Cassettes and tapes

Cassettes and tapes

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Cassettes, eight-tracks and open-reel tapes are, on the surface, the least-collectable commercially-sold carriers of music.

Tape is a rewritable medium carrying a magnetic analogue signal. There used to be a fear that putting a tape near a strong magnetic field would erase it. It’s a genuine fear and it generated one of the more widespread urban legends of the 60s and 70s.

So here it is …

The Rolling Stones had completed an album of new material, and were thrilled with the results. It was just before Their Satanic Majesties Request.  The thing was they’d decided to go back in time and record the set of new songs live in the studio as one continuous performance. The tapes had to be sent off for mastering for LP.  A junior employee was called and handed £10 for the taxi fare across the whole length of London. He thought about it, and realized that for a few shillings he could go by underground train, the tube, and pocket the taxi fare. Anyway, he arrived at Decca and due to the electro-magnetic fields on the train in its tunnels, the tapes were completely blank!  That’s why he’d been given the taxi fare. Tapes were never entrusted to travel by tube. Messrs Jagger and Richard were so depressed by the loss that that they never visited those songs again. It is the great lost Stones album, in their memory the best they ever did. 

You may have heard the alternative versions concerning The Beatles or The Who, and there’s a New York City Bob Dylan version too. Wow! we thought in the seventies, bummer! By the eighties though, the urban legend didn’t work. Hang on, the listener would say, I just went right across London on the tube listening to my Walkman, and the tape’s perfectly fine …  . Still, I wouldn’t put a tape near a strong magnet.

Cassettes ran at 1 7/8 inches per second, many commercial open-reel tapes ran at 3 1/4, not the 7 1/2 ips that domestic users reserved for quality recordings, let alone the 15 or 30 ips used in studios. The most famous semi-pro machine, the Revox A77, came in standard version (3.75 and 7.5 ips) and high-speed (7.5 ips and 15 ips). Higher speeds also allowed for more accurate editing with a razor blade and splicing block. Domestic tape was 1/4″ wide, then studios used 1/2″ and 1″ wide tape. (Cassette is 1/8″).

Cassette sound quality improved as chrome and other exotic metals were added, though surprisingly, old early Ferric Oxide ones have often survived better. All tape based formats will naturally degrade and shed oxide, and if the tape is not played the signal prints through to other layers of tape giving an echo effect. Valuable tapes should be spooled through every few months. They never were.

Even master tapes may have to be baked at low temperatures then passed over the recording heads just once for remastering. Tape also stretches, though modern copying systems can correct for this.

An engineer told me about trawling through the BBC tape archive. The oldest open reel tapes from the 1950s and early 1960s were thick tape and thickly-coated and have survived better than more exotic 70s and 80s tapes, and that is also true of the open-reel tapes I have.

With better open-reel recorders you could set the “bias” to ferric or chrome tape. When a signal was being recorded, an inaudible high frequency tone was used to facilitate the magnetization of the particles in the tape coating, and this was called the bias. The tone was different for different coatings (see later under cassettes).

With semi-pro machines you adjusted the bias to the type of tape (ferric, chrome, metal) and then also to the brand of tape (Emitape, Memorex, Sony, TDK, BASF etc). This was a mildly fiddly business which used a test signal. You did it every time you loaded a tape, even if you were using the same brand.

Only the extreme top-end cassette machines had “bias” controls, but the machine could auto-detect the type of tape (ferric, chrome, metal), using auto-bias which sounds clever, but it was simply switched  by the configuration of the holes on the back edge.

Tape speed is important (see How much can you hear?)

The Sony TC-266 domestic open reel machine below states the frequency response at different speeds in IPS (inches per second):

30-20,000 Hz at 7 1/2 IPS
30-13,000 Hz at 3 3/4 IPS
30-7000 Hz at 1 7/8 IPS

It was often said that because of inaccuracies in lining up tape, and the possibility that the motor was a fraction faster or slower than the supposed speed, tape often sounded better on the machine on which it was recorded, than it did on a different machine.

Open Reel recorders also came as two track (stereo, taking up the whole tape), or 4-track … one stereo track in each direction. The early domestic 4 tracks even allowed you to record four mono tracks. I doubt that anyone did.

Vanguard tape and boxcJPG copy

Joan Baez Vol. 2: Vanguard Stereolab 7.5 IPS open reel tape. My own 1971 Sony tape recorder.

In Britain far fewer commercial open-reel tapes were ever issued. Most issued pre-recorded tapes were at 3  3/4 ips (inches per second). A few were at 7 1/2 ips, which is noticeably better quality, and come in a box about 7” square, so fitting in with your 45s.

I’ve seen even those tapes designed to put generic music onto your homemade holiday movies at £10 to £15.

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With The Beatles: The Beatles. Parlophone UK open reel tape. Mono 3 3/4 IPS. On sale on eBay at £99 in 2020.

The very few Beatles open reels start at £25, and often go for £100, and just checking today there were examples at £350 to £650 but that would be in sealed boxes. They were mainly released in 3 3/4 IPS, with some at 7 1/2 IPS. The George Harrison All Things Must Pass and Concert for Bangla Desh had to be 3 3/4 IPS to fit on one tape.

This is an area where collectors get red in the face. You wouldn’t actually play one. It would shed oxide. The value is purely for the box and name. Vinyl collectors hate to admit to acquiring stuff they don’t play. With open-reel, you’d have to admit that.

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8 track stereo with its slip case with compact cassette for size comparison

Eight track stereo cartridges never took off in Britain as they did in North America. This format with four side breaks, often mid-song, was sturdy enough for in-car use and played at twice the speed of cassette, on wider tape, in a continuous loop. You could press a button to switch between the four “sides.”

The Eight-track boxes have value too. At a Chevrolet Corvette show in Britain, I saw and thought I heard working eight-tracks in a beautiful 60s Corvette appropriately playing Best of The Beach Boys. I expressed my surprise and admiration to the owner, who lifted the seat to reveal a concealed CD player. Still the 8 track peeping out of the Corvette’s iconic red and cream dashboard looked so right.

The Band 8 track 2 copy copy

The Band: The Band, 1969 Capitol Eight-track cartridge

You would be ill-advised to play 8-tracks too often, though a perennial issue with tape players is the lubricant drying out of the spindles if machines are left unplayed for months or years. The Bee Gees one came from a large box full, which were priced at £2 to £3 for most artists. I expressed surprise that there were any 8-tracks on sale. The shop owner told me he’d bought a job lot of two thousand cheap and they were in his garage.

Tommy James (of Tommy James & The Shondells) had some thoughts on the introduction of eight-track. They were supporting Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign in 1968:

Everybody was buying albums. It was like going from reading poetry to reading novels. Eight-track tapes came onto the market and with them the accompanying boom boxes to play them on. Until that point you could hear an entire album only on your stereo at home. Albums didn’t travel well. You never heard an album outside your own rig. Now they were portable. When we left for the fall (1968) campaign, it was a singles market. When we got back it was an albums market.
(Me, The Mob & Music, Tommy James, 2010)

Tommy James’ view is mechanistic, and over-stated except for the last two sentences, but there is an element worth considering.  Eight-track in the USA did make whole albums available in-car, and the USA has the long distances and big lazy engines ticking over gently to appreciate in-car music.

The contrary view is that artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan were already-album  focussed by 1965, if not 1964. The change in the music was more important than the means of delivery. The shift to albums was happening in Britain at the same time, and yet cassette players in cars were still an object of envy in 1970, three years after James’ statement. And there were small portable record players that could play 7” discs. They didn’t work.

Dylan 8 track

Dylan: Bob Dylan, CBS, ‘Made in England.’

British 8-track cartridges are fairly rare.  This one is still shrink-wrapped, and though I’ve railed against keeping records shrink wrapped elsewhere, I will never have an 8-track player.  It came with a batch of unusual Dylan recordings … foreign 45s, bootlegs, at a friend’s secondhand record shop. It had been collected because it’s a rare Dylan album. The CD was only ever available very briefly and has not been re-issued. The Dylan album was Columbia’s 1973 revenge / blackmail when Dylan moved to Geffen’s Asylum label. The message was clear: we have a lot more like this in the vault that we can release if you don’t return to Columbia. If you think Can’t Help Falling in Love being murdered by Bob is good in-car listening, you are in a minority. The instructions on the pack are fiddly. You should clean the tape heads regularly, disengage it from the machine by one inch when not playing, and avoid strong sunlight. It doesn’t sound ideal for an open top Corvette or Mustang in the California sun then.

My writing partner, Bernie, had a Swiss registered left-hand-drive Austin Mini with an 8 track player. He only had one cartridge, Rubber Soul by The Beatles, and continuous loud replay calmed somewhat the terror of sitting in the passenger seat of a tiny LHD car at 80 mph, so sitting on the wrong side. One night on an icy road from Oxford in a blizzard, Bernie told me that  an eye surgeon had thrown away his spectacles when he was eleven, saying ‘You won’t need those again.’ I asked him to read the number plate of the car he was currently tail-dragging. ‘No one can read that,’ he said. ‘I can. And that blue Escort over there in the slow lane.’ ‘What blue Escort?’  We stopped at a petrol station. We tested reading a number plate. He couldn’t do it at ten metres. I never drove with him again.

cassette 8 track ad copy

The sleeve illustrated is an LP inner sleeve from a 1971 CBS LP. They were explaining 8-track and cassette, and promoting them too, when you bought a vinyl LP. Note that in-car convenience was the selling point, together with size: The size of a cigarette packet it says. They also thought it practically indestructible and a childs (sic) play to operate. They hadn’t factored in print-through or leaving it in a car window in the sun. CBS were more vociferous in promoting tape media than the other majors.

The Who Live at Hull

The Who Live at Hull 1970, double CD set, 2012

The iconography of tape retains interest from Bob Dylan & The Band’s The Basement Tapes on.  The Who’s 2012 live release on CD  The Who in Hull 15-2-70 replicates a battered Scotch tape box complete with scuff marks, sellotape marks and handwritten title. We know that The Who did not record that show on standard tape, bought in a 5.25 inch box, nor did they use commercially available Scotch tape, but the nostalgia appeal is to collectors who remember the open reel era.

I’m not going to knock cassette.  I first met a Philips cassette player in 1971, teaching English. As happens so often, the early models were highly-specified so that twenty years later, those Philips machines were still in use, while more elaborate machines had arrived and died. We wrote the material and released over one hundred spoken voice / ELT cassettes over thirty years.  Early on we did open-reel too.

cassettesPV KV

Some of my ELT cassettes …

Cassettes came in four basic types, each with a different bias. Type I was ferric oxide, the original magnetic tape. Type II was CRO2, or Chrome Dioxide also known as High Bias.  Type II also embraced Cobalt coatings.

Maxell XL11

Maxell XLII tape. The II means Chrome. “Position -High” 100 minute tapes were late 1990s.

Type III was a hybrid, Ferrochrome (FeCr) tape (and unusual). Basically, Type I ferric tapes had stronger bass, and Type II chrome tapes had stronger treble. Type III combined both layers, one ferric, one chrome. By this point, cassette machines had settings for both types of bias, and manufacturers were reluctant to install a third. Listeners also said the treble wasn’t up to chrome, and the bass wasn’t up to ferric, so a compromise.

Sony Metal cassette

Sony Metallic 90. Type IV (Metal) Position tape

Type IV was metal, set to Metal Bias. It was said to be harder wearing and definitely it had the best sound reproduction. Hardware manufacturers were willing to go for installing Type IV settings, especially as most of them manufactured the more expensive metal cassettes too. Yes, Type II cost more than Type I and Type IV cost the most.

This was all important because so many blank cassettes were used for home recording … most commercial pre-recorded releases were bog-standard ferric tape. Britain’s reluctance to use 8-track meant that compact cassette was able to sweep the in-car market from 1971 onward. In-car availability was important and cassette, often recorded from your own collection was the format of choice, That moved on to making cassettes for a portable player and eventually to making cassettes for a Walkman.

TDK D46 cassette

TDK Type I, Normal position. D46 tape … so Ferric

TDK had their eyes firmly fixed on the home taper. Cassettes originally came as C30, C60, C90 and C120, indicating their length in minutes. It was always irritating when you taped an LP which usually had no more than twenty-three minutes a side. If you used a C60, did you leave seven minutes blank, then fast forward and turn over every time? Or did you continue to the end of the side? If you used a C90 you could get an LP on each side, but they might be by totally diverse artistes, which is always irritating when trying to find things. So TDK introduced the short-lived D46. Twenty-three minutes a side. Clearly designed for taping an LP which was (technically) illegal.

TDK CDing cassette

TDK CDing 2 cassette- mid 1990s … Type II … Position Chrome

Home recording on cassette persisted past the vinyl LP taper and well into the CD era, with people recording from their CDs for the car (before common CD car players) or recording friends’ CDs. That boosted sales of more expensive tape types so as to get more of that CD information. TDK even re-named their Type II cassettes as CDing 2 just to make it clear what they could be used for if you hadn’t worked it out. Those companies which were related to record labels, like Sony, EMI, Philips and BASF didn’t do that, just as they had eschewed TDK’s “D46” format..

The tabs on the rear edge of cassettes were important. There weren’t any on pre-recorded tape, just holes. When you had carefully recorded a tape, you could break off the tabs on the back edge, which meant it couldn’t be recorded over. Then later if you changed your mind, you placed a piece of Scotch tape or Sellotape (depending on whether you spoke American or British English) across the holes, and hey presto, it was recordable again. Some people did it with the free pre-recorded cover-mount CDs that came with magazines if they disliked the content. If you look at the Sony Metallic tape above, you will see there is Sellotape covering the holes on the top right. I must have tired of Bananarama and re-used it.

The cassette format was resilient. While Japanese education switched easily to CD with instant track selection, European and UK schools soldiered on grimly with cassette players until the point where they started loading the material onto central servers and using whiteboards.

Cassette for music is contentious among collectors of older recordings. Five or six  years ago, I would have sniffed and said ‘no value.’ By 2018 a few  magazines were appearing with cassette cover-mounts again. There is a magazine devoted to cassettes in San Francisco. Collecting is a nostalgia market after all, and for many people, cassettes were the music carriers of their formative years. There is interest in mixtapes, said to give more pleasure to the compiler than the receiver, and you could buy packs of colourful pre-printed cassette box inserts on which to write your mixtape lists. 

 Cassette was the medium for many audiobooks, and as downloads suit audiobooks particularly well (16 CD or cassette sets are expensive and you usually only listen once), many old audiobooks have never been put onto CD.

Old cassette box sets of audiobooks can be expensive, especially word-for-word unabridged recordings. My chief regret on not having a cassette deck in the car any longer is the redundancy of so many audiobook sets, such as the complete Lord of The Rings. Yes, you can copy them as MP3 files, or convert them to CDs, but you have to do it in real time, and it’s tedious background noise if you have the speakers on. In cassette’s heyday, you could buy domestic high speed copying decks to dub cassette to cassette at 2X, 4X or 8X speeds. As with any tape medium, each generation of copying loses sound quality, and higher speeds lost more quality than real time.

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cassette head cleaner tape – dry abrasive type

Cassette player heads need cleaning, and cleaning often. A cotton bud and wet cleaner is far better than abrasive cleaning tape, but is useless for car players where you may end up losing the cotton bud deep in the works. We had four 24-booth cassette-based language laboratories at the school I used to teach in, they were in use all day, and every machine was cleaned daily. Tapes shed oxide and eventually the head has brown stuff all over its mirrored surface. The same is true of open reel tape, and for master recordings they’re cleaned frequently. It’s no worse than taking the fluff off a stylus.

The cleaning cassette here is a wet cleaner with a bottle of cleaning fluid in the pack. I prefer a cotton bud myself. A pencil is an essential tool …

Cassette head cleaners came in two types … dry or wet. The wet had a special tape that you applied cleaning fluid to, and worked far better.

This is why you needed a pencil, or a Bic biro.

The pencil was an essential tool for untangling cassette tape and spooling it back into the reels. Players had a habit of stopping suddenly causing tape to spew forth. The pencil was used for rewinding. We were doing weekly comedy sketch shows for foreign students and at first used open reel with coloured leader tape separating sound effects. This became tedious because we often did things in a different order, or mixed sketches from different shows which meant re-doing the tapes, so we went over to one sound effect on one cassette. Then the pencil was essential to wind the tape past the transparent leader tape so as to cue it for instant sound.  Then I discovered that radio stations used two and a half minute per side C5 cassettes for putting on the adverts, and these had no leader, so it was simply rewind, play and instant sound.

Cassettes were the medium for some early punk releases on one-off labels. Some unique magazine cover-mount cassettes were produced. Rare Record Guide admits cassettes, cassette EPs and cassette singles, not that many are listed. The question of condition becomes confused when you can’t play it, and anyway cassettes were extremely machine dependent. A cheap cassette player has nowhere near the dynamic range of a four-figure 1980s Nakamichi deck, nor do any commercial cassette copies.

Factory cassettes

Brotherhood cassette

Factory cassettes, with postcard insert and box twice the necessary size

Cassettes with commercial content appeared from 1970, joined by cassette singles in 1982. By 1999, cassette singles had gone. 

Factory label  cassettes sometimes crop up at decent prices (The Sex Pistols Heyday interview cassette on the Factory label is worth £50 in the gold cassette version). The boxes were twice the size they needed to be, with textured boxes and inserts with track listings on the reverse of a colour insert. Factory also did box sets of cassettes.

You Crazy Fool Grooner copy

Alan Groover: You Crazy Fool, 7″ single 1978

In 1978, cassettes were cool. Witness the cover design of You Crazy Fool by Alan Grooner, on Anchor Records, not only lined up to look like a cassette, but like a hand-labelled cassette at that.

The cassette was seen back then as being as much of a danger to the record industry as downloads now. The attempts to improve its intrinsic hiss (Dolby B noise reduction in 1970, Dolby C in 1980 ) and low fidelity (Chrome tape, then in 1990 super metal tape) were seen as exacerbating the problem. There was a school of thought that tape hiss was preferable to the loss of high end when using Dolby.

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Cassette’s greatest boost was the introduction of the first personal stereo, the Sony Walkman, in 1979, bringing a carriage full of people with headphones on, tunelessly singing along to their personal soundtracks for the first time. Walkman was soon an official word in the dictionary. I later had a CD Discman which weighed a ton.

Cassette was nowhere near as dangerous as the industry feared, as it turned out, and the intervention of the CD format gave the industry another twenty-five odd years. After the initial flurry of £500 CD players … this was a large sum of money in 1982, equivalent to £1800 today  … CD players fell in price rapidly, undercutting hi-fi cassette players by the late 80s. We used a Nakamichi for doing spoken voice copy masters – which were taken from Revox A77 open reel recordings. I assumed that you used the best you could. In the late 80s, I was in a studio at a TV station, and passed through the room where they were doing bulk copies of adverts on cassette for radio stations. To my surprise, they had banks of £150 Rotel cassette machines in contrast to our £800 state of the art Nakamichi, using metal tape. The engineer told me the main advantage of top-end machines was consistent motor speed. He said there were basically only three types of recording head … cheap, medium and expensive. By the Rotel level, you already had the expensive one. They ran speed tests and after about a year the mid-level machines started to fail them, and went in a skip and were replaced. He said the economics made sense.

It’s far easier and cheaper to stamp out CDs than load machines with cassettes and run them from end to end, even at high speed. The industry thought CD would eradicate copying as the cassette copy would be inferior to the CD. Little did they realized how little consumers cared about sound quality, nor how soon recordable CDs would appear.

The DAT (Digital Audio Tape) was introduced by Sony in 1987 as a CD-quality recording format, and was even smaller than a cassette. It never took off as a commercial format, but was used extensively in recording. I had a DAT player (and a portable DAT player) because for several years that was the standard studio copy for checking quality on our spoken voice recordings.  All the studios we used ran twin DATs locked together for recording spoken voice, because engineers simply did not trust the tiny width tape in them.  I don’t know whether breakages were frequent, but engineers feared them. Bands and solo performers routinely ran DATs from the mixing soundboard too, both to archive their live work, and as a way of checking their own performance quality.

The labels that came inside some DAT boxes reflected that DAT almost instantly became a professional rather than domestic medium. You always had a safety copy … the one which had run in the second machine.  I guess the manufacturers regularly doubled their money as a result. DAT being a tape medium, also required head cleaning cassettes.

MiniDisc or MD came from Sony in 1992 as a further attempt to replace cassette, and commercial MiniDiscs were produced and issued of popular albums.  Why did Sony keep producing new formats? Maybe it was selling hardware. The ability to burn ordinary CDs easily made MD obsolete. Mini Disc was the favoured format for those bootlegging live concerts (allegedly) as sound quality was good and the size made concealment easy. Bootleggers had jackets wired up with microphones for stereo and concealed mini discs. As they had a 74 minute or 80 minute playing time, I don’t know how they changed discs.

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The industry failed to guess the forthcoming revolution of falling expectations in sound quality. Yes, cassette copies sounded worse than CDs. Then CD copiers came in with CD Audio blanks paying a royalty to copyright agencies, then CD burners came in on computers. Then downloads took over and MP3 players arrived.

2001 was the crunch time, with both cassettes and MDs falling 70% in sales in one year.  People are happy to listen to low quality MP3s. They don’t even bother with WAV and Apple Lossless or FLAC digital formats to improve quality. One of the reasons for the resurgence of vinyl is this. While vinyl can compete with CD because it sounds different, for a generation weaned on MP3s, vinyl sounds spectacularly better.

cassettes Rough Trade 2014 copy

Cassettes are finding a nostalgia-fuelled come back. The picture above was taken in Rough Trade, Brooklyn in 2014, and it’s the “new cassette” section of indie bands. Record Store Day has had some cassette releases from 2014 onward. Between 2013 and 2018, cassette sales increased by 408 %. In the first half of 2018, 18,500 copies of eighty titles were sold in the UK. The best seller was a special glitter covered cassette edition of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Golden’ album.

Then in the first half of 2020, 65,000 cassettes were sold. By year end, sales should pass 100,000 for the first time since 2003.

In 2022, a UK record store owner told he had a major corporate record buyer from Japan in, seeking secondhand cassettes. He had boxes in the back room, and the Japanese buyer bought six hundred to ship to Japan for re-sale.

See also:

  • Cassette singles
  • Analogue and Digital recording
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