Maxell Audio Tape 35-180

Sticky Shed Syndrome & Wendy Carlos

This article will explain the Sticky Shed Syndrome that affects tape mainly from the 70′ and 80′. You will also find a list of affected tape stock and models and some side notes.

Switched-On Bach Album - Wendy Carlos

Do you know Wendy Carlos ? She was born in 1939 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (yup, like Pawtucket Patriot Ale).

She is a pioneer in electroacoustic music.

Starting from the late 60s, she recorded several classical works of Jean-Sébastien Bach and other baroque composers, using the famous modular Moog synthesizer. Wendy Carlos actualy contributed to the developpement of the Moog synthesizer with her collaboration with Robert Moog met in 1968.

Her album, Switched-On Bach (1968), was the first album to introduce sounds from a sythesizer to the public, without been experimental music, which the public was used to hear. This album is a milestone in electronic music production, and if you have the chance, you should take a listen to it.

Wendy Carlos is not only an accomplish musician (with her own musical scale), but also a prolific composer (composing the music for movies like A Clockwork Orange and Tron), and like all musicians from the 70s and 80s, her music was on master tapes from that era, which brings me to the moment she wanted to transfer her master tapes from her recording works to digital, and I guess you know where I’m going with that, finally.

Going back to those old tapes, putting them back on a Reel-to-Reel player after all those years, can have serious consequences if you’re not careful. Some of the very popular tapes from the 70s, the 80s and even pushing into the 90s can have a condition known as the Sticky Shed Syndrome.

Let me start by saying that only tape made of polyester are affected, and usually those with a black back coating are the worst. If you have tape from the 60s and before, they are probably acetate and do not exhibit (Xzibit x to the z) SSS (Sticky Shed Syndrome). The way to discern them is to hold them in front of your eyes with a light behind the side of the tape. If you can see the light and it’s translucent, then it’s acetate, and remember: do not bake acetate.

If they are opaque, they are probably polyester, and you can also check on the box if you have it.

So back to putting them on the 1/4-inch player to listen or transfer them. If they exhibit SSS, what’s going to happen is that while the tape is passing on the guides and heads of the machine, the glue that is holding the ferrous particles used to hold the magnetic information (the recording) to the plastic tape is going to stay behind with those particles on the guides and heads (anything stationary), and that’s really bad and unrecoverable.

Depending on how much your tape is affected by the Sticky Shed Syndrome, there will be a small brown deposit on the machine’s path and the high frequency content of the recording will be gone forever. If your tape is affected a lot by SSS, there will be a large build up on the stationary parts, and you will lose much more than just the high frequencies.

On a side notes, I bought a recorder from someone who thought their recorder wasn’t functioning correctly because the sound was bad and muffled. Turn out that they played their SSS affected tape on the machine, so it was the tape that was problematic, and also the heads were covered with tape residue, so even a good tape was not going to play well. It was just a case of cleaning the head carefully with a cotton swab and isopropyl alcohol.

As for the tape, luckily there is a simple solution that even Wendy Carlos used. You need to bake them. Someone found out that removing the water absorbed by the culprit binder (the glue) will fix the problem for a couple of weeks, enough time to transfer the tape to digital or to a new tape stock. You need to have a low stable temperature of 125 °F for about 4-6 hours for a small 1/4-inch reels and up to 12 hours for larger 2-inch reels for example. Don’t put them in your oven. Use a fruit dehydrator like you can find on Amazon, it’s perfect.

If your tape is in the list below, « bake » them. If they are not in the list, you can « bake » them if you really don’t want to take the chance, it will not harm the tape. Or you can do a test on your Reel-to-Reel player/recorder on a small portion of the tape. Play it for a couple of seconds, stop the tape, don’t rewind, just remove the tape from the path to see if it’s leaving residue. If it’s not, then play your tape and maybe do another check after a couple of minutes just to be sure. Same thing when you’re dealing with a tape affected by SSS, do a test after the baking process and if it’s still leaving residue, bake it for a couple more hours. When done, rewind the tape by bypassing the stationary parts of the path, if possible.

And don’t forget to clean and degauss your path/heads.

As a final note, we usually talk about audio tape and SSS, but some videotapes are affected also. 1/2-inch open video reel for Sony’s EIAJ-1 video format from the 70s are affected and need to be « baked ». It can also work on U-Matic 3/4 video cassette squealing inside the player, but not those leaving a dry white residue, see note below.


Classic Sticky Shed affected stock

406/407, 456/457, 478, 499, 2020/373, 3600, 196 (1-inch video), 197 (3/4-inch video)

211, 226/227, 250, 806/807/808/809, « Classic » and « Master » 908, 966/986, 967 and 996 (50% of the time)

SLH, ULH, FeCr, PR-150

Sony KCA Series (KCA-20, KCA-30, KCA-60) U-Matic 3/4 inch Video Cassette : Leaving a dry white residue, that is not mold. It’s the deterioration of the lube. It seems to be fixable by playing the cassette a few times until it stabilize, while cleaning transport and heads between play. It’s not fixed with baking.

PEM 469, PEM 369

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Lighter edge-shedding
(generally responds to wiping)

201 (Acetate)

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