Keeping It Reel: Tape Collectors Explore New/Old Modes of Hi-Fi Perfection

Gian Carlo Feleppa is deep in a psychic/aesthetic vortex. It’s a swirl of audiophile fetishism, technological gadgetry, high-dollar online commerce, cultural nostalgia, and musical obsession. Feleppa buys and collects reel-to-reel audio tapes. You might find him bidding $600 for reel-to-reel recordings of a particular album by Curtis Mayfield or Kraftwerk.

Feleppa, a musician (he played in a band called the Mink Lungs), who lives on Long Island, is not alone. Go online and search auction sites for, say, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or the Beatles’ Revolver, and you’ll get a glimpse of the kind of spending frenzy that is going on beyond the attention of even many super-snooty music snobs who scoff at MP3s and get worked up about compression and squelched frequencies in digital technology.

If you thought that the people who have turned old vinyl, vintage turntables and record stores into an expensive boutique hobby are a little over the top, prepare yourself for some next-level high-fidelity vision-questers.

“It’s such an expensive habit, but once you hear reel-to-reels it’s kind of a deal changer,” says Feleppa. “It’s like wearing dirty glasses and having somebody clean your the lenses and hand them back to you.”

The really upsetting part about all of this is that Feleppa and the other reel-to-reel hounds are onto something. I had a conversion experience this past summer. Admittedly, I heard portions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Miles Davis’s Filles De Kilamanjaro, the first Led Zeppelin record and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (all amazing records to begin with) on a playback system that was excellent and turned up very, very loud. It was a solemn and focused listening experience. And my auditory nerves may have been stimulated by external factors, but this music—all of which I’ve listened to hundreds of times before—sounded otherworldly. The presence, clarity and sonic separation was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

It turns out that there’s actual acoustical science behind all this. Reel-to-reels can simply fit more of the audio signal onto the tape, in part because, at least particularly with the older, bigger 7.5- inch-per-second tapes (the kind most sought after and preferred by collectors), faster tape speeds meant more tape was used to record the signal, which meant that a higher fidelity reproduction of the sound could be achieved. If you visualize a cassette tape, using a narrower band of tape, playing at a slower speed, you begin to see how the format changes moved from cumbersome and expensive to convenient and cheap, and on that same continuum the recordings went from being more pristine to less and less pristine. The process continues today.

Feleppa loves vinyl, too. He just thinks reel-to-reels are superior. He’s been involved in pressing records, and he understands the complexities and variables of the process.

“Records sound about as good as they can sound. Reel-to-reels just sound better, because it’s just a straighter copy of what was recorded,” he says. The process of making the tapes involved less tweaking to accommodate the physical constraints of the medium. (Too much bass can create problems for a phonograph needle bouncing around in a record’s groove, for instance, and so an engineer at a pressing plant might have to adjust for that in order to make a record that played properly.) There was less altering of the frequencies, less adjusting of the dynamic range of a recording for reel-to-reel.

“For vinyl, they have to limit the amount the low-end sometimes, and it’s not because the people that are pressing it are the bad guys,” Feleppa.

Reel-to-reels, particularly the 7.5-inch-per-second variety, can be a sort of like sonic technicolor or high-def.

“When you listen to it, you feel like the house has been overtaken,” says Feleppa.

Reel-to-reels were the industry’s pre-cassette answer to the tape question. But most people didn’t want to bother with the somewhat delicate process of threading the leader tape through machines and on to take-up reels, cuing up the tape, messing with tension arms and pinch rollers, etc. (The process is complicated enough to warrant numerous how-to videos on YouTube.) Plus, the tape decks were heavy, the opposite of portable.

And reel-to-reels had other shortcomings: the tape could get sticky, if stored incorrectly, and finding the spot where a track begins could be tricky. So, for the most part, consumers were ready to switch over to other, easier formats even if the fidelity suffered. Most record companies stopped releasing commercial reel-to-reels in the early ‘80s.

Tape freaks like Feleppa are sort of happy that every record store hasn’t turned into a reel-to-reel shrine. Feleppa is a reluctant proselytizer. For every music fan who has a mind-blowing and ear-sizzling sonic epiphany listening to vintage reel-to-reels, that’s one more rabid bidder on Ebay jacking up the price of that sweet Nina Simone tape. And a lot of these people have actual jobs and disposable income.

“I am constantly searching Ebay, like every day, multiple times a day, just to get a sense of what the fuck is out there,” says Feleppa. “There seems to be a kind of high-end niche market. I’m fearful of more people finding out about reels because I’m so close to being priced out. I don’t know how much you want to spread the word on this shit, dude.”

Since 2007 the Tape Project has released some previously issued reel-to-reels through licensing agreements with record companies.

But that psychic/aesthetic vortex opens wider and goes deeper for Feleppa and others like him.. There are, it turns out, quadrophonic mixes for reel-to-reel that can be found of certain albums. One has to have a quadraphonic playback system, with four speakers to accommodate the four channels of the mixes, instead of the more common two channels of stereo mixes. Feleppa has a quadraphonic system.

“It’s a predecessor to surround sound,” he says.

And he’s also taken an interest in the ultra-niche world of quadraphonic mixes sold on commercially released 8-track tapes. (The sound quality won’t match a reel-to-reel, a vinyl LP or a CD, but the artistic and body-cocooning possibilities of the four-channel mixes is hard for him to leave unexplored.)

The enveloping intensities of quadraphonic experience coupled with the high-fidelity of reel-to-reels makes Feleppa a little giddy.

Here’s what he says about the response to listening to Deep Purple’s Machine Head on quadraphonic reel-to-reel: “Honestly, you pee in your pants like you’re a little frog.”