Most of the mailing lists & forums seem to be quiet at present - maybe it's too cold?
As to tape machines, yes, 1/2 track is quieter than 1/4 track, and in general, higher speeds give better performance. The machine needs to be adjusted for correct playback response, and the record side needs aligning to the type of tape that you're using. The microphones & pre-amps/mixer also have a large influence.
The studio looks interesting - must try and have a proper look at the web site during the week.