Many of us weren’t even in plan when these pieces of analog Hi Tech were ruling the world of music. Some of us might had an encounter with these machines when visiting their grandparents. One thing is for sure: as much as we love vinyl records and turntables, there is a small yet passionate community that is still keeping this old music technology alive.
Reel to reel tapes have been around us for over 100 years. This fragile & bulky analog format sparkled passions and conquered the world of music aficionados until the early 60s’, when Philips developed the compact casette. Maybe this was a crucial moment for reel to reel tapes mass extinction, yet we’re not here to talk about its glorious history but more about the people that had managed to keep the passion for tape recorders alive, against all odds of finding spare parts and new tapes to play.
Razvan Balus, one of Romania’s few remaining tape recorder collectors, came in contact with music via his grandpa’s Philips old tube radio. Metronom, the radioshow produced by the late Cornel Chiriac at Radio Europa Liberă, brought the music of Led Zeppelin, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Black Sabbath, Janis Joplin to his ears. With these names came the desire to listen to their music without any constraints, so reel to reel machines were the obvious choice at that moment. We sat down and chatted about music on tapes, records, tape recorder collections and real collectors, as they are feeding their passion in a digital world that has started to find time for music on analog formats, too.
Do you remember your first tape recorder?
Yes, I remember it: it was an Unitra ZK-145, a mono tape recorder with vacuum tubes. This is where the passion for electronics and audio HiFi started. I managed to push this passion to that moment of building my own 3-track tape recorder, around 1978-79, based on an Unitra ZK-246 frame, where I put electronic parts inspired by UHER and SABA stereo tape recorders. After 1990 I sold and donated all my audio HiFi, keeping a Kenwood 3 chanel amplifier and 2 speakers for home listening. I transfered all the music on VHS tapes as HiFi audio, using a Grundig recorder. I was also buying CDs from Bulgaria.
How did you aquire music in the communist times?
I used to buy all my tapes from a music store located in downtown Bucharest (Academiei Street). Nicu, the shop manager and a true electronics expert on every device he sold, was calling me every time he had new music. Stocks were selling fast, rergdless the music or the tape brand: ORWO, AGFA, BASF. There were also some underground channels, like the vinyl records brought by airplane pilots from Karachi or Abu Dabhi. We were renting these records overnight, brought pickups and tape recorders and spent hours building playlists, exchanging music on tapes and doing selections.
How did this passion transform into a collection?
Around 2007, when Romania became a EU member, I got access to ebay where I found 3 AKAI X-201 tape recorders. I bought them, hoping to rebuild at least one functional recorder. I managed to make 2, the last one is still waiting its turn to be repaired. I started buying various AKAI tape recorders, while drive testing other brands like Pioneer, TEAC, Tascam, Technics, Dokorder (Onkyo), Sony or Revox.
How many reel to reel tape recorders do you have right now?
My house is full of devices, I think I have around 30, give or take ?
The best story behind one of your tape recorders
It’s the same story repeating itself for the majority of them: I find a machine while browsing the interwebs, fall in love with it and the rest is easy: pay, delivery from the most remote corners of this world, custom taxes and voila, part of my collection. The law of attraction is really working in my case!
Are all your tape recorders still functioning?
Most of them, yes. The secret is to use them for at least two hours per month. Yet, some of my machines are in the same state I bought them years ago, just some amazing pieces of technology I will restore at some point in the future.
I assume you need to be a technical guru to maintain them…
Yes, you need some special skills, a lot of experience based on previous repairing sessions, patience and a bit of detective work, as sometimes there are multiple flaws that could give you a real headache.
Can you still find spare parts for old models?
At least for the most valuable tape recorders, they are still selling new wheels and belts. The mechanical and electronic parts are coming from disassembled machines.
Is there a marketplace where you can buy reel to reel music tapes?
There is actually a growing demand for quality copyrighted tapes, but mainly in Netherlands, UK.
Do you need to store your tapes in a controled environment?
No need for special conditions, just keep the tape recorders with their lid closed. Same thing goes for the tapes, also: keep them in their plastic or cardboard packaging.
Is there a collection piece you’re most attached to?
Hard question! I’m very fond of every tape recorder, amp, speaker or cassette deck I own. Attachments can be hurtful, so I let them go sometimes, as they find another home in some different family, to please other people. I get to meet them again for an upgrade or restoration, and this makes me really happy.
How does you music listening habits sound?
I listen to a lot of tapes three times at most, before putting it aside and rediscovering it after a few years. I also have around 400 records, but I never had the chance of listening to all of them from start to finish