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How to Use Reel to Reel Tapes

Reel to reel tapes are more flexible than cassette tapes, but they can be more problematic.
magnetic tape image by Marek Kosmal from Fotolia.com

Reel to reel tapes are different from cassette tapes, because the former need to be manually put on a tape machine. Then they are set up to play or record by winding a full reel onto an empty reel. Reel to reel tape recorders were used in the 1960s and 1970s for not only recording, but for various effects, by playing tapes backwards and splicing parts of different tapes together. Famous artists who experimented with reel to reel tapes in this way included the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.

Select an empty reel and a full reel to reel tape. Check to see that the full reel has no signs of damage.

Thread a few inches of the full reel past the tape head area of the reel to reel tape recorder. There will be a slit in the empty reel where you can thread the full tape into, and then you can begin winding it once it is secure. There should be a white or colored part of the full tape of a few inches, which can't be used to record on. Use that part as a marker regarding where you want to start to play the tape from. You can choose to let the tape run for a few seconds before any sound emerges, or set the tape up so it plays the instant you press the play button. The latter can be done by winding the tape up to the normally brown or black part of the tape.

Press the play button to test to see if the tape is working correctly. If it sounds distorted or the audio level fluctuates greatly, then look at the tape to see if it is twisted. If it is, press the stop button, and gently remove both reels. Straighten the twisted tape out, and then repeat step 2. It is sometimes difficult to judge if a tape is not in good condition before it is played, but one way faults can be detected is hold the tape horizontally to your eyeline and if a section of the tape is slightly higher than the rest it may be because it is twisted.

To record on a reel to reel tape recorder, attach a microphone and press the record button. Play the recording back to see if your recording was successful.


Reel to reel tapes are excellent for getting good effects, but always experiment on virgin tape first.

One advantage of recording on a reel to reel tape recorder over a cassette recorder is that you can see more clearly when you are nearing the end of the tape.

Cleaning a reel to reel tape recorder can be done with cotton buds and alcohol or methylated spirits. The process is similar to cleaning a cassette tape recorder.


  • Always keep an eye on the quality of any reel to reel tape you are using. If you rewind or fast forward a tape that is slightly creased, it could come off the machine.
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