A Note or Two on Cassette Tape
My 1972 Christmas present from my parents was a Philips EL 3302 battery powered portable cassette recorder. The cassette format had been launched some eight years earlier, it was originally designed as an audio dictation format. My first machine was little more than that, although it featured a five pin DIN plug, enabling connection to a hi-fi system, or in my case, a slightly modified Bush valve radio that was in turn connected to two home made speaker enclosures. The speaker cones themselves salvaged from other defunct audio gear I.e. radiograms and televisions. Completing the set up was a Garrard SP25 Mk III turntable fitted with a Sonotone 9TAHC ceramic cartridge. The deck had come from Comet complete with a Goldring G800 magnetic cartridge, but as I soon learned, such pickups require a pre-amp between amp and turntable before any real volume could be achieved. Hence the fitting of a high output pickup. I don’t think that the old valve radio contained any form of phono equalisation (more of that elsewhere) so I was probably not getting too much bass from my vinyl.  Not that the speakers could handle or reproduce too much in the way of low frequencies…
 
My recording technique advanced beyond that of holding a microphone in front of a loudspeaker to plugging the amplifier directly into the tape machine.  (This eventually precluded that teenage rite of passage, recording the audio from Top Of The Pops each Thursday - televisions at that time had no external audio connections. Indeed, one of the first ever bootleg albums made was from the audio feed of a Bob Dylan television show – a fan connected the speaker wires from his TV to his reel to reel). Another advance was made by plugging the Garrard turntable directly into the Philips cassette. The absence of any RIAA correction (I.e. pre-amp bass boost) didn’t seem to cause a problem. Maybe the Sonotone was a bass heavy pickup.
 
In later years, I progressed to another, slightly more sophisticated (but still mono) Philips portable. By 1980 I was the proud owner of a Hitachi front loading stereo Dolby B audio separate cassette deck.  Soon to be replaced by a Sansui 3 head machine, and after that a Teac with Dolby C noise reduction.
 
By 2000, I was in possession of thousands of cassette recordings. Thousands. None of them catalogued or in any sense of order but all clearly labelled (I.e. typed). Locating any piece of music relied on a sharp memory and a determined trawl through many cardboard boxes - the shallow kind used to display fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. Each box stuffed full of tapes.
 
Carefully maintaining my tape machine (not least adjusting the angle, or azimuth, of the tape head) coupled with careful choice of blank tape, bias optimisation and Dolby C noise reduction meant that my cassette machine was capable of producing recordings of exceptionally clear sound quality. A HiFi nut friend of mine (an owner of Magneplanar loudspeakers, Denon monoblock amps and Meridian CD player) simply refused to believe that he was hearing a cassette tape of Lee Morgan’s Ceora (recorded from the 1987 CD version of the Blue Note album, Cornbread).  That was until I pressed the stop button and showed him the tape. Which on this occasion wasn’t a particularly sophisticated variety – a standard BASF dynamic tape, if I recall.
 
At the same time, and in the absence of today’s instant-record-collection-on-demand technology, I was fuelling about half of the running order of my weekly radio programme from my ever growing library of tapes. Which involved dubbing each song from1 7/8 IPS cassette to 15 IPS Studer 2 track open reel machines. Nobody noticed any drop in broadcast quality – and our station was full of cutting edge, brand new ultra high quality equipment (more on the amazing turntables that we used elsewhere on this site). We were renowned for the station’s amazingly pure sound – until a few years later, the station engineers fooled around with the compression settings in a vain attempt to make us more FM friendly and to compete with the local commercial station.
 
And along came MiniDisc. I took the decision to transfer the best items from my cassette library to MD, retained a few that I considered irreplaceable and dumped the rest on an old friend.  Who sifted through them and passed the rest on, in turn.
 
B-i-g mistake.  And there was no going back, no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. A lifetime’s collection given away to make space – for what?
 
Recently I acquired both a (vintage) car with a tape player in the dashboard - as well as a Teac cassette machine to hook into one of my hi-fi rigs. I had been asked to transfer some rare tapes of pianist George Cables onto CD – a good excuse to splash out £20 or so on eBay (incidentally, certain makes of cassette machine, notably Nakamichi, still fetch very high prices on auction sites). It was a good excuse to revisit my now tiny tape collection.
 
Whilst listening to a cassette of Gorecki’s 2nd symphony it struck me why the humble compact cassette is one of the best ways to listen to music. Not for sound quality (although, as discussed, that could be very good indeed) but that once a tape is inserted into the player, one is far more likely to listen all the way through. At least to the end of that side. Easy track selection, whilst essential for broadcast purposes, is actually the enemy of serious listening. As an impoverished teenager I would listen repeatedly to my latest LP purchase until I knew every note and lyric. As a cassette listener, the relative inability to skip tracks that did not immediately grab my attention meant that the whole album got a fair listen. Revisiting my tape boxes I found myself playing albums in full. No track selection, no programming, no random button. Maybe the fast forward button on some machines could find the silence between tracks, but that was a hit and miss affair.  The ability to skip through the tracks of a CD or a digital download has destroyed the art of album construction. Where is the point in creating a memorable running order when the remote-controlled listener can pick and choose their way through?
 
I miss making mix tapes for friends. Creating playlists is just not the same, meanwhile insofar as sequencing various tracks onto CD-R discs – the art, the love, the inspiration is not there. Filling up a tape with music designed to impress and entertain – or to win a young lady’s heart – was a serious business. The expression of emotion, intellect and musical erudition – all contained within 90 minutes in something no bigger than a cigarette pack. And that tape was unique. No further copies (the dreaded tape-to-tape notwithstanding) could ever exist.  Did I have enough tape left on this side to squeeze the last song on? What should I include next? The track listing of mix tapes was an improvised set of inspired choices. No going back and wiping off something three tracks ago. Choose carefully. You had one chance to get it right. You were the DJ.
 
Cassette tape was a great and cheap way to share music. The record industry bleated that home taping was killing music (ironically, several of the companies making this spurious claim were also selling large quantities of blank tapes – step forward EMI, Sony & Philips). But anyone that I knew with a large (homemade) tape collection was also in possession of an even larger record collection.
 
Cassettes made music fully portable. In the sixties, the transistor radio had gone some way to allowing people to take their sounds with them. But the emergence of the portable cassette machine in the early seventies took things to a new level. Sony’s Walkman from the early 80s onward made transportable music personal – perhaps selfish. How many train journeys were ruined by sounds leaking from someone else's cheap headphones? Weigh that up against the unwarranted subjugation of distorted hip hop from a cheap boom box.*. The cassette is not blameless in the development of the way that we listen to music.

Lastly, were I to ask you to record this week's top 40 rundown (or, indeed, any other radio programme) onto your hard drive, would you be able to do so?  You would almost certainly need some confounded 3rd party software (and maybe a tech-savvy friend or two) to achieve this feat.  Admittedly, the BBC iPlayer allows one to download and keep certain programmes, but not anything with quantities of copyright music.  And that BBC Playlister tool? - well, nobody (not even the eggheads at the Beeb) actuallly knows how to make it work.  Downloading music from commercial stations?  Forget it. 

Not that long ago, we could slap in a tape, press the record and play buttons simultaneously, making sure to flip the tape over 45 or 60 minutes later.  And the programme would be ours to keep.   Copyright issues aside** it was a great way to store and retrieve music. 
 
*I hasten to use the ever-so-slightly assumptive and perhaps racist term, Ghetto Blaster. The first time I heard a stereo portable radio cassette machine referred to as such was in Alan Parker’s film of the musical Fame. I’ve never been comfortable with the term. Also, another big regret of mine is that I have owned at least three such magnificent machines in my time (one, by Panasonic, was frighteningly good for something so small. And my Hitachi boom box had an obscenely good FM tuner. It could pick up distant stations in perfect stereo without breaking a sweat. Back then, pre internet and pre DAB – and pre Heart FM, these things mattered). These wonderful machines are long gone. I keep an eye out at car boot sales and thrift shops, should one ever appear for sale. Maybe I’ll track one down on eBay.  For old time’s sake.

**More and more missing, presumed wiped musical performances are now being retrieved from dedicated and intrepid radio listeners who, all those years ago, were essentially contravening copyright law.  Without them, there would be no Beatles Live At The BBC album, Nick Drake John Peel Sessions nor Led Zeppelin's Complete BBC Sessions.  Here's to those guys, with their radios on and fingers at the ready on the pause button. 
 
Cassette tapes. Those in favour: -
 
  • Affordable
  • Excellent sound quality for something so small
  • Universal
  • Portable
  • Lack of track selection = you're going to listen to the end of the side.
 
We beg to differ: -

  • Poor tape head alignment (azimuth) and dirty transport mechanism meaning tapes recorded on one machine sounding dull and muffled on another
  • Tapes slowing down and snarling up inside your cassette player
  • Tape heads requiring regular cleaning and demagnetising
  • Not the most permanent nor reliable audio storage/retrieval system