A brief history of tape

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Recording formats and technology can give one an insight into the way we used to do things. Consider the magnetic reel-to-reel tape, which – as we know it – has its roots in a long and winding story that takes in elements as disparate as Nazi Germany and the popular American crooner Bing Crosby. It revolutionised the broadcasting and music industries – in terms of flexibility (notably immediacy, reliability and editability) and sound quality (better than existing alternatives like film, wire and acetate disc). It also gave rise to new creative art forms, as demonstrated by the likes of Joe Meek, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Magnetic tape was invented and took shape between the mid-1930s and early 1950s; over this period (and subsequently) the sophistication and sound quality of the tape and recorders improved considerably.

And as with most professional tools, consumer variants eventually follow. By the mid-fifties, sales of domestic tape recorders (these valve-driven machines were usually supplied with a microphone, stowed away in a compartment on the side or back) had begun to take off. Most were used to capture for posterity amateur musical or dramatic performances (copying records or making ‘mixtapes’ wasn’t an option back then, as recording tape – which admittedly had the advantage of reuseability – wasn’t cheap!), or record baby’s first gurgles, weddings, church services and other events. Professionally, the tape recorder played a key role in note-taking, dictation and the rehearsal of speeches and presentations.

In many parts of the world tape-recording clubs were formed to explore the medium’s creative potential; they were an adjunct to the more-established cine societies. A fascinating ‘time-capsule’ documentary made in the late 1950s by one such London-based club can be found here: http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/coarsegroove/London%20Tape%20Recording%20Club.mp3 They met regularly in venues like community centres and church halls; lectures, workships and technique/product demonstations were organised frequently. Individual members recorded ambient soundtracks with subjects ranging from country birdsong – through contemporary late 20th-century life, indigenous folk-music and interviews of WWI soldiers – to the last days of steam. As group projects, members collaborated on sophisticated dramas – complete with ‘spot fx’ and complex cut-and-splice editing.

Sometimes, the members of the tape groups got together with the cine clubs and contributed their collective expertise to the audio side of an ambitious film (usually on 16mm, rather than 8mm). The results of such collaboration could look very polished, despite the low budgets. A number of better-heeled or resourceful enthusiasts took great pains to exploit the sonic advantages of the then new-fangled ‘stereophonic’ recording (steam-trains being a favourite subject!). There were also annual amateur-contests (typically sponsored by tape manufacturers like 3M/Scotch), and broadcasters like the BBC devoted airtime to the hobby. All of which was done with cumbersome reel-to-reel machines; even the portables, which were eventually ousted by cassette recorders, occupied more volume than a modern laptop computer By the mid-70s, though, creative tape-recording clubs were on the wane.

ImageLong before the current Internet-driven era of practically-free instantaneous global communication, the ‘tapespondent’ sent and received by post ‘audio letters’ to and from distant friends, colleagues and family. Manufacturers sold small (3in. diameter) reels of thin tape specifically for the purpose, complete with ‘jiffy bags’ designed to withstand the rigours of (inter)national transport. Sometimes the tapespondent would re-use the tape, recording over the previous part of the conversation. Others would append their contribution; listening to these disjointed conversations decades later is itself fascinating – even though the audio quality is generally-poor, not least because the machine’s slowest tape speed was used to maximise recording time.

In future articles, I will explore the impact of video.

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