It’s the time of year for saving money!
I was recently plugging around in a closet when I spotted it lurking in the semi darkness. I found myself staring at and wondering why, for about forty years, I held onto my JVC cassette deck. My trusty deck and I had some fun back in the day. Tapes, now so long ago, were not terribly expensive. If one was really adventurous, those (probably illegally made) gas station tapes could be had for about a dollar. And then, it seems now, poof, cassettes were gone.
Anyone who does not think we had format wars in the 60’s and 70’s should revisit history. LP’s lead the way. They were the 800 lb. gorilla. The ringleader. Radio occupied a lot of listening time although I personally never considered it the ideal way to play a song.
8 Track tapes were somewhat popular, although never revered for sonic excellence. I don’t know of anyone who did not detest an 8 track changing tracks in the middle of a song. Probably second to the LP was the cassette tape. In fact, cassettes probably put the death nell on 8 tracks and forced reel-to-reel into near oblivion as a consumer product.
Introduced in 1963 by Belgium manufacturing giant Phillips, cassettes were initially intended for dictation machines. As tape fidelity improved, recorded music quickly followed. Cassettes offered something LP’s have never been able to easily accomplish – allow users to make their own recordings.
Raise your hands, how many audiophiles had a cassette deck and recorded their own music? I sure did. I made tapes for my car. A one-time next-door neighbor was an aerobics instructor and I made tapes for her workout sessions. I also recorded songs from the radio. It always drove me nuts when the DJ talked right up to the time when the singer actually started singing. SHUTUP! I used to pointlessly yell at the radio. Combine these features with a well recorded, studio authorized tape and cassettes were a force to be reckoned with.
But alas, they couldn’t survive.
In 1982, something called the “compact disc” came along and quite nearly, quite quickly, killed cassettes in whole. Didn’t do LP’s any favors either. Oh sure, handheld recorders using mini cassettes were still popular. Yet there was a gradual decline of tape use and by about 1990 they had all but disappeared. Soon thereafter, consumer oriented production essentially ceased.
While not specifically a declarative statement, reel-to-reel, the “other” tape format, is widely considered the zenith of recorded music for home-based audio. In the 1960’s, R2R was typically found on the finest and most expensive systems. Today, we euphemistically call them a “1%” system – only one percent actually qualify. R2R also basically evaporated from the audio landscape, a fact made simple as it was never a widely used format to begin with.
Cassette tapes were not without their drawbacks. Like any recorded medium, it was a challenge trying to fit songs on only so many minutes of tape. Then there was the issue of a song ending halfway through at the end of side one and continuing on side two. And if you were ever so unfortunate to have your tape get caught between the play head and capstan, well, game over for that cassette. I’ve had to rip more than one cassette out of a player because the tape somehow managed to get caught. And although probably not a serious issue, plastic cassette housings were breakable. I’ve had them crack just by accidentally dropping one on the floor.
Ease and portability. Two words that absolutely mean something very important in recorded music. Cassettes allowed portable, handheld playback devices to become hugely popular. They also allowed users to create their own music, or offered customization, something an LP could not do. Liken that to what streaming is currently doing to CD’s. It would seem the cycle continues.
Sonic quality? What about it? When cassettes were highly popular, manufacturers like TDK, Sony and JVC reminded consumers their music was recorded on tape (this was before digital) and the sound quality was as good as an LP. Remember the Memorex commercial? Were they correct? I’m quite dubious about that but we’re talking about marketing here. Manufacturers claims were then as now always in favor of their own product, never against.
When the digital age began, cassettes started to evaporate and as earlier stated, “poof,” they were gone. CD’s, just like cassettes before, made playing music simple. My JVC cassette player was unceremoniously relegated to the closet, its place of residence for the last forty years. Has the time come to perhaps dig it back out, find some RCA cables and see if it will work with a modern audio system? Because maybe you didn’t notice, but cassettes have again begun to show up in the marketplace.
I first began to notice them on Amazon. Where they list the available formats – streaming, CD, or LP, every so often I will see a fourth choice – cassette. Hmm, I would think, that’s interesting. While the cassette revolution, from an audiophile perspective anyway, is not on par with the LP revolution, juggernaut that it is, there does seem to be a revival of sorts.
Cassettes have several things going for them. One, immense popularity back in the day. That popularity seems to be carrying over into today because of a modern idiom; “the coolness factor.” There are several names but let’s use one we all have heard before – “hipsters.” It would seem tapes have a certain “coolness factor.” From an audiophile perspective this is of little value. We are interested in sonic quality. But to consumers overall, maybe so.
Another fact of paramount importance is cost. Cassettes are mostly less expensive to make and sell than CD’s – generally speaking anyway. New LP’s cost about $25.00, a new CD about $15.00 and a cassette? They can be had for about $10.00 making them highly marketable.
Lastly is a possible explanation that mystifies me – nostalgia. Okay, I’ll go along with the notion there are those who enjoy returning to times past. But let’s be honest here, “back then,” cassettes were never a sonic tour de force in recorded music. My guess is they won’t be today either. But then again, I’m not especially impressed by streaming.
Are we reverting back in time, playing that all too real game of completing the cycle? What was once is now? Or is the cassette a current day, legitimate, growth-oriented format option? Time will tell. Maybe I better start pricing a modern cassette deck – just in case my forty-year-old friend isn’t up to the task.
Two words…flutter and wow…next up FM radio… 🙂
Come on Steven, W&F made listening interesting, right?
I mean, after a while you kinda got used to it!!
You mean like the turntables running off speed 🙂
I used to have a Dual with plus and minus adjustments…nice to be able to listen to a 30 minute record in 25…
Thanks for these interesting thoughts. Btw it’s Philips (one L) which is a Dutch company (rather than Belgian).
Yeah, must have been a slow day…
Thanks for the corrections
One word: Why?
I lived through the cassette tape period and used them to record from FM (in grad school, WNYC and WBAI talk radio almost exclusively) and I can still remember the frustration when a tape would come unspooled and twisted around the drive mechanism…not often but once in a while, and any time was too often.
Now, I can record digitally with software from the Internet radio, if I would want to. And it can be equal sound quality to the broadcast. The few music programs I tried to tape with my cassette decks were only good for reminding me to buy the LPs and later CDs when I could afford them.
As for cost, I sometimes have to pay $15 for a CD if it’s something new, but that’s because I usually listen to “classical” music and except for imports or SACDs, even classical discs are frequently discounted to $10-$12. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of replacing the cassette deck every 12 to 18 months…I don’t think I had one that lasted longer than that…at $100 to $200 a pop in 1980s dollars.
So again…Why? To be a “hipster”? Is a man-bun required before being allowed to order a prerecorded tape?
Seem to be gaining traction though. I can tell you this, I’ll probably never, ever record a cassette again!
There are also very young music producers, that are redescovering that analog sound has its plus sides.It’s an interesting thing to observe.Guys that are 20 years or less start doing things on cassette home studios from the 80 s and they like the sound.So there is a bit more than nostalgia.Also vinyl came back many years ago and a lot of artitsts will do also a vinyl releas, not only digital.Same reason.Analogue sound.More than this, a lot of new analog synths coming to the market not to mention prices for classics like ”Reverb Estimated Used Price Range £9,886 GBP — £14,978 GBP for a Jupiter 8 ( or more) that are now more than …”.Here is an 18 years old guy who chose to produce on tape.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZt0A8De8oY.
Just wait till the complaints start turning up on the internet regarding the “mechanical problems”. The world is streaming and that will continue to grow.
“by about 1990 they had all but disappeared”: Cassettes weren’t extinct by 1990, in fact they outsold CDs that very year.. They were still very much in play for most of that decade.
Absolutely true. Cassettes were still a very reliable choice, well into the early 2000s, which is when they really started disappearing as an option.
“Modern cassette deck.” Good luck with finding one of those. I believe that the only cassette players being made at the moment are cheap and nasty plastic “boomboxes” which all use the same very basic mechanism.
Sorry, but if you bought quality equipment in the 80s or 90s, the likelihood is that it will still sound good today, and will still beat the hell out of any MP3s out there.
No need to be sorry at all, my friend. I totally agree with you. But even quality equipment from the 80s and 90s will suffer from small mechanical problems brought on with age, things like the rubber drive belts deteriorating. Some people are good are replacing components like that. Not me, I’d get in a right pickle.
Cassettes making a comeback along with rickets, the velocipede and the monarchy. Yeah, okay.
My old Nakamichi (circa 1985) is still working fine. A couple years ago I started digging into my big box of cassettes after decade(s) of neglect, and some of them actually sound pretty darn good. You get what you pay for I guess given some of the comments here (yeah I guess a $100 or $200 deck would die every 12-18 months and would work about as well, go figure).
With the wife at home always (sometimes working, sometimes not), thanks to covid, I’ve had to terminate that little resurrection, but some day I will get back to it, some day.
I never much cared for the sound unless They were played on some amazing gear. Dolby B was better, Dolby C was better yet. As cassettes were winding down I got ahold of a player with Dolby DBX and was blown away how good it sounded compared to previous noise reduction, but the downturn was not going to stop. I won’t go back.
Too many people never knew that you had to clean the rollers periodically to keep tapes from sticking. Splicing could repair damaged tape, and after decades of neglect, they’ll need the belts replaced. I mostly used Maxell XLII tapes and after forty+ years they still sound very good. I got a new broadcast studio Teac deck maybe fifteen years ago and that is still running great.
Death “nell”? LOL!
Just started high rez streaming, and not turning back. All my tapes are at the dump for decades.
I do miss my Pioneer CT-F1250 and CT-F919.
You won’t find but one or two “modern” cassette decks. Really expensive. And no one makes Type ll cassettes. An no one makes a car player. I record cassettes everyday and play them in my 2005 Prius. But that will end with a newer car. Too bad. It’s the most economical way for me to preserve internet talk shows. I keep buying cassette decks off E-Bay. You can’t get parts for them so eventually all the used ones will be trash. I welcome new decks and I hope they are double decks with a feature you can’t get anymore: Relay Record.
TBH I have long held the belief that cassettes were warmer sounding than LP and CD and streaming. By the same token, some 8-tracks by The Guess Who I have still can play on a system from 1978 with perfect clarity. It is because I enjoy hearing the music from the period on machines from that period that I have cassette decks and amps and speakers to match. I also keep a stash of sealed blank cassettes on hand. Coolness factor is not the driving force; rather it’s about that extra bit of human quality that modern tech has chosen to set aside.This common person’s joy of music is meant to be back.
Warmer?…more midbass?…warmer means “I like it better but I have no idea why.” 🙂
Audio cassette decks are still sold at my neighborhood second hand stores in San Jose California. I have revisited this format of my youth for the past four years and it has been a wonderful experience. I have purchased some very nice looking decks from the Sony, Kenwood, Pioneer, Sanyo, Sherwood and Sankyo brands.
The prices range between $20.49 and $39.49. I prefer not using Dolby NR but if I do use it I go with Dolby S because it plays nice with older Dolby B decks and ultra-portables. I also collect stereo microcassette ultra-portables which perform best with type 4 Metal bias microcassettes but that is a whole other “can of worms.”