View Full Version : Interesting Article About Cassette Tapes

Nov 05, 2002, 02:50 AM
All the discussion of 8Tracks made me think this article from the Washington Post that somoene just sent me might be apropos here -- it's an interesting read...enjoy! (No link, sorry...)


In the Digital Age, The Quaint Cassette Is Sent Reeling Into History's

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 29, 2002; Page C01

In 1923, Fritz Pfleumer, a chemist in Dresden, was coating thin strips of
paper with magnetizing chemicals, so that he could attempt to record sound
on them. Sixty years after that, a girl said, "Your music depresses me,"
and handed a boy back the cassette tape he had made for her on the stereo
in his bedroom.

Another 20 years drift by: Someone has left a ripped Dean & DeLuca grocery
bag filled with some
cassette tapes, a broken telephone, three sweaters and two T-shirts on a
sidewalk on Connecticut Avenue. The tapes include, but are not limited to,
Squeeze, Willie Nelson, something called "Burning '70s Disco Party," and
the soundtracks to "Dances With Wolves," "Dick Tracy" and "Flashdance."
There are also tapes by Rufus with Chaka Khan, Tracy Chapman, 10,000
Maniacs, Juice Newton, the Beach Boys, U2, Huey Lewis and the News, Nana
Mouskouri, and three
pink-and-yellow 60-minute TDK brand cassettes -- two unlabeled, and one
labeled "Run." There is also a color snapshot in a plexiglass frame, of
three women holding what appear to be
tropical-flavored alcoholic beverages.

Between Fritz Pfleumer and the present nationwide discarding of cassette
tapes, something unspools in the heart, gets tangled up in the weeds that
grow along the freeway. Wearing something out by loving it too much --
fast-forwarding, rewinding, flipping, dropping, splicing, erasing. Think of
the boys who used to come on to girls (or other boys) the only way they
knew how.

Via the tape.

On the first day of the current fall semester at the Berklee College of
Music in Boston, a professor named Rob Jaczko (who has worked on albums
with Bruce Springsteen, Eurythmics, Don Henley, the Cars and a number of
other artists whose chart-topping cassettes have since ossified under the
passenger seat of a 1989 Ford Probe somewhere) was going over course
requirements with the students in his production and engineering class.

He then noticed something very wrong on the syllabus.

"Everybody take your pencils and draw a line through the word 'cassette'
and write in 'CD,' " he told them. "I will no longer be accepting any work
on cassette tape."

"This was kind of a major moment," Jaczko says, now that he considers it,
"although I'm not sure any of my students would even think of using analog
cassette now. They all grew up burning CDs. It's the end of analog."

Which means the end of how things once sounded.

Ones and zeroes sound better than oxide-coated polyester or vinyl. Everyone
accepts this, driven to fits of pleasure by iPods, and wonders why a few of
us can't: the kid in Best Buy who shrugs when you ask if there are any Sony
Walkman cassette players left besides the two models on display; the car
salesman who is pretty sure you can't get a cassette deck as standard
equipment in any of the models on the lot; and the record industry, which
saw the cassette format slip to below 4 percent of total music sales last
year (from a mid-1980s high of 66 percent) and has decided to let it
quietly hiss into history.

Someday music will be only air. There will be no objects to hold or
fetishize and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or
grooved, nothing to scratch or break, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe,
no compulsive alphabetizing. Nothing to put away in shoe boxes in spare
and be embarrassed about.

The end of hiss.

The end of the sound system as furniture.

The end, on some strange and intellectually picky level, of the crucial
dialectic between Side A and Side B, and the idea that songs talk to one
another and take you someplace.

Is the death of the cassette as sweetly sad as the death, years ago, of the
vinyl record?

No, the professor sighs. Well, maybe yes. "It's a mixed romance," Jaczko
says. "From a fidelity standpoint, I'll be happy to see cassettes go. I
never felt the way about tapes that I did about my albums -- the sound, the
beautiful art on the cover. Tapes never had that romance, but . . . we do
lose something with the romance of making someone a mix tape.

"My wife," he says, "is the queen of the mix tapes."

He used to make them so carefully for her, when they were falling in love.

The whole, fraught, goosebumpy methodology of it. The ego involved.
Releasing the "pause" button so precisely to start recording. Rewinding and
re-recording over awkward and unintended song choices and segues, the way a
lover stammers to articulate his emotions. "Fitting the songs just right so
they would fill up each side," he says. "The songs titles lovingly
handwritten on the inside of the case. I find old mix tapes in drawers now,
and they're like a personal record, like finding an old letter."

He has not yet burned any love CDs for her.

"There's something about pointing and clicking," he says. "It's not quite
the same."

The Tape Head's Lament

Long-distance love affair by cassette tape: It happened to me. While
digital romances grow increasingly common, our strange fling was quaintly
analog. We talked on the phone for hours and enjoyed the occasional mushy
rendezvous in the flesh at airports and bookstores and bars. But mostly, we
wore out the heads on our respective tape decks compiling Memorex mash
notes. I'm not really the scented envelope kind of girl, preferring instead
to send yellow Jiffylite mailers packed with whatever song is on my mind.

-- Sarah Vowell, "Thanks for the Memorex"

The tape will die, but the tactile nature of it, and some of the lexicon,
will remain: "Fast forward" will always mean something, will forever recall
the chirpy, panicky sound of tape being sped to and fro, as its
surgeon-fingered listeners searched for a particular few seconds of words
or music; and how
that gibberishy sound came to stand, as aural icon, for haste and
excitement, or for admissions of guilt, or certain refrains where you don't
know what the singer is singing, so you RR or FF to it, back to it, back to
it, back to it, back to it:

Brown, shiny, unforgiving tape will always recall Richard Nixon's missing
18 minutes on those little reels, and the haunting almost-silence of
something that's been taped over. Cartoonists always drew him tangled up in

Brittle, plastic cassette cases will always have that perfect inelegance
about them; sticking the eraser end of a No. 2 pencil into a hole and
cranking it around and around to reel in a tangle of belched-up tape.

The sound of warped tape will always be the acid reflux of the stereophonic
realm, the long bwurpy slowdown that rolls around every 2 1/2 seconds.

And the hiss.

All those engineers in the 1970s who labored intensively to eliminate the

Your ex-brother-in-law and his obsession with the hiss: In that dark, ferny
apartment of theirs, tinkering with his high-end system on a bookshelf made
of milk crates, playing "Chicago V" on pizza-size tape reels and defying
you to hear any hiss.

Reeling In the Years

Tape, the fast-forwarded version:

Oberlin Smith, a cohort of Edison, described magnetic recording in an issue
of Electrical World magazine in 1888, conceiving of a magnet and a string
dipped in iron filings. The idea had come to him 10 years before that, but
he didn't build it. Valdemar Poulsen made magnetic heads in 1894, patented
it as the telegraphone, and recorded Austria's Emperor Franz Josef mouthing
off at the 1900 Paris Expo.

Then the Germans. (Always the Germans.) Pfleumer and his magnetic powders,
followed by the invention of clunky-looking contraptions like the
Stahltonbandmaschine, a steel tape recorder, circa 1930. Then came the wire

At the German Radio Exhibition of 1935 (a world away, Elvis was being born;
see how unrelated events happen to work together), the chemical
conglomerates Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik (BASF) and Allgemeine
Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) unveiled the first mass-produced tape
recorder, the Magnetophon. (It looked roughly like the reel-to-reel
machines of yore, the kind that later would be set to self-destruct in TV
spy shows. The London Philharmonic was the first group to make a tape
recording, at a concert appearance in Ludwigshafen.

Then the war.

Concentration camp prisoners worked in the BASF factories.

Later, an American colonel, John T. Mullin, was sent to Germany to
investigate Nazi technology. He came back with something that blew the mind
of Bing Crosby, who then used tape to record his radio shows starting in

Royal Philips Corp. developed the Compact Cassette in 1963, but couldn't
quite get the mechanism perfected and standardized until about 1966. The
cassette became available -- expensive, and without identity. It was
supposed to be the future, but the future of . . . what, exactly? Answering
machines? Dictation? Audiophilia?

Only in 1979, with the appearance of the Sony Walkman, does it become quite

The cassette was invented to make sure that you would not have to listen
your mother, in any environment, but especially in the car, from the ages
of 13 to 15.

Please take off those headphones.

I'm not going to tell you again.

I was talking to you and you weren't even hearing me.

Can you hear me?

Nor would anyone have to listen to people on the bus, on the street, or in
hallways, or anywhere.

So-called Generation X, the people born between 1964 and 1981, who don't
get credited for much in history, can at least take solace in the fact that
they saw the entire lifespan of the cassette. It was born, lived and died
in their era. They made it happen, one cassette at a time.

Mowing endless lawns with a tape of Huey Lewis and the News feeding into
their brains. College kids in Replacements or R.E.M. T-shirts with so many
cassette tapes strewn across their apartment floors.

(Upon review, a warpy cassette tape reveals just how little news was
reported by Huey Lewis and the News.)

The history of the cassette must concede this: Old tapes are hard to love.

High Bias

I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like
writing a letter -- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting
again, and I wanted it to be a good one, because . . . to be honest, I
hadn't met anyone as promising as Laura since I'd started the DJ-ing, and
meeting promising women was what the DJ-ing was supposed to be about. A
good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick
off with a corker, to hold the attention . . . and then you've got to up it
a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music
together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't
have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the
whole thing in pairs and . . . oh, there are loads of

-- Nick Hornby, "High Fidelity"

"They're starting to warp a little bit in terms of sound," laments Bree
Freeman, a Marist College communications professor in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.,
whose enormous cassette collection was amassed when he ran an alternative
AM station in Pittsburgh in the 1980s. "In terms of the sound, they don't
hold it forever. I don't think I ever thought, with my cassettes, 'Gee, you
know 10 years from now . . . ' But they still sound okay," he says. "I've
got copies I made of tapes I made for girls when we were dating. There's
nothing like listening to those. I'm not married yet, so I can still keep
those things."

"I'm one of the defectors," says Jim Januszewski, a Seattle software
engineer who runs a Web site in his spare time called Art of the Mix, where
visitors submit playlists of mix tapes (now mostly mix CDs) they consider
to be a perfect expression of the form. "I just like MP3 better, it's so
much easier," he says. "With the tapes you could screw it up. Now you just
move it around, when this song doesn't work with that song."

These matters are still handled with a certain measure of love, Januszewski
says. "Only better. People still take time to think of the songs, to design
their own covers. Is it a high art form? No. Not really. But it does give
agency to the music listener. It makes it something more than a passive
experience. That's what we learned with the cassette tape -- you could do
it on your own."

Pocket-Size Revolution

Vinyl: Soothing, it sounded like velvet.

Compact disc: Crisp and clean, it sounded like linen sheets.

Cassette: Frankly, it sounded like acrylic-blend sweaters.

"I don't buy records in your shop, I tape 'em all, off 'Top of the Pops' .
. . I don't need no album rack, I carry my collection on my back," screamed
Annabella Luwin, the mohawked teenage lead singer of a British band called
Bow Wow Wow, in a 1980 single called "C30, C60, C90, Go!," a homage to the
self-recorded cassette tape. (In fact, it is believed to be the first
single released only on cassette.)

C30, C60, C90, Go!

Off the radio, I get a constant flow

Hit it! Pause it! Record it and play

Or turn it on, rewind and rub it away!

Blank cassettes were supposed to ruin the record industry, the way almost
every technological shift is, at first, supposed to ruin the record

"Statistically, that wasn't borne out," says Peter Brinkman, vice president
of marketing at Maxell Corp. of America, the leading manufacturer of blank
audiotape. "Cassette tapes, it turned out, were a great enabler of the
music industry."

Maxell, which started selling blank cassettes in 1970, rose to prominence
in the early '80s on a reputation of high-bias, low-noise audiophilia of
the first order.

Old issues of Rolling Stone are strewn with pages and pages of advertising
for tape decks and the latest in blank tape. In 1978, Maxell first ran its
trademark ad -- an arty black-and-white photograph of a man in a chair
wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, enduring a high-fidelity torrent of sound that
appears to be literally tearing through his living room with storm-force

"No one could have predicted how it would become this icon," Brinkman says.

The ad, still used to promote the company's digital products, became an
emblem of that new wave, designer rock, audiophilic, MTV personality type:
The kind of guy who believed his music choices were always better than
yours. His tastes could not be questioned or mucked with. (Neither, for
matter, could yours. Ego was key.) It was a nation of tapeheads, living on
some social margin, out past the faint hiss, waiting for nuclear war.

Ten years ago, Maxell sold "easily" 350 million blank audiocassettes,
Brinkman says.

Last year, the company sold 130-140 million blank cassettes. Projections
for future sales, industry-wide, indicate that tape will slide into
obsolescence by decade's end.

Fade Out

A cassette tape lets you know when it's dying.

It starts to give off the sound of music that would be played by a very
small band in a suitcase, and then it sounds like that suitcase is inside
another suitcase. It sounds like the singer is wearing little socks on his
teeth. Consonants go away. Dolby Noise Reduction technology gives up, and
if you
didn't know what "Sussudio" meant in the summer of 1985, then there's no
hope of knowing now, not when you pop in the cassette version.

Everything unspools.

Tonight you are feeling faithful anyhow. There's a tape in you trying to
get out, and you feel like doing it the old way. You will stay home, by
yourself, have a drink, and turn your attention to the bulky components
stacked like artifacts in homage to bachelorhood. With the teak-colored
stereo speakers large enough to rest your beer upon.

All the important cords are jacked into the tape deck.

Obsessing into the small hours, pulling record sleeves from the shelves,
the LED display pulsing into the red zone when you record. You can nudge
the knobs toward more bass. High bias, normal bias, basically you're just
biased. You are very careful, like a doctor on the verge on the sheer

(Or: madness.)

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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Nov 05, 2002, 03:11 PM
Good article! The author did have a valid point about people born between 1964 and 1981--we did see the rise and fall of the medium. I was born in '77...When I was a preschooler, ALL my music was on records, and the tape player was one of those one-speaker jobbies that we recorded my baby brother babbling on. The first album I got on tape was...Tiffany. (Okay--80s flashback there!) The last cassette tape I bought was Duran Duran's album from '93 (the title eludes me right now), and it was CDs all the way from there. My tape collection is in a basket in my living room right now collecting dust.

However, through grade school and high school, a LOT of my music was cassette-tape copies of my friend's CDs (CD burners weren't part of my vocabulary yet), as well as music off of records (it was heaven when I realized I could listen to the Beatles on my Walkman the day I found out how to copy records to tape!).

Oh, God bless the person who invented cassette tapes--I managed to live through so many boring road trips by having great music at my fingertips instead of listening to the crap my parents had blasting out of the car radio for miles and miles. I still use my cassette Walkman when I have to do observations reports on my students so I can go back and type up a transcript of whatever activity they're doing.

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Nov 05, 2002, 04:29 PM
Gee, I guess I'm still old fashioned. I'm still making my own tapes ... copying songs off the stereo or off my albums, or off the CDs so I can play them in my car (which does not have a cd player) or while I walk around with the headphones on.

Ah, hopelessly outdated ... I love it


"I can see the world tonight, Look into the future, See it in a different light. I can see the world tonight."

Nov 05, 2002, 11:35 PM
Cassettes were the thing to have when 8-Tracks were phased out. Every car made seemed to have a built-in cassette player. I did enjoy using my tapes on long road trips, too. There are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-150 cassettes under my bed right now. They haven't seen the light of day in I don't know how long. CDs have become the mainstay in our lives now. But who knows, in another 20 or so years, something else will be invented to phase them out.

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Nov 06, 2002, 02:56 PM
I love my cassettes! I still make tapes to listen to in the car. Besides... being retro is back in. Have you seen the retro style record players? Considering you can't go into music stores nowadays and pick up the newset album by your fave recording star, they are making a come-back.

Just to hear the scratches and the hissing and the popping between the tracks... I love it.

Thanks for the article Nipper


Nov 08, 2002, 03:20 AM
In India tapes are still so common.


Nov 08, 2002, 03:36 AM
I know that tapes are much more common in other parts of the world -- but it's interesting, CDs and CD players are definitely the "thing" here in the US. Funny -- our new car has both a CD and a cassette in the stereo system, but only because that was already installed in the only car they had that was the color we ordered! PT Cruisers, apparently, come standard with a CD player ONLY -- and you have to ASK for a cassette player!

This is a big change from when I bought my previous car, when a CASSETTE was a big deal and if you didn't get that all you got was an AM/FM radio...and that was about ten years ago! And the car I had before that didn't even have the cassette player. Funny how quickly things change...

Rooftop Sessions (http://www.rooftopsessions.com) - The Finest In Beatles-Related Fiction. November 2002 Issue Now Up!

"In writing, the difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs." - Mark Twain

Nov 10, 2002, 08:03 AM
I don't have a car, but I do have one of those Walkman tape player thingies with the headphones, which I use when I go on mushroom walks by myself or when I mow my father-in-law's lawn.
About half of my Beatles music is on cassettes,and the other half on CDs...I gave all my vinyl to my son Johnnie years ago.

Paul is still alive.

Nov 10, 2002, 08:08 AM
I personally do whatever is easier...
if the car I'm in has only a tape player than I pull out my cassettes I have a huge drawer full of 'em that I can't part with just yet. Plus I have some Beatles songs on tape...and you KNOW I can't part with that!!

CD's are cool! And with all this high tech gear coming out...soon they will be just another thing of the past too

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Clark Kent
Nov 10, 2002, 01:53 PM
CDs have taken over cassettes in much the same way that DVDs are threatening videos but I could never part with my walkman.


Nov 10, 2002, 05:22 PM
Me either; you know what I did? I bought a couple of cassette players last year. They have never been opened; they are put away for when you can't buy them anymore so that when the one I am using now is dead, I will have a replacement.

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Nov 10, 2002, 05:55 PM
<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Tahoma, Arial, Sans-Serif">Quote:</font><HR>Originally Posted By bitagirl:
Plus I have some Beatles songs on tape...and you KNOW I can't part with that!!


Same situation for me. I have a lot of interviews, outtakes, etc. that I taped off the radio over the years, as well as copies of albums that haven't been released on CD (Live at the Hollywood Bowl, etc.). I just pray my cassette player on my stereo holds out long enough so I can transfer the tapes to CD via the computer one of these years...

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Nov 11, 2002, 06:50 PM
Well seeing as I was raised on LP's and cassettes (and I'm only 15 too!) I could never part with my two and a half drawers full of taped Beatle Brunches... sad I know. (Not that I can't part with them, but that I have every single Beatle Brunch since 6th grade taped...)
And my cassette player has megasentimental value, cos I won it at school for being able to match up the most baby pics of teachers with the current pics of them.

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