The Euphoria of Reel-to-Reel Tape


Like almost everyone in my generation who grew up in the eighties, I can say that reel-to-reel tapes charmed my life. Music, in particular, impacted much of my linguistic skills. Albums ranged from French titles, such as “La Foule” d’Edith Piaf, or “La Mamma” de Charles Aznavour to Arabic music of the Lebanese voice of hope, Fairouz to the Egyptian Diva, Om Kalthoum.  Their beautiful lyrics trained my brain to hear the sounds and enjoy the pleasing combinations of notes. Others might have found the notes dissonant or unpleasant. But, that’s up to the ear to determine what combinations of musical notes it finds appealing in the 80s.

Regardless, almost everyone enjoyed the medium of reel-to-reel tape. But, the moments weren’t all peace and love as I had trouble fixing those reels and questioning the storage ontology. How a fairly simple device with two rollers and two halves of a plastic outer shell could store 90-minute audio? How does it record and play back my voice? How did the transmission and the computation work? Was there a way to measure the vocal bits on those reels?

As the spools got stuck into the head of the drive, I had to crop the worn part of it and glue them back with a manicure. Sometimes, the sound might not be what I was expecting, but at least it made me enjoy the task of doing-it-myself. In those days, one could hear music from different sources, the radio, TV broadcasts, as well as other tape recorders.

Those reels were the dominant tape format in the audio industry as there was no such thing as digital recording for the general consumer. It was a long way off. Today one can easily record music onto a CD, a DVD or a hard drive, but everything back then was audio and analog based. That being said and in spite of the new technology and the advent of new formats of sound, reel to reel tape recorders were and continue to be one way that brings moments of pleasure and memories to many.

But, understanding the essence of its storage reality was a little opaque. While I was able to identify and retrieve its components, I could not fathom how the human vocal waves could be stored in reels. I thought knowing its “formal materiality” would suffice to control and understand that medium. The case of a computer could obviously be a little complicated. But, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Mechanisms” tries to remove the machine “opacity” that bewildered so much of my generation. He and Kenneth Thibodeau would argue that our perception of a computer, in this case, would be a virtual representation, which needs to be merged with two more aspects—logical and conceptual—in order to understand the ontology of digital phenomena and its relationship with various forms of representation.

A detailed descriptions of many elements of the “material matrix governing writing and inscription” at work in electronic textuality, could boil down the cleavage between the technical and the social. Kirschenbaum here focuses primarily on how the computer and its components function, such as the creation of RAM, inside a particular set of social circumstances. He tries to capture something out of the procedural friction or perceived difference and counteract popular ideas of the computer as a virtual machine.

So, what appears to be a homogeneous digital object at the physical level may in fact be a compound object at its logical and conceptual levels if they are interconnected. In this frame, Kirschenbaum’s “forensic materiality”, or the stuff that makes up the machine, would not only focus on storage, but also encourages to perceive the machine in terms of specific versions, platforms, systems, and devices. This in turn would reconcile the computer mysterious elements with the mythmaking apparatus of its creation.

Yet, as time passes and people who either owned or grew up with a reel to reel tape recorder, these machines remain an integral part of not only our technological history, but also who we are, and thus deserve recognition.


4 thoughts on “The Euphoria of Reel-to-Reel Tape

  1. Great post!
    I find the question of technological ‘opacity’, as you called it, to be very engaging. In the end, I think this opacity is recurrent in any human interaction with technological mechanisms, in general. Your ending (‘an integral part of who we are”) seems to go back to the concept of symbiosis that we discussed two weeks ago, and it makes me wonder whether it is even useful, to reason in terms of materiality/immateriality, understanding/not understanding, when thinking about our relation with computers.

  2. First, this is a great post. I had to check what a reel to reel tape was for I haven’t seen one before this very moment. And your story got me thinking about how the development of technology has led computers/gadgets to become inmaterial (in the sense that we no longer see the mechanics inside them) and users unaware of the materials they/we are using. As I said, I haven’t seen a reel to reel tape, ever. I remember using music tapes on radio cassettes and a walkman but I soon got a cd and disc man and some months later a mp3 player, then iPod. And while I could kinda see how the tape worked, I’ve got no idea how the mp3 or iPod manage to do their duty and be so cool. For that reason, I believe that technology is becoming part of “who we are” in an unconscious way as time goes by and we get new developments. Is that a good or bad thing? Is it useful, as Caterina asks? I don’t know.

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