Wednesday, February 29, 2012


If the terms normal bias, low noise, high precision shell, compact cassette, ferric, high position, chromdioxid, noise reduction, head cleaner, metal bias and C90 mean anything to you, these might appeal:

At the time, this seemed the most stylish, zeitgeisty advert around. Could the 21st century be much better than this? With my usual visionary flare, I imagined that slightly smaller, dictaphone-style cassettes might be the norm by 2001. If we were very lucky.

For this band I'd buy the dodgiest tape I could find - probably something with a name like 'Supertronic' that could only be obtained at a local market stall - in the hope that the music would become inaudible within four plays.

Chrome cassettes were the aristocrats of the tape world, but there was a rumour that they were more abrasive and damaged the tape heads. This worried me greatly at the time.

The same rules applied to video recording too:

Sadly the Scotch video tapes I bought were rubbish, reducing everything to mid-80s pastels, with the grainy quality of a Betamax Portuguese soft porn film.

Thank God for digital. It's so nice to be free of chewed-up cassettes, tape hiss and the seemingly interminable wait for a C-120 to rewind back to the beginning. However, I miss that little wave of pleasure that came when I could afford a TDK AD90, rather than a mere D90.


Martin said...

I abandoned those tapes that hadn't already abandoned me, some time ago. But not before digitising my most treasured recordings. I had a tape deck connected to my computer for several months whilst working through the process. Sad, isn't it?

Sarah said...

Oh yes, I remember those days and those ads. I had one of those crap tape recorders and a microphone I pressed up against the stereo speaker to record off the radio.

It didn't matter what cassette you used, the sound was always appalling. :)
120s broke much more easily than the others too.

Rog said...

Tapes generally degrade very slowly whilst digitally stored media can be subject to sudden and catastrophic disappearance. Bit like choosing between nuclear and windmills I suppose. You can't repair a hard drive with a pencil.

I used to use my dictaphone a lot. Then I went back to dialing with my fingers...

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I used to host Pop quizzes for our works Sports & Social Club back in the late 80s. This meant cueing vinyl and taping extracts having previously worked out the levels to fade in up to. It took two of us, and forever to do, but it worked. My partner then favoured SA90s, ever the audiophile, but I never listened to tapes much - always vinyl in those days! Thanks for a wonderfully nostalgic post.

Chris Matarazzo said...

I still miss analog recording, though. It is a shame about the mortality rate on tapes, because there was a warmth to those recordings that hasn't been matched by digital -- partially, because of a little bit of tape noise. But, clean and reliable are also good.

Brian Busby said...

A young pup during the cassette's fleeting years of dominance, I was the envy of all my friends for having somehow scored a job at Sam the Record Man, Canada's dominant chain. Back then I looked down on the cassette - particularly the prerecorded variety with its ugly packaging.

Of course, this didn't stop me from making mix tapes for my girlfriend.

We broke up.

Didn't see that coming.

Sam the Record Man went bust in 2007.

Didn't see that coming, either.

Steerforth said...

Martin, I've also digitised a few recordings, but it feels wrong not having an object that's inextricably linked with the recording.

Sarah - Those 120s were a menace and I lost the will to live sometimes when they took five minutes to rewind, but they were great for compliations for long journeys.

Rog - I always have recordings on at least two hard drives, as I'm paranoid about losing precious things from the 1970s. On the subject of things from the 1970s, I'd forgotten all about that joke!

Annabel - SA90s - serious stuff! And expensive too. I had to save up for those. Without wishing to sound too geeky, I was an AD90 boy.

Chris - I hated the tape hiss, even more than those distracting clicks on vinyl. I'm still amazed at how good vinyl sounds - I played a record to someone a few years younger who'd never heard one before (!) and they were really impressed by the richness and clarity of the sound.

Brian - Prerecorded cassettes were ugly - I much preferred albums. But at university I had to make my own way there, carrying everything on the train, so I reluctantly started building up a collection of prerecorded albums. As soon as twin deck players appeared on the scene, it was pirates ahoy!

Shelley said...

I liked that hiss.

MTFF said...

Oh GOD, cassettes! I can't tell you how many billion demo tapes I sent out on shitty 15 minute cassettes and the hours I spent with a ballpoint pen poking out that plastic tab at the top so you couldnt re-record over it. I even had a cassette-to-cassette recorder so I could record off the 4 track 'master'. And then sometimes I'd lose the master and record off a recording and the tape hiss was EPIC. I wonder how many A&R people ever listened to them without binning them (well, probably at least one given my career trajectory, but that gives me a success rate of 1 in about 3,00000000000).
I do not miss cassettes one little bit except one mixtape my ex-husband had with bizarre cowboy songs from tthe '60s I'll never be able to find again..

Lucy R. Fisher said...

There were a lot of very strange people who never made mixtapes. Weirdly, there are more of them than us... I still have some audiobooks on tape and listen to them on a dictaphone. I think I've lost my ipod.

Little Nell said...

Even though I copied most of my favourite tapes to CD I kept the very precious ones - just in case. When we were stationed in Germany we would send tapes back to family in UK, so some of them have my children nattering to Grandma and Granddad - as well as as much younger sounding me and husband; well it’s over thirty years ago! I seem to remember you putting a recording on your blog of a family member singing. How did you do that? I have a wee bit of archive (now an audio file) and can’t see how it’s done, but would love to put a snippet on my blog.

Steerforth said...

MTFF - What was your career trajectory? I'd love to know more.

Richmonde - The mixtape is a lost art. I remember connecting a twin deck cassette player up to a single so that I could achieve proper fades (and occasionally add snippets from public information films). Happy days.

Nell - It's an odd thing - adding a video clip to a blog is as easy as pie, but with audio it's as easy as pi, i.e. awful. I did a podcast at the end of 2010 and spent a whole evening trying to work out how to embed an audio file. Now I've forgotten.

For my relative's recording I cheated. I used a video editing programme and added an mp3 file to the soundtrack, then pasted a picture of my uncle to the video track.

If anyone knows of an easier way of embedding audio files, I'd love to know.

lucy joy said...

Tapes, they were a big part of my life. I'd take my Matsui Walkman on my paper-round and listen to all manner of badly put together compilations. The Walkman chewed the tape regularly, ate batteries at an astonishing rate and got dropped daily.
I do wish I still had my box of music cassettes though. Friends would decorate the inlay card with varying degrees of flair. I was introduced to some life affirming music by way of Maxell. BASF, TDK and Sony cassette tapes. The sound quality was reliably appalling, the wait to rewind agonising, but the excitement of being handed an album or home made compilation was second to none.

Steerforth said...

Matsui? That was Dixons own brand in the early 90s wasn't it? Yes, they swallowed up battery power like anything. I tried to get round it by buying some rechargeable batteries, but they blew my Walkman up - there was even a wisp of smoke!

I used to love making my own cassette covers.

My favourite pieces of music are so closely bound up with images of album and cassette box covers - MP3 feels very sterile and soulless. But on the other hand, I love the fact that I can find almost any piece of music within minutes, rather than traipsing around London only to return empty handed.

Paul said...

"...with the grainy quality of a Betamax Portuguese soft porn film" - Lovely, just lovely writing.

Grey Area said...

How odd, I clicked onto this blog post directly after watching the opening scene to The Hunger, I'm having a Peter Murphy themed evening at home... well... it is Friday.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Paul. I almost didn't write that line, as I was half expecting some Betamax fans to come out of the woodwork and tell me how superior it was to VHS.

Richard - At university, Bela Lugosi's Dead used to be 'our song' among my friends. I've just enjoyed watching this again: - Apart from Micachu, I can't think of any contemporary stuff that's as fresh as this.

zmkc said...

It's none of my business but I'm a bit shocked you know anything about Betamax Portuguese soft porn films - presumably you were forced to watch them at an office group bonding exercise.