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Best portable tape recorder for home computers?

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I'm new to classic computing, and I want to use tapes for my own personal programs. One of the main reasons I want to do this is because not all of my friends have proper disk drives for their computers, and so even if I had compatible diskettes for their computers, I couldn't load my programs on their computers without bringing my own drive, but with tape I could still load it and then save to their disk drive replacements. Other reasons include the fact that I have blank tapes laying around and that part of the reason I'm playing with these old computers in the first place is to get an 'authentic experience' that computer users in the 80s would have had.

 

For those of you who browse the TI-99/4A subforum here, you know I've been having nothing but trouble with my official TI program recorder (so much so that I've now just decided to return it). Before I go spending more money, I'd like to query people who have a lot more experience than me about what recorder would be ideal for this purpose. My ideal features are portability (preferably a handle) and a "remote" control input. I'd like to get something for less than $50, and my top budget is $100 if there's something just stellar. I know really good recorders exist for more money, but there comes a point where it would then just be cheaper to buy disk drives for my friends than to use tapes.

 

Other miscellaneous questions:

 

  • Does it matter if the recorder is stereo?
  • If a recorder doesn't have a tone setting (or one of those binary high/low switches), does that mean it's all-or-nothing as far as working with computers?
  • What are good brands for blank tapes? Currently I only have some Maxell type 1 90-minute tapes.

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I can't really recommend a specific recorder - in most cases pretty much anything will work. But I don't really know what's the most reliable under $100. At this point, I think finding something that can maintain proper speed and is in good working condition (including heads in proper alignment) is probably more important than anything else.

 

But as far as tapes go, you're not going to find much of anything other than Type I's out there except as new old stock. That's really about all that's still made. (A couple of smaller companies make tapes too, but they're all Type I. They may all even be the same tape.) Type I should be ok for computer use, and certainly would be all any cheap recorder/player would be made for, since the cheap players you're probably talking about (the kind with the built-in speaker, like most people used with computers) had no bias adjustment or switch. I'm also sure that basically any classic computer would have been made with Type I tapes in mind, so they should be somewhat tolerant.

 

I think you *could* use a better recorder/player with selectable bias for different tape types and even some kind of noise reduction if you wanted to just archive for yourself. (Then you'd need to buy some NOS tapes, which can be expensive.) But if you plan to share these tapes around, it's best to stick with Type I.

 

If you stick with new Type I's, I wouldn't really worry much about brand. They're all going to be pretty similar and pretty cheap. Even back in the old days, most Type I tapes were flimsy and had similarly bad sound, although I remember thinking the TDK AR series tapes were at least better built than most.

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Anything more than Type I is a waste of time and potentially money. There is no appreciable difference in quality for the purposes of computer recordings, and every model of branded data recorder I found during my research is Type I.

 

I wrote a post about this a while back when working on releasing one of my own games on cassette. I should have made it a blog post to make it easier to find, but in any case I sum up a my findings there. In short, even newly made tapes are made with what appears to be NOS media with the thickness of what you would find in a C-90. These, by the way, if you find the actual tapes themselves NOS, you should not use anything longer than C-90 or you run the risk of the drive eating the tape. If you happen to get your hands on C-90 or shorter, you will find, in general, an increasing thickness in media. The real claim to fame of the old C-10 or C-20 cassettes which were sold as "computer quality" were thicker media, both in the recording and substrate layers, than the generally available C-45 and up.

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It seems we may be getting hung up on types of tapes. I did know from the beginning that type I tapes were all that were necessary. I was more interested in brand and length than type.

 

Remember though, the primary goal here is identifying a recorder, not a tape. So far, the advice seems to be "just get a recorder", which is about where I was to begin with.

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It seems we may be getting hung up on types of tapes. I did know from the beginning that type I tapes were all that were necessary. I was more interested in brand and length than type.

 

Remember though, the primary goal here is identifying a recorder, not a tape. So far, the advice seems to be "just get a recorder", which is about where I was to begin with.

 

Not my intention, just to point out that a standard tape deck will likely work and why. Hell, I have used a dictation micro-cassette player on my TI.

 

Oh, and stereo does not matter unless you want to use the tapes you record with other players. Worst case only the left channel is used, but you might see an attenuation in play-back on a mono device. I used a stereo recorder to make my tapes for my game and the deck I used simply split the input between channels. These tapes work just fine on a standard TI and GE deck.

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Mono is best for reliability, but stereo can work too, it just may be more finicky. Stay away from new production tape recorders. They really don't make them like they used to. Just pop in a music recording and you can immediately tell the huge amount of wow and flutter these new tape recorders have. There are a few good tape recorders made in the early 2000's though. Of course not all vintage computers will work with standard tape recorders. The C64 and Atari 8-bit line use specialized tape drives which encode the signal within the drive its self and send the data through a specialized port.

 

I'm using an Eiki recorder myself, and it works with a Tandy Coco 2, TI-99/4A, and a Timex Sinclaire 1000. I also used it to record wave files from my PC to tape for use in My C64's tape drive. That's a pretty good record for compatibility, so I'd recommend that based on personal experience. You may have to fiddle with volume and tone to get it to read. I find max volume, and around 75% tone work best.

 

You can of course also just save a wav file to your phone or computer and plug into that, but I fully understand the desire for an authentic experience.

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Mono is best for reliability, but stereo can work too, it just may be more finicky. Stay away from new production tape recorders. They really don't make them like they used to. Just pop in a music recording and you can immediately tell the huge amount of wow and flutter these new tape recorders have. There are a few good tape recorders made in the early 2000's though. Of course not all vintage computers will work with standard tape recorders. The C64 and Atari 8-bit line use specialized tape drives which encode the signal within the drive its self and send the data through a specialized port. I'm using an Eiki recorder myself, and it works with a Tandy Coco 2, TI-99/4A, and a Timex Sinclaire 1000. I also used it to record wave files from my PC to tape for use in My C64's tape drive. That's a pretty good record for compatibility, so I'd recommend that based on personal experience. You may have to fiddle with volume and tone to get it to read. I find max volume, and around 75% tone work best. You can of course also just save a wav file to your phone or computer and plug into that, but I fully understand the desire for an authentic experience.

 

Would you mind saying which model Eiki?

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I've had my eyes personally on a Realistic CTR-58, but I've been hearing that the Realistic-brand recorders are questionable, and the original headphones that shipped with that model were stereo, so I assume the unit emits stereo.

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I've had my eyes personally on a Realistic CTR-58, but I've been hearing that the Realistic-brand recorders are questionable, and the original headphones that shipped with that model were stereo, so I assume the unit emits stereo.

 

Looks workable. One thing to consider when purchasing any deck, for the TI in particular, is the output to the tape deck will be microphone level but the input to the computer is expected to be speaker level. This is indicated in jack labeling on the TI Program Recorder (more than just a label.)

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Looks workable. One thing to consider when purchasing any deck, for the TI in particular, is the output to the tape deck will be microphone level but the input to the computer is expected to be speaker level. This is indicated in jack labeling on the TI Program Recorder (more than just a label.)

 

You mean how it says "ear speaker"? Is that something that should be present on all such decks?

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Sure the model number on the back is 3279A. Here's one for sale on ebay.

 

https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-EIKI-Commercial-Cassette-Tape-Player-Recorder-Model-3279A/123301712051?hash=item1cb55ad0b3:g:amcAAOSwVuNbH~jF

 

The headphone outputs are the large type, so you'll need to get some adapters, but it's nice having 4 of them, and 2 inputs, so I can have multiple systems connected at the same time.

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I just get worried about built-in cords. Moving them all the time, I worry the shielding will start to fail.

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You mean how it says "ear speaker"? Is that something that should be present on all such decks?

 

Should be, yes. Almost every deck I have ever seen which does not require an external amplifier has a jack marked EAR or SPEAKER, or similar verbiage. Otherwise, if it has LINE output you will need an external amp, which is what I worked with for my setup.

 

I just get worried about built-in cords. Moving them all the time, I worry the shielding will start to fail.

 

Fair concern, but not too big of a deal if you are inclined to be able to fix such things.

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Should be, yes. Almost every deck I have ever seen which does not require an external amplifier has a jack marked EAR or SPEAKER, or similar verbiage. Otherwise, if it has LINE output you will need an external amp, which is what I worked with for my setup.

 

What about ones which don't use words but just have an image of headphones?

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What about ones which don't use words but just have an image of headphones?

 

I would expect that to work just fine. The earphone versus headphones is usually just a difference between mono (for one EAR) or stereo (fits on the HEAD.) Both types of outputs should be amplified internally.

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The headphone outputs are the large type, so you'll need to get some adapters, but it's nice having 4 of them, and 2 inputs, so I can have multiple systems connected at the same time.

 

So how do you hook up this recorder? White cable to a 1/4" adapter then into headphones, red into mic, black into remote?

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Yes. Although the remote wire isn't always white depending on the system you're hooking up, but the remote plug is always smaller than the others so it will be the only one that fits in that jack anyway. It also has an aux in as well, but you can just use the mic input from your system. The aux input could be handy for hooking up an external source like a PC or phone playing a wav file in order to make tapes of your own without having to unplug the other cables.

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How about one like this? https://www.ebay.com/itm/Sharp-CE-152-Cassette-Recorder-Player-Vintage-Computer-Accessory-Working-Tape-/112603366648

 

Looks like it will do the job but you probably want to have that 'Tone' button all the way up. That's the only negative I can see with this one. You will also need an external 6v power supply as that doesn't appear to be included. It will work off batteries in a pinch though.

 

Back when I had a tape deck on my TI I quickly learnt that 'no frills' was the way to go. Make it mono. Make it have no auto gain or Dolby. No special prongs that detect metal tapes etc. All you needed was a tape counter, a volume knob and the Ear/Mic/Remote sockets and you were away. If you are having issues with your TI one then you could try cleaning demagnetizing the heads, checking that the belts are good, adjusting the head etc. before you throw down money on another.

Edited by Arnuphis

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That's a sharp-looking recorder (pun slightly intended), but for that kind of money, you could almost just get a disk controller instead.

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I use a TRS-80 CCR-81 for basically everything except Commodore and Atari systems, which have their own proprietary tape interfaces. Works like a champ.

 

EDIT: I should add that while I can't use the CCR-81 to actually run software on the Atari 400/800 or VIC-20, I use it to create tapes for them by recording onto it through the headphone jack on my laptop with a TAP2WAV (or somesuch) utility.

Edited by BassGuitari

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Glad it's working out for you. It's cool to see that people are still passionate about loading from tape. Considering all the various proprietary disk drives and cartridges of the day, and all the different flash drives we have today, tape is still probably the first way you'll be able to load something onto a vintage computer when you first get one.

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For sure. And getting into tapes for my computer has gotten me into tapes for audio, too. I recorded my first mix tape today, and I'm having an excellent time listening to it right now. :)

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