Sticky-shed syndrome — it’s not just a cool name for a punk band, it’s a real condition that affects old magnetic audio tape and prevents it from being played back properly on a reel-to reel. Without getting overly technical (because let’s be honest, we probably barely understand it ourselves), this is a condition where the binder that holds the magnetic iron oxide coating to the plastic carrier begins to absorb moisture and break down, causing it to separate. This can cause friction, meaning the tape speed will slow down when played back, as well as causing a build-up of residue on the playback heads and other parts of the machine that the tape passes through. This affects older tapes (mostly from the 70s-80s) when manufacturers produced tapes with this particular type of binder, before realizing the mistake and switching to a more stable formula.
Thankfully, some genius found a pretty simple solution, which Ryan recently had the chance to demonstrate in the short video above. Essentially, you bake the tape in an oven at a very low temperature (we have read the range should be between 120-150 degrees Fahrenheit) for anywhere from an hour to two hours. This drives out the moisture, allowing the tape to be played back without the oxide rubbing off and causing too much friction. As Ryan shows us in the video, he was able to do this using a small toaster oven, as well as a digital thermometer to make sure the temperature stays in a good range. We should note that the temperature of the oven does fluctuate up and down. This should be okay, so long as you don’t get it too hot where you begin to melt any plastic parts.
Some people report being able to play back their baked tape several times, or that a tape will remain playable for a couple weeks before it begins to absorb moisture again. However, we recommend transferring the tape to digital right away as to not take any chances. If all goes as planned, you should be able to get a decent enough playback to re-archive a tape to digital.
So if you have any old magnetic audio tape from this era that you are wondering if you can salvage, check out the video to see how it’s done. And for those of you who have been around the Pacific-Northwest for a long time, you may even recognize the old Fred Meyer jingle from the early 1980s.