I was quite flippant about the performance when I posted a photo of a Scotch Dynarange C-90 in 2012, but it’s often very hard with old tapes to evaluate them properly, since so little is known about the recording conditions, and there’s little or no space to record new sequences for test purposes.
Gladly, however, I’ve now unearthed an early ‘70s Scotch Dynarange C-120 with plenty of blank space on Side B, so I set about establishing what these 40+ year-old stalwarts are like when it comes to preserving a known quality of signal. Heads cleaned, I excitedly plonked the tape into my favourite Yamaha deck, direct-injected a Fender Stratocaster via a guitar processor, and hit record.
Especially given the age of this tape, and the fact it’s packing two hours’ worth of media (which is always going to add an extra compromise to the quality), I was expecting something pretty abominable. But actually, the result was not bad at all.
These were normal position ferric tapes, so you’d expect noticeable failures at the top end of the frequency range – and without doubt there’s a blatant loss of zing. Compared with a BASF Chrome (which to the human ear at least, plays back pretty much what you heard in the live performance), the Dynarange 120 sounds less defined, a lot less bright, and also a little rougher with a slight grungey quality.
I was careful setting the record level to ensure there was no distortion from tape overload, so it seems the roughness is just the tape’s personality. But it’s a nice roughness, and the extra grit really suited the guitar I recorded. Because some of the detail turns to ‘grunge’, the tape is more sympathetic to imprecise playing. It’s almost like hearing someone else play when the recording re-runs. You’re thinking – “Wow: did I just do that?”
I listened attentively for wavering pitch, which is a problem that blights many a ‘70s audio tape. There does appear to be a little, but it’s very subtle, and again, it probably adds more to the attractiveness of the recording than it takes away. There’s certainly no perceptible warbling. It’s just the odd micro-variation. Quite a surprise for such an old C-120. I was discussing the way imperfections can add interest in my previous post about the appeal of lo-fi tapes. This cassette almost epitomises everything I said.
There’s not a problem with noise/hiss either. In fact I have late ‘80s and early ‘90s tapes with far worse noise characteristics than this old Scotch. There obviously is some noise, but especially taking into account the wealth of disingenuous, hiss-drenched ‘70s specimens with “Low Noise” emblazoned on their labels, this modest artefact acquits itself well, keeping the things that should be quiet, quiet.
Where the Dynarange does fall on its face is in the area of drop-outs – short glitches in the continuity of the sound. I’ve always hated the way tape cassettes do this, and most from the ‘70s or first half of the ‘80s seem to exhibit the problem more and more as they get older or are subjected to wear. This Dynarange displays a fair few drop-outs, and they ruin the enjoyment of the recording, which in every other respect is very highly listenable. It’s not like the tape is chewed, or stangulated into that sucking and blowing effect – it’s just a very old compact cassette doing what very old compact cassettes do.
But setting aside the glitches, I must admit I was surprised at how good a new recording sounded on such old media. The tone is full with substantial, if not overwhelmingly hi-fi bass response, and the track plays back at a good level without the need to oversaturate at the recording stage. The reproduction is absolutely NOT an exact replica of what I played live. But that’s the point. It’s an early 1970s, lo-fi rendition. How fascinating it is, though, to be able to play a piece of music, live, and instantly preserve it in a way it would have been preserved forty-odd years ago. You don’t need a huge raft of ‘grunging tools’, specialist EQ devices and other studio simulators. One cheap, plastic audio tape with an orange and white label, is all it takes.