September 11th, 2014

Macbeth the Usurper

The Cassette Tape

Where would I have been in 1984 without the cassette tape? The humble and once ubiquitous cassette tape was the means by which we determined cool listeners from wanna-be's and fools.

Althought I used a variety of tapes, my tape of choice was the Maxell XLII-90. At a generous 45 minutes per side, it could easily hold two full LPs, one on each side of the tape. These were very good tapes. I did not opt for the even more-premium versions as I could not take advantage of the metal recording technology. By the time that I used cassette in a car, the road noise destroyed an fidellity gains.

Tapes worked by putting them into the tape player. (Obvious, I know.) When they hit the end of a side, the tape player felt the increase in tension, then either stopped or changed direction. Cheap hardware was unidirectional. You had to manually flip the tape to listen to the second side. Better hardware could play the tape in either direction. Quite literally, one side of the tape contained one track, and the other side of the tape contained the other track. In a deck, you slid them in tape down. In a car player, you slid them in sideways.

The tapes themselves came in plastic cases, and those cases, when new, were wrapped in plastic, kinda like a new pack of cigarettes or playing cards. I usually bought them singly or by threes. The tutke stickers were included as separate slip-ins, so that you could write the information on the stick, where writing was easy, then apply it to your tape. The stock paper of the case flipped around into sides and lines, allowing you to document what was on the tape. With some longer albums, you had to write tiny to fit all the tracks on. I was very good at writing tiny and neatly.

Recording onto tapes was also its own skill set. Since there were no automatic levels for you, and recording at the wrong level could really screw up your sound, you had to adjust the recording levels from LPs to be as strong as possible (thus maximizing the signal to noise rationi) without going into the red, producing a distorted recording. Very good tapes were resistant to these distortions, so you had more leeway, but even then you had to set reasonable levels. The other advantage of setting good levels was that your tapes were all the same apparent loudness, so you didn't have to constantly adjust the volume.

My tapes worked for me very well. I kept mine in my car for years. Only with the purchase of a CD player in 1997 (or maybe 98) did I stop using tapes.

I never bothered purchasing albums on tape. I never perceived that as a good bargain. Tapes were just too ephemeral and prone to degrade over time. Even good tapes degraded. That means that I didn't have a large stock of original tapes when I abandoned this technology, so abandoning proved very easy.

You can't mention tapes without mentioning mixed tapes, that way of getting a variety of songs in the pre-mp3 era. Creating these things was a labor of love, requiring some degree of meticulousness and care, as every step required you, a human being, to make it work correctly. You had to line up your recordings, get the levels right, and hope that nobody walked in or slammed a door, causing your needle to bounce. I used to wet each LP before I played it, just to keep the static down. In the late 1990's, I recreated all my mixed tapes as CDs, this time with the help of a computer. Since the MP3 era, my need for static mixes has fallen by the wayside. I now machine create random mixes and put them onto a USB stick.