A Contemplation Of Cassette Tapes

Before ridding my house of a couple hundred audio cassette tapes recently, I remembered to make photos of them, some of which are displayed in this blog entry. See all of them here.

For Everyday Music Recordings
This is a Fuji DR-I 90 recordable audio cassette
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Beginning in the mid-1980s, during my early teens, I began buying commercially-recorded audio cassette tapes. While the music of my childhood had been on vinyl records — complete with scratches, pops, hisses, and an inability to read the labels when they were stored on shelves — the music of my adolescence was on cassette tapes. We just called them “tapes”. At the time, I wasn’t concerned with how they worked, but looking back today, I realize it was a marvel of audio technology that so much analog sound could fit on the tiny spools of flimsy magnetic tape.

Position * Normal
A closeup of a Maxell UR90 cassette, with 45 minutes of audio on each side.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Very quickly, I learned to make “mix tapes” — in quotation marks because children today will likely not recognize the phrase. My sisters and I would gather our three mini-boomboxes and stacks of music cassettes and list our favorite songs. Once the lists were perfected, I would meticulously fast-forward and/or rewind the relevant cassettes to the correct spots and then press “play” at just the right time, while pressing “record” for the second tape deck — containing the blank cassette.

This could take hours. You couldn’t wander off to do something else, because you’d miss the end of the song — when you had to click “stop” at just the right time, so as not to leave blank spots between songs. Then put the next song in and record it. And so on, until the mix tape was complete with exactly the songs we’d chosen.

Clear As Tape
This is the business end of a cassette tape, where the player/recorder would “read” or “write” information. The clear tape seen here was at the beginning and end of each spool, containing no information. To my knowledge, its only purpose was to provide several seconds of silence at the start and finish of each cassette.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

I began with 60-minute Sony blank tapes, but eventually graduated to 90-minute tapes and other brands. TDK, Fuji, Maxell, Memorex, and so on. With a 60-minute cassette, you could copy an entire album (except the rare lengthy live albums). With a 90-minute cassette, you could usually get a full album on each side. So when a friend at school or church acquired a new album, it was often customary to trade tapes so copies could be made.

Many of the cassettes I finally got rid off recently were simply copies of albums. Most of them were copies of albums that I owned. I typically recorded my own albums so I could play the copy and thus preserve the original. Most of my purchased cassettes were never played more than a few times due to this practice.

Holey Holes
Later generations will not recognize the item in this photo immediately. To people my age, there is no question. And we all knew a No. 2 pencil would fit into the holes and turn the spools of tape. This came in handy if I wanted to rewind or fastforward multiple cassettes simultaneously. One would be in the tape deck, mechanically spinning, and another would be in my hand spinning around the pencil I was holding. With practice, I could do this almost as fast as my tape deck.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Untold amounts of money were spent on my piles of blank tapes. Later, I even bought 120-minute blank tapes, which allowed for many more songs in mixes. The fancier boomboxes had “autoreverse”, which meant at the end of Side A, they’d play in the other direction, blasting out Side B. None of my tape players ever had this function; I always had to manually eject and flip the tape at the end of each side, reinsert it, and press play. With practice, I could do all this in about a second — without looking.

This is a TDK-brand cassette, marketed as great for reproducing low-register sounds from compact discs. In my experience, with my bottom-of-the-line equipment, they weren’t any better than the previous blank cassettes. They were possibly worse, because 120 minutes of tape means more tape on each spool, any part of which could tangle at some point.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Anyone who owned and used cassettes regularly knows the downsides. The sound could get “wavy” if the cassette had been left in a warm place for a time. Sometimes even brand new tapes sounded this way. Presumably the spool of tape had shrunk or stretched inside the plastic case. Players often “ate” the tapes — pulling out tangled feet of the magnetically encoded ribbon. This was more common with cassette players in automobiles. It was near impossible to find the right spot on a cassette if you wanted to play a song for a friend. (“Hold on a minute, let me fast-forward a bit more. Nope, not yet. Oops too far; let’s rewind.”) If songs didn’t fit perfectly on a side, there would often be as much as two minutes of silence at the end of Side A, and sometimes more than that on Side B.

But the upsides! Unlike vinyl records, cassette tapes were easy to record at home on personal equipment. And they were mobile! My generation was the first that could carry pre-recorded music on the go. We carried our Walkman cassette players everywhere, with cheap foam encased headphones and pockets full of AA batteries — because you could only get through a few cassettes before the sound would drag from low power. Unlike vinyl records, we could put tapes in our pockets. No skipping or hissing. No flimsy sleeves with corners folded over. No careful placement of the needle arm.

For all the downsides of audio cassettes, I remember that it was the best available at the time.

Be Kind; Rewind
Unlike many peers, I almost always rewound my cassettes before putting them away. In this photo, it’s obvious that I forgot one of them.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

What I wouldn’t have given, in 1986, for an MP3 player! The ability to skip songs instantly. Thousands of songs in a space smaller than a cubic inch. Song titles and artist on the screen as you listen. Random shuffling. Ability to buy individual songs instead of entire albums. Instant perfect copies. Graphic equalizers at the touch of a button or screen. Rechargeable batteries that last for many hours, if not days. High-fidelity earbuds that fit in a shirt-pocket.

But all we had were tapes. And we loved them. And now they’re gone.

Two Fuji cassettes with clear casings, so you can see the “A” and “B” markings in sequence, seeming to spell “BAB”.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

  1. Dude, those 120s were worthless. I never had one that didn’t eat or be eaten.

  2. This reminds me; I have a couple of boxes of old cassettes I need to throw out. I haven’t owned a cassette player in a few years and probably never will again. What a time to be alive, though. I recorded songs from the radio that I couldn’t find at local stores, and curated them as carefully as I could.

    Certainly digital is superior in every way. I listen to most of my music on YouTube. My only complaint so far: when clicking through to a video, you never know if it’s going to be a high-quality conversion, recorded badly off TV, the official music video, or just a slideshow with lyrics typed on screen. Perhaps Google should curate a library of “official” recordings.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I actually still have a cassette player, an Aiwa boombox I bought in the late 1990s that still works just fine. But I almost never play any cassettes; they’d just been sitting in a box for more than a decade… It was HARD to get rid of them.

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