Mystery audio from second-hand tapes

I’m a total thrift store and flea-market junkie as you can well imagine from the contents of this blog. I can’t keep myself from any place that brings the world of second-hand audio junk closer to me. From time to time Al and I head out to one place or another and scour the shelves for noise-makers. On one such trip recently, we discovered a booth in a local flea market that was loaded with vintage audio toys. A stack of portable record players here, a stack of recording devices there, amps and speakers and mics everywhere, it was quite a find. Amongst other things, we both walked away that day with cool mini reel to reel players.

Als mini reel to ree

Al's mini reel to reel

I was excited to find another one that was so similar to one I owned already. My thought of course was to use it to make long tape loops during sound performances. Something i’ve been meaning to do for a long time. And of course, I’m still out of luck, because sadly, the one I bought does not work. I can get it to transport the tape, but it doesn’t make a sound, not even static, which is always a bad sign. I’ll probably end up using it for scrap.

Al had similar woes, as his worked, but did not transport at an even rate. It seemed like whatever was moving the tape was slipping intermittently, which while it was a cool effect, it was not what Al was looking for. It moved enough though for us to hear that the tape on it had been used, something that always excites me, because it means a weird audio snapshot of someone’s life is on there, just waiting to be released.

Since Al’s tape machine was working after a fashion, I took it to see if I could fix it. Often these old tape machines used some kind of oil that overtime becomes more glue-like than oil-like, and opening them and carefully oiling the moving parts can revive them, and sure enough it was the case here. Although this tape machine had the oddest transport system I have even seen. It had no belts and was driven only by friction, which of course means that it doesn’t transport very evenly to begin with. Actually a really cool effect, as you will hear later.

Once I got the machine running, I rewound the tape, and listened. It never ceases to amaze me the fantastic audio artifacts that can be stored on these things. It seems to me that pretty much the same fate befell them all. They were bought and a tape was installed, and a series of people recorded fragments of whatever on them, full in the red. Then when the tape ran out, they were put away and never taken out again. While this is sad if you are the type to anthropomorphize tape machines, it produces amazing audio collages. Wholly unpredictable sounds strung together… bits of history, amateur radio announcing, random unidentifiable noise, etc. This particular example starts with a birthday dedication (I imagine for the recipient of the recorder) and proceeds through television commercials, junk drum improvisations (!!!), a faux mission impossible message, and some badly sung Beatles. To me, it’s excitingly unpredictable, and oddly poetic. Almost like an accidental Williams Mix

Having such fantastic luck with that tape, I decided to encode the tape from my defunct reel to reel as well. Not quite as profound, more just plain funny, my tape was filled with a joke telling hessian! I imagine, one of the fellows who sold me the device to begin with (a somewhat magical thought in and of itself). That being said, there are (as usual with these tapes) so interesting accidental audio fragments that are fairly aesthetically pleasing to me. The first minute or so are on regular speed, the rest is slowed down considerably. I can barely make out the jokes, because as per usual, they are recorded full in the red for the most part. I have however, sped the tape up, so you can hear the second part properly. Enjoy!

- Al’s mystery tape

- My mystery tape

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2 Responses to “Mystery audio from second-hand tapes”

  1. al Says:

    “I cut my head off on the last day”……

    wow. those were both amazing in different ways. thanks for posting them.

  2. kingo Says:

    This first one: I love the part where there’s singing going on over top of what is apparently some previously recorded something, like a conversation. So I get the impression here that the thing was used repeatedly with the same tape, and the erase head wasn’t working correctly, or at least it wasn’t toward the end.

    I’ve got a stash of similar stuff that I’ve collected. Usually use it as source material as opposed to sharing outright like this, though some day I’ll probably do that too.

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