Cassette Tapes: Why I still Love you

This is not my attempt to rationalize Cassette Culture. Nor will I try to convince any skeptics to join me and the two readers like me in that culture. It's an attempt to explain why I still love the cassette tape as a format, and how that might dovetail with the surprise resurgence of a recording/playback technology that most of the world agrees to be utterly obsolete.

Proof there is at least one person in Brooklyn not hip to Cassette Culture.

Yes, resurgence. Lest you think the sum total of 21st century cassette users are me, the two readers above, and a smattering of waxed moustache, bespoke Amish work-wear hipsters, I would point out that Urban Outfitters now has a cassette section with current releases from Taylor Swift, Kanye West, and Chvrches.

What? Your trusty Aiwa needs more than a dusting after 25 years in storage? No problem, UO will also sell you a brand new portable cassette player to go with your tapes for $38 USD.

As a herald of the resurgence, this article is late to the game. A dozen years ago Thurston Moore wrote a book, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, which celebrates the look and feel of the mixtape as art.

A 2016 full-length documentary, Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape features Henry Rollins, Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, Sarah Bethe Nelson, and the inventor of the medium, Lou Ottens among others. Many of the stories featured in the film describe the cassette in it's heyday as the key component in a global underground distribution network for cutting-edge and non-commercial art.

Throughout the 1970's the Bronx was alive with parties in basements and parks. The sounds of a brand new musical language were spreading via cassette recordings of performances by legends like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and other Hip Hop pioneers. By 1980 the hardcore punk scene was grabbing the East Village by the throat and again there were no labels, no contracts, just self-released cassettes – this was the way the raw new music declared itself and spread. At the same time in the UK, something similar was happening in the Post Punk and Industrial music scene.

It was the lowly cassette that enabled banned and censored music to infiltrate the Iron Curtain, bringing western music and ideas to eastern bloc citizens on un-labeled cassettes, and underground music from behind the curtain back out to the west.

Add to this millions of Gen Xers taping music off the radio that they had no other access to, the care and attention that went into mix tapes made for friends and loved ones, and the whole Taper movement of recordists following bands like the Grateful Dead and you start to understand the depth of the feelings many cultivated for the format: beyond mass affordability and portability, it was the recording medium everyone had access to. It became personal, individual and important in infinite ways.

Growing up a budding audiophile in the late ‘70s and ’80s I embraced tape as well as LP, but among my friends cassette was the universal format, and I was the guy who made mix tapes for everyone.

My trusty and beloved Walkman Pro Jr. with a few of the tapes it has recorded.

I was meticulous with the J-cards, getting as much legible information on them as possible, often resorting to color-coded pens. Coming from a family of musicians I've also accumulated cherished live recordings of my mom who was a classical pianist. In the ‘90s I began playing in a few bands in the East Village and of course I was the resident recordist in all of them, using my trusty Sony WM-D3 Walkman Professional Jr. to document hours of practice, demos and of course live shows.

There is also a tactility to cassette playback that I find very satisfying and which is the main quality that I find missing in computer file-based playback.

When you play a music file on a hard drive there isn't really anything happening. It resembles a quartz digital watch: just numbers standing in for something, an illusion.

And like the quartz watch, digital–music playback can be made higher and higher “resolution” by dividing the data into smaller and smaller pieces forever. But as in Zeno's Dichotomy Paradox those pieces of the event can never get infinitely small, never actually disappear to become the thing itself. Behind the screen there are files and software, sounds being manufactured according to a digital map of an event, but there is no THING happening. No event.

The mighty Dragon.

A cassette tape contains a physical impression of an event, spooled up neatly and carefully stored on its fine ribbon. When you play the tape, this ribbon is guided precisely across the playback heads and the event is recreated. The re-creation during cassette playback is in itself an event. Things are happening: motors are whirring, gears meshing, belts turning, heads gracefully camming into place. A cassette deck is full of activity, like a mechanical watch, using gears, levers and motion to signify the passage of time.

To further abuse the horological analogy, a higher-quality tape deck improves on an average one in ways similar to those a higher-quality mechanical watch might over an average one.

More advanced design, higher precision, finer tolerances and better craftsmanship can equate to better performance. These decks perform a complex and incredibly precise dance in order to convey with as much fidelity as possible, the event contained on the cassette. Capstans, pinch rollers and heads like balance wheels, hair springs and gear trains. And as it unfurls, the tape is then ever-so-gently wound back up into the shell and stored away for the next time. Some of the legendary decks even have the equivalent to “grand complications” in horology: the Nakamichi Dragon with it's astonishing real-time automated azimuth adjustments, or the amazing RX series decks that perform auto-reverse by physically flipping the cassette around and playing the other side.

My ZX-9 playing a hand-decorated cassette-only release from AWOTT.

And you can see it all happening right there, through that little window in the door of the tape deck. Slow and steady — the tiny reels revolving, moving the event from before to after. This steady passage of time is a quality cassette shares with its open-reel cousins.

It's not a medium for those in a hurry, it is not easy to skip tracks or find just that one favorite passage. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the pace and momentum, the temporal sure-footedness and sense that the quanta of the music are never taken apart and reassembled. The moments of performance remain continuous. Never desiccated and rehydrated but saturated like a summer peach.

The philosophical and nostalgic attractions of the cassette tape for me are real.

Sonically it's as much of a mixed bag as any hi-fi format. The vast majority of cassette playback throughout history has been mid-fi at best, just like the playback of LPs, 78s, CDs, FM, and all the rest.

And like those other formats, cassette playback done at the highest level can be a very musical, transparent, and satisfying source; with the advantage over most of those other formats that you can, with surprising ease, bypass many generations of production and hold in your hand a tape recorded live at the musical event itself.

A pile of tapes, mostly new releases, but also a few wonderful old ones.

Maybe you're holding a mixtape that was made for you by someone who cared enough to spend a great deal of time on it. Or simply appreciating the intimate, handmade quality of a new release from a lesser-known, unsigned musician who wants to reach out to their audience more directly than just posting files to an Internet server.

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this, now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to find that tape I recorded in '97 of my old band at Brownies in the East Village before it closed.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

"It's not a medium for those in a hurry, it is not easy to skip tracks or find just that one favorite passage. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the pace and momentum..."

Exactly.

Back in the day, a good cassette mix tape was a curated party on mini-reels that magically created synergy with the mood and flow of a party. It was the soundtrack for the evening.

Now, any dope with a 'smart' phone or the ability to bang on a keyboard can usurp a playlist and wreak havoc with a barrage of 45 second clips of songs before another idiot joins the cacophony with his own tangentially imposed snippets. BLECH!

I love when a host has prepared a play list for the evening and I enjoy existing in his or her universe for my time at the party.

LPs are similar - people can't run up to the turntable and bring forth sonic chaos from a phone.

Thanks for the great take, John!

Ortofan's picture

... released on the audio cassette tape format.

Nakamichi is likely gone forever (except on the secondary market) but what are the chances that a company such as Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer or Yamaha - or even Sony or Technics - might see fit to bring a cassette recorder back to the market? Not much R&D would seem to be needed - just pick a discontinued product and restart production.

It would also help if Maxell would resume making Type II blank tapes. Unfortunately, TDK and Sony seem to have vacated the blank tape market. A revival of Type IV tape is probably expecting too much. National Audio Company may be the last hope for new blank tapes.

DeFgibbon's picture

but there are a great many Naks around on the used market, including many bargains like the CD series, that will always perform better than any new deck that is likely to come out. Many techs can do a fair job keeping them running, and for those more serious about the format, specialists like Willy Hermann can tune up a Nak deck to as good as new or better performance.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

...love this!

I grew up on the far side of the Iron Curtain, and still remember the reverence with which my dad spoke about his friend's smuggled-in Nakamichi.

And I still treasure my tiny stash of Sebadoh cassette-only releases, decorated by hand, presumably by Lou Barlow, with sparkly star stickers.

Great article, John!

DeFgibbon's picture

Thanks Alex!

mcloud's picture

Oh, the hours spent & enjoyed crafting mixtapes on my first big-buck purchase, a Nakamichi CR3A. Pride in perfecting the 'PFO' (Professional Faade Out)! I still enjoy them via a dual-well Onkyo auto reverse deck. Awaiting the Mix Tape documentary from amazon. Thank you!

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