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An audio tape recorder, tape deck, reel-to-reel tape deck, cassette deck or tape machine is an audio storage device that records and plays back sounds, including articulated voices, usually using magnetic tape, either wound on a reel or in a cassette, for storage. In its present day form, it records a fluctuating signal by moving the tape across a tape head that polarizes the magnetic domains in the tape in proportion to the audio signal.
The use of magnetic tape for sound recording originated around 1930. Magnetizable tape revolutionized both the radio broadcast and music recording industries. It gave artists and producers the power to record and re-record audio with minimal loss in quality as well as edit and rearrange recordings with ease. The alternative recording technologies of the era, transcription discs and wire recorders, could not provide anywhere near this level of quality and functionality. Since some early refinements improved the fidelity of the reproduced sound, magnetic tape has been the highest quality analog sound recording medium available. However, as of the first decade of the 21st century, analog magnetic tape is largely being replaced by digital recording technologies for most sound recording purposes.
Prior to the development of magnetic tape, magnetic wire recorders had successfully demonstrated the concept of magnetic recording, but they never offered audio quality comparable to the other recording and broadcast standards of the time. Some individuals and organizations developed innovative uses for magnetic wire recorders while others investigated variations of the technology. One particularly important variation was the application of an oxide powder to a long strip of paper. This German invention was the start of a long string of innovations that have led to present day magnetic tape recordings.
Earliest variant: non-magnetic wax strip recorder 
The earliest known audio tape recorder was a non-magnetic, non-electric version invented by Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory and patented in 1886 (U.S. Patent 341,214). It employed a 3⁄16-inch-wide (4.8 mm) strip of wax-covered paper that was coated by dipping it in a solution of beeswax and paraffin and then had one side scraped clean, with the other side allowed to harden. The machine was of sturdy wood and metal construction, and hand-powered by means of a knob fastened to the flywheel. The wax strip passed from one eight-inch reel around the periphery of a pulley (with guide flanges) mounted above the V-pulleys on the main vertical shaft, where it came in contact with either its recording or playback stylus. The tape was then taken up on the other reel. The sharp recording stylus, actuated by a vibrating mica diaphragm, cut the wax from the strip. In playback mode, a dull, loosely mounted stylus, attached to a rubber diaphragm, carried the reproduced sounds through an ear tube to its listener.
Both recording and reproducing heads, mounted alternately on the same two posts, could be adjusted vertically so that several recordings could be cut on the same 3⁄16-inch-wide (4.8 mm) strip. While the machine was never developed commercially, it was an interesting ancestor to the modern magnetic tape recorder which it resembled somewhat in design. The tapes and machine created by Bell's associates, examined at one of the Smithsonian Institution's museums, became brittle, and the heavy paper reels warped. The machine's playback head was also missing. Otherwise, with some reconditioning, they could be placed into working condition.
Photoelectric variant 
In 1932, after six years of developmental work, Merle Duston, a Detroit radio engineer created a tape recorder that used a low-cost chemically treated paper tape, capable of recording both sounds and voice. During the recording process, the tape moved through a pair of electrodes which immediately imprinted the modulated sound signals as visible black stripes into the paper tape's surface. The sound track could be immediately replayed from the same recorder unit, which also contained photoelectric sensors, somewhat similar to the various motion picture sound-on-film technologies of the era.
On 13 August 1931, Duston filed USPTO Patent Application #556,743 for "Method Of And Apparatus For Electrically Recording And Reproducing Sound And Other Vibrations", and which was renewed in 1934.
Magnetic recording 
Magnetic recording was conceived of as early as 1877 by the American engineer Oberlin Smith and demonstrated in practice in 1898 by Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen. Analog magnetic wire recording, and its successor, magnetic tape recording, involve the use of a magnetizable medium which moves with a constant speed past a recording head. An electrical signal, which is analogous to the sound that is to be recorded, is fed to the recording head, inducing a pattern of magnetization similar to the signal. A playback head can then pick up the changes in magnetic field from the tape and convert it into an electrical signal.
Steel wire magnetic recorder variant 
The first wire recorder was the Valdemar Poulsen Telegraphone of the late 1890s, and wire recorders for law/office dictation and telephone recording were made almost continuously by various companies (mainly the American Telegraphone Company) through the 1920s and 1930s. These devices were mostly sold as consumer technologies after World War II.
Widespread use of the wire recording device occurred within the decades spanning from 1940 until 1960, following the development of inexpensive designs licensed internationally by the Brush Development Company of Cleveland, Ohio and the Armour Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology (later Illinois Institute of Technology). These two organizations licensed dozens of manufacturers in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. Wire was also used as a recording medium in black box voice recorders for aviation in the 1950s.
Consumer wire recorders were marketed for home entertainment or as an inexpensive substitute for commercial office dictation recorders, but the development of consumer magnetic tape recorders starting in 1946, with the BK 401 Soundmirror,using paper-based tape, quickly drove wire recorders from the market.
Early steel tape recorders 
Early magnetic tape recorders were created by replacing the steel wire of a wire recorder with a thin steel tape.
In 1931, Clarence N. Hickman of Bell Labs completed a prototype steel tape recorder based telephone answering machine. The machine saw limited use because AT&T policy forbade its use on public telephone lines.
On Christmas Day 1932 the British Broadcasting Corporation first used a tape recorder for their broadcasts. The device used was a Marconi-Stille recorder, a huge tape machine which used steel razor tape 3 mm wide and 0.08 mm thick. In order to reproduce the higher audio frequencies it was necessary to run the tape at 1500 millimetres per second past the recording and reproducing heads. This meant that the length of tape required for a half-hour programme was nearly 3 kilometres and a full reel weighed 25 kg. For safety reasons these machines would only be operated in a locked room by remote control. Due to the tape's speed, springiness and razor-like sharp edges, if the tape broke while in operation, it could unspool, fly off and cause serious injury. Besides this, the methods of recording could lead to massive data loss and poor audio quality because of their nature.
By the mid-1930s, the C. Lorenz company in Germany had developed a steel tape recorder that was briefly popular with European telephone companies and German radio networks. The Blattnerphone, introduced around 1939 by Ludwig Blattner Picture Corporation, comprised a wire recorder modified to use a thin steel tape in place of steel wire.
German developments 
Magnetic tape recording as we know it today was developed in Germany during the 1930s at BASF (then part of the chemical giant IG Farben) and AEG in cooperation with the RRG. This was based on Fritz Pfleumer's 1928 invention of paper tape with oxide powder lacquered to it. The first practical tape recorder from AEG was the Magnetophon K1, demonstrated in Germany in 1935. Eduard Schüller of AEG built the recorders and developed a ring shaped recording and playback head. It replaced the needle shaped head which tended to shred the tape. Friedrich Matthias of IG Farben/BASF developed the recording tape, including the oxide, the binder, and the backing material. Walter Weber, working for Hans Joachim von Braunmühl at the RRG, discovered the AC biasing technique, which radically improved sound quality.
During World War II, the Allies noticed that certain German officials were making radio broadcasts from multiple time zones almost simultaneously. Analysts such as Richard H. Ranger believed that the broadcasts had to be transcriptions, but their audio quality was indistinguishable from that of a live broadcast and their duration was far longer than was possible with 78 rpm discs. In the final stages of the war in Europe, the Allied capture of a number of German Magnetophon recorders from Radio Luxembourg aroused great interest. These recorders incorporated all of the key technological features of modern analog magnetic recording and were the basis for future developments in the field.
American developments 
Development of magnetic tape recorders in the late 1940s and early 1950s is associated with the Brush Development Company and its licensee, Ampex. The equally important development of the magnetic tape media itself was led by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) corporation.
In 1938, S.J. Begun left Germany and joined the Brush Development Company in the United States, where work continued but attracted little attention until the late 1940s when the company released the very first consumer tape recorder in 1946: the Soundmirror BK 401. Several other models were quickly released in the following years. Tapes were initially made of paper coated with black oxide. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (3M) replaced them by plastic tapes in 1948.[dubious ]
American audio engineer John T. Mullin and entertainer Bing Crosby were key players in the commercial development of magnetic tape. Mullin served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and was posted to Paris in the final months of WWII. His unit was assigned to find out everything they could about German radio and electronics, including the investigation of claims that the Germans had been experimenting with high-energy directed radio beams as a means of disabling the electrical systems of aircraft. Mullin's unit soon amassed a collection of hundreds of low-quality magnetic dictating machines, but it was a chance visit to a studio at Bad Nauheim near Frankfurt while investigating radio beam rumours, that yielded the real prize.
Mullin was given two suitcase-sized AEG 'Magnetophon' high-fidelity recorders and fifty reels of recording tape. He had them shipped home and over the next two years he worked on the machines constantly, modifying them and improving their performance. His major aim was to interest Hollywood studios in using magnetic tape for movie soundtrack recording.
Mullin gave two public demonstrations of his machines, and they caused a sensation among American audio professionals; many listeners literally could not believe that what they were hearing was not a live performance. By luck, Mullin's second demonstration was held at MGM studios in Hollywood and in the audience that day was Bing Crosby's technical director, Murdo Mackenzie. He arranged for Mullin to meet Crosby and in June 1947 he gave Crosby a private demonstration of his magnetic tape recorders.
Bing Crosby's influence 
Bing Crosby, a top movie and singing star, was stunned by the amazing sound quality and instantly saw the huge commercial potential of the new machines. Live music was the standard for American radio at the time and the major radio networks didn't permit the use of disc recording in many programs because of their comparatively poor sound quality. Crosby disliked the regimentation of live broadcasts 39 weeks a year, preferring the recording studio's relaxed atmosphere and ability to retain the best parts of a performance. He had asked NBC to let him pre-record his 1944-45 series on transcription discs, but the network refused, so Crosby had withdrawn from live radio for a year. ABC agreed to let him use transcription discs for the 1946-47 season, but listeners complained about the sound quality.
Mullin's tape recorder came along at precisely the right moment. Crosby realised that the new technology would enable him to pre-record his radio show with a sound quality that equalled live broadcasts, and that these tapes could be replayed many times with no appreciable loss of quality. Mullin was asked to tape one show as a test and was immediately hired as Crosby's chief engineer to pre-record the rest of the series.
Crosby's season premier on 1 October 1947 was the first magnetic tape broadcast in America. He became the first major American music star to use tape to pre-record radio broadcasts, and the first to master commercial recordings on tape. The taped Crosby radio shows were painstakingly edited through tape-splicing to give them a pace and flow that was wholly unprecedented in radio. Mullin even claims to have been the first to use "canned laughter"; at the insistence of Crosby's head writer, Bill Morrow, he inserted a segment of raucous laughter from an earlier show into a joke in a later show that hadn't worked well. Soon other radio performers were demanding the ability to prerecord their broadcasts with the high quality of tape, and the recording ban was lifted.
Keen to make use of the new recorders as soon as possible, Crosby invested $50,000 of his own money into the Californian electronics company Ampex, and the tiny six-man concern (headed by Alexander M. Poniatoff, whose initials became part of the company name) soon became the world leader in the development of tape recording, revolutionising radio and recording with its famous Model 200 tape deck, issued in 1948 and developed directly from Mullin's modified Magnetophons.
Standardized products 
Working with Mullin, Ampex rapidly developed two-track stereo and then three-track recorders.
The typical professional audio tape recorder of the early 1950s used ¼" wide tape on 10½" reels, with a capacity of 2400 feet (730 metres). Typical speeds were initially 15 in/s (38.1 cm/s) yielding 30 minutes' recording time on a 2400 ft (730 m) reel. 30 in/s (76.2 cm/s) was used for the highest quality work. Domestic and portable recorders used seven, five or even three inch reels (or spools). Early professional machines used single sided spools but double sided spools soon became popular (particularly for domestic use). Tape spools were usually made from transparent plastic but metal spools were also used.
Standard tape speeds varied by factors of two — 15 and 30 in/s were used for professional audio recording; 7½ in/s (19 cm/s) for home audiophile prerecorded tapes; 7½ and 3¾ in/s (19 and 9.5 cm/s) for audiophile and consumer recordings (typically on 7 in or 18 cm reels). 1⅞ in/s (4.76 cm/s) and occasionally even 15/16 in/s (2.38 cm/s) were used for voice, dictation, and applications where very long recording times were needed, such as logging police and fire department calls.
The 8-Track tape standard, promoted by Bill Lear in the early 1960s, popularized consumer audio playback in automobiles. Eventually, this standard was replaced by the smaller and more reliable Compact Cassette.
Philips' development of the Compact Cassette in 1963 and Sony's development of the Walkman in 1979  led to widespread consumer use of magnetic audio tape. In 1990, the Compact Cassette was the dominant format in mass-market recorded music. The development of Dolby noise reduction technology in the 1960s brought audiophile quality recording to the Compact Cassette also contributing to its popularity.
Later developments 
Since their first introduction, analog tape recorders have experienced a long series of progressive developments resulting in increased sound quality, convenience, and versatility.
- Two-track and, later, multi-track heads permitted discrete recording and playback of individual sound sources, such as two stereophonic channels, or different microphones during live recording. The more versatile machines could be switched to record on some tracks while playing back others, permitting additional tracks to be "laid down" to match previously recorded material such as a rhythm track.
- Use of separate heads for recording vs. playback (three heads total, counting the erase head) enabled monitoring of the recorded signal a fraction of a second after recording. Mixing the playback signal back into the record input also created a primitive echo generator.
- Dynamic range compression during recording and expansion during playback expanded the available dynamic range and improved the signal-to-noise ratio. dbx and Dolby Laboratories introduced add-on products in this area, originally for studio use, and later in versions for the consumer market. In particular, "Dolby B" noise reduction became very common in all but the least expensive cassette tape recorders.
- Computer-controlled analog tape recorders were introduced by Oscar Bonello in Argentina. The mechanical transport used three DC motors and introduced two new advances: automated microprocessor transport control and automatic adjustment of bias and frequency response. In 30 seconds the recorder adjusted its bias for minimum THD and best frequency response to match the brand and batch of magnetic tape used. The microprocessor control of transport allowed fast location of any point on the tape.
Electric current flowing in the coils of the tape head creates a fluctuating magnetic field. This causes the magnetic material on the tape, which is moving past and in contact with the head, to align in a manner proportional to the original signal. The signal can be reproduced by running the tape back across the tape head, where the reverse process occurs – the magnetic imprint on the tape induces a small current in the read head which approximates the original signal and is then amplified for playback. Many tape recorders are capable of recording and playing back at once by means of separate record and playback heads in line or combined in one unit.
Modern professional recorders usually use a three-motor scheme. One motor with a constant rotational speed drives the capstan. This, usually combined with a rubber pinch roller, ensures that the tape speed does not fluctuate. The other two motors, which are called Torque Motors, apply equal and opposite torques to the supply and take up reels during recording and play back functions and maintain the tape's tension. During fast winding operations the pinch roller is disengaged and the take up reel motor is supplied with a higher voltage than the supply motor. The cheapest models use a single motor for all required functions; the motor drives the capstan directly and the supply and take-up reels are loosely coupled to the capstan motor with slipping belts or clutches. There are also variants with two motors, in which one motor is used for rewinding only.
The storage of an analogue signal on tape works well, but is not perfect. In particular, the granular nature of the magnetic material adds high-frequency noise to the signal, generally referred to as tape hiss. Also, the magnetic characteristics of tape are not linear. They exhibit a characteristic hysteresis curve, which causes unwanted distortion of the signal. Some of this distortion is overcome by using an inaudible high-frequency AC bias signal when recording, though the amount of bias needs careful adjustment for best results. Different tape material requires differing amounts of bias, which is why most recorders have a switch to select this (or, in a cassette recorder, switch automatically based on cutouts in the cassette shell). Additionally, systems such as Dolby noise reduction systems (Dolby B, Dolby C and Dolby HX-Pro) have been devised to ameliorate some of the noise and distortion problems. Variations in tape speed cause flutter, which can be reduced by using dual capstans. Higher speeds used in professional recorders are prone to cause "head bumps," which are fluctuations in low-frequency response.
Tape recorder variety 
There are a wide variety of tape recorders in existence, from small hand-held devices to large multitrack machines. A machine with built-in speakers and audio power amplification to drive them is usually called a "tape recorder" or – if it has no record functionality – a "tape player," while one that requires external amplification for playback is usually called a "tape deck" (regardless of whether it can record).
Magnetic tape brought about sweeping changes in both radio and the recording industry. Sound could be recorded, erased and re-recorded on the same tape many times, sounds could be duplicated from tape to tape with only minor loss of quality, and recordings could now be very precisely edited by physically cutting the tape and rejoining it. In August, 1948, Los Angeles-based Capitol Records became the first recording company to use the new process.
Within a few years of the introduction of the first commercial tape recorder, the Ampex 200 model, launched in 1948, American musician-inventor Les Paul had invented the first multitrack tape recorder, bringing about another technical revolution in the recording industry. Tape made possible the first sound recordings totally created by electronic means, opening the way for the bold sonic experiments of the Musique Concrète school and avant garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, which in turn led to the innovative pop music studio recordings of artists such as Frank Zappa, The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
Tape enabled the radio industry for the first time to pre-record many sections of program content such as advertising, which formerly had to be presented live, and it also enabled the creation and duplication of complex, high-fidelity, long-duration recordings of entire programs. It also, for the first time, allowed broadcasters, regulators and other interested parties to undertake comprehensive logging of radio broadcasts for legislative and commercial purposes, leading to the growth of the modern media monitoring industry.
Innovations like multitrack recording and tape echo enabled radio programs and advertisements to be pre-produced to a level of complexity and sophistication that was previously unattainable and tape also led to significant changes to the pacing of program content, thanks to the introduction of the endless-loop tape cartridge.
An important use of tape recorders is the recording of video. Video cassette recorders differ substantially from audio recorders due to the use of a rotating magnetic head that uses a helical scan over the tape medium. Helical scans increase the relative speed of the tape surface over the head.
While they are primarily used for sound recording, tape machines were also important for data storage before the advent of floppy disks and CDs, and are still used today, although primarily to provide an offline backup to hard disk drives.
Tapedeck speeds 
Professional decks will use higher tape speeds, with 15 and 30 inches per second being most common, while lower tape speeds are usually used for smaller recorders and cassette players, in order to save space where fidelity is not as critical as in professional recorders. By providing a range of tape speeds, users can trade-off recording time against signal quality with higher tape speeds providing greater frequency response.
See also 
- Analog recording - Other analog recording methods.
- Audio editing
- Audio format - General list of audio recording formats, including magnetic tape.
- Audio tape length and thickness - Details of different audio tape formats.
- Digital audio – History of digital audio use in commercial recording
- Digital voice recorder
- Electronic music
- History of sound recording – Magnetic recording - Magnetic tape in the context of the history of sound recording.
- Multitrack recording - Advanced usage of sophisticated tape recorders.
- Preservation of magnetic audiotape
- Reel-to-reel audio tape recording - Details of using old style recorders.
- Sound follower - For film
- Sound recording and reproduction
- Volta Laboratory-Sound recording
- Wire recording
Tape formats 
- 8-track tape
- Cassette deck
- Compact audio cassette
- Digital Audio Tape (DAT)
- Helical scan
- Reel-to-reel audio tape recording
- Wire recording
- Newville, Leslie J. Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory, United States National Museum Bulletin, United States National Museum and the Museum of History and Technology, Washington, D.C., 1959, No. 218, Paper 5, pp.69-79. Retrieved from ProjectGutenberg.org.
- Popular Science. Record Of Voice Now Made On Moving Paper Tape, Popular Science, Bonnier Corporation, February 1934, pp.40, Vol. 124, No. 2, ISSN 0161-7370.
- Onosko, Tim. Wasn't The Future Wonderful?: A View Of Trends And Technology From The 1930s: (article) Book Reads Itself Aloud: After 500 Years, Books Are Given Voice, Dutton, 1979, pp.73, ISBN 0-525-47551-6, ISBN 978-0-525-47551-4. Article attributed to: Popular Mechanics, date of publication unstated, likely c. February 1934.
- USPTO. Official Gazette Of The United States Patent Office, United States Patent Office, 1936, Volume 463, pp.537.
- "BRUSH DEVELOPMENT CORP". The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. 2002-05-29.
- Fenster, J.M. "How Bing Crosby Brought You Audiotape[dead link]". Invention & Technology, Fall 1994.
- First Sony Walkman introduced
- Recording Enters a New Era, And You Can't Find It on LP
- "A new tape transport system with digital control", Oscar Bonello, Journal of Audio Engineering Society, Vol 31 # 12, December 1983
- "The Capitol Story--A Decade of Growth and Success." Billboard, 2 August 1952
- Martel Electronics. Terms commonly used for Tape Recorder. Tape Recorder Speed.
- This article incorporates text from the United States National Museum Bulletin, a government publication in the public domain.
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