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Thread October 4, 2014 editorial: comments

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  • 11 participants
1 October 4, 2014 editorial: comments

Night of the Living Cassettes

It’s funny what people get nostalgic for. Just look at the incredible popularity of Instagram's retro filters, which make photos look like they were taken by cheap, mid-century film cameras. In the music world it's the cassette, which has come back to life like a zombie stalking the audio landscape. Now, bands are putting out entire albums on cassette.

The other day I received an email about a “cassette emulator” app for iOS. Its App Store blurb says, “Do you still remember the cassettes from the 80s? Now you can have it again.” What that grammatically challenged description is referring to is that this app processes your music collection to make your songs sound like they’re playing back on cassettes. Oh boy, I can't wait.

If you're too young to have experienced the original cassette era, let me assure you that you didn't miss much. The annoying little cartridges were loaded with skinny 1/8” wide tape that ran at a slug-like 1.875 inches per second (ips), compared to 7.5, 15 or 30 ips on reel-to-reel machines, and were notable for their copious levels of hiss. Yes, there were noise reduction systems of various types (remember Dolby B, C and HX Pro) that definitely improved the cassette's fidelity to some degree, but basically all of that was a vain attempt to, as the saying goes, “polish a turd.”

Oh, and then there was the cassette’s wonderful trait of randomly unwinding for no apparent reason — in the middle of playback or recording. I have memories of trying to wind back mounds of cassette-tape spaghetti by turning a pencil or pen stuck through one of the cassette’s supply reels, hoping fervently that the tape hadn't gotten twisted beyond repair. Probably the best thing you could say about the cassette as a format is that it was better than the dreaded 8-Track cartridges that preceded it.

Yet somehow, it has returned from the grave. This reanimation of the cassette format is very different from the resurgence of vinyl — you can make an argument for the sound of vinyl versus the sound of digital. But a cassette? If you A/B’ed a cassette against a digital recording the quality differences would be stark — like comparing a fast-food hamburger to a prime cut of steak.

Overall, the “lo-fi” craze is a bit mystifying, for me. A case in point: A friend of mine who is an excellent mixer, was working on a project for his 20-something son’s band, only to be told he was making it sound too good! Huh? With all the trouble we all go through to learn proper recording techniques and capture the best quality audio we can (not to mention spending our disposable and not-so-disposable income on more and better gear), what’s the appeal of purposely trying to make a recording sound less than stellar, and especially of embracing an inferior format like the cassette? Maybe I'm missing something important here, but I just don't get it. As always, your comments are welcome.

One programming note: the AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention is taking place October 10-12 in Los Angeles, and the Audiofanzine team will be there to cover it. Keep your eye on our news section all week, as some products are sure to be announced prior to the show's start.

Mike Levine

U.S. Editor, Audiofanzine

Remember the Hawthorne effect? In World War Two a Government experiment in a factory took place. The people who ran the factory made working conditions better for the workers and productivity went up. No surprise there. But after that they made the working conditions WORSE just to see what would happen! Productivity STILL went up! To this day they are still arguing - was it change for change's sake, or that the workers were thrilled that the supervisors were paying ANY attention to them at all?
Well, I don't miss the cassette's shortcomings (the hiss, lack of dynamic range, and the dropouts). But I do miss the convenience of recording a demo to them, and then taking them to the car to drive around for a while and listen. Rendering audio, burning a CD (that you can really only use once for that three-minute song) and bringing that to the car is do-able...but not as easy or convenient. (And spending $250 to upgrade my car's radio to include Bluetooth or aux inputs isn't really an option right now.)

As someone who converts other peoples' old cassettes to CD, I do try to clean up the audio a bit--and I'm still surprised at how long some of those cassettes can last.

Hey Mike:

I unfortunately am old enough to recall both cassettes and 8-Tracks. I do miss the "warmness" of the old tube
amps and miss that in digital recordings. I like a few pops and clicks like you used to hear
on vinyl. Now trending in mixing is minimalism. Something I've always loved. 100 plugins on
one song? Get real...
Some are saying to experiment with just a channel strip on each track. Channel strip only.
If you can't mix like that then you can't mix with 100 plugins. People don't realize it is
not the equipment that makes the music, it is the guy running it. A mixer with no experience
with 3,000 dollars worth of plugins? What? Like a guy who just bought a Gulfstream Jet but
can't fly it. Another example comes to mind--Ryan Adams. He is now recording all his songs
analog because the digital sound is just too...hummm...digital sounding. I do love my reel to
reel Plugins. I remember recording a song with guitar on a reel to reel for the first time after
many years of cassette recording and thinking..wow!!! That sounds good!! Static? Crank up the
record input volume to cover it up!! Ah...those were the good old days.
I too scratch my head over the "dumbing down" of music quality, which includes the devaluation of skill in singing or playing an instrument. There seems to be an attitude that if you're too good at singing or playing (or recording or mixing), you must be an elitist and not truly "of the people".

Fine—whatever floats your boat. Personally I prefer to listen to beautiful sounds made by people who know what they are doing, minus the pseudo-egalitarian pose. And minus the inconvenience of dealing with cassettes.
I get it , Mike. I don't like it , but I get it. I remember how expensive vinyl became in the 80's (not to mention the cost of maintaining a good Cartridge). And the hassle of cassettes ; everything you mention as well as having to listen to all sides of the cassette to find the one song that you purchased the album for.
But here's why I think folks(kids especially) yearn for that sound ; it's the mix , not the medium. Those records were mixed red hot , with extreme dynamics as the norm in an effort to overcome the obstacle of audio infidelity on the playback end. I would interpret a request for a more cassette tape sound as a request for a more radical mix.
Cassette sound quality was usually awful but it didn't have to be. A properly recorded track using decent cassette tape could sound, well, pretty decent.
Back then we home-tapers were at the mercy of cassette quality. Most brands of blanks were cheap but you got what you paid for. They usually had fewer magnetic particles in the tape formulation so that dynamic range was reduced and they would use inferior adhesive that allowed dropouts. Thin, weak tape would deform and create distortion. Not to mention a cheap shell that would create transport noise and contribute to wow and flutter.
But if you used professional grade tape or at least top quality consumer tape you could get a good result. With really good tape you could drive the needles into the red somwhat to extend the dynamic range and lower the noise floor.
It's not what you would call pristine, but you could get a nice sound from cassettes.
Yes, I heard some pretty decent sound from the high-end Nakamichi decks. But at best, it was like putting lipstick on a pig. The whole setup was very fragile and if any tiny thing went wrong (head misalignment, changing to a different brand of tape), quality would nosedive quickly.
I know for sure that there was always a tendency with Black Metal bands to record their albums on cassette, even during this times. It's been a trend for a while, specially for collectors of the genre, to acquire cassettes instead of regulard CD's and sometimes both, of the same album. This was because of the noise of the casette, making it an ideal add to the mix due to the lyrics and sound of black metal (meaning, more noisy, more satanic), to a degree of even recording their albums with a toy recorder. So i guess that it's not about the audio quality for some, but just a simple matter of taste.
I still love using Cassettes for entertainment, as I have lost count the amount of times I had to replace faulty CD Players. As for vinyl at least they last longer than compact disks, as the number of both data and commercial CD’s no longer working is on the increase, much to my frustration!!!!!!