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Help - my twenty-year old recording won't play. What can I do?

One day you will have twenty-year old recordings that you want to remix for re-release. So what do you do if they won't play?


Suppose you release a new CD tomorrow. With good marketing, sales will instantly be as high as they ever will be. From that point sales will steadily decline. However, each time you release a new CD, your back catalog will get a boost too. So the sales figures of your earlier CD's will decline after release, but with a series of upward blips.

Eventually though, sales will peter out to almost nothing. Until...

Until you are back in fashion again and the market is ready to hear your work once more. In this case, you will be able to re-release your CD's, and perhaps make new versions from the original master tapes.

This happened to some recordings I made almost twenty years ago. An opportunity came up for the artist to re-purpose some old songs, which meant going back to the original multitrack master tapes for remix material.

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Equipping Your Home Recording Studio

The original multitrack recordings were made on a Fostex E16 16-track analog tape recorder, which in its day was an excellent machine for the money - around £5000 ($9000). But of course my E16 was long gone, traded in for an ADAT system (what a mistake!!) and later to Pro Tools.

So I needed to hire an E16. Fortunately this was easy, FX Rentals had one in their copy room and they were able to quote me a very reasonable rate. So off I went to pick it up, came back and connected it up to my Pro Tools rig.

Fortunately the tapes were easy to find, which isn't always the case with such old product. I mounted the first on on the machine and pressed play....

Nothing. Nothing happened - the reels twitched but the tape didn't move. I tried fast wind and still the tape didn't move. Oh, no - the tapes had 'sticky shed syndrome'!

You can easily research this phenomenon on the Internet. Most of the explanations describe the tape absorbing water and thus becoming sticky. It's a little more complex than that, but the short explanation will do.

The solution is remarkably simple - simply bake the tape to drive off the water. The conditions have to be just right though. I looked at all the research I could find and called a couple of people with experience of sticky shed syndrome.

The consensus seemed to be that a temperature of 55 degrees C (130 F) is about right, and a free flow of air should be ensured.

My first inclination was to use my electric oven for the purpose. The dial is only calibrated down to 100 C, but it turns down further and I extrapolated where the 55 C point would be. A free flow of air was made possible by switching the oven into fan mode. Clearly a gas oven is not suitable as moisture will be generated, which is precisely what we want to get rid of.

My only doubt at this point was whether there might be any magnetic field produced by the oven. Not have any means of testing this, I found a old reel of tape that I could sacrifice. I didn't want to overdo things so I baked it for 90 minutes.

Before baking, the tape simply wouldn't play. After baking...

Complete success! The difference was amazing - it was like playing a new reel of tape, with absolutely no degradation of sound quality that I could detect.

So I set up a production line, baked my tapes in turn and copied them across. Apparently, baking doesn't provide a permanent cure, but tapes can be re-baked as necessary.

The only thing that puzzles me here is where does the water go? The tape is wound tightly so how does the water escape? If it does escape, then surely the center of the tape would remain sticky if not baked sufficiently.

Still, the procedure works and I know that the rest of the tapes in my archive will be playable as and when they come back into relevance and commercial value.

Have you ever baked a tape? How did you do it? Tell us about your successes, or your failures!

P.S. It's a wise person who can tell the difference between a Fostex E16 and a Fostex B16!

By David Mellor Tuesday April 25, 2006