Corey Bailey
Audio Engineering
BAKING ANALOG AND DIGITAL AUDIO TAPE (OR NOT) Disclaimer: Neither I or my company has profited in any way from the people or organizations mentioned in this article. This would include the links at the end of this article. The opinions expressed herein are mine alone and do not reflect upon the people or organizations mentioned in this article. Preface: First of all, I want to be very clear: In this article, I am only talking about polyester base audio tape. This would exclude all acetate base audio tape. Acetate base audio tape will not benefit from the processes described in this article. In fact, you can do harm or permanent damage to acetate base audio tape by heating it in any manor. A considerable amount has already been published on this subject and one can find a wealth of information available on the internet simply by plugging the title of this article into your favorite search engine. There are several research papers that require membership in specific organizations in order to gain access. This, obviously, can become quite expensive. However, there is a wealth of information that is public information. There are links at the end of this article to some in- depth reading on the subject for those who wish to delve into the science. I would like to thank all of those who reviewed this document before it was posted. Some background A surprising number of well respected people, whom have authored articles, are making the assumption that audio tape can be successfully baked without any consequences. I tend to disagree and will only bake audio tape (Analog or Digital) as a last resort because changes take place in the oxide that are measurable and often permanent. To be fair, there are certain brands and types of analog audio tape that will only respond to baking and there are a few that simply won’t respond to any of the processes listed in this article. I will first test a polyester (PET) based tape for playability. If I find any evidence of Sticky Shed Syndrome during the initial testing phase, I will then decide, based on years of experience, if lubrication or baking is best. I have found that my method of lubrication, coupled with the type of lubricant that I use, is about 90% effective. That said, there are those instances where the only solution to making a tape suffering from Sticky Shed Syndrome, playable or ready to lubricate, is baking. Sticky Shed Syndrome (SSS) is actually the result of a chemical process known to scientists as Binder Hydrolysis. The process of baking analog audio tape was first proposed by AMPEX Corp. in the late 1980’s. The process was patented by AMPEX (Patent #5,236,790). The recording industry (Film, Records, etc.) was quick to adopt the process described in the AMPEX patent because everyone involved had experienced the problem of degrading audio tape. To my knowledge, AMPEX has never pursued anyone for patent infringement regarding this process. Binder Hydrolysis About 80% of all polyester base analog tape manufactured from the 1970’s through the turn of the 21 st century will suffer from some form of binder hydrolysis. The problem worsens as time marches on. The type and severity of binder hydrolysis is as varied as the different types of tapes themselves. The most common indication of the problem is an unusual amount of oxide buildup on all of the stationary parts of a tape transport. Tapes suffering from binder hydrolysis will often ‘squeal’ while playing. Another indication is the tendency of the oxide layer to stick to the stationary parts of the tape transport while the tape is at rest but threaded up, ready to play. Some tape transports will be unable to go into play mode if the stiction problem is bad enough. Severe cases will have the layers of tape adhering to each other, causing the oxide from one layer to stick to the backside of an adjacent layer. Successive baking may have detrimental effects. Those of us who have baked an analog tape and then transferred it, have heard a type of audible degradation that we cannot adequately define. There has been very little research on the downside of baking analog and digital audio tape. Most of the early research on tape degradation was done on data tapes, mainly because that is where the funding came from. One result of that early research was to store the tape at very low temperatures and low humidity. Apparently, Hydrolysis reactions (Sticky Shed Syndrome) can actually be reversed if the Relative Humidity is below 24 percent and the temperature is below 65° Fahrenheit. In 1995, at the fourth Joint Technical Symposium (JTS), a research paper was submitted by Kevin Bradley of the National Library of Australia. The research paper was titled: “Anomalies in the Treatment of Hydrolyzed Tapes.” What caught my attention about this paper was that the research was carried out on 1/4” analog audio tapes using test equipment designed to analyze the same which meant that I could replicate some of Kevin Bradley’s work. What Mr. Bradley discovered is that when baking audio tape above 50°C (122° Fahrenheit), there was a measurable increase in the dropout rate and a slight high frequency loss (1/2dB, starting at 10kHz). The high frequency loss increased slightly as the temperature was increased. Both trade-offs can be acceptable when baking is the only way to recover the audio signal. In 2015, Goran Finnberg, of The Mastering Room AB, posted to the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Listserv, that he had measured increases in the AM (Amplitude Modulation) distortion starting with the first baking cycle and increasing with each subsequent baking of the same tape. Is this what we’ve been hearing? Goran, to my knowledge, has yet to publish a peer reviewed paper on his findings so, for now his research will have to be considered anecdotal. However, Goran’s findings tend to bear out what many of us audio engineers have experienced when transferring an audio tape that has been baked. The vast majority of procedures and processes involved with the recovery of the information contained in degrading media is from the personal experiences of those mired deep in the problem and is therefore anecdotal. Although a few of us have pulled back the curtain to take a deeper look at the problem, very little scientific research (if any) has been done as to the possible effects of those anecdotal processes, either short or long term. Some of which, have become industry standard! While I’m sure that the engineers at AMPEX Corp. observed the scientific process when doing their research on baking, there is no mention in the patent of possible chemical alteration or side effects. In fact, mention is made in the patent that the baking process may indeed stabilize the tape being baked! A situation that has since proven to be just the opposite. An alternative to baking is offered by Charles Richardson. He is perhaps the only individual to have conducted actual laboratory research on SSS since the 1980's. According to his journal papers, his work which, was performed by independent forensic chemists, discovered several factors, including; (1.) The carbon black, back coating is the primary cause of hydrolysis in modern tapes, though oxide binders can also suffer hydrolysis due to poor formulations. (This has been suspected by many of us but never conclusively proven.) (2.) How and why back-coating hydrolysis affects the oxide layers. (3.) Defined the damaging chemical effects of exposure to elevated heat levels based on well established chemical behavior. Mr. Richardson subsequently developed a no-heat process to remove the backing material from both the back of the tape and the residue from the oxide layer as well. I personally know of two people who have had their Sticky Shed tapes treated with this process and the problem has apparently disappeared. One person had this process done by Mr. Richardson more than fifteen years ago and his tapes are still stable. Charles Richardson claims that audio tapes he restored in 2006 not only remain stable, but are sonically superior to any other treatment. So, Mr. Richardson may indeed be onto something because the vast majority of audio tapes where I have encountered SSS, have been back coated. Additionally, the only time that I encountered SSS on magnetic film was with Scotch 995 magnetic film which, was a polyester based medium that is back coated. Currently, Mr. Richardson is not offering his process of removing the back coating as a sale or service. However, Mr. Richardson is busy getting the word out to various professional organizations so, we’ll see. The contact information for Mr. Richardson is at the end of this article. That said, I have encountered SSS on non-back-coated tapes as well. Although the situation is rare as non-back-coated audio tape tends to be vary stable. Some European audio tape manufactured from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s is back-coated, but instead of using a carbon based coating, they used a plastic material consisting of very fine plastic particles. I have encountered SSS on some of these tapes as well. One set, couldn’t be saved no matter what we tried. Fortunately, the owner had another source for the audio. Assessing a polyester base reel of tape for Binder Hydrolysis The first thing I do with 7" reels (and smaller) is to insert a pencil into spindle hole and un-spool a few layers by hand. This will tell you if the layers have the tendency to stick together. If you are dealing with a 10-1/2" (NAB Hub) reel, you will, most likely, have to mount the reel on the tape deck. Hopefully, the reel brakes on the tape deck will be disengaged, allowing for easy un-spooling of the tape. I have a couple of TEAC (Brand) NAB hub adapters (TEAC Part # TZ-612) that have a metal flange at the base which, allows them to mount to an NAB hub off of the tape deck. Then, I can use a pencil threaded through the spindle hole to un-spool a few layers of tape, the same as smaller reels. If you are concerned about the tape being on the floor, use a clean empty bucket or wastebasket to catch the tape as you un-spool it. If you do have to mount the reel on your tape deck, you can use the other empty reel to take up the slack. When I check audio tape reels on a tape deck, I will thread the tape directly from one reel to the other, avoiding the rest of the transport entirely. Know that sometimes layer-to-layer adhesion won’t rear it’s ugly head until you are at the last few wraps near the end of the supply reel. This problem most often occurs on reels with smaller center hubs (5” Reels, 7” Reels, etc.) This is why you need to pay attention to how the tape comes off of the supply reel until the very end. If, you suspect that layer-to-layer adhesion is present, STOP and consult a professional. Solving layer-to-layer adhesion can be tricky and remediation is best done by someone who knows how to deal with the problem. Sometimes, baking (done properly) is the answer. If any of the oxide has come off and stuck to the back of the adjacent layer, it's ‘game over’ for that section of audio tape. Once you have convinced yourself that layer-to-layer adhesion is not a problem for the first few wraps, back-wind the tape onto the reel. Mount the reel on your tape deck, and attach about 4 to 6 feet of leader to the head end of the tape. The type of leader (Paper or Plastic) is a matter of individual preference. Leader has several benefits: It allows for thread-up and run-up to speed on a transport before the beginning of the tape to be transferred passes across the play head. Consumer decks tend to have shorter tape paths and some were quite good at recording modulation to the very end of the tape. Leader also keeps the end of the tape protected at the outer edge of the reel and protects the tape from the unevenness of slotted hubs at the center of the reel. Eventually, leader will be applied to both ends of the tape. Once leader is attached to the outer edge of the tape, with the tape threaded up, play into the tape for about 30 seconds. Stop the tape deck and disable the transport (As though you are going to edit the tape). With the tape deck in STOP mode and the tape threaded up, rotate the reels back and forth by hand. There should be no resistance except for the reel brakes. No tendency for the tape to stick to any of the stationary parts of the tape path. Now, pull the tape away from the transport and observe all of the stationary parts of the transport (heads, guides, idler arms, etc.). There should be NO evidence of any oxide build-up on any of the stationary components. With the tape pulled away from the transport, clean everything that comes in contact with the tape. Use the purest alcohol you can find. Medical grade alcohol is best (if you can get it). Isopropyl alcohol can be found that is 99% pure. Rubbing alcohol that you get at the drug store usually contains a certain percentage of water and any kind of water is generally not good for the tape or the tape deck. Inspect the Q-Tips or cloth that you used for any oxide residue. Presuming that you have a very clean tape path, play the tape for another 30 seconds again. While the tape plays, observe how it comes off the supply reel. There should be no tendency for the tape to stick to an adjacent layer. Listen to the tape while it is playing past the heads (put your ear up close to the head stack). There should be no squealing or any suspicious sounds of any kind. Stop after 30 seconds or so, rotate the reels back and forth by hand (again) to check for any signs of sticktion. Pull the tape away from the transport and inspect all of the stationary surfaces (heads, guides, idler arms, etc.) for any sign of oxide deposit. Clean the entire tape path again and yes, inspect the Q-Tips or cloth that you used for any oxide. Some discoloration of the Q-Tip is normal. Particularly after cleaning the pinch roller(s). By now, you have played about a minute or more of the tape and should not have observed anything out of the ordinary. It is at this point that I will back- wind the tape to the beginning and lubricate the entire length of the tape. When I have finished with the lubricating process, I will attach a leader to the end of the tape and I am ready to begin the transfer after a rigorous cleaning and inspection of the entire tape path. I will often transfer side B first to avoid the unnecessary rewinding of the tape. If you are not using a lubricant, you can simply spool the tape from one reel to the other (carefully) and attach a tail leader. The tape deck that I use for this process (An Otari MTR-15) has been modified so that the tape itself only comes in contact with rotating bearing surfaces in any mode other than play. Even the tape lifters have been sleeved so that the sleeves act as rotating bearings. Note that the picture below is without lifter sleeves. When the lifter sleeves are installed, I will only use the Fast-Forward/Rewind functions to position the tape prior to transfer. Fast-Forward and Rewind functions are usually accomplished using the ‘shuttle’ mode with the tape threaded around a reversing idler, away from any stationary parts of the transport. Some tape decks, such as the Studer 80 series, are designed with only rotating bearing surfaces that come in contact with the tape for all operating modes. There are some things that you can do that will help Cover the Erase and Record heads on your tape deck with Teflon tape (Fig. 1). This is relatively easy and there is a link to Teflon tape at the end of this article. ONLY use wooden or plastic tools for attaching and removing the tape. Metal tools run the risk of damaging the heads. Fig. 1 Showing Teflon tape covering the Erase and Record heads. Some Teflon taping tips: I use ½” tape and trim the width to fit the head stack. It’s OK to attach the ends of the tape to the outside of the head shield (Notice the Record Head in the picture). This actually makes the tape easier to remove for shielded heads. Make sure that the tape adheres flat to the area of the head where the audio tape will come in contact. You should have no wrinkles and squeegee out any air bubbles. I use my little finger for this process. If the tape application is done correctly, there will be about a 10% reduction in scrape flutter. An added bonus! You can sleeve the lifters so that the sleeves act as bearings. (In the picture above, the lifter sleeves have been removed.) Making lifter sleeves is not so easy to do. It usually requires the services of a machine shop, and has operational consequences, so you may want to skip this procedure. If you do add sleeves to the lifters, know that full speed rewind or fast-forwarding is OUT. With sleeves over the lifters, only slow movement of the tape with the lifters engaged is recommended. Mainly use the Fast-Forward and Rewind buttons for positioning the tape prior to playback. Be careful not to allow the tape to move too fast with sleeved lifters! Otherwise, use alternate modes for shuttling the tape. If the lifters are not sleeved, know that every time the tape lifters are engaged, you are scraping the valuable oxide with a stationary object. If the Fast-Forward or Rewind functions are used, you are scraping the oxide at very high speeds! An alternative to having sleeves manufactured is to wrap the lifters with the same Teflon tape that you would use to cover the unused heads. This operation is a bit tedious (a PITA, actually). The results are much better than bare lifters. That said, I still would advise against using the deck for normal fast-forward or rewind operations. However, if you use those operations only for positioning before listening or transfer, the Teflon taped lifters will help considerably. And now, for the baking process So, consider the baking of analog and digital audio tape as a last resort because the end result may be somewhat compromised. If you are at all unsure about what to do, consult an experienced professional. If you do have to resort to baking, the advice from the experts (myself included) is to properly bake a tape and then transfer it to the digital domain as soon as possible. Mainly because the stabilization effect offered by baking is only temporary, lasting a week or two at best. I will only bake the amount of tapes that I can transfer in one day. AMPEX Corp. recommended baking at a temperature of 54°C. (129-130°F.) I prefer to use a lower temperature of 48°C. (118°F.). Anywhere between 43.5°C and 49°C (115° F. to 120° F.) should be fine. The first thing I do, is to make sure that the temperature is stable at the beginning of the baking process. The lower temperature usually requires a longer baking time so I will usually let 4 or 5 reels of 1/4” tape go about 12 hours before checking them. For fewer reels, I will check the tape after about 4 to 8 hours. For a single reel, 4 hours is the check point. I use a dehydrator and a digital thermometer that will reach the tape itself for checking actual temperature. National Public Radio (NPR) has over 155,000 analog tapes and a special laboratory oven, where they bake 1/4” reel-to-reel tapes at a temperature of approximately 51°C or 125°F for about 8 hours. Most facilities with large collections will use commercial ovens with very accurate thermometers. The industry standard for the feature film companies is to bake their 1/4” reels at between 120-130°F. for 8 to 12 hours (Longer if necessary). For wider tapes, the baking time is simply adjusted to allow for the width and number of tapes being baked. While I have personally witnessed the use of temperatures higher than 54°C. or 130°F., I certainly don’t recommend it. At higher temperatures, you are running the risk of permanent damage. Think: “Lower temperatures and longer baking times.” The lower temperature and longer baking time certainly won’t harm your tapes as much as the alternative. The cooling process Once your tapes have completed the baking process, they have to be cooled to room temperature. Plan ahead for the removal and acclimation process. Use clean cotton gardening gloves (at least) for handling the hot reels. Have a safe space ready to receive those hot reels that is in, or the same temperature and humidity, as your transfer facility. Since I used a dehydrator for baking and generally acclimated the tapes overnight, I often transported the dehydrator into the studio and let the tapes cool and acclimate inside the dehydrator. Room Temperature may be an ambiguous reference but the bottom line is that the tapes, once baked, need to be at the same temperature and humidity as your transfer facility, whatever that environment is. The time it takes to acclimate to your work environment will vary. Some facilities are climate controlled, some are not. For those that are not, seasonal variations will play a large role. One factor is the amount of tapes that have been baked. My studio was in Southern California (The arid Southwest). Acclimation time for the amount of tapes that I can transfer in one day is usually 3 to 4 hours. However, I usually planed things so that the tapes had overnight to acclimate to the studio room. Many companies with large holdings will Bake first and ask questions later. Mainly because it’s simply the most cost effective way to migrate their large inventories of analog product to the digital domain. That said, these same companies employ knowledgeable people who know how to properly assess the product. Like NPR, these companies have extensive transfer facilities and still are playing catch up. Adding to the problem of degrading analog tape is that digital audio tape is showing signs of SSS. This is something that those of us working in the trenches never expected because the manufacturing process for analog audio and digital audio tape is completely different. The digital audio formats that have exhibited problems (so far) are: DA88, DAT and reel-to-reel digital. DA88’s and DAT’s are particular problems because both are cassette based and being rotary head formats, can ruin your expensive playback deck while you figure out the problem. The good news is that these tapes apparently don’t have all of the audio degradation problems that seem to plague analog media. However, one has to rely on the error correction circuitry for information (which, usually has a read-out). When preparing to transfer any cassette based tape, fast-forward and rewind the tape first. Not only does fast-forwarding and rewinding exercise a tape that has been stored for a long time, but by learning just how a tape in good shape sounds during this process, you will perhaps save an expensive repair bill. There are some video tape formats that are degrading as well. Those being: Hi-8, Digital 8, some brands of VHS, 3/4” analog and some 1/2” professional digital formats. In general, if you are to consider baking digital audio or video tape, use my recommended temperatures for analog audio tape as a starting point (48°C., 118°F.) or slightly lower temperatures and longer baking times if you want to be extra safe. The reason for the extra caution is because both the base film and the oxide layer are much thinner than analog tape. Adding to the problem is that many of the digital audio (and video) formats are in cassettes so the results are really variable. I have noted about a 50% success rate when baking cassette based formats. Reel-to-reel digital is much better. So, in the end, there is no good news here. As I point out on the home page of this website: “Not only is magnetic media degrading, but the equipment and expertise needed to retrieve those aging recordings is becoming increasingly more difficult to find.” Some Links Charles Richardson: From Josephson Engineering (Microphones): The Library of Congress:

Magnetic Media Preservation, Library of Congress:

Here a list of likely suspects for SSS. The website is provided by Richard Hess and the entire site is very informative: audio/degrading-tapes/ Storing and handling of magnetic media CLIR: Teflon tape source: Return to TOP of page © Corey Bailey Audio Engineering
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