Audio Tape Shoot-Out: BASF, TDK, Memorex, That’s

Classic Audio Tape Shoot-Out 1

Okay, so this is in no way a fair contest, but unfair usually makes for more interesting reading, so no apologies for that. In this post, I’m comparing the performance of four well-kept and barely used 60 minute audio tapes, made between the early 1980s and the mid 1990s. The idea was not to make a champion of a particular brand, but to explore how varied old audio cassettes can be in the way they handle a modern recording.

I recorded a live electric guitar to each tape, directly injected to the tape deck, via a guitar processor – no Dolby.

THAT’S CD/IIF 60

My intention was to use this mid ’90s high bias beastie as benchmark. The existing mid 1990s recordings I’ve got preserved on That’s CD/IIF cassettes are of high quality, and in some cases feature chains of live electronic instruments which I can still, to this day, replicate for reference. Therefore, the CD/IIF was a solid known quantity, unlike the other three tapes, which date back to the 1980s, and for which I had no technically referable recordings.

The That’s CD/IIF performed more or less as expected. There was a slight loss of high end treble, but definition remained very good indeed, and I really liked the body and depth the tape delivered on playback. I couldn’t hear any flaws or glitches – just a great recording.

Notably, this cassette did colour the recording with an apparent boost (albeit subtle) in the midrange area. So it’s not a technically perfect rendition, but it is a pleasant coloration which I suspect would appeal to a lot of tape users. It’s the kind of thing that would prompt me to use a tape as opposed to just recording digitally.

TDK D60

What a surprise this was. On playback, I actually had to check that I’d inserted the right tape – such was the quality of the recording. This D60 comes from 1984, and I used a lot of these basic Type Is back in the day, finding them reliable and competent, but never spectacular.

However, the amount of definition this ancient TDK has retained, and the fact it’s given the That’s Type II such a run for its money, was unexpected. The sound is big, bold, full, in ya face, but really well defined. Of course, there’s a loss of treble, but there’s nothing dull about the reproduction.

The D60 recording is not as well defined as the That’s CD/IIF, but it’s really not that far short, and you have to listen pretty carefully (and know where to listen) to notice the drop in high end sizzle. I felt in this test that the D60 had quite a similar personality to the CD/IIF. And in fact, there’s a better retention of the record level in the D60, so playback is a little louder.

The D60 does show its true colours when it comes to background noise. As soon as the music breaks or reaches a quieter phase, that characteristic Type I hiss roars up into the foreground. This just doesn’t happen with the CD/IIF. The two tapes are worlds apart in terms of noise.

Very impressive performance from the D60 though, with no drop-outs or glitches. To say it took me by surprise is a considerable understatement.

MEMOREX MRXI 60

If you’ve read the rest of this blog you’ll know I’ve had strong reservations about early ‘80s Memorex cassettes – in particular their susceptibility to the effects of time. I did, however, sincerely hope that this barely used and well preserved 1983 example would balance up my negativity with a positive performance.

Sadly, the old groans were soon coming forth, as the tape did have some serious issues. The first recording attempt I made was beset by glitches so I removed the cassette from the machine, cleaned the heads and tried again. On the second attempt, the cassette refused to fully erase the first recording I was now trying to tape over, so there was a sort of dull sub-recording underneath the new one.

I quickly found that the cassette’s pressure pad was not doing its job properly, so the tape was not being firmly pushed up against the heads. After some improvisation I was able to cure that problem… So, third time lucky?…

The drag on this MRXI is not anything like as bad as with some I’ve got (it’ll inevitably be worse with a 90 minute than a 60), but these are ‘heavy runners’, and that can create issues with wavering pitch. There were one or two glitches in the playback, which I suspected were down to the combination of high drag and ageing tape, but what a great shame, because with the pressure pad issue resolved, the basic sound quality of the recording was even better than that of the TDK D60!

The recording has a different tonality from that of the D60 and CD/IIF. The Memorex is sweeter and more natural in the midrange, and it reproduces slightly higher treble frequencies than the TDK. But it’s much less stable, and you find yourself waiting for the next glitch rather than just enjoying the playback.

Out of curiosity I did kind of cheat with the Memorex test – well, I did say this wasn’t fair… After recording to the MRXI 60 with correction for the pressure pad (a cheat in itself), I also recorded to one of my re-cased MRXIs. These are MRXI tape reels, completely rehoused in good, 1990s Type I casings. The recording I made to the re-cased MRXI was excellent. No serious problem with glitching or pitch issues, and straight off the bat, the quality beat that of the TDK D60.

So what a tragedy that Memorex didn’t pay more attention to their casing designs. The tape itself did have the capacity to subordinate rival Type Is, and even compete for quality with a mid ‘90s high bias That’s cassette – albeit in its own gritty style. But as is, without any attention to the pressure pad, the Memorex was very poor indeed.

BASF CHROME EXTRA II 60

I’m sure most tape enthusiasts will not be surprised to hear that a 1988 chromium dioxide (CrO2) from BASF most accurately replicated the original live sound. If there was any loss of treble, I was unable to detect it, and there was a neutrality to the midrange that made me aware just how significantly other tapes can colour the tone.

These BASF chromes were a technical marvel, and for sparkling electronic instruments, clean acoustic performances or classical music, I think they were unbeatable short of moving up to a metal formulation (and thus paying a lot more money). But for the electric guitar, I did prefer the coloration the other tapes added, and I liked the smoothing effect that lopping off some of the very high frequencies rendered.

The BASF did not retain the level of volume on playback that the other cassettes retained. The actual tape in the Memorex cassette technically rendered the loudest reproduction (although only in the re-cased test – not as is), with the TDK coming second, then the That’s, and very noticeably quietest, the BASF. But you have to take into account that the cheaper Memorex and TDK Type Is are hissy, so in terms of signal to noise, the BASF easily beat them both. You could ‘overload’ the input level for the BASF, and that obviously helped raise the output volume. Great care was needed in order to avoid distortion though.

IN CONCLUSION

Before I started the test I envisaged there being a huge chasm between the performance of the high bias That’s CD/IIF and the two Type I tapes. But with the Memorex’s casing flaws addressed, I doubt the average consumer would have flagged a difference between the three. There obviously are differences, but they’re more subtle than I expected, and I was genuinely surprised at the definition the TDK and Memorex cheapies attained as compared with a more expensive Type II from the 1990s.

The BASF chrome has a spaciousness that I think does set it apart, and it undeniably does beat the later That’s Type II for faithful duplication of the live sparkle. Which one you’d choose would depend on whether you want supreme hi-fi (BASF) or a more ‘tapey’ sound, but unless you were ready to reach for the toolkit, I very much doubt you’d pick the Memorex.

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