The Tape Deck – Dissected

I have had several tape decks in my life. A few hand-me-downs, a few purchased new, no awesome Blaupunkt or high dollar jobs, but all have played some of the best music I have ever owned. They were functional and needed for the tape trading I did. They were/are a vital piece of equipment for those of us born before CD’s. My kids grew up listening to my tapes on my tape deck, but have never owned one, unless it was on a boom box. In fact, none of my kids have ever owned a stereo. That fact just hit me. For them it was boom boxes, and now Zunes and I-Pods and docking stations and even Abbey’s record player is a stand alone with a speaker built in. No receiver. No equalizer. No tape deck. No stereo. Hmm.

Anyway, I have always had tapes, from the early years when I was recording radio songs onto tapes with a hand held tape recorder to the middle years when I was trading tapes, to now when I am playing some of the relics and blues tapes and tapes from my friend Jeff. Now, it’s true that most of the tapes I have purchased over the years have been replaced by CD’s and the few that are left are being featured in my van these days to pass the drive time to and from work. The irreplaceable cassettes are being converted to digital: bootlegs, homemade tapes from Dalton and letter tapes (more on that later) from Jeff and mixes that I just can’t part with.

I have a box down in the basement that has over a hundred bootleg tapes, tons of mixes and plenty of store bought tapes. I even have a few cassette singles down there, some I will never part with, and some that I will likely toss. In light of my past and being a junkie for blank tapes this fact makes me laugh, but, we all move on.

During the time I was trading tapes and struggling to get the very best possible sound from every tape I played and recorded, I developed a process that I, once started, was unable to ever stop. It is a process I liken to the old matchbook in the car stereo tape deck. You know, when the tape in the car wasn’t playing right or sounded funny and you stuffed a matchbook or something between the tape and the tape slot.

For me, my process is to get the best sound out of a tape, the best mix of treble and bass. You would be surprised all the different sources I have received tapes from, and I noticed that some sounded good in my tape deck and some were muffled. I couldn’t figure out why if I played them in the car they sounded different. I had a Black Crowes bootleg tape that I had gotten and it was so muffled on my tape deck that it was hardly listenable, but then in the car the sound was crisp and perfect. I started thinking my tape deck had issues. However, with a store bought tape, any of them, the sound was always just right.

Finally in frustration I took the door off the tape deck and started messing with the tape head, pushing it down and back and forth and trying to figure out what the deal was. I found I could change the tone of the sound by doing that with a tape playing, kind of like the matchbook process. There was no way to maintain the manipulation though, or so I thought. Then I noticed the tiny screw on the play head mechanism. It had a drop of “locktight” on it, clearly set at the supposed optimal setting and glued down. I found my smallest screwdriver and with a tape playing started to crank on the tiny screw just below the play head.  As soon as I broke the tiny amount of “locktight” and the screw started moving, the sound morphed. The store bought tape I was playing went all muffled, the treble dropped and it actually started to wah-wah a bit. A turn the other direction brought the sound back to crispy again. Eureka! I dragged out my Black Crowes bootleg and put it in. The sound was muffled. Then I turned the screw a bit and the sound improved. I had done it.

Of course, now that I had done it, and there was no “default” set, I had to do it on every tape I played. If I went from one tape to another I trimmed it out to be crisp. This meant that the tape door was perpetually off and there was always a host of tiny screwdrivers handy. Later, when I bought a new dubbing tape deck I made sure that the tape doors were removable so that I could continue this process. I have continued it to this day.

The Process:

Tape Deck as is.

With door removed (tape not playing, tape head down)

Tape playing (play head up)

Access to tape head mechanism set screw. Pardon the dust.

Adjusting for the perfect sound. Bliss.

Of course, my current tape deck (shown here), on top of being a dubbing tape deck is an auto-reverse tape deck, so there are actually 2 screws per play head. The process is the same. Unfortunately, the recording side is broken and this side, the regular play side is dying… maybe I’ll get a used one just to play the classic tapes that remain in my collection.

As long as the doors come off.

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