There are several things you can do to help enhance and restore an old tape, but first you must determine what you're dealing with.
There are basically two types of reel to reel tapes.
Acetate- An older solution that is translucent when held up to light. Used mostly in the early 60s and before. The binders on these tapes were actually more hearty than the binders used on modern tapes. Unfortunately, the acetate backing tends to break down faster than the Polyester/Mylar solutions of today. These tapes should be stored in a low temperature, low humidity archive. If any of your tapes smell a little like vinegar, their time is limited and they should be transcribed as soon as possible. Also, do not store any of these tapes with tapes that are not yet breaking down as the acetic acid could contaminate those tapes which are still good. The popular baking method, will not help these tape at all and could further damage them. Do Not Bake
Polyester/Mylar- These tapes were popular from the 60s on up and have a fairly good shelf life from a backing perspective. The Polyester/Mylar last much longer than Acetate and break down at a much slower rate. They are more likely to stretch than break. Unfortunately, the binder glue which is used to bind the oxide to the plastic is not as hearty and now, tapes mastered in the 70s and 80s are starting to suffer a disease known as Sticky Shed Syndrome. Luckily, this syndrome can be fixed temporarily using the baking method. To read more, just click here.
Of course there are also cassette and 8 track tapes...each with distinct problems that we'll address on other pages.