Thank you :-) The Cassette Tape was as much a part of my youth landscape as smartphones are now, how times change
On 30 August, 1963, a new bit of sound recording tech that was to change the lifestyle of millions was revealed at the Berlin Radio Show. The adoption of the standard that followed led to a huge swath of related technological applications that had not been envisaged by its maker; for Philips, the unveiling of its new Compact …
Granted cassettes were the bomb for early copying of CDs but when it came to tape drives for computers they were pants. Kids today have no idea what its like for a game to literally take 15 minutes to load. So I guess at my age its a bit of love hate with the tech. I am sure if I would have owned more 8 tracks or lugged around a reel to reel I would loved cassettes more for how compact they were.
I recently retrieved my C64 from my parents' garage where it had sat for many years, along with many cassette tapes (and some discs for my "Enhancer 2000" disc drive from Evesham Micros. Why they felt the need to name it like a sexual aide I was never sure...)
I connected the Commodore up to my 42" TV (a little different to the 13-incher it was previously connected to), stuck in my Daley Thompson's Decathlon cassette, and am happy to report it loaded first time.
In this 'test' the cassette certainly showed good reliability over nearly 3 decades.
I agree that loading software from tape was horribly slow and frustrating and something I'll never be nostalgic for. (*)
But to be fair, the format was never designed for that. It was adopted in the mid-70s as a much more affordable alternative to disk drives and the like (which were *expensive* for home users at that time).
I wonder why the systems that required dedicated decks anyway (e.g. the Atari 8-bit and Commodore 8-bit formats) didn't run the tape at two or three times speed to allow improved frequency response. (**) It'd still have been compatible with standard commercial cassette duplication facilities. The Atari 8-bit had a "stereo" system that could play audio from one channel while data loaded from the other, but IMHO it would have been a good idea to allow both channels to be used for data (i.e. increased throughput).
(*) My Atari 800XL was *horribly* slow when it came to loading from cassette, probably because the original version- the Atari 400 and 800- came out in the era of much smaller memories (i.e. 8 or 16K) and it didn't matter as much for short programs. Excruciating when you were trying to load something that used 48K or 64K though. It was 100 times worse when you got the infamous "LOAD ERROR - Try Other Side".
(**) I appreciate that cassettes weren't designed to be run at high speeds, so there would have been limits. But apparently the late-80s "Pixelvision" camcorder- designed for kids, and based on standard Compact Cassettes- got away with running the cassette *8* times faster to get the necessary bandwidth!
I remember my dad winning an in-car cassette player, which I had to fit. Then he joined the local cassette library (remember them?) to get music. That led to us getting a music centre, and I was really chuffed when I was able to buy a combined radio/casette for my car some years later!
I also remember some of the creative ideas cassette recorder companies adopted to save costs. Permanent magnet erase heads, what a nightmare! The hiss got louder with every recording.
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How I wonderfully remember yards of jammed tape around the pinch roller meaning you couldn't eject the effin thing.
How the music industry loved it when you had to go back to the shop to buy another cassette at full price as your old one got damaged.
All I can say is thank the heavens for MP3/FLAC - saved me a bloody fortune.
Right after I graduated collete, when I could finally afford a decent component stereo deck, the first thing I did was to buy a couple of 10-packs of chromium oxide cassettes and dub every LP I owned that was still in decent shape. I continued buying vinyl well into the '80s, and immediately dubbing them to cassette to use in my Walkman and my car stereo. The only albums I owned on pre-recorded cassettes were given to me as Christmas or birthday gifts; they never did sound quite as good as the chrome Maxell dubs from vinyl.
I got a cheap cassette deck for Christmas when I was 7, and later a Matsui Midi system (*). Cassettes were my dominant listening medium for over a decade, and I continued to use them for several years after that. Yet, I can count on the fingers of one hand (at most) the number of times I had problems with unspooled tape, (**) and I never lost any altogether.
Some of my most heavily listened to tapes were still in listenable condition almost 20 years later, with only occasional muffled patches and dropouts.
Maybe this is because I treated my cassettes with respect, putting them back in their cases when not in use (and to be fair, my Dad would occasionally clean the tape heads, which probably helped).
If people had treated LPs as badly as they treated cassettes (e.g. left lying out of their cases under a car seat gathering dust or exposed to the midday sun), they would have been rendered unplayable. I'm not saying the format was perfect, but it does deserve a lot more respect than it gets in that respect.
(*) Was going to say "Hi-Fi", but I'm not sure something with shoebox-sized speakers qualifies as "high-fidelity" ;-)
(**) Did have PITA problems with wobble until I realised my habit of constantly stopping, starting and rewinding the tape was causing unevenly-wound "ridges" to build up which were easily removed by fast forwarding the entire length of the tape.
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I daren't think how many miles I did between home and which ever RAF station I was stationed at the time were accompanied by the scatter of cassettes on the passenger seat / floor / actually in the box. Certainly enough to know exactly which track on which tape was where the tape had stretched with customary "fall in audio quality".
Thank you Phillips for helping provide the soundtrack some very happy days.
One of the worst bits of consumer technology of the 20th Century; I should know, I spent a large amount of my tiny teenage and student disposable income through the 70s and 80s on useless tape-mangling pieces of electronic crap. Good riddance.
[is led away from the soapbox with flecks of foam dripping from mouth and a deranged look in the eyes]
Maybe you should have spent a bit more on something that worked. I had plenty of shitty tape recorders when I was a kid so I know what you're talking about. In my teens I eventually forked out on a decent tape deck and it was worth every penny. Dolby S and everything. I even bought type 4 cassettes sometimes.
It now takes pride of place in my attic.
It was a great solution in its day, and its popularity backed that up.
Nope, sorry. I've owned reasonably decent compact cassette kit, and as far as I'm concerned the format had only one redeeming feature---portability. Apart from that from the consumer's [and I use the word deliberately] point of view it was crap. From a capitalist seller's point of view, however, it was a wet dream as people had to regularly replace ruined tapes---perfect 'disposable/limited lifespan' product with a high profit margin.
Couldn't disagree with you more. Never bothered with buying prerecorded cassettes. I bought vinyl instead. I took advantage of my Dad's decent record player and recorded the first play of every album to cassette. Isn't that what most sensible people did? I never had any problems with mangled tapes, warped tapes or anything else.
I still have my Nakamichi BX-300 - which served me as a mastering deck for mixdowns from my Tascam Portastudios, of which I still have three - one with Dolby and two with DBX, all for archiving purposes.
After having had a Tascam 244 and, especially, a 144, I considered the 246 to be a luxurious machine.
This type of gear classically illustrates the development and end-evolution of a technology. It well demonstrates the extent of the progress made in cassette technology over a 20-year period. Clearly, the cassette wasn't going to evolve much further than this but it was damn good audio medium by the end of the 1970s.
As with much of the hi-fi gear of that period, it was remarkably well built and engineered. Back then, it seemed that Japanese industry generally put its reputation on the line for quality. Not only do I still have the Naka 680 but also Sony, Pioneer, Yamaha and other audio gear from that period. In fact, much of my digital equipment still gets played through this 40-year-old gear into a pair of Tannoy Monitor Gold dual concentrics.
It mightn't be Rolls Royce by today's top-line standards but it's still pretty good. What's truly remarkable is the longevity of the equipment. Most of it has never been serviced and works well, and in the case of recorders, only heads have been replaced and the occasional alignment with a standards tape. Compare this with today's throwaway computer market.
BTW: useless factoid, I actually met Nakamichi himself during a promotional tour and demo of the 680. I suppose it was that that convinced this cassettes-for-hifi skeptic to acquire a 680 several years later.
Yep, decent player essential. Sony Walkman Pro served me well as a car player in mid 1980s -- installed an amp behind the blank for car radio -- nothing visible to steal.
Also as main home recorder, I seldom used it as a "Walk"man because it was so heavy but these were a favourite with journalists. Main virtue was hub drive (no wow and no belt to fail) and decent headphone which I still use with a Sony MP3 player and an iPod.
The C64 casette decks were really good for wiping old music tapes before doing a tape-to-tape recording of a cassette copy somebody had lent me. (Which I would do while out of the room because although my double cassette player would do tape to tape it would read from its crappy microphone while doing it.)
Oh, and I used to buy Sony D90s. C120s always seemed more likely to get mangled and unreadable..
Oh, man, yeah. I can't describe the joy I felt when i was finally able to afford a decent dubbing deck, so I could just roll on an entire set on one of the two really sweet "alt" stations we had around here -- commercials, station breaks and all -- then copy down the sets as the DJ read them off, pick out my faves, and use the "B" deck to build a mixtape of all the choice bits from several weeks' worth of my favorite weirdo/obscuro rock/jazz/reggae programs.
And good riddance!
As an older if not wiser observer, I can appreciate the wizardry that went into making tape recorders work. However, as a consumer, my memory of tapes is of being infuriated that my commodore 64 would refuse to read the damn program which I'd saved to tape a few moments earlier.
On a separate note, I don't recall Apple having much to do with the death of Sony's minidisk players. IIRC, it was that minidisks were expensive compared to CDs, it ran on the "yesterday's news" of magnetic storage, but it did come with bonus DRM. The final nail in the minidisk's coffin was the release of the mp3 format which was DRM free and increased, by about an order of magnitude, the number of songs people could store, back when the file size of a song was a big deal*.
* I remember really getting to like Roxette's album, "The Look" in the early 90s. Because after ripping the songs as a bunch of WAVs, I couldn't fit much else on my HDD.
> IIRC, it was that minidisks were expensive compared to CDs, it ran on the "yesterday's news" of magnetic storage, but it did come with bonus DRM
That, and computer CD Writers becoming increasingly affordable. Why buy a minidisc player, when you can burn CDs and play them on any of your CD players? It wasn't long after that that the MP3 revolution happened.
*cough* Minidiscs were magneto-optical, exactly like CD-RWs and all rewritable optical formats since. The magnet aids in the writing process but the thing is then read optically by laser, and can be read optically even by mechanisms with no magnetic element.
Sony's incredibly restrictive ideas about DRM meant that you weren't permitted to use a computer directly to manipulate their data. Their licensing ideas about compression formats also meant that by the time they allowed write access by USB, that meant the computer having to transcode, usually from MP3. So they managed to reintroduce generational degradation to digital electronics and restricted everyone to their lousy software.
It was just one stupid move after another, really.
...I agree with pretty much all the above comments re: MDs, but peeps often forget (or simply don't agree) that ATRAC is a lovely codec and much nicer (and cleverer IMO) than MP3. Yes, It's a shame that I was forced to use the execrable SonicStage to rip my CD collection for use with my NWA-1000 ATRAC Walkman, but it's damned hard to tell an ATRAC recording apart from its source material. A reasonable ear can easily spot any MP3 recorded at < 320kbps.
Icon for obv reasons.
You need certain types of Music, Jazz or Classical, and pretty expensive headphones to hear the difference between 320 kbps and lossless.
You need very similar for 320 VBR and lossless.
In fact if you step up or down in small steps, it's quite hard to tell.
I hear a huge difference between 96 and 320 the same as most people, but if you step down in small steps you'll struggle to hear that same difference.
Also the environment you're listening in makes a huge difference. Music for the commute in on a commuter train/tube, does it really need to be lossless or 320? Probably not.
Main issue I have, is one re-ripping from source into lossless (500+ cds) two, the small loss I'm going to get from recoding 320VBR to 320Fixed, or some of the early 192VBR isn't worth the time.
This I think will be true for most people.
If the record company wants to offer me an upgrade deal from my 500 cds to lossless, for perhaps 99p a disc, then I might be up for it.
Tape was a distinct improvement back in the day. It was not nearly as bad as some people are trying to say it was. It's just that better and newer stuff came along after it. Tech improves and old stuff gets discarded.
It was a victim of the tech cycle just like what it displaced.
"Tape was a distinct improvement back in the day. It was not nearly as bad as some people are trying to say it was. It's just that better and newer stuff came along after it. Tech improves and old stuff gets discarded."
Its also still al lot easier for some things. If I want to record something off the radio I can either:
A) Fire up the old radio cassette, stick in a blank and press record.
B) Wait for PC to boot. Attempt to connect radio to it then persuade recalcitrant audio program to record the input. Which half the time it won't do because some bloody input flag is set wrong etc etc.
C) Attempt to record off a streaming radio service full of DRM. Yeah, good luck with that digitally. Though you can record from the analogue output port onto .... hmm, now what could I use ....
Windows and Linux recording software can use the live audio output of the PC as the recording source, no cables required. Still digital all the way as it's a function of the audio CODEC chipset.
Macs probably do the same but I don't have one.
(Yes, I am saying that all DRM ever applied to music is completely and utterly incapable of doing what it's designed to. When Bob, Eve and Mallory are the same entity, what does one expect?)
"Fire up the old radio cassette, stick in a blank and press record."
Precisely!! Unless one wanted concert-hall quality the cassette was remarkably handy and useful for quick recordings. In fact it still is. Not always, but I still find it handy to just hit the button on a cassette recorder for recoding something off the radio. Especially, AM radio where voice predominates.
The only things that I would have wished for back then were small radios that also included a cassette recorder. Mostly, such a combo ended up being the ghetto blaster which was often too big to be truly convenient (i.e: conveniently portable).
"Tape was a distinct improvement back in the day."
As I recall, it was an "improvement" only in the sense that for certain purposes there were no viable alternatives. And in most cases, "something" is better than "nothing" and very often much better. But I do agree completely with you that it is not as bad as some people are saying, and all the much much superior tech that displaced it makes it look worse than it was at the time.
Elsewhere in this feedback I've praised the cassette but I have to agree with you about cassettes being used for digital recordings.
Clearly, cassettes for recording computer programs was a cheap means to an end but the problems were that cassettes were never designed for digital and the recorders used for digital recordings were of the cheaper kind. These units could have azimuth alignments, wow and flutter etc. that were all over the place. For me, it was the SOT/AOT principle--find a recorder that works and ensure that you always use it for playback. Mind you, not that was any guarantee.
It was further complicated by the fact that the processing of the 'analog' signal wasn't very efficient. Cheap computers didn't use effective limiting, nor did they use highly efficient data separators.
* Select on Test, Adjust on Test.
Garrard in the UK -famous for turntables- developed a cassette system in the 60s. It was available for home constructors but few, if any, adopted it. IIRC It was based on conventional 5" reels held in an outer case and ran at 3 1/2 inches/second like the RCA system. At a college I worked at in the early 70s they used a system based on these machines to make recordings off air of educational programmes. Commercially it was too soon eclipsed bt the Philips Compact Cassette.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind also used their own-brand cassettes. These used four mono tracks on 1/4 inch tape running at 1 7/8 inches per second. They were used by the very extensive 'Talking Books for the Blind' library for many years.
Ah, I remember the cassette fondly. Starting with recording the Top 40 on a Sunday evening, through my teenage years with various Walkmans (my favourite was an AWAI model with a 5 band graphic equaliser) where a C90 would just about give you two albums for the days listening, and finally using a TEAC high end transport with all the Dolbys which gave my vinyl setup a run for its money.
Sure the cassette tape was never designed for high fidelity recording and playback, but improving technology with both the electronics and magnetic formulations actually turned it into something that could deliver a petty damned good high quality sound. TDK chrome or metal were my weapons of choice in those days.
And I never had a tape get chewed up, although I had one that melted after I left it on the dashboard of my car on a hot day.
It was a perfect technology for it's time.
"And I never had a tape get chewed up, although I had one that melted after I left it on the dashboard of my car on a hot day."
Well, if you were a regular cassette user then you ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records for luck with cassettes. I'm a long-term fan of the cassette but I'd love a dollar or a quid for every one of mine that got chewed up.
Strangely we had a clear out and took some boxes of cassettes to the tip a few days ago.
I have a Walkman WM101 which I couldn't bear to part with. Apart from some buttons protruding slightly it is exactly the same size as a plastic cassette case.
It always made me think of the guy at his drafting board designing the compact cassette plastic case and what he would have said if he had been told in a few years someone would fit a complete auto-reversing Dobly stereo cassette player and battery in the space he was leaving.
I know what you mean, I've still got a Walkman WM-EX5 which I refuse to throw away despite having about two actual cassettes I could play in it! Mostly because the engineering still astounds me today, barely the size of the box the tape comes in and a slimline battery that would last for something like 36 hours of playback. Plus the mirror like cover appeals to my magpie like tendencies.
Happy memories of listening to music on it exploring whichever part of the globe my unplanned career moves took me to. Still always carry a biro on me even today...
A mag tract 0.6mm wide and a head gap of 2 micrometres in 1963. Just to put that in perspective very early IC's were something like 10x that.
I've always thought Phillips were a technology powerhouse but have made some awful timing mistakes. DCC for example. But they got CC and CD. That's quite a good run for 1 company.
I got a DCC system (actually two, a big one and a portable one) when Philips decided to call it quits and they went at fire-sale prices. I soon saw what was the problem: It had a near-perfect sound quality (really, my ears could not tell the difference between a CD and sound from a CD recorded on DCC), but making recordings was fiddly. You had to record a leader to a new tape (sort of format), and even after that operations were much slower than on analogue compact cassettes. And the heads had to be perfectly clean. For example, if I listened to analogue tapes (the advertised backward-compatibility feature), it usually refused to play DCC tapes until I cleaned the heads, because the lower-quality analogue tape left crud on them.
Yes, too fiddly. No wonder it did not sell. I still have the portable unit and a couple of DCC tapes, but haven't used it for years. Maybe it will become a collectors item someday (I even have the box and all accessories).
"And the heads had to be perfectly clean. For example, if I listened to analogue tapes (the advertised backward-compatibility feature), it usually refused to play DCC tapes until I cleaned the heads, because the lower-quality analogue tape left crud on them."
Yup, I've got a DCC deck with the exact same issues. Sometimes after playing analogue it'll sort of half play a DCC tape with occasional snatches of sound but usually it won't bother. Another problem is that the firmware is very much first (and last) generation and the occasional complete lockup requiring a power cycle isn't unheard of.
I remember seeing how the Dolby B NR system worked in secondary school. Interesting take to reduce tape noise, and if your boombox, Walkman or whatever didn't support Dolby NR but had a bass/treble knob, you could still listen 'em by cranking down on the Treble.
I have fond memories of those cassettes, even if I did use both good and crap quality stuff, and had more than a couple of cassettes break or get eaten by the reproducing device. Weeeee!!!!
One of the names in tapes was Nakamichi, who had a number of interesting products. The Dragon basically started again with tape handling - it actually pushed back the tape pad, had dual capstan and (IMHO the real killer) had auto-azimuth.
One of the problems with the tape heads was that the head azimuth angle often changed (most often because someone had done something daft). In most recorders, you could play with the cover taken off the loading tray which gave you access to the screw which adjusted this. As long as you used a reference tape you'd be OK, but it was never 100% unless you invested in some serious kit.
The Nakamichi Dragon did (at a massive price) quite simply away with this, and Nakamichi managed later to actually add this technology to a car player as well.
I'm amazed I remember this - this is all from the days I entertained myself after work building pirate radio station studios and where "editing" involved a herd of Revox A77s, a demagnetised cutter and miles of tape :).
Nakamichis were the choice of studios in my part of the world. Both radio and high end studios.
Also made great field TV audio pre-mixers. Combine with a Sennheiser, you were using THE definitive audio recording of the day. (still are as far as I know)
Tascam. *sigh* Bloody genius right there. A recording studio in a briefcase (anyone remember those? Briefcases?) Clear out your room of choice, sound proof, set up mics and off you go.
Tape eaters? Rule number one was CLEAN HEADS! This also served to clean the capstans and pinch rollers.
In many ways, old analogue was rather complicated and cumbersome, but also simple once you mastered the basic operation of the machine you were using. Which took less than a few hours.
Today? File converters, far too many format choices, DRM, sketchy burn software that works great until the update or vice versa. Mobo that may or may not have DRM built in and why the fuck do I have to do that much research just to make recordings? Discs that may or may not turn to coasters. (my favorite: controls buttons that work backwards)
Old days: load tape, push 2 buttons. 3 if you wanted standby
Today: see above.
Rant aside, another great article!
Great article. Fascinating to discover that tape was originally not *intended* for hi-fi or even music reproduction. That explains a lot. Later, its main strength was in being the only way to play your own music on the go. Like others I made copies of LPs for this purpose, but quality was always difficult to achieve. The biggest drawback was probably power consumption. A mid 80s walkman / getto blaster could not rewind many tapes before going flat (AAA batteries), I recall using a pencil just to save juice.
In the mid 80s a borrowed Ferrograph Neal unit appeared in our house, a massive thing of impressive weight and build quality. Even the mechanical buttons were electrified. Combined with expensive tapes, it made the best recordings I heard. But tape was never hi-fi by any stretch, it always had that bloomin' hiss. Dolby seemed like a crude low pass filter.
I also recall a Garrard "hi fi" unit where to insert a tape you put tour hand right into a big hole at the front and laid the tape in at about 45 degrees- ramble filter cut off
Look at how RCA cartridge and Philips look alike.... if Apple was in place of RCA they would have patented "a rectangle with two holes within" and nobody could have used that format. Instead patents were given away for free, and you could enjoy your tapes from a system to another - what a difference from today when everybody tries to lock you into their proprietary formats, and fire silly patents to anybody trying to improve a design...
Elcassette, was very similar to the RCA casstte shown in the article, wrt the slot for the tensioning arms but looked more like a jumbo compact cassette, with an almost identical window and spool wheels. Only ever saw adverts for them in National Geographic, in the early '70s. Another SONY propriatry format failure.
I was going to mention the Elcaset. Didn't know if anyone else remembered what was billed at the time as the audiophile successor to compact cassette. Had to go out for a few hours and now I see several people have chimed in about this failed format. What I distinctly remember was that a base model recorder at introduction was about $1000 (probably about $2500 in today's dollar) and that the format only survived a couple of years. since Sony was the only manufacturer making the cassettes I remember being very grateful that I hadn't had the cash to buy one only for it to turn into a $1000 boat anchor when you couldn't get tapes anymore.
I've ended up with an Elcasette recorder that used to be Mike Oldfield's portable recorder of choice. It has a single tape marked "Sea Shanties" which still plays. Can't say I've ever tried recording with it, but it's a nice thing to have in the "museum" of odd formats I've built up: alongside the Nakamichi, the DCC, the 1974 Pioneer quadrophonic 8-track cartridge player/recorder, the Tascam 8-track cassette multitrack, various Studer, Revox and Ampex monsters, an open-reel dictation machine that once belonged to Hammond Innes... - all designed to use the miracle format that is rust-on-plastic...
...coveted item - I remember 20-odd years ago buying a multipack (box of 12 or so IIRC) from Richer Sounds in Leeds, then being offered twice what I paid by a bloke after stopping off in a pub further down the Headrow. Black and gold always looked good...
Still have the Pioneer separates hifi system, but the boxes of "tapes for the car" have been out of site for ages... good stuff.
I went for the TDK Metal ones, for the embarrassing reason of the smell. Like a new car, or opening the shrink-wrap on some shiny gadget, the smell of a new Metal cassette was something special. Mind you, to buy a blank one was my paper-round for the week down the swanny.
Sure, sound quality isn't great, but the kids today do the same thing, compressed as heck digital versions not hissy analogue.
Sadly, having listened to Radio 1 recently I actually do believe that home taping did kill music.
The SA's were nice but if there were none in stock the AR ferric was a fine choice. The reason being your could redline them to buggary and they would still sound great.
I still miss the Saturday afternoons dubbing my latests fave compilations from the recent CDs I'd bought to play in the car for my travels.
Cleaning the transport, demagnitizing, tuning in the tape bias levels on my three head Sony Dolby S deck to then hook the Furukawa Phono cables direct from my Meridian 506 CD player into the back of the Sony to bypass the Pineer A400GTE amp. Just so there was a little more directness in the signal chain.
Of course I really can't be arsed with any of that nowadays.
TDK tapes were always my weapon of choice for audio cassette. Funnily enough, TDK video cassettes were crap. JVC tapes made great video recordings (and could be re-recorded many times) back in the day, and still play back with at least 90% fidelity today. Scotch videos were also a bit suspicious, despite their advertising propaganda:
I remember 'Makin Music' magazine and others championed That's audio tapes, but whilst on a par with TDK, they weren't anything special. My band's debut album was recorded on a Fostex X-26 with That's tape. All future recordings used TDK SA-90s (and were /slightly/ better for it). I preferred the Dolby-B of the Fostex to the DB-X of most other brands. A consistent (if slightly higher-level) noise floor suited our musical style better than the dynamic 'pumping' of DB-X.
Used a Denon cassette deck for stereo 'master' mixdown. Very nice machine, with variable bias, choice of Dolby B and C, etc. Gave it to a colleague for free when 100% digital recording at home became affordable (early '00s). No regrets.
Transferred the old cassette multitrack masters to digital in the late '90s and used some pretty impressive software to tart it up for remix and CD-quality release. Amazing results!
I tended to end up with TDK when I had money otherwise whatever I could find cheap, but TDK were good.
Video tapes, nothing bettered the Sony ProX tapes, strong plastic cases, snazzy shells, great tape formulation, still work well today, played back on the same portable, pity they topped out at L500
True - including Stock, Aitken and Waterman before X-Factor. Although the Hitman and Her didn't seem anything like as bad at the time, it was another step on the record-company-infomercial TV ladder. Maybe not quite as cynical as Cowell, and some of the SAW stable have become established in their own way (Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue, etc).
I've been told that this "portable" format of recording was a contributor to the downfall of the Iron Curtain. It allowed for people to have access to uncensored news that could be passed around in a compact format.
Now, I can't personally vouch for this claim, but it sounds pretty good to me.
"It allowed for people to have access to uncensored news"
Never heard of that back then in Moscow. For news anyone could use a shortwave receiver, which were made in Latvia, were widely available (as widely as the general shortage of everything allowed), could pick up just about any frequency you'd like (long waves, medium, short) and had helpful inscriptions on the dial - "London", "Paris", "Bombay" etc.
If you had some idle time you could listen to BBC World Service if you cared to retune regularly as the Beeb's transmitters were trying to outrun the jamming, or, if you didn't - you could just listen to the jammers. The sounds of the jammers were otherwordly - probably the first form of free-form electronic music in the world.
In any case it wasn't news that brought the Iron Curtain down but the economy.
"I've been told that this "portable" format of recording was a contributor to the downfall of the Iron Curtain."
Short-wave radio was more important, as VP remarked, but cassettes did make a dent in the curtain. Small dent here, small dent there, add some structural weaknesses into the mix, and the rest is history.
By today's standards, the craziest thing I've listened on the CC was few hours of speech by Gorbachev, given right after his rise to power. There, deeply buried in the hours of buzzword-compliant speech, lied the first signs of the coming changes, a breeze of fresh air. Those C60's were certainly well spent.
...better known as the "D6" or "Walkman Pro" -- a portable stereo cassette recorder about the size of a large paperback book, with specs near or equal to my component home deck. Introduced around 1979 or '80ish, it quickly became one of the recorders of choice among audio-geek Deadheads -- myself included -- who made bootleg tapes of concerts from seats in "the pit" behind the mix console table in the house PA "sweet spot". Mine cost around $US600 in 1986 -- about two weeks' worth of overtime -- and was usually mated with a pair of Superscopes or P80s borrowed from a sound tech pal of mine to to grab amazingly clean, crisp, fat audience recordings of pretty much every Dead gig in my city between 1986 and 1993.
Great article. Forgot about the Philips EL 3300, my first music playing device in my childhood bedroom. Start of a growing collection of tapes and development of "taste". Many models and brands came after it and ended also with a Philips, the DCC 730 but it played ordinary tapes surprisingly well. Only still recently saved a few rare recordings by connecting the digital out on that deck to the digital input on my soundcard. I guess the cassette age finally ended here!
Remember the "cassette tape" that was actually a radio tuner? It communicated with the cassette deck amplifier through the head - but how was power supplied - and how was it tuned?
In the mid 1960s there were some cheap transistor tape recorders. Reel to reel at the lowest speed on a small spool. The erase was just a permanent magnet touching the tape.
For my 15th birthday my parents bought me a compact second hand mains-powered Grundig with miniature valves - and a bright-blue? variant of the "magic eye" recording level indicator. Small reel to reel at the lowest speed - but with erase done by an AC field. It was resurrected from a family loft a few years ago - with a couple of tapes. Alas they were just my morse code practice sessions - no time traveller experience of hearing my youthful self imitating the Goon Show.
You mean the cassette adapters that you can still buy for plugging iThings and MP3 players into old car stereos? They work quite simply, by having a play/record head pressed up against the device's play/record head and transferring the headphone signal to the amplifier in much the same way as a transformer works.
I recall VHS HiFi emerging briefly in the mid/late '80s, as more TV programs began to broadcast in stereo. Basically your regular VHS cassette system with really juiced-up audio capable of recording/playing stereophonic audio. A sound tech friend of mine bought one in '87 specifically for recording audio, which, considering the format and hardware, had superb range and fidelity, especially at higher speeds.
About twenty-some years ago, said sound tech pal, some friends and I recorded a Dead show off of cable/satellite using two VHS decks: one regular VHS recording the video and telecast audio from the cable box, and the second -- the VHS HiFi deck -- dedicated specifically to recording the simulcast FM stereo off a local "classic rock" station (a 50,000 watt blaster) carrying the concert, with the audio outputs running to a patch strip feeding signal to three or four cassette decks. A Deadhead bootleg audio geek's paradise (and one wicked-assed party).
Yes, of course!
I had the Fergusson 3V43 (eventually retrofitted with a NICAM stereo card, when that started.)
It was a re-badged JVC machine with identical features, but more eurpoean sockets on the back, rather that all RCA connectors.
I had it plugged into my Pye black box gramophone/amplifier with the speakers either side of my TV (no stereo in them days!)
To get the slo-mo on the Ferguuson, you literlly had to hack two holes into the remote control and borrow two rubber bottons from elsewhere. The JVC had the full set of buttons, but the remote was identical!
I recorded a lot of radio audio onto E240's in half-speed mode.
The sound from the VHS music cassettes and feature films was really good.
The 3v43 also had analogue stereo tracks which you could record over. It was ideal for home-movie enthusiasts, because you could edit a movie together, then use the twin audio tracks for a commentary track and a mono background soundtrack, then 'mix' the stereo + dual audio when copying for distribution.
It's still in my garage, gathering dust, along with the old SCART, S-connector, DIN & RCA cables!
Re: LDS, above
It wasn't that the Philiips Audio Cassette wasn't stitched up with patents - it was. The genius of Philips was to say anybody could use them or make them, but they had to comply with Philips' specifications. Philips after all was, and is, a hardware company. the more cassettes out there, the bigger the market for players and recorders.
This is the way to grow a market.
That is not to say the cassette was perfect, it wan't. But it sure as hell was convenient ! Happy Birthday !
It's exactly what I've written - ensure a standard is a a standard and nobody tries to change it at its own only advantage is good (look at Apple refusing to use standard USB chargers...), because it ensure interoperability. Using too wide and silly patents to forbid anybody else using a form factor is silly.
After all I never owned a Philips player/recorder, I never liked the brand. I had Pioneer, Yamaha and Onkyo cassette decks, and Sony and Panasonic "walkman" - thereby Philips got only a share of a larger market - but probably it was better to ensure a standad is widely adopted and then lasts, intead of forcing people on a very proprietary standard used in a few devices which may not last long.
My brother saved a few weeks' of paper round money and bought a budget (might have been Alba) cassette recorder on a Saturday afternoon. We took it back home and set it to 'record' around about tea-time. I can still remember the sounds and conversations as if it was two months ago. It was /very/ weird hearing your own voice on tape (though everyone else sounded 'exactly like they do in real life'). Wish we still had that tape today - what a link to the past!
Those break off plastic tabs to let you prevent a tape from being re-recorded.
Ramming the holes full of cardboard so I could re-record them (or record over some pre-recorded unwanted x-mas present).
Sticking a my little finger inside the cassette player to push up the little prong (meant for for the recording prevention tab detection) and pressing record/play so that the input from the 3.5mm microphone input connected to my guitar would be amplified and turn my radio cassette unit into a portable guitar amplifier with no tape inserted.
And how many artists resisted the move to selling MP3s because the quality was rubbish yet had an entire back catalogue available on tape? Even as a teen I despised the dead sound that came from even the best tape decks. Sure you get "metal" tapes which offered far better sound quality but they were expensive.
The only good thing about them was they made home computing more accessible, though somewhat noisier.
I'd like to put you in a proper double blind test (in a decent acoustic studio) and see how easily you could detect a Nakamichi 680 cassette player or its kin from other top qualify sources.
Having been involved in such tests, I've seen the Golden Ear Brigade come a cropper many a time.
MASH DACs were great. Never heard a MASH CD player I didn't like.
My brother still uses my A400GTE (was one of the first to have the Tom Evan's Mod). We cleaned it all up a couple of years ago as it had 20 years of dust in it.
Lots of blown air and contact/switch cleaner later and it shone like new.
Bought that A400 the week Freddie Mercury died. So long ago......
my 763's are on their second crossover. we actually melted them one time - big bulges of melted plastic on the rear of the speakers. for whatever reason it wasnt loud enough so i hooked up the cd payer into the rec input of the denon and used the tapes amp as a preamp and then put the tape output into the a400. jesus it was loud. we were all screaming some song or other at the top of our voices when suddenley it went completely quiet....ahh, parties round my (well, my mums)house were great days!!
Given the limitations of the platform, it's amazing (and a tribute to all involved) how good cassette decks became: my Aiwa ADF 990 had fantastic sound quality (thanks to Dolby C and HX-Pro, jointly developed by B&O), reliable music search and track skipping (licensed from Star Systems SA - whoever they were) and even a tape counter that accurately displayed time elapsed and remaining on the cassette, constantly calibrated by the difference in reel and capstan speeds as the tape progressed. Pretty cool.
And as for the Nakamichi range of decks... Sigh.
Thanks for a delightful trip down memory lane. I still have a big original model Nakamichi 700 Tri-Tracer gathering dust in my hi-fi cabinet--plugged in, I'm sure, though I doubt it's been turned on for 15 years. Analog engineering at its finest. It was quite a chunk of my disposable income back in the day, and I thought it was worth every penny despite its occasionally annoying eating habits.
That RCA Victor promotional video, as with much of the infamous RCA Corp once headed by the infamous David Sarnoff, stinks to high heaven.
The video infers stereo is an RCA invention when it was in fact an invention of the brilliant English engineer Alan Blumlein. The Blumlein stereo pair was patented in 1931 some 27 years earlier than that promo:
Blumlein is also known for his work on TV (the EMI 405 line TV system, especially its synchronizing), RADAR and much other. Tragically, he was killed in a Halifax bomber crash in 1942 whilst testing WWII RADAR equipment.
RCA, under Sarnoff, was known for 'stealing' the work of others. When they objected it became one-man-against-Goliath-RCA legal battle and RCA screwed them into the ground.
- Edwin Howard Armstrong: screwed by RCA over patents for FM broadcasting and other radio circuits. Armstrong, after years of battles with RCA over patents, eventually gave up and committed suicide in 1954 by walking out the window of a multistory building.
- Philo Taylor Farnsworth, inventor of the image dissector (a video imaging tube), similarly screwed--this time with the help of Vladimir K. Zworykin, Sarnoff's technical 'partner in crime'. (Zworykin was the so-called* inventor of the iconoscope--an early TV camera tube whose technology largely depended on the work of other inventors.) Here's a video of the dynamic duo, Sarnoff and Zworykin, again rewriting history (notice Sarnoff's cleaver wording 'America's first all-electronic television system'--of course, the credit for that belongs to Blumlein and his EMI team, the changes made by RCA were essentially to convert the British 405 line system to 525 lines--hardly an invention per se:
* Kálmán Tihanyi, Sanford Essig and others - see the Wiki iconoscope article.
- Even music wasn't immune from RCA's lawsuits. A tune composed in the wake of a train crash in 1903 called the 'Wreck of the Old 97' became the subject of RCA litigation. This tune turned out to be the first million-seller ever, and of course RCA was in the thick of the litigation:
Throughout his career, Sarnoff bullied inventors and others who had very limited financial resources and thus little access to expensive legal teams. He wore them down until they sold their inventions for well below market value, or gave up, or, as in Armstrong's case, committed suicide.
This ruthless practice led to RCA becoming the largest electronics company in the world, which it was until Sarnoff's death in the early 1970s, it was only after that that Philips took the crown as the largest electronics company.
By then Philips' Compact Cassette was about 10 years old.
BTW: Also, for the record and to show that I'm not totally biased, RCA did make a major contribution to electronics both through genuine RCA patents and through many innovative manufacturing techniques, for instance (to mention only a few): the vidicon photo-conductive camera tube and of course the remarkable shadow mask colour TV display tube--that altered and dominated the course of colour TV and display technology generally for the next 50 years.
Like a trout to a lure, that comment baits.
For the sake of El Reg readers, I'll reply without using words such as 'deductive', 'inductive', 'validity', 'vel' etc., but I'll ask if you've ever spent time with Llull, Frege, Russell and perhaps even Gödel?
Of course, a 'yes' provides an explanation. ;-)
One small error: the EL3300 and its direct successors used five C cells, not AA; those wouldn't have lasted a C90. I know from experience. Lacking fresh C cells and a working mains adapter, I bodged five penlites in the battery compartment of my EL3302 using oodles of sellotape. It was hardly worth the effort.
I was big into cassettes in the 70s and early 80s and owned and used a wide range of machines.
I had a number of 'desktop' Philips models that all had pianokey-style controls. However, if you opened up the case you found that it was the same basic joystick contol mechanism with some very clevery mechanicals translating the various keypresses into the joystick movement.
One of the nice things about Philips kit was that (compared to almost all the Japanese kit) was that they had metal chassis that could be removed from the case, all the circuitry was on discrete boards that could be changed individually. Most of the Japanese units of the time (Akai, Sansui, Sharp, Sony and TEAC) had one big board inside and were very difficult to work on as everything was fixed to the case amd access was through the base. Even those that you could get out of the case were difficult to work on as they were often lop-sided and had to to propped up with bits of wood to get the moving parts (particulatly the capstan flywheel) off the bench surface. The Philips on the other hand, with their chassis, could be run on the bench as normal units.
I remember running a radio staion in the middle-east back then, using 1 turntable and 2 cassette decks as sources. The most important thing was the BIC pen!
Nice article (and a degree of 'fondness' in the comments)
I belong to that generation who considered a cassette collection essential.
Much of my teenage activity revolved around portable music systems.
It was the first technology to provide access to "my" music at any time or location.
Sometimes I am still a little overwhelmed by the idea of converting events into objects.
I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the set of essential tools every serious compact cassette needed:
1. Bulk Eraser - this big AC powered magnetic brick was used to deeply erase a whole tape in seconds, while dramatically reducing the hiss that got worse over time as tapes were played and rerecorded. These devices worked great on video tapes too.
2. Head Demagnetizer - with use the record/play heads would gradually build up a standing magnetic bias that would muddy the playback quality, and possibly permanently damage the recordings. To remedy this you either needed to wave an AC powered demagnetizer pencil over the head then smoothly take it away without turning off the power till several inches away, or in later years you could buy a small self-contained cassette complete with coin battery, electronics, and electromagnet that would apply a small burst of alternating magnetism to the heads then decay when the play button was pressed.
3. Tape Splicing Kit - not only to repair or edit recorded tapes, but also to replace worn or damaged leaders, which tended to fray or break before the recorded part of the tape failed.
4. Jeweller's Screwdriver - to open cassette when internally jammed or replace the shell with a new one once the teflon lubricant sheets (or wax ones on the cheapies) gave up the ghost.
5. Tape Head Cleaner and Pads - usually alcohol based liquid applied with q-tips or similar to remove minute magnetic particles shed from played tapes which would eventually degrade the higher frequencies.
Not everybody with a big tape collection had all of these, but serious audiophiles always did.
Great article, which, on a Monday morning has made me go all misty-eyed as I think back to wet early morning paper-rounds and various personal stereos: a Toshiba, with the the FF and RW buttons over the tape spools, and then a gorgeous aluminium Aiwa that was not much bigger than the cassette itself.
My first 'home' recorder was an Hitachi mono thing I got for Christmas in 1983 (along with Sky's Cadmium, the first proper album I ever owned). Being a withdrawn teenager, I used to put 'comedy' tapes of and my mates together but to make it sound even 'funnier', I used to let the batteries drain first so the tape would run slower. Playback at normal speed later meant that my voice was speeded up, thus adding the to the comedy gold!
The only problem I ever had was with cheaply manufactured tapes that the Hitachi would eat from time to time (some of the longer albums had to be put on to thinner tape) and would have me trying to tease the tape out of the mechanism. Sellotape worked wonders for sticking tape back together if it ever broke.
I used cassettes for doing 4 track recordings on my Tascam budget mixing studio (it used both sides to attain 4 mono tracks. Then 'bounced' tracks to gain more track space (record 3 tracks to one you now have 3 tracks free to add more sounds). All that music is sadly lost to time as the unit got sold off and the tapes condemned to the recycle bin.
I had a Sony Walkman of the yellow water resistant variety. I still have a few photos of me pimping it abroad. Constant fun adjusting azimuth (tape alignment) on my hi-fi.
I remember knackering my parents hi-fi by creating mix tapes. Not the usual recording of records with gaps between mind. But because I was into disco at the time I would hit the pause button repeatedly 'on-the-beat' and hit it again on the next track to time the change perfectly (or as close to as possible). It was like beat matching between two decks with an instant crossfade.
It's funny we switched the a better quality, more convenient (debatable) format such as CD only to go backwards in quality with MP3.
BTW Dolby NR really sucked.
It's a bit of a stretch for a mention following this excellent article but I thought somebody might also have the engineering marvel called the Sony NT1 which recorded digitally and helically on little cassettes about the size of a postage stamp. The little tapes were hideously expensive at about 10 pounds each in the early 90s but despite the tiny tape and cassette size you could get 120 min versions. I understand the BBC gave their reporters these because of the extreme portability and performance. Mine still works though the case surface has become sticky.
Brilliant article. It certainly brought back great memories of mine from the 80's. I was a guy whole bought my vinyl then taped it on cassette for daily use in either the home deck or later, my 'walkman-like' protable. I also used my home decks so much for taping compilations, albums, and playing them back incessantly, I kept wearing out the consumer grade units. I eventually had to buy the 2nd generation Revox cassette deck which was absolutely the living end. Anyhow, aside from wearing out a few sets of pinch rollers (too much cleaning with what we were 'supposed to use'), the Revox was a champ. It finally was sold a couple of years back to a collector.
I might also add, that the Sony MiniDisc was actually introduced here twice. Once to no interest, and about a couple of years later to some limited interest. (Or at least that is what my 'memory 1.0' seems to remember)
The best part of cassette for me was the planning, the fiddling of the myriads of options via front panel throw switches, reading about and then selecting the various kinds of tapes . . . it was wonderfully involving. Today, import CD, import to iPod. Mindless.
Oh well, good time, good times. I miss them but remember them fondly. Thanx again for the article!!
I don't know if anybody mentioned this but Uher made some cassette recorders for motion picture use that recorded a single monaural track on the full width of one side of a cassette. Obviously record time wasn't very long but it was intended to work with lightweight 16mm cameras that only held 15-20 minutes worth of film. The other feature on the one i saw was a synch connector that attached to the camera so audio and image were in synch.
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