To say it right from the start: I don’t like tapes. Anyone who fetishizes them in today’s digital world probably hasn’t seen the era when they were our only option when it comes to portable music.
If you have a specific year, remember the problems. They sound terrible with an omnipresent hiss in the background. They got stuck. The cases broke. They melted in the sun. The creation of a mixtape had to be done in real time. And you’ll also remember why you often needed a pencil to make sure they were playing right. Compared to what came later, tapes are junk.
But when I happened upon a cache of old cartridges that I had tucked in my crawl space – I have no idea why I kept them and there is no rhyme or reason for the ones I haven’t thrown away – I got stuck with one Series of strange memories. I wouldn’t say that I got completely nostalgic, but I was transported back to the cassette era. I made a list of what came to my mind when investigating my find.
Labels ripped us off with bad sound
Recorded cassettes from record companies were always made of inferior material than most of the blank tapes we used for the mixtapes. If you looked at it incorrectly, the case hinges broke. The tapes themselves felt cheap. And the audio quality from production equipment was sometimes not much better than AM radio. Two albums come to mind: Elvis Costello’s first album, My goal is true, and Ghosts from Blue Oyster Cult, both published in 1977.
Costello’s record was recorded at Pathway Studios in London, which apparently had no noise-canceling equipment. The original release was the hissiest album ever with so much background noise you could hear it through the music. And whoever mastered the BOC record must have had some kind of hearing loss, because there are almost no ups or downs. Even on vinyl, only the midrange could be heard. It was horrible on cassette. And for that I paid € 8.99? Adjusted for inflation, that was equivalent to $ 30 at the time.
My cassette version of was a little less bad 2112 from Rush, which I bought at a K-Mart in south Winnipeg. I wanted to buy the vinyl version, but they were sold out so I chose the cassette as my second choice. It wasn’t until I bought the CD a few years later that I realized what I was missing. Even so, this cassette drew me into the Rush universe.
This is to prevent a prerecorded cassette from jamming
Because of their cheap construction, prerecorded tapes blocked more than high quality blank tapes. My friend Donald believed he had tripped over a trick to prevent that from happening. Whenever he bought a pre-recorded cassette, he turned it one way or the other. Every twist resulted in a satisfying chiropractic routine CRACK which he believed would somehow release the internal mechanism and thereby allow better tape flow.
Although I do not recommend such a practice, I started to do the same. Funny how it seemed to work.
Liner notes were only for vinyl vinyl
The folded piece of heavy paper that goes into the cassette shell is called a J card. Many of the crawlspace cassettes I examined had an artwork and track listing on the outside and were completely empty on the inside. Totally scandalous, especially since it wasn’t uncommon for a cassette to sell for a dollar more than the vinyl version of an album. My copy of April Wine’s First sight (1979) fell into this category. What a crack.
Cassettes weren’t just for stereos
The oldest pre-recorded tape I found was a 1973 first edition of Aerosmith’s self-titled debut album. Even brand new, the artwork looked like a bad color copy. The back of the J-Card is blank. And the message “COMPATIBLE RECORDING. Playable on stereo from monaural devices. ”That was very important if all you had was an old Lloyds portable cassette machine that mom bought you from the Eaton catalog for Christmas.
I found my only autographed cassette
It’s a 1989 album called March by Lene Lovich. I checked its value on Discogs.com and found that it is now worth $ 1.82.
We have experimented with a lot of tape brands and formulations
In the past, cassette kids always argued about which brand of blank tape was the best. While some were gaga about Maxell and Memorex, I found the high end recordings a bit boring. I was a TDK person myself and preferred SA-60s and SA-90s that used chromium dioxide tape. However, I experimented with other brands including BASF (not bad) and AMPEX (mediocre) before switching to Denon C-100s in the late 1980s and early 90s. For some reason, I have a couple of Canadian Tire-branded caseless tapes that sold in packs of three for $ 1.99 under the name Pulsar.
One thing we all learned was never to buy a C-120 tape, which meant you could record 120 minutes of audio (60 minutes per side). To get that much tape into a standard compact cassette case, the tape had to be itself very thin (0.24mm to be precise). When rewinding or fast forwarding any of these tapes, stopping suddenly at the end of a page stretched the tape and distorted the music. They were also more prone to traffic jams. Amazingly, however, you could buy C-150 and C-180 blanks at one point. They must have been particularly terrible.
Speaking of tape lengths, my cache contains C-15s, C-30s, C-45s, and for some reason C-46s. Strange.
Making mix tapes took forever
Cassettes were perfect for the car, especially when you could make your own combinations. The music industry frowned upon these homemade tapes (remember the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign?), But in these simpler times it was relatively easy to schedule an afternoon to broadcast your favorite vinyl songs. The entire recording had to be done in real time. And things got especially tricky towards the end of each side of the tape. You wanted to leave as little blank tape as possible in the end, so you had to be creative when it came to timing things to exactly 30 minutes for a C-60 or 45 minutes for a C-45.
To us home tapers, it went unnoticed that the cassette makers were not always precise about how much tape they were using per cassette. For example, at a speed of 1 7/8 inches per second, it would take you 282 feet of tape to make a C-60 cartridge. However, the actual amount delivered was closer to 300 feet. Some C-90 tapes had 443 feet of tape instead of 423. This explains why those of us who were home recording perfectionists could never understand why, no matter how carefully we operated our stopwatches, we never fill a page perfectly with no white space could .
I admit it was fun coming up with names for these mixtapes. I found a number of Denon tapes labeled Alternative 1-7. Issues 8 and 9 are missing, but I still have tapes labeled Alternative 10-12. There are also tapes labeled “For the Car”, “Party Tape” and “Heavy and Hard”. Each contains a snapshot of my musical headspace at certain times in my life.
So am I going to play one of these tapes? I’m scared to be honest. Magnetic tape dries out over time, so that the adhesive that holds the magnetic particles to the tape loses its adhesion. If these ligaments are not properly rehabilitated – a process called “baking” – they run the risk of disappearing in a cloud of dust. I think I’ll just put them back in the crawl space – a dry, cool room away from electromagnetic interference – until I decide what to do with them.
And I know exactly where to start. I found a mixtape that said “Stuff That Sterilized Frogs”. This is my handwriting. I wonder what’s on this tape?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster on Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for News Gob.
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