Tape digitization / restoration

When a warehouse at the Universal backlot in California went up in flames in 2008, labels, master owners and even museums around the world sat up. The reason was that the backlot held huge archives for Universal/UMG, notably tapes and recordings of artists as diverse as Elton John, Nirvana and Soundgarden (the original list spoke of 17,000 affected artists, although seems to have been over-estimated). How coudl such a huge collection disappear in few hours?

Tape digitization / restoration has two huge benefits.

On the one side, there are vast amounts of recordings out there that in some cases are musical or historical treasure troves. Labels that go back beyond 30 years or so might have material that is just begging to be either re-mastered for streaming or fully remixed and re-released for commercial release. Is the time right for a 90s revival? If so, the recordings are most likely on tape in a storage room.

Tapes in storage prior to restoration
Masters, mixes and source tapes: some of our own archives

On the other hand, archivists and historians regularly warn us that huge parts of our heritage are literally crumbling in vaults and risk being lost for all time if nothing is done.

Tape restoration can take time

3 Hats Music spent several months researching the digitization of tapes, and experimenting with different processes and formats to be able to recover old tapes in a way that is effective and does not destroy the source. Tapes that have been in storage for en years or more will always suffer from what is called as “sticky shed” syndrome. When they are unwound, the magnetic surface can detach itself from the tape and cover the machine head in gunk, effectively destroying the recordings forever.

In our experience, nearly all recordings can be recovered when treated with appropriate care. This involves the prior “baking” of the tapes and extreme care with the subsequent spooling/unspooling. To give an idea of the TLC involved, the baking of a 24-track can involve between 24 and 48 for the best results.

What can you realistically recover and restore?

We have worked with quite a range of formats by now, from professional 24-track recordings from the 80s to cassette tapes and Betamax. It might seem obvious, but what you need is a clean source and a well-maintained player.

Audio tape restoration

Our 24-track 3M/79

  • 2” 24-track tape reels
  • ½” 16-track tape reels
  • ½” 2-track tape reels
  • ¼” 8-track
  • ¼” 2-track
  • PCM 201es / Betamax digital tapes
  • Music cassettes
  • Mini-disc (MD)
  • Vinyl

Video tape restoration

  • DV tapes
  • Umatic
  • Betacam
  • VHS
  • SVHS
  • Betamax
  • HI8
  • Mini DVD
  • Tape baking / Sound restoration

Output as digital files in the resolution and sample rate of your choice and/or on digital media such as hard disk, SSD, USB stick, CD or DVD. We can also record back onto your original tape format – such as 24-track – if you want to to preserve the analogue chain.

What does tape restoration cost?

From our perspective, the cost per tape depends on two things:

  • the physical condition of the tape
  • the quantity of tape being restored
  • the cost of the output media (external hard disk, tape, etc)

If more than one tape is being restored, they can be baked at the same time to reduce the energy costs. As an indication, baking a single 24-track on its own can cost upwards of €70.

Our offices are based in Brussels. Contact us now about the best way to start working on your tapes.


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