Cassette Portastudio —> Reel to Reel (Mastering)

I’m interested in getting a reel to reel for slight mastering to finish some projects.

I record everything into a 4 track cassette and although I love the sound of it I’m curious if I’ll notice a huge difference in quality of sound.

I know there costly and a hassle to maintain as is a lot older equipment. My plan is to invest into a 500 dollar or so reel to reel with intention of spending about 500-800 on future repairs.

I mainly want to get a little more saturation and “thickness” lol. But honestly the novelty of having a reel to reel is also a big plus and i understand I romanticize about tape gear and all that but that’s besides the point.

Mainly curious if I should expect a big noticeable difference in sound.

If youre going from casette to master tape I doubt itll be a very big difference considering the casette already compresses the audio. You gonna end up dishing out alot for a reel to reel and spending a shit ton on tape too. I’d recommend getting a good tape emulation plugin, its easier and you can get good sounding saturation without the cost

1 Like

Someone gave me an Akai M8 a few months ago, if the heads and pinch roller are still OK that has some potential. It’s not a studio quality reel to reel, but it has a lot of character and the preamps are EXCELLENT, with mic and line inputs, preamp out, built in speakers and external speaker outputs. Guitar sounds amazing through them. Also it can do sound on sound if you want to do some experimental stuff directly on tape. Only two heads though, so no using it for a delay, and no using it as an insert effect in your DAW.

I looked at the eBay prices when I got mine, maybe two months ago, and it looked like they were still going in the $300 range for a working but not fully serviced one. Belts are easy to find and it’s generally not hard to work on. Al mine needed was a bit of silicon grease on a couple of mechanical parts (some of the transport controls are actually connected to long mechanichal levers that actuate switches in totally different parts of the machine, and they needed to be relubricated). The tubes and caps are still working fine even though it was made somewhere between 1963 and 1965, and the thing is built like a tank.

I’ve also got an Otari MX5050MKIV that some previous owner chopped down and rehoused in a smaller case, and it works and sounds great. Less character than the Akai but a really solid machine. I think they’re really expensive now that tape is back in fashion, though (I got mine in 2008 for $20 and put about $180 into parts and tools to service it over the years, so I don’t have an kind of realistic idea of what it’s actually worth).

I would say that yes, id will make a noticeable difference in the sound but also for your budget you might consider getting one of the 80s Tascam cassette decks, maybe a 122 MKII. I got a MKI from the same person who gave me the Akai reel to reel and it also sounds really good, for somethings I prefer it to the Otari, and since it’s 3 head you can use it as an insert effect in Reaper, for passing individual effects through it in real time without losing sync (after nudging it back to account for the gap between the record and play heads). Electronic drums sound really good through it. Replacing the old belt was horrible, though - I had to dismantle about half of the transport to actually get access to it, clean the melted old belt out, and install the new one - took a couple of hours and was definitely not for the faint of heart. It was worth it, though. Also, since you have a portastudio, you could do a classic old-style workflow where you record on the 4 track, mix down to the stereo deck, and then put the mixdown cassette into the 4 track and get two more tracks for overdubs. It’s a fun way to work and has a distinctive lo-fi vibe. A 3 head vintage Tascam deck paired with a portastudio might actually make more sense than a portastudio paired with a reel to reel, but something like the M8 that has really flexible, nice sounding pres in it could be a great investment, since you’d be getting a pair of vintage tube mic pres, a pair of vintage tube amps, a pair of vintage tube DIs, and a reel to reel.

EDIT: since someone mentioned tape emulation plugins, IMO none of the emulation plugins I’ve used really sound like tape but by far the closest is Airwindows ToTape, and it’s also free-ish (Chris definitely deserves a couple bucks on Patreon if you can afford it). I’ve done side by side comparisons between my Otari and ToTape and they don’t sound the same but ToTape can sound as good as real tape, I use it as often as I use the actual 1/4" machine - maybe even more often. They both have their place.

A correctly maintained open reel deck was the gold standard in audio before digital, and so will do nothing audible to music mastered on cassette tape… unless you deliberately abuse it.

So are you talking about using reel to reel instead of your current cassette setup? If so then the sound quality difference will be big, cassette is very lofi compared to even 1/4" tape. You should be able to get something very cool with that budget!

Thanks for all the info and feedback!

I love the workflow of the portastudio with the built in eq’s and effect sends.

I also honestly like the lofi character of it, the dBx compression, and after reading through this I might just invest in a nicer tape deck for use as a “master deck” and a 500 series rack with some more processing modules (compression/eq).

Maybe I’ll get a reel to reel in the future when I can afford a nice mixer to run my stuff into before the reel to reel.

Yeah, I had a Tascam reel to reel (I still do, the guy who borrowed it ruined it), and it is just so heavy and annoying to use. We were using it to record DAW output for that sweet tape sound. It did have some nice compression when gently pushed, but any improvements in sound were washed away with how much of a hassle the damn thing was.

Turns out having a 70 pound recording device just isn’t a good idea.

I used 4track casettes (tascam portastudio) and 1/4 inch reel to reel (Akai2300) a lot in the 90s.
If you record from your mixer to the reel to reel, then, sure depending on the machine you will notice a huge difference in sound quality. However, if you record the 4track casette to the reel to reel, it wont sound that different.

While they are cool, and I definitely love the appeal, owning and maintaining an open reel tape recorder is not worth my time and money. Especially given my remote location. If you live near a technician and have easy access to parts and tape, yeah maybe worth it.

I know that Legowelt uses 2 tracks on his portastudio to dirty up his tracks in stereo because he loves the EQs, so maybe look into that

There are plugins that emulate tape compression/saturation, even free ones like Reelbus which comes with many presets too, I don’t how good accurate they are, but maybe look into those before buying an big and expensive machine

That depends very much on the specific machine, there are a lot of reel to reels that were never going to be the “gold standard” even straight from the factory (and the MX5050, which is the best I’ve ever personally owned, is one of those - it was a solid, workhorse professional machine for broadcast but it’s hardly a mastering deck), and if you’re using it as a creative effect rather than trying to get the most pristine master, those lower end machines can actually be a better (and more affordable) choice. I mentioned the Akai M8 specifically because I have experience with it and know that it’s still relatively affordable, but there are other options around. Some of the Pioneer-Technics quarter track machines are really nice and might fit in the OP’s budget as loing as they didn’t need too much service.

I don’t agree that mixing a 4 track cassette production to reel to reel will ahve “no audible effect” because I’ve been doing it off and on since the late 90s, and I know from experience that it definitely DOES have an audible effect*, especially at slower speeds that wouldn’t typically be used in a professional setting (I keep the Otari set up to run at 7.5ips and 3.25 ips rather than 7.5 and 15, because it colors the sound a lot more that way and I prefer especially hat it does to the low end over the more bright, hi-fi sound you get at higher speeds - plus the lower the speed the less important it is to keep it perfectly biased, and I’m lazy). But I do think it might not be the best choice for a cassette based workflow, which is why I mentioned the Tascam 122 series (used the wrong number in my previous post by accident, I’ll fix that as soon as I post this). I’ve been using an original 122 but by al accounts the 122 MkII is the one to get. They aren’t cheap but they’re still a lot cheaper than a 1/4" machine of comparable quality, and they fit really well with a portastudio, for the reasons I mentioned before (plus type II cassettes are vastly more cost effective than 1/4" reels). I’ll use 1/4" on a digital mix to give it some glue, and I’ll occasionally skip the computer altogether and record a direct to stereo mix on it, but when I pull out the old portastudio I’d personally rather use it with another cassette deck.

But it’s all really a matter of taste, and the emotional response to a particular piece of gear IS part of the creative process. Just the act of threading a tape and seeing the reels spinning WILL affect your work (HOW it will affect it is more subjective, of course) and even leaving the sound aside, for some people that can be enough to make it worth getting one.

Plus if you find a 3 head machine, stereo tape echo on a reel to reel sounds incredible.

*When I was a kid I was lucky enough to get one of those Pioneer-Technics decks for free and I would use it for final assembly - 1/4" was too expensive to use for everything, so I would mix down to cassette and then when I had an “album” worth of material I would dub the stereo mixdowns from cassette to 1/4" and edit the 14" tape by hand to get the final sequence. Then I’d dub that back to cassette and finally make copies of THAT cassette to give to riends an maybe ccasionally try to sell at a show, not that I played out much back then. A lot of generations across a few formats, and all of them had a very audible effect including the 1/4".

Or again, just download Airwindows ToTape because it sounds amazing (but don’t turn up the wow/flutter at all unless you’re using it to really mangle your sounds, or keeping it at the lowest possible setting - even a completely broken machine doesn’t ahve the kind of wow and flutter levels that Chris lets you add; I keep it on 0 almost all the time).

EDIT: responding to the post about the difficulty of maintaining a machine, that’s true if you’re looking to do pristine masters, but for these purposes it’s not so tough. Get it alighned once and then immediately make a “hosue tones” tape and stick it in a safe place, so in an emergency you can align it again without having to buy an expensive MRL calibration tape. In college I had a couple profs who came from the tape based studio days and all of them would do most of their alignments in the cheapest way possible. First, cover the head with grease pencil, run some leader through it, and then look at the shape of the bare patch where the pencil was worn away on the record head. If it wasn’t perfectly rectangular and centered over the head gap then adjust the head position acccordingly and try again - once you got the record head aligned to your liking you could align the repro heads with test tones. As long as the record and repro heads are well aligned with EACH OTHER, tapes recorded on that machine should play back well on that machine - since it’s unlikely anyone in this thread including me will ever need to exchange tapes with other tape based studios, it’s not so important that the machine is aligned to an accepted industry standard as long as it’s aligned to itself, because you’re jsut using it as an effect and then dumping to digital, not making a tape that’s going to be archived or anything. Spend 5 minutes cleaning it before you use it, maybe degauss a couple times a year, and you should be good for our purposes.

tl;dr - “unless you abuse it” is the key here, because abusing it is kind of the whole point of having any tape based machine in a home studio in 2019, and you can abuse reel to reel tape in really nice ways.


I’ve had the same idea a few months ago and after an extended research I decided that if I ever wanted to do that it’d be better to go to a studio where there’s a professional reel-to-reel and someone who takes care of it and simply record/mix/master my tracks there. That’s their job and you would get a much better result. It’s cool to have a reel-to-reel but it’s dirt expensive, they need a lot of maintenance and lot of costs just to keep them running. If it dies on you, then there’s nothing you can do for most models. I like to keep things realistic in my workflow so i won’t have to bother with this shit while I have creative ideas that asking for my time. That was the result of my research on this issue, my 2 cents. Good luck!


That’s probably true but in my experience they’re really reliable and take almost no maintenence UNLESS YOU ARE IN A PRO STUDIO ENVIRONMENT. I’ve had my MX5050 since 2009 and the only service it’s ever needed is I replaced the pinch roller 5 years ago because the old one was starting to squeak a little and it got on my nerves (even though it still worked fine).

But yeah, they cost a lot more than they did in the 2000s so it’s a more complicated decision now.