Not Reely Dead: A Guide to Cassette Tapes
Remember cassettes? If not today, you will soon. The format, maligned by elitists and audiophiles in its own time as a cheaper, second-string alternative to the vinyl record, and by music industry executives as the latest in an endless parade of cancers that will kill music any time now, has been seeing its own renaissance in the past couple of years. Despite rising to prominence as a music format in the late 1970s and having their heyday in the ‘80s with the rise of Walkmans and boomboxes, the cassette is actually much older than that—and it wasn’t even initially designed for music at all. Why are they coming back? Why did they go away in the first place? What is a “Type II” cassette and why should you care? What can you expect if you get into tapes? This guide will get you started.
The cassette is actually even older than the 8-track cartridge it replaced in the commercial market. The 8-track tape, designed specifically for car music playback, was introduced in 1964, while the cassette originated in 1962, and was first intended for use in office dictation machines. At the time they had extremely poor sound quality due to a tape speed that was half that of 8-tracks and one-quarter that of the expensive and finicky reel to reel decks that were found in recording studios and rich audiophile’s living rooms, but over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, advancements in tape formulations made them at first competitive to and then superior to the 8-track, which was held back by the “infinite loop” design where the tape coming from the heads slid underneath the tape on the reel, and thus had to be lubricated, which degraded both sound quality and the longevity of tape and tape deck. However, it was the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979, the ur-gadget, that made the cassette the dominant form of recorded music. Home and even car audio was nothing new, but the Walkman was battery powered, fit into a pocket, and could be carried anywhere, the iPod of the 1980s.
It wasn’t just about listening to music, though. The 8-track was designed to be manufactured once and then played through a single-purpose tape player in your car’s dashboard. The cassette, on the other hand, was a recording format. Anyone with a tape deck could now capture music from the radio or from their record collection, leading to the rise of bootleg culture and mixtapes—and scaring the absolute hell out of the record labels. Despite taxes on blank media and a massive propaganda campaign, the cassette became not just a way of listening, but a way of sharing, and the LP record and newfangled CDs couldn’t offer that (Google might tell you that the CD-R originated in 1982, but the first CD burner for under $1000 didn’t arrive until 1995, and required an even more expensive IBM PC to drive it). It was not the CD but the Internet that did cassettes in—the MP3 also allowed for the sharing of music, but now worldwide instead of merely with neighbors or members of a tape-trading ring. Cassette sales imploded in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, lacking the aura of prestige, diehard audiophile following, and huge expanses of album art of the LP, and the effortless nature of online file-sharing. When the last car with a tape deck rolled out of a Lexus dealer in 2010, it seemed like the cassette was well and truly dead—until it wasn’t.
Why are cassettes coming back? The first answer lies in the very technology that succeeded them—the optical disc. As digital data formats are entirely fungible (“bits is bits”), the adoption of broadband internet by most of the population led to optical discs becoming largely unnecessary as music could now be streamed directly from a server, or downloaded from the internet and stored on a hard drive. Many CD buyers used their CDs only once—to pop into their computers and “rip” into files on their drives for on-demand retrieval. Computer manufacturers noticed this trend, and laptop manufacturers began to eliminate bulky, noisy, power-hungry optical drives to create slimmer, more efficient laptops, and now even desktops are largely abandoning the optical drives to get slimmer cases or leave more room for huge cooling setups. At the same time, digital music stores like iTunes and later streaming services eliminated the need to buy a disc to obtain high-quality digital audio.
However, musicians, especially independent ones, in the new digital-centric landscape soon found themselves cut off from one of their primary revenue streams, forced to rely on merch and endless, exhausting concert schedules to pay the bills. At the same time, the vinyl resurgence and a cultural wave of ‘60s and ‘70s nostalgia had made analog audio cool again, but vinyl is and has always been prohibitively expensive format for musicians without large fanbases and label backing, with the need for a contract with a pressing plant and minimum orders often in the thousands. On the other hand, anyone with a quality tape deck and access to cassette tapes could make any number of copies of a digital source to tape, making it far more economical for small production runs. In addition, the cultural wheel of nostalgia has recently turned to the 1980s, with all sort of ‘80s cultural movements and fashions recontextualized and revitalized for modern audiences. A newly resurgent cassette market was a natural extension of this process.
However, being cheaper than vinyl doesn’t make tape cheap. Cassettes are much more complicated than optical discs, with at least two pieces for the shell, screws, clips, reels, and of course the tape itself; correspondingly, they cost a lot more to manufacture. And as an analog format, cassettes can’t just be shoved into a five-dollar tape hole in your PC. Though getting into cassettes is less involved than buying a vinyl setup with the turntable, cartridge, and phono stage, you will still need to do research and be prepared to spend a fair bit of money—$50-100 (plus shipping, which can be considerable) will get you a quality used deck like my Onkyo TA-RW414 unit on eBay, while a brand new deck of similar quality could cost five times that amount, and be short on features compared to decks from the ‘80s and ‘90s with real Dolby and other bells and whistles. Cheap decks and boom boxes from the vintage era were made of weak, highly perishable components, few have survived, and they often lack RCA jacks, high/metal recording bias, and other such features. Invest in a proper hi-fi tape deck and save yourself the trouble.
Recording to tape is also more complicated than working with digital. Like with recording into a DAW, there is a maximum volume beyond which the sound will distort, but the volume meter is less precise and unlike a DAW working with 32-bit or higher audio, you have a medium with a relatively limited dynamic range and high noise floor, and you have to push the volume to the limit of what the tape can carry without actually going over, which takes practice to get right, especially with the primitive volume meters found on most tape decks. In addition, since tape is an analog medium, there are no perfect copies. No matter how high-quality your tape and deck are, some information will invariably be lost, and copying from one tape to another (“dubbing”) will degrade the signal even further on the new tape. This steady degradation as one tape is copied to another, and then to another, and so on, is called generation loss, and is one of the reasons why bootleg collectors and Deadheads are so obsessed with the provenance of tapes. High-speed dubbing is especially destructive to sound quality, and if you must dub one tape to another, ensure that the tape is dubbed in real-time. It will take longer, but the result will be vastly superior.
Tape decks are complex machines with many moving parts, and require occasional cleaning and maintenance. Most quality decks come with detailed user manuals, and if it’s not included than the manual to it or a similar deck can be Googled, and cleaning and adjustment instructions for one should apply to similar decks from the same manufacturer. You should also seek out the service manual for your deck, which contains detailed schematics, part lists, and repair information that will be be very useful to an electronics shop or, if you are handy with a soldering iron, yourself if something in your deck goes wrong. Avoid touching the heads inside your tape deck with bare fingers or roughly slamming cassettes into or yanking them out of the machine. If you treat it with care, even an older deck should provide many years of service—high-end electronics tended to be built to a higher standard of quality in the ‘80s and ‘90s than they are today.
Like with decks, not all tapes are created equal, and those mass-market tapes from the ‘80s sell for nearly nothing because they are worth nothing. The standard ferric oxide tapes (also known as Type I, with a reddish or brown tape color) came in a huge variety of brands and levels of quality, from near-junk examples meant for dictation only to premium models that were marketed to enthusiasts and tape traders. Type I tapes were the original type of cassette tape, and also the only type still being manufactured. For Type I tapes, I recommend simply avoiding old tapes altogether and buying the new models, which are produced to the same standard as high-end Type I cassettes from the ‘80s. For the purpose of my comparison test, I used a modern National Audio Company ferric tape that retails for around two dollars apiece. Chrome tapes, also known as type II, have a more sophisticated compound and use a different bias setting for recording, though nearly all tape decks of reasonable quality will support them. Their tape is black instead of rust-colored, and are no longer manufactured because of low demand and environmental regulations. However, some old stock still exists, and ATR Magnetics sells refurbished BASF cassettes under their ProChrome brand. However, they are much more expensive—a single 60-minute ProChrome cassette costs $8 at Sleeve City, and while you might get a better deal on eBay, old cassettes aren’t always in perfect shape, sealed or not, and I once lost four out of a pack of five eBay tapes. They were not much cheaper back in the day, either, especially with the heavy taxes the government put on high-quality tapes to mollify the recording industry. For the purposes of my comparison, I will be using the two tapes from Sleeve City as examples of Type I and Type II tapes.
The holy grail is Type IV or metal, tapes, so named because they use pure metal particles, which are much finer, instead of a metal compound as the recording medium. They will play in all tape decks, but recording them is another matter, as they require a still higher bias setting that many cheaper decks (and most decks from before the late 1980s) do not have. These are brutally expensive, with my TDK MA-X metal tape used for this article costing me around $28 from eBay. Like chrome tapes, these are no longer manufactured, though the computer industry kept developing metal tape formulations for tape drives like the LTO units used by data centers for hard backups. Perhaps enough demand for cassettes could lead to LTO tape formulations being adapted for audio, but LTO is ruinously expensive—$50 or more for a modern tape cartridge and upwards of $2,000 for a drive. And of course, LTO cartridges are not cassettes and will not fit in your tape deck. Perhaps if demand is sufficient, data center tape formulations could make their way to the audio world—but if they do, expect them to be expensive.
Beware of that screaming deal on eBay.
For the purposes of comparison, I recorded the first cut off of Pharoah Sanders’ excellent-sounding album Message from Home (Verve Records, 1994) onto each of my three test cassettes, and recorded with a uniform input volume aross all three. The source is a Merill-Williams REAL 101 turntable put through a Sutherland dual-mono phono-stage into a Gato solid-state integrated amp, and with such high-end equipment all three tapes sounded surprisingly excellent and a far cry from the miserable high-speed-dubbed prerecorded tapes that were sold in music shops (the only prerecorded tapes that even come close to those you could record for yourself are Mobile Fidelity’s, and they now sell for absurd prices far beyond the equivalent LP records). There is much more of a difference between Type I and Type II tapes than between Type II and Type IV in my experience, and these recordings bear it out. The Type I has a very warm and rich bass sound, perhaps the best of all three, but it comes at the expense of high-end response and overall detail, while the Type II is much clearer and lacks the characteristic “tape sound” (which is a loss of information, regardless of feelings of nostalgia people have for it), but losses a little of the Type I tape’s bass. The Type IV gets a bit of the Type I’s extra bass back, and plays back a bit louder, rarity and cost of metal tapes is something that must be weighed no matter how good they sound. Type II and Type IV both nearly eliminate tape hiss, which is quite noticeable on Type I cassettes.
For the purpose of comparison, all these tapes were recorded without Dolby noise reduction. For me, even the more sophisticated Dolby C system available on my deck (cheaper decks usually only have the simplistic Dolby B, and modern ones have an inferior knockoff as Dolby NR is no longer licensed) dulls the highs on Type II and Type IV cassettes. However, if you only have access to Type I, then I recommend using Dolby as the dynamic range you will gain will outweigh the loss of treble response and detail ferric tapes have relatively little of to begin with. Dolby S is an even higher-end noise reduction system that is supposed to be vastly superior, but only a small number of high-end cassette decks were manufactured with it, and they remain very expensive today.
So which sort of tape should you get? Unless you’re a diehard with lots of money to spend and a willingness to take risks, Type IV cassettes are not worth it, not at almost $30 for a decades-old cassette. A Type II cassette remanufactured by a reputable company will provide sound quality that is 95% as good for a fraction of the cost, and record properly on a much wider variety of decks. But even modern Type I tapes are far from terrible—with a high-quality deck and quality tapes of any of the three types, you should be able to get excellent-sounding recordings every time with a bit of practice. And if you’re a musician, Type I tapes and a quality deck will allow you to sell something a bit more impressive than yet another black T-shirt, something whose revenue goes to you and not to a record company or a merch factory. And in the days of “360 contracts” and nearly worthless Spotify deals, that means something.