Here’s a fine example of a major recording label maintaining the highest standards in its audio cassette output in the early 1990s. It’s a German-made EMI tape from 1992, featuring Pinchas Zukerman (violin) and Daniel Barenboim (piano) performing Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, Nos. 5, 8 and 9.
The recordings themselves hail from the early 1970s – the performances having been committed to master tape between 1971 and 1973, in Berlin and London. The original London recordings were notably made at Abbey Road, which was also where the whole programme was digitally remastered in 1985.
The cassette is clearly and proudly marked as Chromium Dioxide, and that is, in any case, fairly well apparent from the look and sound of the tape. It’s a stereo recording, engineered to play in optimised mono on mono equipment, and it very effectively utilises Dolby noise reduction, incorporating the advanced HX-Pro system to handle the wide range of dynamics. Used as intended, with Dolby switched in, the reproduction is superb, with perfect tonal balance, and at reasonable home listening volume, background noise is almost impossible to detect. The top end zing and bite in the violin still penetrates and sparkles through the Dolby, and the piano retains all its frequency characteristics. This is a professional job.
By 1992, chrome audio tape formulations were a luxury to which most pre-recorded cassette vendors would no longer stretch. There was also, since the mid ‘80s, an increasing tendency for pre-recorded tapes to skip the paper-labelling process and simply feature fairly erratic brandings stamped directly onto the plastic cassette casings. Even in the 1970s, some pre-recorded tapes had been issued sans labels, but from the mid ‘80s the practice worked its way higher up the qualitative strata, so that by the early ‘90s, the majority of pre-recorded cassettes – even the expensive ones – were cutting the corner of labelling.
This specimen, however, clings to the luxury of a white paper EMI label. There’s a respect for the customer evident in this product, which had gone missing in many audio cassettes by the height of the compact disc era.
I’ve said before on the blog that I’m not a classical music aficionado, and I’m not going to pretend to know about the subtleties of the instrumental performances. But you don’t need to be an expert to recognise a quality product, and this is a very nice illustration of quality being held as paramount in an era of declining standards.