So you want to get into the tape deck space, you found a deck, SOMEWHERE but have never owned one before. This quick guide is written specifically for the "newbie". Enjoy and never hesitate to give us a ring!
*There is a clear cut reason to WHY 99% of electronic repair shops WON'T touch a tape deck. Stop the Ebay/Reverb madness. If you are not a technician, enthusiast or hobbyist please keep these steps handy when negotiating the price of your tape deck.
Before you begin!
IF you are going to attempt the inspection of a tape deck on your own, PLEASE see the list of REQUIRED Materials, Tools & Tests below.
*If you do not have these tools and/or these tests were not performed, WALK AWAY! - This is the bare minimum to feel confident in a purchase.
Materials & Tools Required
- Precision screw driver set for calibration
- Alcohol 99% & Q-Tips for cleaning the tape path (tension arms, capstan, heads, guides)
- A tape pre-recorded at 7 & 15 IPS (*With leader tape applied)
- A blank tape to record
- Cables to connect audio source (ask seller what he has so you know what cables to bring - Seller should have)
- MRL Tape to test frequency response (Typically Tape number 21J405 from MRL, standard 1/4 inch test tape at the very least - wow and flutter would be ideal as well)
- Set of headphones
*These are the minimum tools required to do a basic health check on a consumer to semi professional, "audiophile" grade tape deck.
Tests Required - Basics:
Does it turn on, FF, RW, PLAY, STOP, COUNT?
You want to look for the functions not only working but working smoothly and without added effort. The quickest way to test this is to simply hold up the tension arm closest to the capstan and go through the functions. To be thorough you will want to add reels/tape.
A. Basic Diagnostics:
- Display/counter appear/turn on? (N/A if Pure analog) (If pure analog, does the counter work and reset; test in Step B)
- Capstan motor engage? Does the Capstan "shaft" "spin"?
If NOT - Stop - This is a major issue. This machine should no longer be considered.
If YES - Proceed to basic function tests
- Function Tests
While holding up the tension arm closest to the capstan/pinch roller...
- Engage Play
- Engage RW
- Engage FF
- Engage Play
- Engage Stop
^^ Wait 5 seconds in between each function test
^^ In each of the above function tests how did the reels respond? Was the tape pulled through the tape path smoothly? Did any tape "Spill out" of the reel at any point? Did the tape "scrape" either of the reels? Did you notice any reel/hub wobble? Were there any "noises" that you would not "expect" (Humming, straining, whining, clicking, tape rubbing on the reels?)
* If these basic function tests returned anything other than stellar results you want to walk away.
B. Intermediate Diagnostics
So the tape deck passed the basic function tests. Time to move on to the next step. Step 2 of three.
VU Meter test
- Mount the supply & take up reels onto the tape deck. Run the leader tape from supply reel through the tape path to the take up reel. Once enough tension is on the tape from the take up reel perspective, pull the tape until you see the leader tape disappear.
- Ensure the right speed and reel size is selected
- Plug in headphones, push play, listen. What does it sound like? Flat? Are you hearing losses?
- Are you seeing the "needle" move on the VU Meters? Do they seem in line with each other?
*For machines with internal oscilloscope, say an Otari MX5050 BII2 for example
- With Record mode OFF, set you internal oscilloscope to 1kHz. What are the meters doing? Can you get each of the meters to reach zero? (*Be careful not to stress the pots when calibrating)
- Switch to 10kHz. What are the meters doing? Can you get each to reach zero?
(*Be careful not to stress the pots when calibrating)
*For machines WITHOUT internal oscilloscope - proceed to Advanced Diagnostics
C. Advanced Diagnostics
Lucky you! Step one and two are complete and you are comfortable moving to the final stage.
Calibration/Frequency Response Test
- Mount the MRL Calibration Tape.
- Ensure internal oscilloscope is turned off
- Press play to begin the MRL Tape.
- Go through each frequency and attempt to calibrate the tape deck by ensuring the "needles" on each "channel" (VU Meter) are set to zero
Record & Playback Test
*This is a critical step. We don't understand the desire to only playback; where is the fun in that? Opinions aside, you should test the record capability of the deck you are interested in purchasing.
- Mount your blank tape
- Connect your source (Turntable, IPAD, CD player etc)
- Hit record on your deck and play on your source
- Record one or two songs
- Rewind & Play back
What does it sound like? What are the VU meters doing? Does it sound amazing?
*If these tests cannot be performed by you, the seller or sellers' technician we highly suggest walking away.