This photo serves as quite a stark warning message: the characteristics an audio cassette has today are not necessarily representative of the characteristics it had when new!
The photo shows two instances of the same cassette – the Realistic / Radio Shack Low Noise 90, probably both from 1979. The top one has been well exposed to sunlight over the years; the bottom one has been kept away from direct daylight. Just look at the difference in colour! It would be quite easy for someone to conclude upon seeing the top tape that the Realistic Low Noise 90 had a pink label. But of course, as the cassette below it reveals, this was not the case, and the labels were in fact a very rich shade of red.
It’s certainly not unthinkable that similiarly dramatic changes have occurred over the decades in the sound of the cassettes. What sounds terrible today, may not have been quite such an abomination when new. However, both these cassettes are pretty grim soundwise. There’s hardly any top end definition, and Radio Shack’s understanding of the word “low” in relation to noise levels is obviously different from mine. But as I say, what degradations have taken place in the thirty-plus years since these low-end, normal bias oldies were manufactured, I can’t be sure.
Realistic was an ‘own brand’ trademark used by the Tandy electrical chain in the UK, which traded as Radio Shack in Amercia. Despite having the Radio Shack rather than Tandy recognition on their labels, these cassettes were bought on the UK market. Tandy did well in the days of analogue recording because it catered for a number of niche markets which other retailers didn’t really seem to recognise. One such niche was that of the young, wannabe amateur musician, who was looking to get acquainted with microphones, effects gadgets, a mixer, and perhaps a small PA system, but would not be in a position to consider professional equipment.
There really wasn’t anyone else covering that territory the way Tandy did. Not where I lived, anyway. The gear represented a real stepping stone between ‘bathroom singing’ with an imaginary mic, and a move onto the local live gigging scene, singing/playing in pubs, bars and clubs. The Tandy equipment was definitely aimed pretty squarely at newbies – you couldn’t really take it with you onto the pub circuit when you reached that stage. But it did give you a good understanding of how everything worked, and even though you’d probably only be using your Tandy system in a garage, or a basement, or perhaps a school classroom after lessons, it gave you the feel of live performance and built your confidence.
But many of the special niche areas of Tandy’s product line became redundant as technology moved on and entertainment began to centre itself more firmly around the computer. Tandy did sell computers but they were horrendously expensive and accordingly right out of sync with the ‘products for the people’ ethos the retailer seemed to focus on with other lines. How about £4,368.85 for a 20MHz 386 PC in September 1989… wait for it… with a black and white monitor?!! Or £2,758.85 for a 344MB hard drive? That’s just the drive, by the way. Not the deals of the decade to say the least. So once the computer became pretty much the be all and end all of home entertainment, Tandy lost all its niche opportunities, and would have to sink or swim on its ability to compete in a much more streamlined and competitive market. Tandy’s power progressively diminished on the UK high street, and by the end of the 20th century the once highly popular chain was doomed to oblivion.