It "Ate" My Tape!


Jul 25, 2001


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The Bottom Line Stop tapes from being "eaten" by cleaning. Dealing with eaten tapes. Improve quality by demagnetizing heads.

How many times has your tape player "eaten" a tape? Here's an important fact that the manufacturers tend not to tell you. Tape players need to be cleaned! This is true for all tape players, from audio cassettes to VCR's to digital backup systems. The parts that contact the tape collect oxide from the tape surface over time. This leads to reduced sound quality and even damaged tapes.

If you look inside your player, you'll notice a little, black, rubber pinch roller. This functions to keep the tape moving at a constant speed across the heads. Without it, the tape would move too fast at an unregulated speed. This rubber tends to collect a lot of gunk, and, after a lot of use, the tape will start to stick to it. This is why tape players eat tapes.

VCR's and digital devices have rotating heads and complicated tape-handling mechanisms, and are not really made for getting into to clean. To clean one of these manually, you will have to open the case. Therefore, it is best to try a cleaning tape first. If your VCR still eats tapes after running the cleaning tape through it a couple of times, you may want to open it up to clean the pinch roller manually, or bring it to a repair shop and have them do it.

A cleaning tape is a fabric-like tape that you put a few drops of special cleaning solution into. You run the tape through the device, and it cleans all of the surfaces that contact the tape. Unfortunately, these usually don't really do a good job at cleaning the pinch rollers.

For analog devices, such as audio cassette players, you will get the best results by skipping the cleaning tapes and cleaning them manually.

How to Clean. You will need some rubbing alcohol (a solution of around 75% is good), and some cotton swabs. You can get special cleaner and swabs from stores such as Radio Shack for this, but usually plain rubbing alcohol and a couple of Q-Tips will do the trick.

Wet a swab with alcohol, and rub it over all parts that contact the tape. This includes the head surfaces, any guides, and the little spindle that the rubber pinch roller rests against. Now press the play button to get the pinch roller to engage and spin (make sure the player has power). Carefully hold the swab against the rubber surface to clean off all of the grime as the roller spins. Sometimes some cotton will get caught and tangled around the spindle. Don't worry - just pull it off and try again. This is the dirtiest and most important part to clean. You may need to use a few swabs on it until no more dirt comes off. Once this is done, you can turn off the player and let it dry for a few minutes. Rubbing alcohol will dry rather quickly.

Note on VCRs and digital tape devices: If you decide to open one of these up to clean it manually, only use specialized cleaner on the rotating heads. These heads are much more sensitive to debris than analog audio devices, and the quality of the signal will be badly degraded by the small amount of impurities in rubbing alcohol. Also, make sure to remove the power before opening it up, to avoid electric shock from exposed components.

When to clean. This depends on how often you use the device. Waiting until you notice reduced sound quality, or slight stutters that may indicate that the tape is starting to stick, is just asking for a tape to get eaten. You should clean it before this starts to happen. Under average use, cleaning every few months should be good. If you use the device constantly, then every month should cover it.

Dealing with eaten tapes. It's going to happen. A tape is going to be eaten someday. It's inevitable. When it happens, very carefully extract the tape from the player. Try not to stretch it or break it. You may even need to open up the case in particularly bad situations. Never stick anything but your fingers into the player to help get the tape out, as you may do damage to the player.

Once you have the tape out, carefully wind it back into the cassette, making sure that the tape doesn't twist. I know, it's quite mangled, but don't worry about this, just get the tape to go back in as normally as possible. For VHS video cassettes, there is a little hole about the size of a pencil between the two spindles on the bottom. Gently press the eraser end of a pencil into this hole, then you will be able to freely wind the tape (with your second and third hand - you may need help.)

The problem with eaten tapes is that they always suffer some wrinkling after you get them rewound. This causes sound loss on audio tapes and snow in video tapes. These wrinkles will smooth out a little every time the tape is played. There's not much else you can do. At least the tape survived. If you find that there is a completely "blank" section in the tape, check to make sure that it didn't get twisted, so the player is not attempting to play the backside of a section of tape.

Another effect that degrades the signal quality is magnetized heads. These devices are using magnetic tape, and the heads tend to acquire a magnetic field over time. This suppresses the signal coming from the tape. Audio cassettes can sound quiet and muddy. When this happens, you need to demagnetize the heads. You can purchase special demagnetizers just for this purpose. These come in tape or wand form. The tapes usually contain batteries for their demagnetizing circuit, while the wands plug in to the wall socket. Make sure to follow the instructions to the letter, as you don't want to make the problem worse. After the heads are properly demagnetized, you will be astounded by the difference in quality once you pop a tape in.

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