Thinking of buying a tape recorder?
Budget Tape Recorders
Single motor machines such as the ubiquitous Akai 4000 and Sony TC-366/377/399 ranges, use a single motor to drive the spools and the capstan. They use a mixture of drive belts, rubber wheels, and slip clutches to transfer the drive in the different operating modes. Sonically they are actually quite a triumph given the crude nature of the transport; set up correctly they will deliver quite acceptable quality and frequency response. The crude mechanics do make them rather noisy, and the clunky nature of the controls is not very appealing, fast winding in not really very fast at all, especially near the end of the tape when the rubber wheels are struggling to grip. These machines were built to achieve a price point the market could stand and it shows, especially with the Akai machines. On the plus side they are very simple and if you have some mechanical acumen then sorting out problems with the transport is not too difficult, although it can be quite time consuming. If you do have a go yourself be very sparing with the lubricants, it does not want to end up on any of the rubber components.
Three motor machines
If you have the budget a three motor machine is the one to have, price wise they start with units like the Teac X3 and Revox A77, which sell on Ebay for little more than single motor units, and are a far better buy.
Three motor machines use separate motors to drive the spool tables and the capstan, the power to the motors is controlled electronically and avoids noisy slip clutches and idle wheels. Generally they employ solenoids to operate the brakes and capstan pinch wheel, this allows the controls to be electronic with push buttons and makes the machine a lot nicer to use. Fast spooling is also much improved, although Akai had a habit of using the smallest possible motors (presumably for budgetary reasons) resulting in poorer spooling than you might expect.
Whilst these machines have much simpler mechanics than single motor machines, the electronic transport controls are more complex, ranging from basic ’relay logic’ used in a A77 through to very complex circuits in the Teac X1000/2000 range where the spool motor toque is controlled dynamically to provide the kindest possible tape handling.
Two track or four track, high speed low speed?
There is lots of information and indeed reviews to be found on the appropriate track configuration and speed for tape recording; in very general terms, and within limits, the more tape you use the better sound you are likely to get. For hifi use, a speed of 7.5 IPS (Inches Per Second) and four tracks have become the norm for most users, this gives good frequency response, up to 20KHz should be achievable, and because the tape is divided into four tracks across its width, a tape can store two sets of stereo tracks. This is generally referred to as 'turning the tape over'. Running a tape at a higher speed, typically 15 IPS increases the top end performance, perhaps up 25 or 30KHz, with some loss at the low end (bass). Running at a lower speed (3.75 IPS) significantly reduces the top end, perhaps to 12KHz.
Two track recording uses the full width of the tape for the two stereo channels, and significantly reduces the effects of tape 'drop out' and allows the tape to be edited.
Perhaps the key point for anyone buying a machine to retrieve archive recording is: a 4 track machine will play both 2 and 4 tracks tapes, with some compromise when playing back 2 track tapes, a 2 track machine will only play 2 track tapes.
When considering buying a tape recorder there will inevitably be a series of compromises to consider, with many people the aesthetic appeal of a machine is paramount. This is why the little Akai GX4000 machines tend to sell very well, simply because they look nice and don’t take up too much room. The Revox A77 will often sell for similar or less money but will in every way exceed the performance of the Akai. Don’t be fooled by the looks of an A77 (or indeed a B77) the plastic front cover hides a cast aluminium chassis, big motors with smooth roller bearings and top quality electronics.
In our opinion Teac and Sony machines fall between the Akai and the Revox, the aesthetic appeal is better catered for, whilst the bits inside are well designed and built. Indeed both made machines for the professional user (Tascam is Teac’s pro brand) and this does show with the domestic machines.
What goes wrong, like any electronic equipment, especially if its 30 or 40 years old, parts will fail, most can be replaced at minimal cost for the parts, although labour can become costly especially if the only option is for example a full set of new capacitors trimmer potentiometers, as can be the case with elderly Revox recorders. However, the big costs are associated with parts that are unique to the machine, such as motors and tape heads, new (old stock) motors are very rarely available for any brand, and tapes heads can similarly difficult to source.