I was taping that! A treatise on the cassette

TDK tape

TDK class: a cassette recording of 808 State's performance at the Cities In The Park festival from 1991, bought at Camden Market

By Alan Gregson

In these days of Spotify and YouTube, it’s difficult to imagine a time when your music stayed at home and the only way to listen to music on the move was on the radio.

The birth of the Compact Cassette, commonly referred to as simply the “cassette” or “tape”, kick-started a revolution in music, and possibly in society as a whole. Now we were no longer forced to simply hum the last track we heard on the radio as we walked to school. Now we could block out the rest of the world and listen to The Clash or New Order on our Walkman, or, if our birthday funds couldn’t stretch to the real thing, a £5 Alba personal stereo from Argos or Woolworths. But we’re running ahead like a stretched tape. Let’s rewind a bit.

Back in the day, the world wasn’t full to the brim with music. It was special, limited to the family gramophone and your dad’s old copies of Sgt Pepper and Houses Of The Holy. There were also a few radios around the house but you either had Radio 1 with its chart music and Our Tune, Radio 2 with Cliff Richard and Lulu on repeat, or commercial radio with chart music and adverts. A lot of kids would have a little record player in their rooms to listen to their music but records weren’t cheap, a least a couple of weeks’ pocket money for a new single, so a record would be repeated over and over until it was ingrained in our minds and the vinyl worn out.

In 1962, Phillips invented the compact cassette, using two spools of approximately 1/8” oxide-coated polyester tape encased in a plastic shell. Originally, the cassette was intended for use in dictation machines, so the quality wasn’t great on early cassettes and recorders.

Despite the fact it was intended for dictation on mono recorders, Phillips designed the tape with stereo tracks, albeit narrow tracks squished closely together bringing with them exciting crosstalk between tracks and even sides.

The initial poor quality didn’t stop Phillips releasing, through affiliate Mercury Recording Company, a number of prerecorded music cassettes in 1966 that sounded suitably rubbish due to the lack of any discernible bass and severely capped treble.

The quality issue was fixed on three fronts: first by Advent Corporation, who produced a much more sturdy and reliable player design; then by Dolby Laboratories’ introduction of Dolby B noise reduction to improve high-frequency response; and finally by the invention of chromium dioxide by DuPont. Chromium dioxide was used by BASF to coat cassette tape. Chrome tapes had much greater headroom, thus allowing for both higher frequencies and greater volume.

With decent-quality tapes now widely available, the time was right for Sony to revolutionise life for kids and commuters with the introduction of the Walkman. This relatively compact device equipped with a belt clip and headphones allowed people to take their own music on the bus or train for the first time. It made commuting and the walk to school much more pleasurable and it also meant you now had an excuse to ignore your fellow commuters.

The first Walkman in 1980 was quite big, much larger than the cassette it held, and the mainly metal construction meant it was heavy compared to later models. At around £150 it was a distant dream for most kids, but it started a new market, and the lower reaches of this market were soon filled by copies from the Far East at a fraction of the price.

Sony constantly improved the Walkman. Other leading manufacturers soon entered the market, driving innovation with the addition of Dolby B and C, and autoreverse to save you manually flipping the tape, which wasn’t easy when wearing thick gloves on your mid-winter paper round. I even had the bootleggers’ dream, a Walkman with built-in recording and a lapel microphone, although it wasn’t the amazing Professional Walkman with its quartz-locked drive motors and adjustable recording level. This beast was as good as home hi-fi cassette decks and was used by many radio stations for field recording, and loads of bands for demo recording.

Sony WMD6 Professional Walkman
Sound investment: the high-end Sony WMD6 Professional Walkman, 1984

Cassettes weren’t just for personal listening, though. The polar opposite of the personal stereo was the boombox or ghetto blaster. These would be equipped with many speakers and lights, usually twin cassette decks (more about these later) and “graphic equalisers”. Their natural habitat was the bus station or shopping centre and they’d be used to blast hip-hop to unsuspecting passers-by. Also to be seen would be flattened cardboard boxes, kids attempting to break dance and a first aider patching someone up while they waited for an ambulance.

The problem with boomboxes was their requirement for half a dozen or more D-cell batteries, which were both heavy and expensive, so a public place with an accessible three-pin plug socket was a prized location for placing your boombox.

I mentioned twin cassette decks. These, allegedly, were destined to kill the music industry by allowing unscrupulous kids to copy cassettes for their mates. To be frank, the quality of cassettes copied on these machines, especially if you used high-speed dubbing to half the time taken, was generally appalling, so the only music being killed was the stuff on the second cassette.

This brings me to another glorious feature of the cassette. You could impress your mates and potential future life partners with your fantastic musical taste by making mix tapes. My entire hi-fi set-up at home was centred around the manufacture of mix tapes for friends. I had two record players, a CD player and one tape deck fed into a four-channel mixer from Tandy, feeding into a second tape deck. Initially, my tape decks were a matched pair of Technics recorders but I spent a stupid amount of money on a Nakamichi tape deck. This provided the ultimate high-quality recording with a clever mechanism that physically flipped the tape over rather than reversing the motor and spinning the head. It was amazing and I was sorry to see it go when I had to sell it.

I made a lot of friends with my astonishingly eclectic mix tapes. The last track was always particularly odd as I was obsessed with filling the tape, leaving just the leader at the end, so I would time the remaining tape, and, using my early music database listing all my tracks with their running times, I would find a track that would either fill the gap exactly, or could be safely faded. This meant a lot of my friends were inflicted with short Electro Hippies or Napalm Death tracks, some of which were only a few seconds long, Monty Python sketches, short samples of Tangerine Dream or Frank Zappa instrumentals. That sort of behaviour used to get me bottled when I DJ’ed.

A device soon came along to make demo recording easier – the TASCAM Portastudio. The Portastudio was a mixing desk and four-track recorder in a single unit. These units recorded four tracks across the two stereo tracks of standard cassettes. Later models even allowed six- or eight-channel recording onto cassette, although quality suffered as the tracks were very densely packed. Quite a few albums were recorded entirely on Portastudios, including Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. The Portastudio brand lives on. They now come with hard-disk recorders and up to 32-track recording. A friend of mine uses one for all his albums. The quality is great. You’d never guess he did all his recording at home.

You may think that tape is now long gone but just like vinyl, it’s seen a bit of a resurgence of late, and Record Store Day saw a couple of special releases. This year, James released their critically acclaimed No.2 album Girl At The End Of The World on cassette.

James - Girl At The End Of The World on cassette
Old spool: James recently released Girl At The End Of The World as a cassette option

Ultimately though, the MP3 player, then smartphones (when are we going to stop calling them smartphones and just call them phones?) sealed the fate of the cassette and the personal cassette player. With a personal stereo you could just listen to a single cassette, in order. Any other music had to be carried in your pocket or bag. Cassettes were notoriously averse to being stored in car glove boxes and would respond by wrapping themselves around inside the tape player, thus wrecking both your precious Smiths bootleg and your car stereo. With an MP3 player or phone you can hold a decent percentage of your entire music collection in your pocket and even the heavy compression of an MP3 file is better quality than your average cassette – although I was fond of the TDK MA-XG metal tapes, which, with Dolby S recording, could rival CD.

TDK MA-XG cassette
Ain’t nothing like the reel thing: the stentorian TDK MA-XG

So cassettes are having a bit of a hipster revival at the moment, but in their day they started a revolution that enabled anyone to listen to anything they wanted anytime they liked, as long as that selection of tracks was all they wanted to listen to for a while. 

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