Recently in our article, This Could Be Your Next Studio Purchase. Recording To Analogue Tape Is Not Dead But Is In A Renaissance, we discovered that a growing number of artists have rediscovered analog and tape and have chosen to jettison digital and work in analog with analog consoles and analog tape. We discovered that there has been a new stereo open reel tape recorder released for the first time in over 2 decades and that apparently they have received distribution requests for them from more than 80 companies, including ones in the U.S., Hong Kong and Dubai. Bizarrely this resurgence in all things tape based might be spreading.
For James Ivey, the Compact Cassette was the first multi-track audio medium he, and we suspect many of you, ever recorded with. But to those of us who are old enough to have really lived with cassettes it was so much more than just a medium for storing audio. James recalls “It was also how I loaded computer games and it was how I expressed my feelings, yes I’m talking about the legend of the ‘Mix Tape’. “
Well, you may have thought that the audio cassette was dead and buried but it has come to our attention that believe it or not, sales of both cassette media and hardware are on the up. In this article we ask if we are on the verge of a Cassette Tape revival?
The Compact Cassette, Compact Audio Cassette, Cassette Tape, Cassette or just plain and simple ‘tape’ was originally developed by the Philips company in Belgium, and was released in 1962. You could either buy audio cassettes already containing content like the latest chart album or as a recordable "blank" cassette. Both have 2 sides (A and B) effectively meat that the 1/8” wide tape was divided up into 4 tracks so a blank TDK SA90 Cassette would, for example have 45 minutes of recording space on either side recording at 1⅞ inches per second.
The cassette was originally designed for dictation machines, but with early improvements in fidelity, Compact Cassette usage quickly grew into both the home and semi-pro-audio markets. First taking over from 8-Track and then open reel machines and anyone who owned an early Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 or Amstrad computer would know the pain of loading computer software and data from cassette, not always 100% successfully.
The first cassette player designed for the car dashboards was introduced in 1968 and between the early 1970s and the early 2000s, the cassette was one of the two most common formats for prerecorded music, first alongside the LP record (which was never very successful in cars) then later the compact disc (CD).
The Cassette Four Track
With the improvements in quality and cheap media costs the cassette came to the attention of the Teac company in Japan, owners of Tascam. The very first Portastudio on the market was the Teac 144. Tascam realised that you could use both stereo “sides” of the tape at the same time to give you 4 fully independent tracks. This unit is widely credited as launching the idea of the home recording,
The Teac 144 Portastudio was launched at the Audio Engineering Society AGM in 1979. It was followed by several other models by Tascam and later by several other manufacturers such as Fostex and Yamaha.
The Tascam Portastudio 244 which was introduced in 1982, improved upon the previous designs with significantly better sound quality by doubling the tape speed to 3¾ inches per second and more features for the user to play with. These included dbx noise reduction, dual/concentric sweepable EQ, and the ability to record on up to 4 tracks simultaneously.
James was lucky enough to be given an original Porta One for his 12th birthday. “Officially one of the best gifts ever”. Sadly the Porta One was only able to record to 2 of its 4 tracks at a time however, with some clever use of bouncing tracks you could record up to 4 mono tracks. It’s funny, but we many have forgotten about bouncing tracks and the quality loss each time the task was done.
All of this talk of portastudios and the benefits of commiting to tape reminded us of an article Julian Rogers wrote a while back - Option Paralysis? - Maybe Pro Tools Portastudio Edition Would Help? Julian says…
“When people of my age talk about music production and our histories we’ll often say things along the lines of “I had a cassette 4 track and some of the best music I ever made was made on that machine”. If we look at the limitations of a cassette multitracker it quickly becomes clear that those kind of limitations were barely acceptable 25 years ago. They certainly wouldn’t be tolerable now - Would they?”
Julian then goes onto look at the ‘features’ in a Pro Tools Portastudio edition and even though they would be very limiting Julian concludes that it could be fun and that we could all learn something from the mindset of those workflows but like so many things, the past would be nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.
New Tascam Cassette Recorder
With this new found resurgence in all things cassette, Tascam have once again stepped up with the latest version of the Tascam 202.
202MKVII Dual Cassette Deck
The 202MKVII is an easy to use dual deck cassette deck for the installation market including venues like karaoke bars, sports centres, civic and community centres, schools or libraries ands houses of worship. It can also serve as a reliable audio storage or backup solution for authorities like the police or civil defence thanks to the proven long-term stability of tape and the additional option of USB output for digital backups on a computer. The unit offers excellent sonic performance due to a wide frequency range.
Both decks in the 202MKVII can be set to record, so you can actually make two masters of the same source at the same time. RTZ (Return To Zero) function and a repeat playback feature are provided, and you can increase or lower the pitch and tempo while playing back for Karaoke or sports applications. A microphone input on the front panel makes spontaneous recording (solo or mixed with a line level source or a cassette) really easy. There is also a pre-listening function that helps you prepare the next song on one deck while the other deck is playing. I wish we had this feature “back in the day” for compiling Mix Tapes. And of course, you can use the two decks for cassette dubbing at normal speed.
If you still value audio cassettes as a reliable recording medium, the Tascam 202MKVII is a modern, practice-oriented solution at an affordable price.
Cassette Media Pricing
One of the things that kept cassettes as popular as they were was the fact that the blank media was so inexpensive. We remember being able to buy a 10 pack of TDK D-90 tapes for under £10. Today you can pay as much as £4.25 each for one TDK D-90, a pack of 5 for just under £17 or a pack of 10 TDK D-90 coming in at just under £34. If you want the best possible cassette audio experience (although this was very much a matter of opinion) try forking out for a TDK SA90 with High Position Type II tape not just the Normal Position Type I. Today a TDK SA90 will set you back nearly £12 each from stores like Amazon.
Technicalities aside for a moment, there were some very funny moments that came from the marketing departments from companies making Compact Cassettes. In the UK there were a number of good ones but 2 that stuck in the Production Expert team’s minds were from Sony and Scotch. Do you remember either of these?
House Of Worship
One of the areas where the Compact Cassette still has a foothold is the house of worship sector, with sales of machines like the Tascam 202MKVII still strong enough to make it viable for Tacam to continue to manufacture and sell them.
A lot of places of worship choose to record services to circulate to the housebound or to people who missed the act of worship. Cassette is a very convenient format for 3 reasons. Firstly, with an auto-reverse cassette deck and a C-90 tape you can record a 1.5 hour service without a break onto one piece of media. With the introduction of CDs that record time came down to around 75 minutes, which was inconveniently slightly too short.
Secondly, the Compact Cassette was a very convenient way of circulating recordings of services to the elderly and housebound as they would usually have a cassette player of some description and so you listen to the service without any other technology. The reality was that this generation tend not to migrate to CD and so CD proved less convenient for circulating recordings of services.
Thirdly, with high speed duplicators it is easy for non-tech savvy people to create low-cost multiple copies, whereas CD duplicators tends to be slightly less friendly for non-tech savvy people.
Cassette Emulation Plug-Ins
Klevgrand DAW Cassette - Klevgrand’s DAW Cassette brings back the 1980’s by emulating the sound of a tape deck with saturation, distortion, noise and wobble. For those too young to remember them, the pitch variation of cassettes was every bit as much part of the sound as the noise, distortion and colour. Your preferred level of “cassetteness” can be dialled in with the different controls for input/output gain, tape/motor/head quality and tape/noise type.
Fuse Audio Labs TCS-688 - Fuse Audio Labs make what I can only assume is a plug-in recreation of the Tascam 688 Midistudio, an 8 channel portastudio from 1990 and at the time an aspirational machine for many a home recordist. 8 tracks was a big deal back then. My memories of 8 track multitrack cassette recording was that it was stretching too little tape too far. As a result this makes it an ideal candidate for imbuing boringly perfect digital recordings with some flavour.
This plug-in version models the 10-channel mixer including the simple 3-band EQ, the mic and line inputs and the 8-track recorder itself with the “advanced noise reduction system” it would have needed so very much given that it used compact cassettes as a recording medium.
The goal when creating the TCS-68 was to do justice to the original sound. So the preamp, the tape system and the EQ have been faithfully recreated.
When Is A Comeback A Revival?
James has heard recently that some small independent record labels are starting to produce small runs of albums on cassette for the first time in over 30 years. “While this clearly will have kitsch appeal to some, I’m not sure I am going to be rushing out to buy a new album on cassette. However, I’m sure if I dig deep enough in my loft, or my parents’ loft for that matter, I could find some old Jivey recording or mixing treasures that, even if the quality is not that of what I can produce today, there could be something in it that could be worth saving, or re-working or re-mastering. I’m not sure it will not be so easy to dig into old back-up hard drives or CD ROM disks in 25 years and get the data back so quickly”.
Please do tell us your cassette or 4-Track stories and let us know if you have found any long lost audio treasures hidden in a dusty box in the loft in the comments below.