Analogue audio memories (part 3): Cassette tapes

A Pioneer music centre (image courtesy of curreybetdotnet) A Pioneer music centre (image courtesy of curreybetdotnet)

This short series of posts takes a personal trip down memory lane looking back at my experiences with analogue audio. You can read parts one and two here and here.

In the previous two posts, I have taken a fond look back at three analogue audio formats – vinyl records, reel-to-reel and 8-track – which formed an indelible part of my childhood, around which a significant chunk of my relationship with my father was nurtured and developed. In the third and final part of this series, let’s take a look at the role of the humble cassette tape, which provided the soundtrack to my teenage years and beyond.

Image courtesy of http://www.demotivation.us

Compact cassettes

Where other formats such as 8-track failed, the compact cassette eventually succeeded. Invented by Philips in 1962, the format took the best part of a decade to really become mass-market as the quality of recordings improved and the cost of buying players and the cassettes to go with them gradually decreased.

A 1970s Pioneer music centre (image courtesy of curreybetdotnet)

Increasingly, the format became incorporated into the stereo ‘music centres’ which were prevalent in the 1970s. These were huge machines – imagine two large tower PCs laid side-by-side – which typically integrated a cassette player, AM/FM tuner and a turntable. Later, the introduction of in-car cassette players, twin decks which allowed simple tape-to-tape recording and, of course, the Sony Walkman (introduced in 1979) all served to accelerate the cassette’s development into the dominant format for both pre-recorded and self-recorded audio.

Compared to vinyl in particular, cassettes could take a lot more punishment without suffering irreparable damage. They could be dropped without breaking, did not require dusting every time you played them, and would fit comfortably in a pocket or school bag. Of course, they weren’t perfect. Tape would occasionally warp and become mangled, or it would slacken off the spools, requiring a pencil or finger to carefully wind the tape back into place. (If you’ve been perplexed by the meaning of the poster at the top of this post, now you’ll understand the connection.) Sound quality would drop off gradually with repeated play, and do so rapidly if you were listening to a second or third-generation copy.

But the advantages far outweighed the negatives. In effect, the cassette liberated a generation of kids such as myself. Basic cassette players/recorders were affordable, simple to use and considerably more robust and flexible than the formats which had preceded it. Now we could listen to music in the privacy of our own bedrooms, and we could record whatever we wanted in whatever order we wanted, creating the concept of the compilation mix-tape.

Portable cassette recorder (image courtesy of Grundkonzept/Flickr)

My first cassette player was a portable one similar to the one pictured left – the geek in me still loves the way it looked like a tricorder from the original Star Trek series – which I was given on my tenth birthday. With this I could listen to music wherever I wanted, hook it up to another player to copy albums, or even use the integrated microphone (which was rubbish) to make voice recordings.

Several of my music technology milestones can be ticked off in the cassette format. My first Walkman-style personal cassette player (a WH Smith own-brand rip-off) – Christmas 1981. (Racking my brains, I think I had six cassette Walkmans over a period of about ten years, but never a CD equivalent.) The first album I ever bought: The Kids From ‘Fame’ – summer of 1982. (You can read more about it here.) First twin tape-to-tape deck – 1983. First stereo with a graphic equaliser (anyone remember them?) – 1985. And so on.

Whichever player/recorder I had at the time, many afternoons and evenings were spent religiously recording my favourite songs off the weekly top 40 singles countdown, or copying albums from friends, or creating my own compilations. Many of the lessons I had been taught by my dad in exploring reel-to-reel came into their own here, such as fading the recording level up and down to provide a pleasing intro and outro where necessary.

Creating a compilation tape was a real labour of love. For one thing, it was a time-consuming exercise. Recordings were made in real-time, meaning that it took at least a couple of hours to produce a 90-minute tape. It also required careful planning to get the right songs in a nice, flowing order while minimising the amount of empty space at the end of each side. And then there were all the little tricks you picked up along the way to ensure you made smooth edits without the characteristic ‘bumps’ which signified a careless break between the end of one recording and the beginning of the next.

I used to take great pride in making compilation tapes which had interesting content and were put together in a technically proficient fashion. There was always a tangible end product and a real sense of achievement every time I completed one (and there were many). If I sound like the Rob character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – constantly defining his life by creating compilation lists – that’s because I probably was, and so were thousands of other teenagers and young men out there at that time. It’s what we did back then, before the days of iPhones, Wii and Sky Sports.

Nowadays, of course, I just dash off playlists for my iPod on a whim. It only takes a matter of a few minutes to select some tracks and then drag-and-drop them. And then I never bother listening to half of them, largely because it only takes a few minutes and therefore lacks the physical and emotional investment of creating a compilation tape. There is no love, no craft.

Looking back, music has always been an integral part of my life and the humble compact cassette played the most significant role in my formative years. It allowed a shy and awkward teenager to express himself in ways he might never otherwise have done, and many of the key events in my life have had a background soundtrack associated with them. (For instance, I can recall what songs were playing on my iPod at the moment both our sons were born – Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting and Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U – as immediately as I can call up their dates of birth.)

Those were happy days, with cherished memories. But even the cassette’s shelf-life was finite. The first mainstream digital format, the compact disc, was first publicly demonstrated in 1976, with the first CD album released in 1982. By the early 1990s CDs had overtaken compact cassettes as the leading format for pre-recorded music – effectively killing vinyl records in the process – although the cassette did survive as a recordable format and in car stereos beyond the turn of the millennium, before the iPod – which celebrates its tenth birthday next month – sounded its death knell.

There is no question that the iPod and other digital formats have transformed the way we listen to music, making it possible to access an entire personal catalogue at the touch of a button. But easier is not always better. Some of it is admittedly a natural consequence of me getting older and slipping out of touch with contemporary music, but I find it increasingly difficult to immerse myself in an album or playlist the way I used to, simply because I am less emotionally connected to it now. Music has become something we merely listen to, whereas before it was something we touched and handled as part of an altogether more interactive and satisfying experience. I will never have the same depth of feeling about my iPod as I do about the primitive cassette recorders of my youth. More’s the pity.

Analogue audio memories:

Vinyl records

Reel-to-reel and 8-track