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Kodak Durol triacetate tape with bad vinegar syndrome

Filed under: project notes,Studer A807,Tape Aging — 2009-04-07 by Richard L. Hess — Last Edit 2009-04-07 by

I recently received two 7-inch reels of Kodak Type 31A Triacetate tape (1250 feet, Durol Base) that smelled of vinegar even before I got the envelope open.

These tapes were badly warped due, most likely, to the vinegar-syndrome induced differential shrinkage. Other factors may have been poor winding during long-term storage (I had received them after several attempts to play them on another machine).

Not only was the tape cupping about its centre axis (with the basefilm shrinking so the edges were pulling back from the tape plane (away from the heads), it also had extremely wavy edges. In addition, the tapes would not lie flat on the reel due to the dimensional changes that were strongly embedded in the tapes.
We were able to play this tape on our stereo (NAB) A80, but discovered it was a 1/4 track tape (the original source had said it was half-track mono). We elected to stay with the A80 because:

  • The A80 has the stabilizer roller which tends to “break the back” of cupping
  • We had already adjusted the machine to have substantially higher tension to help flatten the tape–this was clearly a case of wanting the knobs to go to 11 or 12, but we had to settle for 10 on the play tensions.
  • We do not have a four-track head for this machine AND the machines for which we have compatible heads do not have as easily adjustable tensions or the ability to safely set the tensions as high as we did on the A80
  • The original recording was off-air AM radio after a trip of 1,000 miles through landline telco audio networks from 1964

So while the reproduction was only fair, we maintained good tape-to-head contact despite the inability to play this tape on other machines. If the content had been better fidelity and the client had been willing to pay for mounting a four-track head on the A80, we might have achieved some improved noise performance, but the original recording was quite low level (even correcting for the 1/4 track mismatch). Depending on segment, VU meter zero for the quarter track recording was somewhere around 15 nWb/m! We could hear recorded hiss,   however, over the tape noise even in this configuration!

We were able to improve listenability by using a filter that matched the playback bandwidth to the recorded bandwidth (it appeared to be about 200-3500 Hz, we filtered for 200-4000 Hz) and it sounded about as good as we would have expected hearing over a transistor radio in 1964. Further processing with Algorithmix Noise Free Pro reduced background noise (including random crowd noise, but not loud cheers–it was a football game) and made the announcers pop out more, so if someone is intent on listening to the details of what the announcers said, this would be easier to listen to, but less authentic to the sound of the original broadcast.

These tapes were transferred somewhere near their effective end-of-life. It would have been better if these tapes had been transferred 10-20 years ago. Based on other experience with Kodak tapes, I am not surprised with this. Interestingly, the Durol basefilm in its present state of decay was not translucent as most magnetic tapes are, so translucency of basefilm is not a 100% accurate test for acetate basefilm.

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