There has been a resurgence of multi-track cassette recorder usage in recent years as musicians have opted for the analog sound that only tape can provide. So we would like to pass on a few tips, tricks, dos, don’ts and good maintenance procedures for getting the best performance, sound, and longevity out of your tape machine.
General Use and Maintenance
First of all, try to keep your unit covered with at least a towel or similar if you don’t have an actual dust cover to keep the dust from accumulating on it when it is not in use. Dust can accumulate amazingly fast, and can drop down into the knobs and faders making them scratchy when you move them. If you have ever cleaned a dusty mixer before, you know how hard it is and how long it takes to dust between all of the knobs and crevices! Keep it covered and you can eliminate many dust related issues.
Speaking of scratchy faders, if your machine suffers from scratchiness, or your faders stick a bit when you adjust them, we recommend getting a can of Caig's DeoxIT F5 for faders. Just spray a little bit of that into your faders, then work the fader a bit. Any scratchiness should be greatly reduced or eliminated all together, and your faders will also move smoothly. This makes it much easier to adjust levels and have much greater accuracy and precision, which makes for a much better recording mix. At all costs - avoid using other lubricants like WD40 or Liquid Wrench, as these can damage and destroy your fader contacts.
When plugging into your unit, make sure the plugs (especially the headphone plug) are not hanging over the edge of a desk or table. If it get's bumped into, it can cause jack solder breakage or other additional damage to your machine.
If you are using a microphone with a 3-prong XLR jack and only have ¼” inputs on your recorder, stay away from bulky impedance matching transformers! Using one of these creates an 8-inch heavy lever hanging out of your poor ¼” jack, and is another common cause of jack failure. Instead, use an impedance matching cord that is totally jack-friendly with it’s ultra-low profile. This prevents the "lever" from being created and reduces the strain on your jacks.
As for tapes, use only very good makes of tape such as TDK, Maxell, Memorex, Sony, and BASF. Use high-performance grades of tape, such as XL, XL II, IEC I, or Chrome tapes, but avoid metal as most decks are not designed for metal. Another tip is to buy the shortest tapes you can find. Granted this doesn’t give you much recording time, especially at high-speed, but shorter tapes tend to have thicker tape, which sounds better and louder on your recordings. 60 Min. is OK, 90 is “pushing it”, and 120 minute tapes should NEVER be used!
Head Cleaning should be done about every 100 hours of use, or every 3 months, whichever comes first. You can buy a head cleaning kit with a cleaning cassette and cleaning fluid, or if that’s not available, a cotton swab soaked in alcohol rubbed across the tape heads and capstan roller until the swabs come out clean is also good. This is considered the preferred method by many.
Demagnetization should be done about twice a year. From many hours of tape running over the heads, they not only pick up the mylar residue from the tape, but slowly become magnetically charged by it. This disrupts the normal magnetic fields produced/picked up by the heads and results in a degraded, unnatural sound. Electronic demagnetizing cassettes can still be found at many electronic and audio outlets, or online. Hand-held demagnetizers are another option. Be sure to follow manufacturer’s instructions for proper demagnetization.
Every so many years, a tape recorder starts to exhibit speed fluctuations, usually a gradual slowing down of the tape speed. This usually means the drive belt is worn out. The belt is basically a thick rubber band that stretches and wears thin over many years of use. If this happens to your unit, you should bring it to a qualified service technician, or if you really want to dive in yourself, research online for replacement belts for your make and model of recorder.
In conclusion, with a little TLC and common sense, most multi-track tape recorders can be kept in good working order and keep recording for decades!
If you have any specific questions about multi-track tape decks, please feel free to give us a call here at Pixel Pro Audio.
About the Author
Patrick Smolinksi is a recording industry veteran with over 15 years of pro audio retail sales experience, over 11 years of running his own recording studio in central Wisconsin, and is a multi-instrumentalist playing all of the instruments on songwriter demos. Pat is a musician at heart and has also found himself playing gigs with several bands over the past 30 years. He loves his twins, the Packers, music, and pro audio gear.