A New Guide to Tape Grades & Performance Levels

We created a new classification system to help Reel to Reel enthusiasts identify where their tape types fit into their historical development – and whether you can successfully use them with your equipment.

As reel to reel tape development progressed, the performance increased in terms of signal to noise ratio attainable and frequency response – but this development happened slowly, because the potential tape performance far surpassed the ability of just about all the equipment to make use of it, except for professional recorders. As a result, most of the R & D was centered on improving the recorders, not the tape.

Tapes from the 50s and 60s, whether they were made with an acetate or Mylar (polyester) backing, typically conformed to a similar iron oxide formula. A modern machine biased for these old formulas can get fantastic results at 7.5 and 15 ips from many of them. As manufacturers (particularly in Japan and Europe) improved their formulations and production processes, tapes were developed with better calendaring processes yielding more polished surface, improving high frequency response and consistency through better tape to head contact. Later, tapes with a higher output and bias requirements were developed that made recordings “sound better” on older machines by providing a treble boost. Manufacturers focused on the professional market continued to develop high output formulations for higher speeds (15 or 30 ips) and at the same time companies were focused on new formulations for consumers that performed better at 3-3/4 and 7-1/2 ips. Consumers were mere focused on saving money and getting more out of their tapes by recording at the slower 3-3/4 ips speed – even when they were popular, the cost of quality tape was relatively high.

Today it is rare that enthusiasts are focused on saving money and recording at 3-3/4ips, which is why I don’t recommend it for a number or reasons. For many applications and machines, running the older tapes at 7-1/2ips or even 15 ips will still give you spectacular sound quality. In fact, most of the older machines are unable to benefit from the higher performance and extended headroom the newer tapes provide, so they might not be worth the money.

Remember, at any given time there were only certain tapes available, and people chose from that. Today, we can look back, survey and compare the tapes made, and with revisionist history use them according to our current needs and understanding. For example, we don’t ever have to record at 3-3/4 again. If we have a recorder with a bias adjust, we can use the old tapes at 7.5 or 15 ips and get fantastic recordings.

Type 1: Standard / Standard Bias

These are the tapes that started recording. The Scotch 111 or 150, Irish 195 / 211 Ampex 311, Soundcraft, Audiotapes and many other brands all started with a similar formula and similar performance, with production starting in the late 1940s and ramping up in the 1950s and though the 1960s. The Scotch 111 became the reference formula. In the 1970s these were often sold as budget formulas alongside higher output tapes, and their production lasted through 1970s, some sold as “voice grade” tapes. This term, circulated on the forums, is really misleading, as it represents one manufacturer’s marketing description for selling their older formulas through the 1970s. Make no mistake, even though their outputs is lower, many of the world’s greatest recordings were made with these tape formulations, and later versions with Mylar or Polyester backing are some of the most robust and longest lasting formulations ever produced – especially since some formulations were made for over 20 years! Some of the products made in this time were of a very high quality. In our store, we sell the Scotch 150, Soundcraft Plus 150 and BASF LGS tapes as examples from this era. If your recorder is biased for them, you can still get great results at 7.5 and 15 ips – just like they did back in the day….

Most of the commercial tapes made in the 1950s and 1960s used tape of this type, much of it acetate. I have a few hundred tapes that I regularly listen to from this era and the sound quality is still very high.

Oxide shedding with Type 1 tapes – It is normal for tapes to shed some oxide during repeated playing – this is the way they were when they were new. If you are new to reel to reel tape recording this might alarm you. They are also slightly more abrasive on your heads, which might be an issue if your tape deck was not fitted with long life heads. These older tapes were not as polished and really needed to “wear in”. You just have to make sure you clean your heads more often. What is interesting is that extremely highly used tapes of this vintage get “polished” as they are repeatedly used, and in turn they shed less oxide – presumably all of the “loose” or protruding oxide is worn off over time. There is anecdotal evidence that such well used tapes have a improved frequency response due to this effect, and I actually tested this and found it to be true – and I will write about it in a blog post sometime.

For older machines, either with a tape selector, or made before the advent of the newer tapes. I have obtained good results with selected new machines that have a manual bias adjust. Most of the early Japanese machines, through the early 1970s, were biased for these standard tapes – in particular, the popular Sony PR-150 which has a similar bias to the Scotch 150.

Type 2: Low Noise / Standard Bias

Companies started producing higher grade tapes in the 1960s and 1970s as “Low Noise” tapes, which offered an improved signal to noise ratio using similar bias settings of the standard tapes. The new Scotch 202/203 promised 3 dB greater dynamic range through a lowered noise floor, NOT higher output, vs. the reference Scotch 111. They were polished better and thus optimized for 3-3/4 ips (Scotch famously promoted the new 203 to offer the same performance at 3-3/4 as standard tapes at 7-1/2. Didn’t quite make that promise).  Many of these tapes appeared grey instead of brown in color. The Scotch 203, 176/7/8 or 211/ 2/3/4 and Ampex 434, 444, as well as the Audiotape Formula 15 are the first low noise tapes developed, and they belong in this category of tapes that also produce excellent results on recorders biased for them. These are also other formulations that have held up well, with no sticky-shed and little oxide loss.

Oxide shedding with Type 2 tapes – It is also normal for type 2 tapes to shed some oxide during repeated playing – this is also the way they were when they were new. They are also slightly less abrasive on your heads than type 1 tapes, which might be an issue if your tape deck was not fitted with long life heads.

For older machines, either with a tape selector, or made before the advent of the newer tapes. These tapes were made through the early 1980s in some cases, and became the “standard” tapes that machines were biased for in the mid 1970s.

Type 2A. Extended Length (0.5 mil) Low Output

These extended play (double or triple play) tapes used similar formulas to the standard or Low Noise tapes on thin polyester (mylar) substrates. They typically have a slightly different bias requirement due to their thinner layer of oxides. Some companies managed to produce Double Play tapes with the same oxide layer as their SP and LP tapes and those are denoted in their pages. Others have a reduced output. The really thin tapes were optimized for 3-3/4ips to enable long program lengths.

For older machines, either with a tape selector, or made before the advent of the newer tapes.

Type 3: Low Noise – High Output

In the early 1970s companies started producing higher output tapes like Memorex, BASF with their LH Series, and Scotch with their famous 206/207 Mastering tapes. These tapes used a similar bias requirement to the older tapes but provided a higher output, the Scotch 207 providing roughly 3dB greater output than the reference standard Scotch 111 tape, for a total dynamic range improvement of 6 dB. BASF claimed an improvement of +8 dB over their standard reference tape though the same combination of a lowered noise floor and higher output. We carry a large range of these tapes which are bias compatible with older machines, and later consumer machines with a “Low Range” and “High Range” setting.

Oxide shedding with Type 3 tapes – It is also normal for type 4 tapes to shed a little oxide during repeated playing – this is also the way they were when they were new. They are also slightly less abrasive on your heads than type 1 or 2 tapes. In general, as tape production improved these tapes shed less and less.

For both older and newer machines, either with a tape selector, or adjusted for one of these formulations from the factory.

As of November 2023 I am considering splitting this category into two sections, the 3A are early high output tapes like BASF LH, Scotch 207, Agfa PE36 and early Maxell UD, which tapes have a lower bias similar to low noise tapes. Later tapes, such as later Maxell UD or TDK Audua / LX as well as Fuji FG, have a higher bias.

Type 4: High Output / High Bias (+3dB)

Some time in the mid 1970s higher performance tapes, typically back coated with a carbon later to lower wow and flutter, improve tape to head contact and winding stability and, and lower tension were released by the major manufacturers. These can be used with both older and newer machines, either with a tape selector, or adjusted specifically for them. These tapes include the Scotch 250 & Classic, Maxell UD-XL / XL-1, TDK GX, Fuji FB and Sony ULH, as well as the Ampex 406, BASF LPR and the Agfa 268/368/468 tapes. The Scotch classic claimed a +9 dB improvement over the reference 111. The +3 here is a reference to the higher output over the standard low noise/ high output tapes of the day.

As consumer tape production winded down, these tapes became the “entry level” studio tapes used in the broadcast and professional recording markets.

Type 5: High Output Master Tapes (+6dB)

Ampex was the first manufacturer to release their Ultra High Output studio tapes, the short lived consumer 356/357 and pro versions 456/457. Scotch followed later with the 966/986 tapes. BASF released the 911. Newer pro machines with electronics suited for the higher outputs were biased for these tapes from the factory, available in widths up to 2″. The new ATR Magnetics Master Tapes & MDS-36 also fall into the +6 category. They offer a +12 dB increase in dynamic range over the standard Scotch 111.  Many of the older machines will reach their limits before this tape does, as they were never engineered for such high output tapes.

Type 6: Super High Output Master Tapes (+9dB)

For a brief time super high output tapes were made by Ampex (the 999) and Scotch (the 996) and the BASF/EMTEC/RTM 900. These tapes promise a +15 dB increase in dynamic range over the reference 111, but require machines with the electronics to handle the magnetic energy. Only the RTM 900 is produced today.

Type 7: Ferrichrome (FeCr / DUAD)

Ferrichrome tapes were a unique dual layer tape combining a base layer of iron oxide with a top layer of Chromium Dioxide. Only Sony made these tapes for reel to reel machines. The performance, in theory, was roughly equivalent to the type 4 – +3 low noise/high output tapes. Theoretically they should have a better high end due to the CrO2 layer. In reality these tapes never performed that well, as it was difficult to get a flat response with them, even with the Sony machines specially biased for them. No other brand of machines other than Sony had the setting for this tape, and it never really took off. Today, these tapes have not survived well. They can suffer from a combination of sticky shed and squealing, and in our tests baking did not solve the sticky shed issue with these tapes. In general, any tapes with a Chromium Dioxide layer (from cassette experience) perform poorly if recorded on today, although the recorded content should still play fine. I have some FeCr that squeals but is not sticky, I have heard anecdotal evidence that some batches of this tape play fine. Proceed with caution.

Type 8: Extra Efficiency (EE)

EE tapes were developed in the early 1980s in Japan to extend the life of reel to reel tape recorder technology in the consumer market, using the experience of Chrome Position (High Bias) cassettes. These tapes used a higher EQ to lower the noise floor in combination with the extended range of the tape, supposedly made these tapes perform the same at 3-3/4 ips as standard tapes at 7-1/2 ips (where did we hear that before?). The tapes were expensive and didn’t really catch on, although the sound at 7-1/2 ips was excellent. Tapes made were the TDK SA, Maxell XL-II, and the BASF Chromium Dioxide. Some experimental Memorex CrO2 was released on the market, too. Today, some TDK SA lots suffer from white powder syndrome. The BASF version is the only EE tape with back coating, and are rare on the ground. The Maxell XL-IIs are the best of the lot.

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