How to Buy a Used Multi-track Tape Recorder...

Of course if you NEED a machine right now, you're going to pay a lot more
than if you can wait until a better deal happens....

Individual machines you might be looking at!

I can't answer a lot of emails - and I already get a ton of emails every day!!!

And if you've bought a machine recently, let me know what you paid
(that is if you got a really good deal on it!!!)

Also note that any machine that's been checked out and aligned by a good honest tech
is worth a LOT more than an "As-Is" unchecked machine.
  I've run into too many machines sold "As-Is' that have required hundreds and hundreds
of dollars worth of repairs which turned a "good" deal into a "bad" deal.  

So always look for a "Checked Out" (by a good tech  !!!) machine
even if it's a higher price, or hire a good tech to look over any machine
you're thinking of getting.   A tech can't 'guarantee' a machine,
but at least he can spot major problems and give you an educated assessment
of the machine's true condition... well worth paying for!!!


     here are the 13 WORST MISTAKES in buying a tape recorder    



As everyone knows Analogue Multi-Track Recorders are dropping in Price.

Many of the machines listed on the "Current Sales" page link were bought
1 or 2 years ago when the market was better than it is now (2018).
You should be able to purchase a good recorder cheaper or as cheap
than the list shows...
It's a buyer's market,   bargain hard!

3 brands of machines - used that is - are cheap AND still performing solidly:
the Ampex machines (the MM1200 is to be greatly preferred) and dear to my heart since
Ampexes were the first machines I worked with... and they sound GREAT  !
and the MCI later JH 16 series (not the early version) and all the JH 24 series (JH-24 preffered)...
and the Otari MTR 90 mkII and mk III and the MX-80.
The Ampex MM1200 does NOT have a single IC in the Audio path !!!
On my personal list I'd have these machines at the top: they're damn cheap these days.
The Ampex 1200 and the MCI JH-24 are easy to repair, parts are still available
and they're not 'microprocessor' controlled.
The Otari's get more complicated, but are good solid machines...
but parts now have to be ordered from Japan...
and will become hard to find in the future

Studer A-800's (best sounding Studer), Studer A-820 and the Studer 827
are all good machines - but they all are micro-processor controlled so they
are really old computers now, and Studer parts are expensive.
But the A-820 and the A-827 are great machines.
But for the money the Ampex (MM1200 series best, next the MM1100 series)
and the MCIs (JH 24 best, JH 16 later version next)
and the Otari MX-80 and MTR 90 mkII or mk III are the best bang-for-the-buck.

Here are my order, top (first) to bottom.
Please remember this is my personal opinion based on the 'bang-for-the-buck'
and not speed or ease of operation, spiffy bells and whistles and so on.
Studers are generally expensive compared to other machines.
Also note that Studers are NOT supported by Studer anymore !!!

my 'Bang for the Buck' list
REVISED on September 10, 2017
to reflect current prices and maintenance costs and other issues

Otari MX-80
Otari MTR 90 mk II
Ampex MM 1200
Studer A-827 (parts still available, but costly)
Studer A-820 (parts still available but costly)
MCI JH 16 - later version only
Studer A-800 (parts hard to get)
Ampex MM 1100 - later version only (a bit cranky, old, but great sounding)
Otari MX-70 for a good 1 inch 16 track or 1 inch 8 track


I changed the order of the 'bang for the buck list since the Otari MX-80 machines
are out of favor right now, and thus are the Best Buy out there...
They sound good, maintenance is pretty low, and they're recent enough
not to have too many worn out parts.     Plus the transport
is a good design and the machine is easy to work with....


Of course the the best sounding tape recorder ever built is...

 the BEST SOUNDING tape recorder ever built is:  

my own 'Personal lowest cost of maintenance' list
(lowest at top)

Otari MX 80
Studer A 827
Otari MTR 90 Mk II and mk III
Studer A 820
Ampex MM 1200
Studer A 800
MCI JH 16 (later version)
Ampex MM 1100

my own Personal List of Machines I would buy
if I were crazy enough to build a studio!
remember that I fix machines for a living
so I don't have to worry about maintenance costs...
Revised on 08/08/17

Ampex MM 1200 (with remote cable & 16 and 24 track headstacks)

MCI JH 24 (with AL III, 16 and 24 track headstacks)

Studer A 827 (24 track)

Otari MTR 90 MK III (24 track)

Otari MX 80 (24 track)

Studer A 800 (24 track)

MCI JH 16   24 track (with AL III, 16 and 24 track headstacks)
(late version only! MUST have the JH-114 transport!!)

Ampex MM 1100 24 track (with 16 track headstack, remote cable, later version only!)

First off you need to decide between 16 tracks or 24 track.   Myself, I would go 24 track since you could always get a 16 track headstack and then record either 24 or 16 track as the need arises.   Plus the sound defference between the 24 track and 16 track machines is very very minor.   Most of the records you love from the 1970's thru the late 1990's were recorded on 24 track machines, often without using Dolby 'A' noise reduction!   Note that it is near impossible to upgrade a machine from a 16 track to a 24 track machine unless for some reason it's already to go.   You can't find the card-bays, the Control Boxes and so on, so it's just not worth the time and effort to add in those extra 8 channels at a later date.   You can always buy a 24 track and use it with 16 track heads!

Tips for Buying a machine....

The FIRST thing you want is to establish is if the machine has been in frequent and current use.   Any machine in current use has to be in somewhat good shape or they couldn't use it for recording.   Too often I get repair calls for machines that have sat unused for 2 or more years - one recent machine had not even been turned on for over 5 years!   A machine that sits is prone to causing all sorts of problems, from corroded relay contacts, corroded switches and even locked motors.   In all cases the motor bearings are not meant to just sit in one position for long lengths of time, they're designed to rotate and spread the pressure points.   Plus there is lubrication in bearings that needs to move around inside each bearing through use.

SECONDLY take a good look at the heads.   If you don't know what a very worn head looks like, INSIST that the seller sends the heads off for a 'Head Inspection Report".   Even I - and I've been working on pro tape machines for over 25 years now - can't tell by sight exactly how much metal is left on heads.... unless I can see that they're extremely worn down.   Remember that audio tape acts like sandpaper: it will sand off metal from the pole pieces of the heads porportional to the amount of tape that has run across the head.   Make sure you look at the 'Bad Heads" page below   !!!

But often a worn head has enough metal left that it can be relapped once or twice more.   The only true way to find out is to send the heads off and get a Head Report.

Split the cost with the seller if he hasn't gotten a head report

It's better to turn down a machine with very worn heads than to think you can find good used heads for it.
Places to send heads to be evualuated:

John Austin (from the old Sprague Magnetics facility in Sylmar, California...and tell him goreski sent you!)  
email him at: email Link - John Austin from Sprague Magnetics
John French (East Coast)

In the link below are pictures of Heads in various state of wear and some heads with open tracks:

    Some pics of Really BAD head wear...

What BAD heads look like...

the WORST thing would be to buy a machine that needs new heads.

Next take a look at the transport buttons on the Remote and on the machine itself.   Usually you can tell how much use the machine has had by the amount of wear on the buttons.   But be wary - they also could have replaced the button caps!   Look at the metal face plate, it too will let you know if there have been a lot of hands on the machine or not.   Get a 'feel' for the cosmetics of the machine, worn spots indicate use.

Next pull a few audio cards (power off the machine first!!!) out of the machine at random.   Take a look at the components and compare a couple of the same cards. Look to see if there have been a lot of repairs - you'll see diffrent components and possibly some really bad repair work.   Not that good-quality repair itself is bad, but often as the owner begins to think about selling their multi-track they start cutting corners and try to do the repairs on their own or getting the kid next door to work on the machine.   Turn the card over and look at the solder side where the traces are. See if you spot a lot of newer looking solder points and flux residue.   Be aware that a lot of techs clean off all the leftover flux after they make a repair, and this could make the repairs undectable.   Myself I like to leave some flux on the board to alert me or someone else that a repair has been made and what components have been replaced.   Don't be put off by a repaired card here and there.... but if you see nothing but repaired cards something's wrong.

Below are some pictures of cards in various state of repair - from some really weird repairs by amateurs to good quality work.

< pictures not yet edited... come back soon! >

Sometimes cards have been 'modded' that is modified to be better than the original or to blanket-replace aged components.   This is not a bad thing if done correctly.   And sometimes you will see various small components soldered to the front or back of a Transport Control Card and perhaps small wires running here and there.   So long as it looks to be good work and the machine is running in top condition, I wouldn't worry about this. But I'd be worried if you saw this on the Audio Cards!

Next of course you want to clean the machine, de-mag it and run it through all the transport modes - use a tape that can be acidentently damaged just in case anything screws up.   Tape should run smoothly and the machine should have no visible problems.   Of course you must use new-ish tape... some of the old tape is shedding, and you can't use tape that has gone bad...   it will gunk up the guides and heads.

Finally you need to do a FULL AUDIO ALIGNMENT on the machine.   This is the ONLY way you can get a feel for the machine: how the audio cards are operating, how the heads handle the alignment and how good the system is.   By doing a full alignment you can listen for distortion, check for noisy cards, check the depth of erasure and most importantly check the bias and the frequency response of the machine.

Feel the pinch roller.... it should feel firm with a bit of give.   It should NOT feel sticky....   if it does you'll have to replace it just as soon as possible - yes I do sell pinch rollers.   Often machines that have sat around or have had their pinch rollers cleaned with bad cleaners will have deteriorated pinch rollers which are literally melting.   They get more and more 'sticky'. Soon they will grab the tape and screw things up big-time.

If you're looking at a machine that has a sticky pinch roller - and you don't have much time, have someone run out to a pharmacy and buy a can of talcum power - baby power - and so long as the owner says it's ok, you can put some of that onto the pinch roller and try to dry it up so that at least you can run tape on the machine for a while.   DON"T GET ANY INTO THE CAPSTAN BEARINGS!   This is a last-gasp fix that likely will allow you to see if the machine will run in the play mode for a few minutes.   And of course - if the pinch roller is sticky don't play a good or important tape on the machine! You just might ruin it... and you'll likely have some of the pinch-roller gunk and powder on the tape. But this trick might give you 5 or 10 minutes in which you can check the machine out. --- New Pinch Rollers are EXPENSIVE !!! ---

OK and here are a couple of other tips:

1)   Never trust what the seller is saying - find out for yourself

2)   Get a current head report if you can. Offer to split the cost with the seller if he hasn't already gotten a head report and you like the machine. If the Seller doesn't want to get a Head Report done just walk away from the machine... you don't want it.   Too many folks are sellling worn out machines with bad or worn-out heads.   Think 'No head-report, no Sale!

3)   Brokers are in the business of selling equipment as fast as possible.   Most offen they never even see the equipment. You should avoid brokers at all costs!!!   there are a lot of machines for sale right now, and you want to deal directly with the seller. AVOID BROKERS!!!     Yes there are some good ones, but most 'Brokers'are folks with whom I would not do business.   I've seen machines that have been sold that do not work correctly.   I've seen machines sold by Brokers without the correct cards in them.   I've seen machines sold at twice the going price by Brokers.   Remember that Brokers only make money if a machine is sold, so they're in the business of selling you that machine - not getting you necessarily the best machine out there at the best possible price.   But again, there are some good honest brokers out there - but they're rare.   I've just seen too many rotten deals go down arraigned by Brokers. As an example: A guy bought a console from a Broker only to find out the Broker spent the money and never got the equipment... and then the buyer's lawyer told him it wasn't worth the time and cost to go after the guy since he was across the Country and likely didn't have any money anyway. So a really nice studio owner lost $ 15,000. Remember - a Broker will add in 10 - 150% for himself... and all he's done is make a few phone calls. You can make those same calls and save thousands of dollars. So AVOID BROKERS!!

4)   NEVER BUY A MACHINE THAT YOU HAVE NOT SEEN (or has not been checked out by a reliable tech or someone you really trust and who KNOWS the gear)

5)   Make sure you factor in things like shipping the machine and the cost of you getting to where the machine is.   One client of mine bought a machine in New York City - but when he told me about how much the machine was going to be bought for he neglected to tell me that he was flying out to NYC, checking the machine out then shipping it all the way back to the San Francisco Bay Area... !!

6)   Do not trust anyone but yourself and those you know to be honest. (You can trust me though!) Don't buy a machine because the guy on the phone seems honest or nice. Most likely he is, but you won't know until the deal goes down.   So be wary.   Most people are honest.   But good con men also appear to be 'honest' and nice!!!

7)   If you don't know EXACTLY what you're buying you should NOT buy it!

8)   Do not buy something because it has a 'reputation' on the Internet or folks say it's "great sounding" unless you personally know that this same unit was (or is) in constant use in studios (or was in the case of multi-tracks).   What this means is that you want to purchase good equipment and fully 'pro' gear that was in use in the majority of top recording studios during the time it was new gear.   So you wouldn't want to buy a Scully deck or a Stevens.... they were not the 'normal' recorders used everywhere.   Sure they saw some use and made some hits. But it is the normal - which means reliable and top-notch - gear you want to get.  Stay with well known name-brands... Ampex, MCI, Studer, Otari.

9)   Don't buy gear that isn't working.   If it doesn't run right, pass on it. Don't buy gear in pieces or taken apart.

10)   Most guarantees are worth the paper they're written out on. You almost always are buying tape recorders, consoles and outboard gear "As-Is".

11)   IF YOU DON'T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE GETTING DO NOT BUY IT!   Man I can tell you stories about folks who thought they were buying one thing, only to find out they actually bought something else.   One guy bought a whole console automation system thinking it could just slip into his console only to find out it couldn't, and never worked anyway... and that he could NOT return it.   Yeah, right.   He lost everything. Didn't know what he was buying until it arrived at his door - after the check had cleared the bank. because he trusted the Broker to put together the deal for him.


13)   Do NOT buy something because folks on the Internet say it 'sounds great' or is a 'classic'.   The Internet forums and chatrooms are full of bullshit and mistruth, most often given by people who have no experience or expertise.   You cannot trust just about anything you hear from audio forums and recording chatrooms.   People can say anything and they do.... they tell you how good their work is, how great an engineer they are, how perfect their ears are, and yet they've never recorded a 'major label' record, nor worked in a top-level studio.   The Internet is full of frauds and pretenders. So when you get 'advice' or hear that something sounds great, just remember that there are a lot of 60 year old men pretending to be 14 years old girls on the Internet.

14)   Never buy equipment that is not running.... never buy gear you have not seen yourself... never trust anyone except folks you know...

15)   Never go out and 'buy the best' equipment available.   There is a ton of great sounding gear out there for pennies on the dollar.   You don't need 'the best'.   You need good professional serviceable gear.   Remember that all the great sounding records of the 60's. 70's and 80's were likely recorded with early 16 and 24 track recorders, mastered onto a 1/4 inch 2 track, and recorded with less gear than you have right now.   Better equipment does NOT equal better sound.   It's better that you have a lot of pro Outboard gear, a good large selection of mics, good monitors and good tape recorders, than to spend money on things like 1 inch 2 tracks, or a rare and expensive mic.   Get those only after you hve reached your limitations with 'good' equipment.... and that's going to take years and years before it happens, so cut your teeth with more 'good' gear rather than just a few pieces of 'great' gear.



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