The answer was once obvious. Decades ago, people used compact cassettes because there was no other media upon which they could conveniently preserve sound at home, and because cassettes allowed pre-recorded matter to be played in places where the delicacy and static requirements of vinyl disc turntables were impractical.
But cassettes were fraught with problems, including varying technical deficiencies in their sonic reproduction capability, realtime rewind, mechanical failure (tape accidentally chewing up in the machine, etc), and high maintenance. The cassette I photographed to head this post is an early 1980s Sony Metallic Type IV – a paragon of high fidelity in its day, but by no means immune from all of the tape recording pitfalls.
As we approach the year 2016, however, we’ve long since left behind the need to endure the hassle of meticulously cleaning tape machines, waiting for rewinds to complete, isolating individual tracks within an album, and perhaps even having to record a track twice to overcome the problem of a temperamental glitch. Beyond the CDs that replaced audio tapes, we now also have fully digital formats, in which the music or sound is preserved within a virtual file. For most of us, cassette tapes are obsolete.
So why bother using them? Why are groups of people taking an increasing interest in audio cassettes as a means to preserve new sound recordings? Why are more and more people across the Internet linking to sites like this one?
In part, the cassette’s nostalgia and retrospective intrigue combines to evoke a powerful attraction. People love exploring vintage and retro artefacts, especially when they’re inexpensive, and inextricably associated with popular culture. And there’s also a geek chic element to the look of many audio tapes, which makes them collectible even just as trinkets – especially given their low cost. It’s only a small step from browsing pictures of them on the Internet, to owning them.
But there are some more practical reasons why audio cassettes are still highly relevant to musical entertainment. The early ‘80s quest for high fidelity in music (summed up by the classic BASF chromdioxid II chrome high bias tape above) kind of got lost in the digital age, which has seen people predominantly playing music on standalone devices with no hope of delivering optimised sound. Smartphones, laptop computers, MP3 players – it’s all very make-do – convenience over quality. Compared with some of the physically much bigger and more complex systems youngsters were using for sonic entertainment three decades ago, there’s definitely been a decline in acceptable standards.
It’s generally harder, today, to appreciate the nuances of sound reproduction, because in many ways, the typical sound delivery system has gone backwards. Indeed, even the digital files themselves – MP3s or other compressed options, are simplified to facilitate better storage, and that compromises the quality. Worst of all, qualitative degradation in digital media is much less attractive than in analogue media such as tape.
In analogue tapes, degradation usually softens and warms the overall sound, as well as introducing random characteristics which can stimulate the listener. Digital degradation is harsher and colder. How noticeable that digital degradation is, will depend on the level of file compression, but it’s there to some extent in every compressed file, and the playback devices can add to the sense of coldness.
So we shouldn’t assume that digital music is perfect and tapes are flawed, because that’s just not true. The digital music reproduction we hear today is often way less stimulating and pleasurable a listening experience than we might have gained from an audio cassette and hi-fi system thirty years ago.
Additionally, cassettes colour a recording. The good ones add a sort of audible sugar, and every different product produces a different rendition of a sound. Us humans thrive on variety, and the nuances, the fluctuations, that audio cassettes add to our listening experience, accordingly have great value. Even though some of the nuances register subconsciously, we do miss them when we switch to digital media.
IS THE JOKE ON YOU?
I’ve seen a number of claims recently that audio tapes are tantamount to a joke in the present day. But if you’re making such a claim whilst playing back an MP3 on a smartphone, the joke, I’m afraid, is on you. You are experiencing the Pot Noodle of sound, whilst we, the tape enthusiasts, enjoy the gourmet platter.