Reel-to-reel audio recording machines in ASIO

Before the days of streaming music or audio files, before mini-disks, CDs, or even cassette tapes, recordings were made and listened to on reel-to-reel audio tape recorders.

Reel-to-reel recorders date back to the late 1920s and were still common during the 1950s. When cassette tapes were developed in the mid-1960s, the reel-to-reel players were phased out for the general population, but remained in use by professionals for longer. Reel-to-reel machines were commonplace at ASIO for several decades. They were used in listening posts to capture the clandestine conversations of people who posed a threat to Australia’s security, such as foreign spies.


ASIO listening post

The reel-to-reel player was a key piece of intelligence equipment. An early version could be operated ‘hands free’ via a foot pedal, like a sewing machine. This enabled ASIO officers to rewind and fast-forward through the reels while handwriting translation and transcript notes. In later years officers used basic computers in place of handwritten notes.

ASIO linguists were key users of the reel-to-reel machines. Linguists spent many hours listening to audio recordings and working directly with intelligence officers on often complex and multi-faceted threats. The reel-to-reel machines did not offer any voice recognition capabilities, so these skills lay solely with the operators who became experts in voice recognition. ASIO linguists were skilled at identifying targets, and spent many years following the same, sometimes unknown, targets.


ASIO Officer using a reel-to-reel machine

Following a target for several years, listening to them daily, gave our linguists a unique view into another person’s life.

“You have 24 hours looking at one person’s life, you get to know the person; almost more than the person knows themselves.” - ASIO linguist

Reel-to-reel players have been superseded with state-of-the-art digital technology, enabling ASIO officers to provide faster and more accurate transcripts of recordings for analysis. ASIO Linguists continue to play a very important role in protecting Australia and Australians from threats to their security.