Prices are quite varied for second hand decks, anywhere from a few hundred to thousands. There’s a high risk of buying a crap worn out deck if you go second hand, and other risks like not having access to important technical manuals. And if any second hand deck has had ANY old Ampex tape on the heads you can kiss goodbye your chance of safely using other tapes like RMGI and ATR. The shedding problem wears a groove in the heads so that other tapes would be distorted due to not smoothly passing over the machinery. However, if you get a barely used old later generation Tascam like mine you’re still cheering: I got mine for a steal second hand for $200AUD, and the Ampex 456 gives top line results.
Brand new decks are hard to come by. Otari are still making a mid-level deck: the MX-5050bIII - I got a quote for one of these and surprisingly the figure was just under $10000AUD! I’m sure you could get one cheaper. But, for absolute top end deck quality, the king of the decks is no doubt the ATR-102 (especially the later versions). I’ll just say right now you can’t afford one. Forget it. If you want THAT MUCH quality to your music go to a pro mastering house and get it done there.
Top end tape for all sorts of head sizes is still being produced and sold today. The two companies are RMGI and ATR. You can do a lot of reading on what the differences are between these two, but I’d recommend ATR as the RMGI’s have been known to recently cause shedding. Reels are re-usable and quite affordable given their supreme quality: I saw some quotes on RMGI for 1/4" tape at $30us. If you’re not using the tape for archiving, then that’s really cost effective. Don’t buy used tape. Just don’t.
Two other things I didn’t mention before:
Cleaning the heads. Don’t use metho - use IsoPro (or Isopropyl Alcohol) as it’s very pure. Wipe the heads with this stuff using a cotton swab (those little sticks with the cotton on the end of them) and be thorough. Every contact point of the mechanics must be super clean for smooth tape rolling.
De-magnetising the heads is a must. You need a little purpose built tape-head demagnetiser (I got one online) that is used to ‘clear the heads’ of built up field distortion once every 6 hours of usage. You have to be careful with one of those things: approach the heads gently from a distance of 1m or more and move evenly and slowly across the heads at a constant pace, removing the device in the same slow fashion.
Then there is the whole calibration issue, which I won’t go into here unless someone asks and needs to know specifically. All of this isn’t easy, but it’s fun and the results are worth it.
Been a long time since I’ve done any calibration of reel2reel (or any analogue, audio) tape machines, although I do still service/calibrate DigiBeta VTRs for work. Did you purchase an official calibration tape or trust you had a good enough tape to work from? Did you keep your heads with the grooves caused by the tape running across them? After calibration this wont sit on the same part of the tape path, pushing your tape out of alignment, and would definitely be worth considering replacing them if you can feel the lip with your nail.
Enjoy the machine and good luck with the mastering business.
I doubt I’ll find replacement heads for my Tascam. The deck hasn’t seen much use and has always been calibrated for Ampex tape, hence why I’m stuck with it. I’ll see how long I can go with this approach, and when the time comes upgrade to something a little more snazzy.
I’ve an engineer friend who has a calibration tone tape which we used and found that everything was set right anyway. The rest of the calibration I did was with the 456 tape using the Tascam BR-20T manual, plus an oscillator and a meter.