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Wet playing of reel tapes with Loss of Lubricant—A guest article by Marie O’Connell

Filed under: Tape Aging — 2006-03-09 by Marie O'Connell — Last Edit 2009-01-30 by

This is the first of many guest articles here. Thanks to Marie for agreeing to share her wonderful work in playing tapes that did not respond to baking. SSS=Sticky Shed Syndrome, LoL = Loss of Lubricant
For a current list of degrading analog tapes, click here.–Richard

There has been a lot of interest in this issue recently and I’ve answered several people privately. Hopefully this location will make the work more accessible to all who are interested.

overall view

The general appearance of the Mark II. As you can see, I had the luxury of being surrounded by these great machines and so we sacrificed one with all the adaptations done by a great technician by the name of Noel McGinnity – we both agreed we still wanted it to look like an almost regular Studer! All the tubing has been adapted to withstand isopropyl alcohol and the IV drip bag does not leak.

I began working at Sound Archives/Nga Taonga Korero, which is a wholly owned subsidary of Radio New Zealand in 1994. My task was to preserve and digitize the entire NZ Composer’s collection to begin with. I was taught my skills “on the job” but was lucky enough to have the wisdom & know it all of several older broadcasting technicians at my fingertips.

It was whilst transferring this collection, which was all on reel-to-reel magnetic tape that I encountered SSS & lol, etc. My boss at the time, who had been a radio producer, told me to try using isopropyl alcohol with cotton sticks. So, my first method was to drip the cotton sticks into the iso and then, steadily, try and apply it to the tape, without shaking or moving. As you know, this chemical is NOT good to breathe in. Some of this audio was 2 track at 3 3/4ips on 7 inch reels. This was a BIG ask, as the fumes made me feel ill and dizzy at times. Unfortunately, my boss, at the time, was unconcerned about the dangers of me breathing in these fumes.

I had attempted baking the tapes first, as this was the standard, but had had little success with this. It really was hit and miss, and sometimes baking worked, but mostly, it didn’t. Sometimes, the tapes would play after baking for 24 hours and then sitting at room temperature for a week, or a day, but more often than not, they still would not play. Hence, the use of isopropyl alcohol. This always worked for me.

I began thinking that there had to be a better way of doing this in 1995, as the fumes and remaining steady was not easy. This is when I started thinking about using an intravenous drip bag. So, my trusty technician, Noel McGinnitty, and I got into making the first ‘prototype’ using an Otari which had already been redesigned to go at 1 7/8ips, 3 3/4ips, 7 1/2ips & 15ips. We removed the record head core and replaced it with piano felt. Please be mindful, that this was a crude first attempt. With the IV bag partially filled with Iso I then placed the syringe into the top part of the the felt and through trial & error, I adjusted the drip speed to 6 drips per minute. It worked! This meant I could multi-task and do data entries of the content whilst preserving the audio. This machine I called the “Mark 1″ version!

I then discovered that my IV bags were starting to go hard and at times, the joins would simply fall apart due to the glues used in putting these bags together. This was not a good thing as I was having Isopropyl falling onto the floor, plus I would have to quickly evacute my room because of the fumes! I saved all the parts from each bag that I could reuse – I am a firm believer in recycling. I got in touch with 2 chemical firms in Christchurch, NZ, and one of which specialized in medical equipment. The salesperson was so fascinated with my request he arrived that day to see for himself just what I was up to. He decided that the best IV bag would be one which takes the contents of a person’s stomach, which is very acidic. By the way, he gave me all this equpment for free, a rare thing! This worked, but I still had the problem of the glues being eaten away by the Iso.

In the meantime, I had already measured all the holes that these parts where falling out of. So, with the second company and after mch discussion I purchased lengths of silicone tubing of different diameters. I placed different types of tubing into ISO and left it for a year to soak. The silicone tubing came up trumps and was still flexible, unlike the others, which either broke, or simply disintegrated in my hands.

I made up several parts for the IV bags and attached them, or rather slipped them over the necessary holes. This did not require any glues and was a very snug fit. I had now solved the problem of the bags falling apart, a real breakthrough. By this time, the Public Hospital became interested and so we went through different types of syringe needles which didn’t have glues in them and finally found the most suitable.

By this time, I was wanting a more robust machine and most certainly a machine that the original recordings were recorded on. This was the Studer B67, prototype number 2 and known as the “Mark 2″. I had also conducted a survey of the reel-to-reel collections held at Sound Archives and found that at least 25% of the collections suffered from SSS & LOL. Strangely, unless the 10.5 reels contained splices, I found that they did NOT suffer from either ailments.

However, there were 2 brands, which I grew to really depise, on 10.5 reels that did suffer from SSS. They are AGFA PEM 469 ( I think) and PYRAL, which came on 10.5, 7 and 3 inch reels & made in France from my understanding. Both these brands you could stretch and the magnetic layer would just become dust. The PYRAL was also slightly too wide for the tape path and would let off a very thin layer as it progressed through to the take-up reel. These brands I preserved immediately as they were a priority. I understand in 1987 AGFA put out a world-wide plea to take on board fixing these tapes. Sound Archives sent their collection to Germany and it was done free. However, one broadcaster, who also happened to be management, did not send hers off and they were sent to us in the 1990’s. There were over 300 of them! Of course, I prioritized her recordings as to popularity and frequent access, which was mainly her!

The new Mark 2, some of you have seen photos of it. This machine, being a Studer, was treated with the respect due to this fine piece of machinery. It has sumps, still the piano felt (hand sewn by me in the inner unseen workings), an overflow sump with silicone tubing going into a container to catch any residual Iso, an inseen syringe needle cleverly welded into place and inside the felt, and re-designed ‘window wipers’ to take off the last of the Iso before it gets to the takeup reel. There had been a problem with the takeup reel being able to cope and to start with it would just stop, hence the window wipers, and yes, they are from a car!

I will be patenting my design as there has been a lot of interest in it. Some of this has been negative, but mostly positive. Richard Hess and I are like minded in that when a job needs to be done, you have to be inventive and sometimes, outside of the norm, to get the job at hand done.

These 2 machines are housed in New Zealand, one in the Christchurch office, and the other in the Auckland Maori Unit. I have an inkling that they have not been used since I left as I was really the only one who knew exactly what I was doing to get them to work precisely! Let me know NZ!

I have the makings of an intravenous drip bag with me, but back in NZ, I was lucky enough to have a plentiful supply of Studers as they were the standard machines, up until they went digital.

Isodrip

In this picture you can see that the record head core has been removed and has been stuffed with piano felt and a few trade secrets!

Isodrip

Drilled into the back of the record head case is tubing which goes through the machine and is attached to the IV bag.

Isodrip

Specially adapted “windscreen wipers” (yes, from a Ford Falcon or Zephyr!) which wipe away the excess isopropyl so that the take-up reel keeps an even tension and doesn’t slow down and stop like it did in an earlier model.

© 2006 Marie O’Connell all rights reserved.

Used with permission at http://www.richardhess.com/

THANKS, Marie!



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