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My Love Affair With an Ampex Recorder

I desperately wanted that recorder; it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen

KNBC announcer Jack Wagner records a news feature from the San Francisco waterfront in the mid-1950s. The recorder is the famous Ampex 601 professional suitcase portable, an industry workhorse for several decades.
Credit: Photo via John Schneider. Courtesy Mike Adams from the Jack Russell Wagner photo archive A recent photo in the Workbench column (Feb. 1 issue) showing an Ampex AG600 tape recorder brought back memories. Lots of memories.

I saw my first Ampex 600 in the mid-1950s; it was love at first sight. It was lying on our dining room table. My father had brought it home from radio station WHDF(AM), where he was chief engineer and majority stockholder.

It wasn’t the first tape recorder to sit on our dining room table. Before that there were a Magnecord PT6-A and an Ampex 400. Man! Was that Ampex 400 ever big.

Over the years, our dining room table held more broadcast equipment than food.

At about 10 years of age, I desperately wanted that recorder. It was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. Instead, I had to settle for a 1947 Brush Soundmirror BK-401 tape recorder that my dad convinced the radio station to sell me for $15. That was the best $15 I ever spent, but that’s another story.

In the mid-’60s my college held a special assembly. A man showed travel slides on multiple screens using Kodak Carousel projectors. I don’t remember anything about what was on the screens, but I’ll never forget that sound! Wonderful, glorious full-fidelity stereo sound.

This image from a 1963 Gates catalog shows Ampex recorders. Courtesy of the website

It came from two Ampex 620 speaker/amplifiers, each mounted in their own brown Samsonite luggage cases that matched the Ampex 601-2 stereo tape recorder that provided the sound track. More than ever I knew that I had to have my own Ampex 600 series tape recorder.

In the late ’60s I was in graduate school and now I owned my very own treasured Ampex 601 half-track tape recorder, for which I had traded this that and the other thing. (I don’t remember what. Maybe my mother?) By then I had a rack-mounted Ampex 402 in my closet as well.

One day I was asked to let the college use the recorder for chapel. That weekend the Chicago Symphony performed in the several thousand seat chapel. When they left, so did my Ampex 601.

I pleaded with the powers that be to pay to replace it but was told that their insurance didn’t cover student property. That was the last time that I saw my beloved 601.

Fast-forward to the 1970s. I was director of a 100,000-watt stereo FM facility at a state-owned university. One day I walked into the university’s public relations department and there were two Ampex AG-600-2 tape recorders. Stereo/solid state and two-speed!

This image is from a 1962 Collins catalog.
Courtesy of the website A few years earlier we’d spent a wad of money upgrading our facility with HEW funds and purchased an Ampex 440G and a several Crown 800 tape recorders. But I could easily envision what we could do with two portable Ampex AG-600-2 stereo tape recorders, so I set out to convince Larry, the director of public relations, that his staff didn’t use them that much and when they needed to make audio clips they were welcome to use our facility.

Larry coveted something, too: The radio station! He had long wanted the university to change our reporting structure to make him our boss, thus putting the radio station in his hands. I wanted those tape recorders, but not enough to turn control of the radio station over to him.

In the end, Larry didn’t get the radio station, and I didn’t get the Ampex AG-600-2s.

Later, I learned that although the AG-600 series were similar in looks to the original version, the insides were dramatically different. In order to adapt the machines to two speeds, the company had to redesign the mechanics. Like its consumer models, the AG-600 series didn’t hold up under the wear and tear of professional use. All that glitters isn’t gold; all that bears the Ampex name didn’t share the famed Ampex reliability.

I still miss that Ampex 601. Sigh!

Read Burgan is a freelance writer and former public radio station manager specializing in digital audio restoration ( His email is[email protected].