acquired great popularity, especially for the use at home. Transparent plastic was the most common material for making tape reels. However metal was applied for this purpose as well.

15 in/s and 30 in/s were standard tape speeds applied for professional audio recording. But other speeds were also used and depended on the recording purposes.

In the early 1960s, Bill Lear favored the use of the 8-Track tape standard. It made popular consumer audio playback in cars. Ultimately, Compact Cassette which was more trustworthy and of a compact size replaced 8-Track tape standard. The Compact Cassette was invented in 1963 by Philips. Then in 1979 Sony invented the Walkman. These great inventions promoted a high popularity of magnetic audio tapes for consumer use. As of 1990, the Compact Cassette was the most widespread format in the sphere of mass-market recorded music. In the 1960s, Dolby noise reduction technology was invented. So the Compact Cassette was combined with audiophile quality recording. This enhanced the popularity of the Compact Cassette.

Innovative uses of magnetic tape

Magnetic tape forever changed the recording and radio industries. Due to the use of magnetic tape, it became possible to record, re-record and erase sound as many times as it was necessary. Also, it became possible to duplicate sound from tape to tape and at the same time to save the high quality of reproduction. Nowadays, recordings editing became much easier, because it’s even possible to physically cut and rejoin the tape.

Soon after the release of the initial commercial tape recorder, Les Paul who was an American musician developed the very first multitrack tape recorder. That was also an extremely determinative event in the recording industry. This tape allowed the musicians to firstly record sound exceptionally with the help of electronic instruments. It was an epoch-making event in the sphere of music, because it promoted the challenging sound experiments of avant garde composers, for example, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the Musique Concrète school. As a result, advanced pop music studio recordings have developed and the entire world listened to the music of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Frank Zappa.

The use of the tapes allowed the radio networks to firstly pre-record multiple programs’ sections, comprising advertising, while before just live presentation was allowed. In addition, the tapes made possible the development of duplication of the entire programs’ recordings which became long lasting, complex and had high level of fidelity. Also, the tapes helped to satisfy commercial and legislative needs of regulators and broadcasting companies, as they could implement overall logging of radio broadcasts. This contributed to the development of modern media monitoring industry.

Developments, such as tape echo and multitrack allowed the companies to pre-produce advertisements and radio programs achieving the highest level of quality and complicacy which was formerly impossible. Development of the endless-loop tape cartridge also became a great event in the recording industry.


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