Once upon a time, the world consisted of three different types of people. Those who used cheap Ferro tapes, the slightly cooler who listened to their music on the better Chrome tapes, and finally the real connoisseurs with their Metal tapes.
The last group sat at the very top of the tape hierarchy. When played with Dolby noise reduction, the Metal tapes could reproduce the heavenly sound of angles singing – and you would just about believe that they were actually right there in front of you.
It all started when Philips began manufacturing a compact cassette with a plastic tape running between two reels. The plastic tape was coated with magnetic metal particles which could memorize information which it was “coded” with. Initially it was intended for the market of Dictaphone machines, but in no time the same technology made its way onto the bigger – and more professional – reels and not least the American 8-track. In only a few years, the quality of sound was hugely improved to easily match that of period radio transmissions. With its compact dimensions the cassette tape quickly became the second most popular media for storing music on, only beaten by the vinyl LP records.
The cassette tape could be purchased with pre-recorded music as an alternative to the LP record, albeit with inferior sound quality. However, the cassette tape was also a little cheaper, and it would even fit into the narrow slot in your car’s stereo radio so you could enjoy all the latest summer hits while on the road. It wasn’t long before every petrol station had cassette tapes on their shelves too. But the biggest advantage compared to the LP record, and probably the very best aspect of the cassette tape, was of course that you could record on it – over and over again. This opened up for a brand new world, where many of our current day habits and expectations probably stem from. Just think of “On demand” recordings of your favourite radio program, playlists from friends and so on. You put together your own what you want when you want. Through the little microphone you could even record speech, bird song, you name it… The possibilities seemed never ending, and the cassette tape enjoyed huge success from the early seventies and right up to the nineties where the new digital media was introduced in the format of CD’s.
Even then, the cassette tape was tenacious and difficult to shake. Perhaps because you could actually shake it – literally. As a transportable media, the CD was hopeless until decent anti-shake technology was developed, leaving it useless in a car or a Walkman. The last car to be delivered with a cassette tape player was the Lexus SC 430, which remained in production right up until 2010. Equally, Sony’s Walkman also kept the cassette tape going much longer than had been anticipated. The technology in the cassette tape was highly resistant towards both heat, dust and vibrations. There were of course downsides too, mostly based around the sound quality, but the advantages clearly outweighed them and it wasn’t until the late nineties that the those new digital wonders took over the scene.
However, once the transition happened, it happened with the speed of light. We barely had time to blink before those colourful cassettes had all but vanished. Gone were the joys of “auto reverse” which effectively turned the tape for you, the memories of having to use two fingers in order to start recording, and the magic of listening to your self-fabricated “Best Hits”. If your recordings were so good that you wanted to ensure that you would never lose them, you could simply snap off the two small plastic tabs at the top of the cassette. Your “Best Hits” were now safe. Should you tire from them anyway, all you needed was two small pieces of tape – ehrm… the adhesive type – placed over those two holes at the top of the cassette, and you were ready to practice you self-mixing DJ skills all over again.
We all celebrated the demise of the horrid tape salad, which came out of the car stereo or the ITT recorder after it had attempted to eat the tape. Trying to reel it all back in using a little finger or a pen was never much fun. Not to mention the catastrophe if the tape broke and needed to be put back together using a sharp knife and adhesive tape. This could lead to your favourite track losing its best verse and the all-important chorus. However, my better half has informed me that the tape salad was highly decorative when hung up next to posters in her childhood room. Very groovy and the brown tape complimented the palate of orange and beige tones in the room.
If you thought we had gotten rid of the cassette tape once and for all, you would be wrong. It’s back! – and this time with hi-res audio. Toshiba Lifestyle Electronics Trading have recently relaunched the cassette tape combining it with the latest audio technology. As such, their latest cassette tape player should match the sound quality of any other modern music media.
The cassette player is initially only sold within Japan at a price equating approximately Euro 125, and the latest reports claim that it is rapidly gaining popularity – also among the young and trendy.
Are you prepared to drop all your streaming playlists in favour of your friends many homemade mix tapes? Are you ready to be the center of attention at your next party as you rock up with the coolest partymix in town?
In 2016, sales of cassette tapes in the USA increased by 74% to 129.000 examples. Albums by Justin Bieber and The Weeknd only achieved very limited sales in this format.
Also in 2016, the chain Urban Outfitters, which has been selling vinyl-LP’s for quite some time, started marketing both pre-recorded cassette tapes and blank tapes. Ironically, these newly recorded tapes – which are available with both current and period music – don’t utilise the Dolby noise reduction system, as Dolby Laboratories no longer distribute or produce the electronic components which are necessary in order to implement the system for either recording or playback.