Rewind! The Cassette is Back.

Cassette tapes on bandcamp!

“The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry released their report of 2 million cassette tapes sold worldwide… Sales in the UK alone tripled last year.”


When I told my parents I was writing about cassette tapes they actually laughed at me. My dad is always very calm so his jokes tend to land hard: “I can go out to the garage and dig up your old Raffi tapes – you could write about that.” I admit it’s probably perplexing for hip baby boomer parents, who feel like it was just yesterday they bought you your first CD burner (remember those?). Growing up, I was either cherishing their beaten up vinyl collection or too busy spending their money on inkjet cartridges for custom CD-R labels to covet any real cassette tape collection. For me, tapes were just the lo-fi, unsexy middle period that I was born into. The cheap way to do storytime. And now that I think about it, Baby Beluga is probably among the last cassette tapes my parents ever bought. As teenagers we used our car tape decks, but only to plug in our Discmans or mp3 players. So what gives? Why are we talking about tapes again? And how is it possible that last month, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry released their report of 2 million cassette tapes sold worldwide? Sales in the UK alone tripled last year.

Everyone who, like me, all but abandoned cassette tapes more than a decade ago, harbors several conceptions about tapes which, really, are misconceptions: Tapes are “lo-fi”; Tapes are clunky and ugly; Tapes are hinky and outdated; and bands who use tapes are pretentious and/or still in their “demo” stages. Well, guess what – all this conventional knowledge is wrong, and now that I’ve figured that out, I’m hoping to dispel these notions for you, too.

Let me take you first to the heart of Oakland, California, to a little urban cabin dwelling in a back lot off of 29th Street. This is where D Vikram Babu lives, in quiet comfort, with his stash. On the wall above his desk are more than 100 cassette tapes that he’s amassed just this year. Vikram calls himself Tape Famous, and has become an avid tape collector, as well as manager of a corresponding reviews blog. The rest of his collection is in storage in Ann Arbor, Mich., but he fancies the idea of starting from scratch. His room is tidy and impeccably organized, and there the tapes sit, in clean presentation, in a large pine wood storage display from the Napa Valley Box Company.

Vikram, Tape Famous

“When I look at that wall of tapes,” he says, “I can really make quick identifications. It’s even faster than vinyl because you have to flip through vinyl. But when I look at that, I know exactly what I’m feeling. I like that method of selection because it involves that sense of sight too. I don’t think scrolling through your computer is rich enough.” And it seems obvious now, watching him stand there before all the tape spines – in ranks, all facing at attention, thick, colorful, and boldly typefaced – this is the best way to survey a collection. Vikram, who is a web developer by day, has a large collection of mp3s which he listens to at work, but at home, his tapes are how he retreats from the digital world: “I actually find it less taxing. I’m not very good with names, so I find it easier just to look, and then stick a tape in.”

There’s this myth of tapes being lo-fi; it’s not only pretty much untrue, but tapes are laterally versatile in their own way. Professionally dubbed, or ProDub tapes (not the ones you’d buy in the store), come in different frequency ranges, the highest of which go up to 20,000 hz – if you require better than that you’re probably stressed out enough by your super-human ears anyway. Short of optimum frequency range, Vikram mentions how different kinds of tape can be used to different effects: “The highest frequency response ones they recommend for like, synthesizer music, whereas jazz you might get a different kind of tape. You don’t have that with CDs or vinyl, it’s just one kind of material. The tape itself changes how it sounds.” In addition to having the unique quality of being both a recording and a listening/consumer format, tape also requires a certain amount of forethought and creative planning. “There’s an end product in a way, whereas digital can seem so vast and editable. I know friends with Bandcamp sites who have altered tracks after they released them, and that’s ok, but you definitely have to make a commitment in order to finish a tape.”

“I’d loved the format ever since I was a kid, so there was some nostalgia involved.” Lars Gotrich is a producer, writer, and web editor at NPR Music in Washington, D.C., explaining his previous foray into releasing tapes. He’s a 6 foot-plus, mild-mannered guy with a long blonde mane and an encyclopedic knowledge of metal, noise, what he calls “outer sound,” and pop music. He’s also obsessed with tapes, and put out quite a few on his now dormant personal label, Thor’s Rubber Hammer. “I could say something about audio quality, I guess, and the object, but for me, it’s the artwork. I ended up falling in love with the cassette layout. That tall frame is weirdly inspiring, having to work within its ratio, and you get to extend the design in the foldout like a centerfold.” I told you tapes were sexy.

So what about the snobbery? Tapes are flimsy and can’t be expected to hold up for long, right? So aren’t these people just dabbling in an obsolete format, shunning the digital realm just to be different? Vikram shrugs and points out that tape dubbing is not expensive, and even professionals are used to dubbing for small scale operations, which makes it the ideal format for a limited release. Plus, most people he knows also want to distribute their music online – “People think tapes are anti-technology, but it’s more complicated than that.” This is where terms like “underground” and “DIY” start to come out, and sitting at the altar of Vikram’s tape collection, those terms don’t seem so overrated anymore.  For Vikram the dream is one of hyper-locality. He started collecting around the time that the phrase “Brooklynization” was coined to describe homogenized musical product. With tapes coming out on labels that pop up in the most random small towns of the world, he feels like he’s fighting against that.

Maybe protecting a cultural niche like this is important, and whether that’s called “being a snob” or “keeping it holy” can be for you to decide. You can tell that Gotrich, who’s been hoarding cassettes for years now, is wary of the new hike in popular music on tape: “Yeah, it’s been curious to watch the indie-leaning bands and artists embrace the cassette. It makes sense because it can be quite the twee object. But one time I read that Burger Records pressed 2500 cassette copies of a popular garage-rock band’s album and it sold out in no time. To me, that feels counter-intuitive to cassette culture. But you can’t get territorial about these things. It’s just another way to experience music is all.” When asked directly about snobbery in cassette collecting, he didn’t seem eager to galvanize any movements, “I don’t know, it’s no more snobby than someone that collects old arcade games, except that it’s a helluva lot cheaper and more mobile.”

As for durability, this might just be a PR problem – there are no longer any big ad agencies or marketing campaigns telling you “tape is the way of the future,” and Sony isn’t making tape players anymore, so how could it be durable? Vikram says even in the tech world tapes are still respected: “Even like 5 years ago there was a lot of discussion about whether DVD would be a proven format, and they were still backing up data on tapes because it lasts a really long time, and it does well in different conditions. It might seem a bit backwards because we don’t have as many tape players anymore but it’s a really robust format. I think it holds up better than CDs in a way because CDs scratch really easily and I’ve never had a CD that lasted in my car more than a few years, but I’ve seen tapes in a car that have been there for a decade.”

Gotrich recommends coming to terms with a few harsher realities: “In the long run, the physical thing that is the cassette is not durable. I still have some punk cassettes from high school and the actual tape is wearing out, warbling and thinning the sound. The hard plastic, though sturdy, can’t save those magnetic strips. In a way, it’s poetic — that literal fading away, perhaps as some metaphor for musical tastes and memories past. In another way, it’s impractical. But $4-$10 is a small price to pay for a tangible piece of music that will someday lose its memory.”

I’ve spent hours at Goodwill and Salvation Army, scouring racks of toasters, receivers, and grilled cheese makers from the nineties, hoping to find a workable player, though everyone I’ve bought has broken on me. And that may be the biggest obstacle for tape fanatics today. In Vikram’s arsenal, he’s got a few old players, a nice dual deck, but nothing really fancy. He hands me an old Sony Walkman that’s heavy and compact. “I think that one might be worth a couple hundred bucks on ebay,” he guesses, “but I haven’t spent more than like 20 dollars on all these players.” There’s an ethos to cassette tapes that’s a little more Zen and a little less about obsessive collecting. Above all it seems to be about enjoying the music and remaining low-key. And if you find yourself wanting a dependable tape player, his advice: “Buy Japanese.”

Wanna’ get caught-up on the cassette craze? Browse Bandcamp releases by cassette here.

25 Comments

  1. Bill C.
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Nice article! It brought back memories galore. I was 15 in 1970 when my father bought me my own cassette player. I promptly went out and bought every Beatles cassette there was. Those were my most cherished music possessions for five years — then my dad got me a record player and I promptly bought every Beatles LP, and the cassettes have been unplayed relics ever since. Your article prompted me to pull them out. How cool they seem now! I have a half-dozen old decks/players still, but I’m hesitant to risk a Beatles tape. Instead, I think I’ll try out one of my off-the-radio tapes from the early seventies. Thanks for sending me on a happy trip back to my youth!

  2. Posted May 7, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks Will for taking the time to talk tapes.

    For clarity:
    Tape types:
    Music Ferric and Cobalt, 50Hz to 16kHz. Cobalt can go +4db.
    Chrome, 200Hz to 20kHz, can go +4db but doesn’t offer the bass of Cobalt. Excellent midrange and high frequencies.

    Tape lengths: C15, C30, C45, C60, C70, C90
    The point here being that there isn’t just one format or length. Folks make their albums to fill a CD often, which seems consumer.

  3. Posted May 7, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Great article!
    For me it started out with vinyl then I moved onto eight track ending up with a great cassette collection. As an artist putting together a tape release was a different way of writing and presenting my music, growing up in the Bay Area it was all about getting our tapes in stores, and it worked quite well.

  4. laeriefaerie
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Well I’ve got back into my tapes again as I bought a car with a barely used cassette player.
    Happily I never chucked my collection away so out from the various stash places they came and I’m so enjoying them all over again. Some of these date from early 80’s and even late 70’s and they play as good as in the old days.
    Now then, as far as durability goes I’ve yet to have cds last as long as my cassettes.
    Most of these tapes were stored without boxes, chucked into a carrier bag, and left in various cupboards. They have withstood years of temperature fluctuations(some were in the airing cupboard), dust, and general mistreatment.
    If a tape breaks it can be easily repaired with sellotape. You used to be able to get little splicing gadgets for this but you can do it without one, it’s just a bit fiddly.
    As far as I know the only thing which really messes them up is being near a magnet so don’t leave them on your speakers.
    As for finding cassette players, try the car boot sales.
    If you want to record over a pre-recorded tape you need to cut out 2 little tabs which are on the cassette case itself.

  5. Daniel Ortíz
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I still remember how I used to make mix-tapes when I was in fifth or sixth grade, there was something special of selecting the songs you thought where good enough to be on the tape and thinking of what song would go next was also a process. I grew up listening to cassettes, then got into vinyl and got back to cassettes, surely there’s been a big boom for them lately, they still and always have a special place in my heart, I think it’s time to dust out those old elementary mix-tapes.

  6. Posted May 7, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Great cassette insights:
    http://ariellauthentic.tumblr.com/post/49902850852/tapefamous-cassette-comfort-tapes-i-love

  7. Kurt
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Wow, great article! I would have never thought cassette tapes had any future before just yesterday when I bought a limited cassette of ‘Sword & Sworcery LP – The Ballad of the Space Babies’. The presentation sold me immediately! In addition, the price is very reasonable for a physical medium of an album. What were the chances that right after my buying a cassette I would see this article featured?? HAHA, well that’s life I guess, fun world. Keep enjoying your music in whatever format you like! I, personally, will be buying some Sony 90minute cassettes and making FLAC -> cassette versions of my current digital library! (Maybe I’ll print some adhesive covers from Photoshop too)

    Cheers to physical music,
    Kurt

  8. Posted May 8, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Excellent and much-needed article!

    I’ve been curating vintage electronica produced by 80’s bedroom artists from around the world (who had no choice but to record on cassette) for an on-going project here on bandcamp: http://bedroomcassettemasters.bandcamp.com/

    The clarity and dynamic range of these so-called “lo-fi” recordings often out-performs the brittle, plasticky quality of their contemporary digital counterparts!

    I’m taking submissions for volume Three now! PDF form here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/07rivdqir4vydyd/BCM%203%20Submission%20formRE.pdf

    Thanks again for the brilliant article!

  9. Ray Robles
    Posted May 9, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Great comments, one and all. Have been doing cassette mix-tapes since ’70’s (after a few years of 8 track mix-taping). Went through a few decks, both 8 track and cassette, the last if which has some mechanical issues, so it and the tapes have been vacationing for a few years. Now after having read this article, I am motivated to revive and not digitize these tapes, nor their vinyl brothers. Sadly however, I have parted company with all reel to reel formated material and accompanying decks.

  10. Travis Mord
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    This is great. I’m actually sitting in front of my dual cassette deck stereo that works totally fine right now. I think it has the Havok Records compilation sitting in it. I still have a totally fine walkman and an old Tascam Portastudio 4-track recorder in my little studio. I always loved the way your tape would wear out in it’s own specific way, sort of adding character to the music, making it a one of a kind sound. I grew up with tapes, and still have a great many of them. It’s cool to think they may actually make a comeback.

  11. chadrock
    Posted May 11, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    This is an awesome, insightful & informative article!! I definitely grew up living & breathing cassette tapes; they were basically the soundtrack to my adolescent years up to my early twenties. As someone who always loves his music showcased in a physical medium, I want to say thank you for shedding lots of light on an almost-forgotten musical format (as well as shattering the misconceptions which plenty of folks have about cassette tapes).

  12. Ransom
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    On the durability of cassette tapes: I just accidentally wiped about 25 of them because I let them get within a metre or two of a neodymium magnet.

    So if you use rare earth magnets in your line of work…this might just not be the formet for you.

  13. Mindful Naked
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I think we are just becoming bored and looking for something new to rave about… well, at least until the next big technological advancement comes along… like microchips installed in your head and streaming music directly to our auditory sensory pathways.

  14. Ed Buckley
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Nice article. I’ve got over 200 mixtapes I made for cross country trips. I used to put mixes together on C90 cassettes for friends, and they all said the quality was as good as most CD’s. I still have 2 JVC decks; one is a dual deck and the other a very nice 3 head deck, which allows me to listen to what was just recorded. I also just got a new Pioneer radio/cassette deck for the car. They do still make them, you just have to hunt around.

  15. Posted May 14, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Again, this isn’t some fad, this isn’t some hip new thing folks are doing to resist change. Tapes just never went away.

    I’m not suggesting that tapes will overtake digital sales, but they will continue to be produced and grow worldwide. Recall that other countries larger and older than the US still use the tape format regularly.

    If it isn’t broken…

  16. James
    Posted May 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I like the article but one thing bothers me.

    You seem to imply that tape players are somehow rare or valuable. A walkman going for $200 on eBay? Maybe if it’s some crazy prototype model. Tapes were a dominant format for many, many years. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a thrift store that didn’t have a dual deck for under $10. Spent $0 on 2 decks (most people are happy to be rid of them) that have lasted me years of heavy use. And most decks that are messed up just need a $5 belt replacement.

  17. Posted May 24, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Hey James, I totally agree that it is very inexpensive to get a tape deck. Only pointing out that some rarities, like this Sony Portable Cassette Player, a true rarity, go for $200.

  18. alex
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Been into tapes again since 2010, I used to use them a lot in the 80s and 90s, tapes combined with a good deck will blow you away, I never realized their potential until I had a decent deck, in the 80s and 90s I only had the decks that came with mini hifi systems and those built in decks dont do cassettes justice buy thats all I could afford, I love tapes because they offer such a depth in sound I mean if you record a cd to tape with a well calibrated tape in a dolby c or s machine it will sound softer and offer more range

  19. CDK78
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    My two cents… I never veered to far away from cassettes, especially in mixtape form. Staying up late night listening to the radio shows (back when radio played a wider/better selection of music but that’s another topic) with my finger on the pause button hoping to catch and record that one fresh new track. Then after weeks or even months of compiling tracks, you’d have that perfect mixtape. You had to work for it so it meant so much more. I’ll admit I made the switch to CD’s as most of us did, seeing as we rarely had a choice in the matter. My biggest argument “for” tapes and “against” the digital age is that in some ways it was the death of the “album”. It made it easy to switch from track to track with the click of a button. So listeners weren’t forced to play an album front to back the way the artist intended. They would simply skip to the songs they were diggin’ the most right away instead of playing it through it’s entirety. That’s not to say their haven’t been great albums made during the digital age. There have been a few classics that come to mind, but not as many people hearing them as classics, perhaps. I’ve been an avid mixtape/cd maker for decades and still spend a lot of time doing so. I missed that cassette mixtape feel so, a few years back I started making my mix CD’s as non-stop mixes in honor of cassettes instead of separating tracks. 30,45,60,80 minutes of continuous music that to a degree forces the listener to really take in the music as a whole. Anyway, I am pleased to see this resurgence in Tapes. Thanks for the great article and comments everyone. Peace ‘N’ Good Music!

  20. Perry E
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Like many things in life, you get what you pay for. Sure you can find $5-$20 decks at thrifts, but if you really want to fully embrace the fidelity of the cassette, it takes a nice deck. The “Buy Japanese” comment made me smile, as Nakamichi decks were, and still are one of the benchmarks of sound quality and durability, and while many fine Nakamichi decks can be had for under $100, it’s the coveted ones that extract the best out of the format, similar to a better turntable and cartridge with vinyl. I have over 20 different Nakamichi decks in constant use and rotation, playing cassettes of all genres. Their fidelity is outstanding, and they can be professionally serviced to last anther 30 years, still today, for a fraction of what it cost when it was the heyday of the cassette.

  21. Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    All of the good things you say about cassettes and tape in general are totally true. My first “recording” was my dad recording me at age 2 & 3 — over 35 years ago! The tape failed once due to a poor-quality case, but I transplanted the spools into a “good” casing. The transplanted tape still plays great to this day. Every year, I play a mixtape Christmas records made over 25 years ago which still sounds as good as when I recorded it. I made a backup copy in the event anything ever happens to it. My first experimental music recordings and demos were all done on cassette, including countless practice sessions and jams with friends. My ’90s recordings as an indie artist were first demoed on 2-track tape and then officially recorded on a 4-track deck. These tracks were eventually digitized in 2001 and transformed into MP3 and CD format. While living in NJ, I became the drummer in an alt-rock band from northeast PA. I found this band by my solo work being featured on the same indie mixtape as them. To solve the problem of interstate travel to record our music, the singer/guitarist mailed me a 4-track tape with skeleton versions of the songs to record my drumming to. I mailed the tape back to him with the completed drum tracks and he completed them and turned it into a finished product. Tonight, one of the songs I recorded years on 4-track and mixed to stereo will be featured on a syndicated radio show called Silent Planet Radio. It will be heard on various radio stations including WCLH-FM in my area and over the internet. The show usually plays mostly studio material. Sure, the shows DJ will be playing it from a CD, but the track was birthed onto cassette tape. And me, I will capture the entire 2-hour show in all of its glory from FM radio onto a Maxell 120-minute cassette. I applaud all efforts of keeping the format alive because it has always been a huge centerpiece in my own life.

  22. Johnny
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The whole argument at the beginning of the article applies equally well to CD’s. You don’t have to flip through them; you scan your collection visually. CD’s have a slightly thinner spine, but it’s still large enough to see the album name at a glance. And if desired, bands can release digipacks with twice the standard thickness of a CD.

    No CD lasted more than a few years in the car? Obviously this person was not even remotely trying to take care of them. Nice little mental gymnastics to try to make the limited frequency response of tape sound like a benefit. And OK, have fun with your medium which degrades after a few years of heavy playing. You can tell yourself it’s symbolic or something, if that makes you feel special.

    These days it seems that music fans will romanticize anything BUT the CD. I’ve even heard of a band releasing on floppy disc. For some reason, the single greatest physical music format ever popularized is just not cool enough in 2013. Pathetic.

  23. Howard
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Everyone has the misconception that audio CDs offer perfect sound, which is just not true. Did you know that when CDs were new, they were only promoted as a mid-fidelity audio format?

    Promoting the latest and greatest audio format in this country as being “perfect” or “the best” has happened since the days of Thomas Edison’s Diamond Disc phonograph.

    Let’s get technical for a moment. Standard CDs use a 16-bit PCM compression method which is not perfect in and of itself. The sampling rate of a CD is 44.1 kHz. This is because theoretically as long as your sampling rate is at least double that of the highest audio frequency that can be heard (20 kHz) you should be covered (refer to the Nyqist theory). Super Audio CD (SACD) would come much closer to exactly reproducing a maser tape. It uses a 1-bit DSD format and a sampling rate of 2.8224 MHz and can practically reproduce 20 Hz – 50 kHz.

    You also must take into account the quality of the A/D converter used for transferring a master analog recording into digital. This is why many early CDs sound like absolute crap. It’s unfortunate the music industry didn’t adopt the SACD format as standard in recent years. But I guess nobody really cares about that because their music is getting compressed to hell in MP3 and similar formats.

    So when you look at the true overall picture, cassette tapes don’t fair all that bad. Audiophile tape decks offer features like high-bias and Dolby C NR. They can record a CD or any other source with excellent frequency response and dynamic range very close to that of a CD. But again, just like the average CD, the most common (and cheapest) cassette is normal bias with no noise reduction (NR). Tapes can last a long time if they are stored in the proper temperature and away from strong magnetic fields.

  24. Johnny
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I certainly didn’t imply the medium was perfect, that’s why I said “greatest medium ever popularized”. That said, I have no idea why you bring up the sampling rate of CD vs SACD because, as you mention yourself, the Nyquist theorem renders the additional frequency range of SACD useless. Similar with 16 vs 24 bit. 16 bit gives you 96 dB of dynamic range which is far more than music recordings utilize even in the best of cases. There’s a good write up of it here:

    http://www.head-fi.org/t/415361/24bit-vs-16bit-the-myth-exploded

    It seems pointless for me to point out the drawbacks of cassettes. There are a number of reasons why CD’s supplanted cassettes, and the burden would be on you to argue that this was somehow NOT indicative of the respective quality of the two formats. The upper bound of cassette performance under ideal conditions is hardly the relevant metric here either.

  25. JM
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Happen to run across this article and really enjoyed it. Wish I still had my 80’s and early 90’s tape collection. I was lucky to have saved my LP collection though! I have been collecting Vinyl for many years and I love the sound of analog! My LP’s put the same album on CD to shame. I am amazed at the sound differences between the two. I never had a decent tape deck growing up. The sound quality of cassettes that I remember was not that great. That was until last month when I picked up a 3 head Nakamichi tape deck/recorder and have been blown away at the quality this thing can record and play. If the source is better than the CD like a LP or HD audio track the recorded quality is better than the CD version. Not that the CD is a great audio format, but it’s better than an MP3. I have been so impressed with the sound of tape I just purchased a Reel to Reel also. I plan on recording HD audio files which are master tapes from the studios onto it. It’s like reverse engineering as most master tapes came from Reel to Reel recorders. I am in the software industry and there is nothing better than watching VUE meters bounce, Tape reels turn and LP’s spin while listening to quality music!. It is my analog paradise getting away from the digital world we live in. Music is like a time machine which takes us back to special times and places in our lives.

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