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Stiction problems with half inch reel to reel tapes

Old tape often becomes sticky, shedding oxide at an alarming rate and this stiction soon causes loss of quality, screeching and even slowing down if not attended to. It is related to moisture in the atmosphere, which infiltrates the laminate of the tape and effects the lubricant - thus the tape has a tendency to "stick" causing creasing or even tearing when passing over the read/write heads.

A client found that stiction had effected the majority of their tapes recorded in the 1980s. We find that mass-produced tapes of this era are far less reliable than the older tapes from the 1970s, where the quality is more pronounced because less were produced.

They were looking to recover seismic surveys that had been stored in a TAR format. TAR is commonly used to collect many files into one larger file for archiving, while preserving file system information such as user and group permissions, dates and directory structures.

The recovery was exasperated by the fact that firstly the tape had de-laminated - a common problem with media from the 1980s, where the manufacturing quality deteriorated. Secondly the data was split into 80 byte block headers and trailers, which were not part of the data. These were tape label identifiers, needed when the tape is read.

The surface of the tape was sticking to the heads and guides of the tape transport. This is caused when tape binders absorb moisture, often due to poor storage. Ironically, the way we solved this problem was firstly to de-spool the tape, soak in fresh water and cure in a specialist oven for 72 hours at 130 degrees.

In order to overcome the problem, we first had to drive out the moisture by curing the tapes in a purpose built oven for 72 hours. Thereafter, the tapes have to be re-lubricated and re-laminated, before attempting a read on a proprietary tape drive that we have specifically built to avoid stiction on the heads. Although the complete project took almost one month to complete, not one single byte of data was lost!