I thought this would make for an interesting experiment. I’ve griped a little recently about expensive, pre-recorded cassettes, manufactured between the mid ‘eighties and mid ‘nineties, being produced with ferric tape formulations, as opposed to chrome. So I thought I’d assess exactly what customers were getting, in terms of sound quality, from these pre-recorded, CD-era ferric tapes.
Working out the exact state of play is not quite as simple as listening to the cassette’s pre-recorded music. It’s impossible to tell what the original master sounded like, and thus impossible to state with certainty what sort of changes and degradations are inherent in the consumer’s final copy. You can tell whether the sound is fat, thin, bright, dull or whatever, but you don’t know how much of that is down to the tape, and how much is down to the original production and mastering process.
The only way to understand exactly how a pre-recorded ferric tape performs, is to record (preferably live) sound onto its blank area, and compare the result with that of other ferric tapes. So, that’s what I did.
The main pre-record on test was Led Zeppelin III. This is not a 1970s product (although the album itself dates back to the dawn of that decade) – it’s a typical early 1990s job. Very generic looking, but reassuring, apart from the mid-brown and very obviously ferric tape. You can see the cassette to the right of the foreground in the picture. The empty case is behind it. I did, incidentally, also reference in an actual 1970s pre-record, but we’ll come to that in due course.
I used a live MIDI sequence with multiple instruments for the test. Heads cleaned between each individual tape, obviously… I sometimes feel like I need a pair of white gloves for these shoot-outs…
WOOLWORTHS FERRIC 90
You’ll notice in the picture that this is a branded Woolies Ferric. The one I photographed for the blog previously was unbranded. This one probably dates from around the turn of the century, and it’s definitely the newest cassette in the test.
The sub £1 baseliner did very well. Pretty good definition, excellent stability and resistance to drop-outs, good retention of level. For a cheapo ferric tape you couldn’t fault it. I was already bracing myself for a shock outcome…
SONY CHF 90
Rolling back the clock another two decades, I hauled out one of these old faithfuls. The Sony CHF was another cheap and cheerful cassette, this time hailing from the early 1980s, and carrying a much more persuasive brand. A bargain basement Sony would beat Woolies’ own-brand equivalent, right?… Well, if that was ever true, the rule certainly doesn’t span a two-decade age gap. The Sony CHF 90 was easily outperformed by the Woolworths Ferric 90. The Sony did reproduce some top end, but very noticeably less than the Woolworths, and the Sony’s sound volume on playback was clearly lower, with the music less stable, and more prone to drop-outs.
We’re looking at a cassette in its mid thirties here, so some age related issues can be expected (although age didn’t seem to bother the ’84 TDK D a few posts ago). And the Sony CHF 90 actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. But categorically, this particular CHF did not compete on quality with a Y2K(ish) Woolworths Ferric 90.
THE EARLY ’90s PRE-RECORDED FERRIC
So, how did our commercial entertainment ferric get on?… Well, much as I’d have loved a sensational result in which the mighty Woolworths kicked the pre-record into touch, the pre-record did immediately show its superiority. Very good volume on playback, just about as high a level of definition as anyone could expect from a ferric tape, and a bolder, more solid personality than the previous references.
There’s some substance in the upper midrange, which the two blank ferrics lacked, and accordingly, the pre-record made both the Woolworths and the Sony sound a little ‘hollow’ or ‘muted’. There was a very marked difference between the quality of the pre-record’s sound and that of the old, duller and more subdued CHF.
This would be a good time to remind ourselves that both the Sony and the Woolworths cost less than £1 (the Sony would have been well under), and the pre-record was a commercial entertainment product, retailing at £6 to £7. So of course, it should be better. But let’s add a little further context to the overall picture…
REAL 1970s PRE-RECORD
For reference, I also tested a genuine mid 1970s pre-recorded ferric, just to gauge the technological progression, and determine how much, if any, improvement there’d been by the 1990s.
And the answer is… Stretch you arms out as wide as they’ll go… That much improvement! In truth, the ‘seventies pre-recorded tape was grim. Blatantly inferior to the Sony CHF, let alone the ‘90s pre-record. Poor volume retention, stodgy sound, very temperamental… The actual treble reproduction was similar to that of the Sony – when the ‘70s job wasn’t spluttering into a sustained hail of drop-outs. Again, you have to take the age of the cassette into account, but the ’90s pre-recorded ferric was a different ball game from its ’70s ancestor. Much, much, much better.
The fact that I specifically picked such low-end ferrics for comparison in this test, can be considered a measure of my cynicism towards big business. But the ‘90s copy of the Led Zeppelin III cassette was presented on high quality media, and it should not be assumed that just because a CD-era commercial tape recording isn’t on chrome, it must always be a serious compromise.
It should also be stressed that the pre-recorded ferric from the 1970s fell well short of both blank tapes in its decidedly dodgy performance – so there was certainly plenty of room below the comparison samples I picked, as well as above.
Chrome could produce a higher and prettier treble register than the ’90s ferric, and in conjunction with Dolby noise reduction, that was a valuable attribute in professional audio reproduction – provided the listener was looking for optimum fidelity, and not lo-fi, of course. But with a recording made in 1970, it could be argued that refined high frequency components would not in any case feature prominently, if at all, on the original master. Therefore, in this instance, a ferric formulation might be considered better suited than chrome by some – especially in the light of its ability to thwack out that old-school bass.
If you did think ferrics were better suited to vintage recordings, there was certainly nothing wrong with this one.