Open Reel Forever!

Sony TC-580

DESCRIPTION: I believe these date from the mid to late '70s. A fairly deluxe deck, it's unusual in the fact that it's a three motor, three speed design. It is fully bi-directional,  and functions as if it has six heads (more on that later). A good looking machine, it anticipated the trend toward today's black equipment by having a black faceplate with walnut sides.

COMMENTS: This one was found in the choir room at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. I traded a tuning of the pipe organ worth $225.00 for it , which was a mistake. This one is by far the most unreliable tape deck of any sort I've ever encountered. There are many design flaws which make this an unpleasant machine to work with. First is the auto reversing system. It uses Sony's "ESP" auto reversing system, which listens to the right track on both sides of the tape, and when it hears seven seconds of silence in both tracks, trips the auto reverse. You'd better hope you have tape that's recorded in both directions, or it'll try to auto reverse after every track! (Of course, you can turn the auto reverse off.) Then there's the auto reversing mechanism itself, which is hideously complicated, and involves moving the pinch roller from one side of the capstan to the other! Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Then  there are the electronics. There is no motion sensing, so woe be unto the person who goes directly from  a fast wind mode to play without stopping the tape first. The deck has an emblem which says, "six head function"- what that means is that they cheapened the deck by using four heads, and using complicated switching to provide monitoring capability. The playback electronics always sounded lousy, being way too hot (despite their being calibrated and work on by my trusted technician) and thin sounding. My opinion: stay clear of this one.

Tandberg 3500X
DESCRIPTION: I don't have a clue as to the date of this one, but I'm guessing by the styling early  '70s. This is a one motor, three speed, FOUR head (more on that later) machine of unusual mechanical design. Quite compact and light, it's a handsome little machine which also has a black  faceplate with wood sides. The transport functions are controlled by a "joystick" sort of knob which moves in a cross shaped set of slots in the faceplate, harking back to the days of the old Craig 313s and the very earliest cassette players.

COMMENTS: I know that a lot of people are really hot on Tandberg products, but judging from this machine, I don't see what all the fuss is about. This deck features some clever designs, and  some ridiculous ones. For example, instead of a tension switch to turn off the motor when the tape runs out, this machine uses a photosensor right before the headstack to tell if there's tape in it or  not. If the light beam is broken, the motor runs. Also, this deck uses the "Crossfield" design with  four heads- one erase, one playback, one record, and one that comes up from underneath the tape  and exclusively provides the bias signal. That's a good idea, which at least one other manufacturer used (Akai in the late '60s). It looks good on paper, but if it was so good, why wasn't it adopted by the pro audio crowd (like Ampex)? In reality, I would say that it just complicates matters. Then  there's that "twisted belt" design for the reel spindles. Instead of the usual belts and idlers used by everyone else, Tandberg worked out a design with one big belt twisted into a figure eight pattern  ¬inside the deck. There is then a series of cams and levers (most of which are made of plastic) which transfer the motion from the motor to the belt in whatever way it's needed. There's one big irritating drawback to this: when threading the tape through the machine, you MUST have the control lever in the "Free" setting, or else the supply reel will try to turn backward when you turn the takeup reel forward!  If you forget this, which is easy to do, tape threading can be a very frustrating experience! There are other odd touches, like the VU meters that only light up in record mode, etc. The sound quaility on my machine seems to be a bit lacking in the low end, but it's entirely possible that I'm used to a little bass boost in the other machines. The example I have runs noticeably fast compared to the other decks around here, but I've never taken the time to find out why (I don't think this one has settings for differing line voltages). All in all, an interesting curiosity, but not my first choice for something to use every day.
Tascam 32 (a.k.a. Teac Tascam Series 33-2)

DESCRIPTION:Available to the present day,  this is a professional format deck, with three motors, three heads, two speeds (7 1/2 in/sec and 15 in/sec), and half track heads. Obviously built to stand up to punishment, the machine is built entirely of metal, just like the good old days! There are many controls which wouldn't be found on the usual home tape recorder, such as a 12% pitch control (which is a heck of a lot of fun to play with!);  "Edit" control, which turns off the takeup reel motor,  20db attenuators for the mic inputs, etc. A nice four digit florescent tape counter is included, along with "Return to Zero", which can rewind back to a given point anywhere in the reel and stop automatically. Transport controls are by small plastic keys with a very small amount of motion. The quality doesn't come cheap: the current list price is $2,400.00 (remember, this was in 1999).

COMMENTS: This deck was rescued from the state surplus warehouse at the same time as the Pioneer deck, and cost the same- $25.00! It was in much worse shape, though, as case parts were missing, the main transport logic circuit board had been broken in two places, etc.  I thought, if I can fix this one, I could fix anything! Fortunately, parts are still easily available from Teac, which   made it easier. The first major problem was with the transport mechanism- play and fast winds were fine, but it couldn't stop! Tape would spill everywhere as the reels slowed down. Upon teardown, it was discovered that the deck had a SEVERE case of rubber deterioration. The solenoids which activate the reel brakes and the tape lifter/pinch roller arm had rubber o-rings behind the plunger to quiet them down (the o-rings prevented the head of the plunger from hitting the barrel of the solenoid). The o-rings had become something that resembled half dried automotive gasket maker- in other words, sticky goo.(Note also that the pinch roller was melting in my fingers as I took the deck apart.) The solenoids struggled to move against the glop. Cleaning off the rubber and lubricating the plungers solved the problem (I replaced the o-rings with tightly  woven felt washers to keep the noise down). The second major problem was in the playback electronics. Output in "Sync" mode (playback from head two) was dead in the right channel, and there was no output in "Repro"  (playback from head three) mode at all. To fix these problems, a copy of the tech manual, available from Teac for $30.00, was essential. The Sync mode problem  was a fault in the record/playback amplifier board, specifically, the "K102" Mute Relay, which mutes the output when switching between output modes. The Repro problem was traced to a faulty switch  on the output selector circuit board. Rather than shell out whatever Teac wanted for that board, I rigged up a SPST 24v relay to take the place of the bad switch contact. The missing parts have been replaced, and the deck works like a champ.

SPECIAL NOTES: While this was an extremely challenging project, it was made easier by two  factors: first is the availability of an incredibly detailed technical manual, second is the outdated  technology used in the deck. It's amazing that these decks, still being sold today, are filled to the gills with discrete components (when was the last time you saw a 1N34 style germanium diode  used in anything, much less pro audio equipment?), electromechanical relays in the signal path,  and rows of 7400 quad Nand gates in the transport logic. It's the height of early 70's technology! This can be a big advantage, though, as all of the electronic parts needed to fix the thing came from Tech America or Radio Shack, and cost a total of about $10.00! Here's a tip: realizing that the playback amplifiers were just dual 741 type op amps, I replaced them with more up to date Bi-Fet op amps to get that last bit of gain and lower noise. It costs about $3.00 to do it, and it makes the deck that much better. Everything said and done, this machine sounds better than it has any right to (which is to say, amazing), and harks back to another age of audio equipment.(Tech America doesn't exist as such, but Radio Shack sort of does. Of course you can find anything online in 2021).
The machine shown here is in a plywood case that I built for it, to make it "portable". It's also great for weightlifting practice.