Do they really sound that bad?
What do you think of cassettes?
Most people write them off as an inferior form of media, remembering the days of warbled sound, too much hiss or your tape being eaten by your Walkman or boombox.
But are all of these memories accurate? Was the format really that bad?
I love collecting vinyl records but I grew up with cassettes. Born in 1978, I came into the world just before the official release of the CD format in 1982. When I was young, I would take a portable cassette deck outside to the swing set, press play and then proceed to sing and swing. Cassettes were affordable and you could copy songs off the radio when money wouldn’t allow you to purchase new music. I remember recording Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown radio show which would allow me to playback all the current hits at once. I would listen so much I could often repeat Casey’s intros to the famous songs before they played.
Cassettes are now collectible, just like vinyl records, and this seems to bother people. They are annoyed that people would pay high dollar for a cassette that sounds inferior. They think it’s dumb that artists are releasing music again on cassette. The irony is that all analog media is flawed and shouldn’t be judged broadly. There are many things can impact the playback of the media so to simply write a certain format off as awful sounding isn’t fair.
For instance, I upgraded the sound system in my den (aka my work from home office the last six months) by adding a PrimaLuna EVO 100 tube preamplifer and a JVC JL-F50 direct drive turntable powered by my McIntosh MC 2505 amplifier. I decided to experiment with the sound by adding a budget Grado Prestige Black 3 cartridge that cost just $80. After months of listening, I decided the Grado cartridge was too focused on the mids and I missed the higher frequencies my AT120E provided on my other stereo system. I’m removing the Grado and considering buying the Audio Technica ATVM95SH cartridge with a shibata stylus next and hear how it performs on my system.
My point above is that my records sounded different on this system and I didn’t like it. Was it the fault of the media format? No. The vinyl being played sounded robust with higher frequencies on my Pioneer PL-560 with the AT120E cart and it sounded dull with the Grado cart on my JVC table.
All of this to say that with cassettes it matters a great deal as to what type of cassette is being used and also what kind of deck you are playing it back on.
I’ve been researching cassettes a lot lately and found there are three common types of tapes: Type I, Type II and Type IV. Type II are most often chrome tapes and Type IV are metal tapes, both of which record and playback with a much higher sound quality than Type I. Guess what most of the tapes we bought growing up where recorded on? Type I. Even the major label releases often used lower quality Type I to save money. The tapes we bought in drug stores to record with were most likely Type I and I doubt we paid attention to how we recorded on them to obtain the best sound. We just tossed the tape in a cheap dual well deck or boombox, pressed record and hoped for the best.
High end cassette decks offer a wide range of features for playback that greatly impact what you hear when you press play. I won’t bore you with Dolby B, C and S and I don’t exactly understand how to set the bias enough to explain it to you, but there are decks from the 1980s and 90s that can automatically calibrate tapes for optimal playback and recording.
I recently stumbled on a high end deck, a Yamaha KX-W952 that was released in 1991 with a retail price of $685! It’s actually two separate cassette decks in one shell and Deck 1 is currently not operating properly. I believe it’s an issue with the belt and have ordered a replacement. I bought the deck for a good price due to the Deck 1 not working. It came with the instruction booklet and a remote control!
Since Deck 2 on the machine works fine, I’ve been using it to record and play back cassettes. I searched through a box of tapes that came with a pile of gear I bought and found some Type II tapes and even one that was metal.
With several tapes recorded I found that I can get a recorded tape to sound very clean and crisp. The hiss that I remember is almost non-existent and even when I can hear it I don’t mind because it adds a hint of nostalgia to the sound. Kind of like the surface noise you hear on a vinyl record. People complain about the hiss on a cassette but then turn around a play a beat up LP with surface noise and don’t complain.
I was recently playing a cassette and my wife asked me if were listening to a record or a tape. I asked her to guess and she thought we were listening to a record. I told her it was actually a cassette tape and she was surprised by just how great it sounded. I’ve shared the same surprise over the past few weeks.
Most importantly, cassettes don’t need to sound great to have meaning.
My father was a pastor who passed away from cancer when I was just six years old. I have these cassette tapes of his old sermons at the church we grew up in that I can still listen to today which just seems…crazy.
One of these cassettes is the recording of his funeral service which I’ve never listened to, even 36 years later. Maybe one day I will.
Maybe all this goofing around with cassettes lately has been in my subconscious and is finally coming around full circle. I’m grateful someone took time to record these sermons and make copies for people to “check out” of the church library. I doubt anyone expected them to last this long but I’m glad they did.
When talking about music and the cassette format with others, the big question for most people is really…who cares? I get it, the idea of recording on a cassette tape seems silly in 2020. But I found that when I make a mixtape it’s often pulling from songs that I’ve been listening to a lot at that time. Those songs are often influenced by what is going on my life. So by capturing that group of songs on a cassette, I’m creating a time capsule of sorts that will be available for me to revisit later on in life and remember what was happening at that time. That being said, my 2020 tapes will be heavily influenced by music from a turbulent year and what will it be like to listen back in 5, 10 or 15 years and remember 2020? Of course I could do this with a Spotify playlist, but that won’t feel the same, trust me.
Also, during the pandemic I have found a need to keep my hands as busy as possible. I just need to be doing something or else I get stir crazy. A lot of the blank cassettes I’ve recorded on have J-cards that already have song titles written on them by the previous owner. I’ve begun cutting out my own J-card covers and gluing them to the original card to create my own cassette cover. They look great and it’s another way to let a little creativity flow during these crazy times.
If you’re like me and enjoy nerding out on various formats, here are some resources I’ve found regarding cassettes that have greatly entertained me the past few weeks:
My favorite video about cassettes is from Techmoan:
My favorite YouTube account about cassettes if Cassette Comeback — the enthusiasm for cassettes and decks on this account is contagious. Just look at this awesome video about a ReVox cassette deck from the 1980s:
Thanks for reading so much about an old analog format. Cassettes can be more than just a cheap format to discard as a lost cause. I hope this love letter brought back found memories of your own previous encounters with cassettes.
Before you go, if you’d like to read more about my musical obsessions along with personal suggestions of songs, gear, etc., you can subscribe to my mailing list.
Finally, to further celebrate the wonder of cassettes, below is an image of Joe Strummer’s tape collection: