I have dedicated previous Tech Rap articles to celebrate Birthdays of the Compact Disc, the Mini Disc, the 8-track tape, and the phonograph. Now it is time for the cassette tape to get its due. And please be sure and read to the end for your chance to vote for your favorite Tech Rap.
In 1964, fifty-six years ago this month, the same year The Beatles invaded America, Philips introduced the US to the recordable cassette tape (trademarked under the name “Compact Cassette”). Though the new plastic fantastic invention was intended for dictation, two years later, prerecorded music tapes hit the market. For the audio enthusiast, the cassette’s size proved much more convenient than 7” diameter reel-to-reel tapes, 12” records, and 8 tracks, with the ability to easily slip a tape in one’s shirt or pant pocket. Pre-recorded reel to reel music tapes were harder to source and the playback machines were expensive, heavy, and required considerably more real estate. Records had been the dominant format, and according to vintagecasettes.com, it took a good twenty years until cassettes finally outsold their vinyl counterparts.
The Advent Model 201
One consumer electronics product to give the fledgling cassette format a shot in the arm was the Model 200 from 1971 which retailed for $260 and was made in Massachusetts by Advent Corp. Advent was founded in Cambridge by Henry Kloss in 1967 and built high-quality loudspeakers. Advent was also the first company to produce a projection television long before home theater ever became part of our lexicon. But I digress. The Model 200 tape deck used a top-loading Nakamichi transport (before Nakamichi started building decks under their own name) that proved unreliable. The 200 was replaced by the Model 201 which used an industrial-strength, commercial-grade 3M Wollensak transport. It had an analog tape counter, a generously-sized analog VU meter, a single rewind/fast forward lever, a removable dust cover, and was housed in real a wood case. These were not the first consumer home tape decks, but the Advent models were the very first high-fidelity home decks to include patented Dolby B noise reduction for recording and playback (reducing tape hiss by 9dB) and CrO2 (chrome) tape support. The importance of the Model 201 to the evolution of recorded music cannot be overstated. From the Model 201’s original user manual: “…the 201 incorporates more than the usual number of user-accessible adjustments to permit the serious recordist to achieve the recording quality, that, just a short time ago, was thought possible only with the best and most expensive open reel recorder.”
My friend and former colleague, Bruce Gregory, was a young engineer at Advent Corp. in the 1970’s when he was asked by Henry Kloss to handle the electronic design of the Model 201. I spoke with Gregory by phone and asked him about that project:
PS: Advent was your first major engineering gig?
BG: “Yeah. They hired me because they went in production with the Model 100 Dolby [Noise Reduction Unit], then they [found] out [it didn’t] work. So, they hired me to see if I could straighten it out, which I did. Then we did the [Model] 101 Dolby which [was] either record or playback but not both. Ray Dolby did most of that and I did some of it. I probably started the [Model 201] in late 1970. It took nine months before production.”
PS: What can you tell me about the design of the Model 201? Was it difficult?
BG: “Well, okay, for me, it was hard. The electronics…I had never designed a low-noise pre-amp before. So, you know, I went to my transistor theory book [from] college and read through it until I found out the tape head impedance [was] a real factor and you [could] pick some transistors that [worked] with that better than others…pick the right transistor to get low noise. When we were done, it was substantially better than the electronics in the Revox…It had a regulated power supply in it so line voltage wouldn’t affect its performance. It had adjustments on the back for bias…trim pots, for regular tape and chromium tape, so if you wanted to you could adjust your own machine to be super flat. The heads came from Michigan Magnetics who [made] all the heads on, like, your Ampex half inch tape. We had a really good quality tape head. The wow and flutter [were] pretty good. Henry did a kind of unusual board layout. When you [went] from record to play, you [had] to switch about a half a dozen-things. So, we put the switches all over the board and Henry made up this, like, spider steel thing that tied them all together, so when you moved the lever on the top it moved all the switches together. And they had little nylon bushings that it ran in. That was kind of unusual.”
PS: In those days, the cassette was not really being taken seriously for music until the Model 201. Did Henry Kloss ever explain why he decided to make a hi-fi tape deck?
BG: “Henry [Kloss] felt you could get open-reel performance on a cassette deck. And our standard demonstration [was], we’d go somewhere and record a song from the record onto the cassette deck and then we’d play them back synched up and nobody could tell which was the record and which was the cassette. It was really good. It was head and shoulders above everything else out there. The Harman Kardon and the Fisher weren’t very good.”
PS: Advent was the first to make and sell their own pre-recorded chromium dioxide cassette tapes. How did that work?
BG: “The cassette tape [came] on, like 7” reels, which is thousands of feet cassette tape, it’s really, really thin. So, the operator would put in an empty cassette, splice the leader to the big reel, record it, and then at the end you would splice the leader on the other end…The classical music, Andy [Kotsatos] and I recorded a lot of that…We did some live recording at Sanders Theater and at Brandeis Theater…we recorded [the Boston Camerata] in the Museum of Fine Arts so it would sound like it was in a castle. We had one tape of Bob Wier from the Grateful Dead…Anyhow, Henry dealt with, I think, Dupont directly on the tape. I mean, chromium tape was pretty new. Nobody else was really doing anything.”
Trivia: In a previous life, Bruce Gregory sold and repaired marine electronics, and was one of the last to be on and off the Andrea Gail before she sailed and was lost at sea with all hands during the Perfect Storm of 1991.
According to Como Audio’s founding CEO, Tom DeVesto, who founded what would become one of Advent’s most successful dealers, The Bridge, and eventually went on to become Advent’s International Sales Manager, Advent’s cassettes actually used video tape. From a vintage Advent advert in Stereo Review magazine: “Although DuPont’s Crolyn tape was being used extensively in video recording applications, and justifying its advance press notices, no one had made the leap to marketing it for audio purposes for home use. We decided to do so because we felt that Crolyn was necessary for the very best in potential cassette performance…and better overall high frequency performance than any other tape we know of.” *
As time went on, the hardware became more sophisticated, offering features like Dolby C, Dolby HX Pro, Dolby S, auto reverse, and multiple motors. One of the better-known manufacturers was Nakamichi. Their top-of-the-line 1000 ZXL sold for almost $4,000, and that was forty years ago. “Nak” as they were affectionately referred to by audiophiles, brought a number of innovations to the table. They were the first to employ three dedicated heads, one each for erasing, recording, and playback. Their transports were so accurate they made the cassette’s pressure pad unnecessary and actually lifted them out of the way. Their head-turning UDAR (UniDirectional Auto Reverse), as used in three models, physically pushed the cassette out and flipped it around to play the other side, thereby saving the listener a trip out of his chair (and eliminating concerns over alignment issues from a constantly reversing playback head).
Nakamichi’s legendary Dragon brought high performance (very low wow and flutter and 20Hz-20kHz frequency response) and a super-sexy style to the consumer tape deck (along with a hefty price tag). I vividly remember drooling over a Dragon at a Tweeter, Etc. store in R.I., knowing I would never be able to afford it. One day I was in the store, my heart sunk as a salesman gave a deal on their Dragon demonstration model to a woman who was buying it as a Christmas present for her boyfriend. What a gift, and what a girlfriend. I bought one used on eBay (a Dragon, not a girlfriend) about two decades later and still own it today. Judging from my success rate, a girlfriend would never have lasted that long.
In addition to the Nakamichi Dragon, I also own a Pioneer CT-M66R circa 1990, a kind of cassette juke box accepting up to six tapes that can be played in order or randomly shuffled. Never to be out done, Sony came out with the TC-C05 in 1992 which housed an internal carousel that accepted up to five cassettes. The very first consumer multi-play cassette machine came out in 1970. Denon’s “Cassematic 12” supported up to twelve tapes, had a wood cabinet base, and prominent mechanical push button controls typical of the 70’s.
The mother of all multi-cassette players was the Panasonic RS-296 from 1972 which held a whopping twenty cassette tapes in its sleek, rotating aluminum carousel. It is a rare treat indeed to see one of these babies in action. The push buttons on the right were used to directly select the cassette you wanted to listen to or to program the playback in a specific order. Once selected, the tape would disappear below the carousel to play and then pop back up again when it was finished playing or was stopped and ejected by the user.
You can still find decent professional cassette decks being manufactured today by Teac and Tascam, but most others are inexpensive, low-end affairs.
Another huge boost for the cassette’s acceptance by music enthusiasts was the legendary Sony Walkman, introduced in the US in 1980. With the Walkman, which was powered by a couple of standard AA batteries, cassettes were no longer limited to home or studio use, but could now be enjoyed while jogging, at the beach, riding the bus, lying on the sofa, or rollerblading (it was a thing back then)…just about anywhere you wanted to take your music. Over the course of three decades, Sony sold about 200 million Walkmans (Walkmen?) worldwide according to Wikipedia. Today, originals sell on eBay anywhere from several hundred dollars to upwards of $3,000 apiece. Nostalgia is fun, but not cheap.
In the early 1980’s, the boombox took cassette tape portability to the extreme. As time went on, boomboxes grew bigger, louder, and heavier. With lighted VU meters, dual cassette decks for dubbing, multiple input jacks (including dedicated phono and microphone inputs), equalization controls, Dolby noise reduction, AM/FM tuner (some models included shortwave!), and dedicated tweeters and woofers, the boombox became a full-fledged, shoulder-mounted, hi-fi stereo system. The Conion C-100f, for instance, was a monstrous, 3-way system that took ten D cell batteries! You cannot truly appreciate the sheer scale of this model without being in its presence. It even had an alarm that, when set, would activate if the unit was moved. I bought a used C-100f on eBay but later sold it because it had too many issues.
One reason for the boomboxes longevity was their ability to adapt to different technologies. The JVC 3090EN had a built-in TV. The Sharp VZ-2000 included an integrated vertical turntable that played the other side of the record without having to “flip” the record over. The Dynasty “Disco Lite” housed colored lights where the woofers’ dust caps normally would have been, which flashed to the beat of the music being played. Some models even came with remote controls. When CDs became popular, boombox CD players emerged. A word of warning- if you go searching for some of these classic vintage boxes on eBay, have your heart medication close by unless you are prepared to knock over a bank. Sorry, but my budget does not include a comma.
I supported New Wave Toys’ Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for a 40% scale working boombox, which was much more in line with my limited budget.
A few boomboxes are still available today like the “Brooklyn” by GPO Retro for $260, but they pale in comparison to their predecessors.
“Over the course of three decades, Sony sold about 200 million Walkmans…”
Music formats have a greater chance of success if they can be enjoyed in vehicles. Accordingly, cassettes got out of our dreams and got into our cars thanks to a plethora of aftermarket head units. Philips was the first to come out with a car radio/cassette combo back in 1968.
All of this glorious hardware gave rise to the “mix tape”. This was a homemade compilation of the listener’s favorite songs culled from other tapes and records. When you got tired of the songs, you simply recorded a new mix on top of the previous set, and presto, you had yourself a whole new playlist. You could trade your tapes with friends and hear what songs they were listening to. These were personal playlists well before playlists were a thing.
Trivia: A C60 cassette (30 minutes each side) contains a total of 279 feet of audio tape.
Another unique activity that stemmed directly from the cassette was the “Tapers’ Section”. This was a designated area at Grateful Dead concerts where fans were actually allowed to bring in recording equipment and record the live performance. While almost all other bands prohibited recording of their live concerts, The Dead welcomed it. Fans would trade their tapes with fellow tapers. Many “Deadheads” have since digitized their recordings and posted them on the web. Archive.org has nearly 15,000 live “Dead” recordings.
“When you got tired of the songs, you simply recorded a new mix on top of the previous set, and presto, you had yourself a whole new playlist.”
Over about a ten-year span, from the mid-1980’s to mid-1990’s, publishers released books on cassette tape, with many read by the authors. At its peak, the audiobook market swelled to $1.5 billion annually according to Wikipedia. “Readers” could hear a book on tape when it was not practical to actually read one, such as when in the car or riding public transportation, jogging, cooking, or doing housework. They were also embraced by the blind and those with learning disabilities. Audiobooks could be purchased at traditional bookstores, music stores, and were lent out by public libraries. Even the Book-of-the-Month Club and Time-Life got in on the act. Like used music tapes, used audiobooks can be found at thrift stores and on the web. According to a 2020 press release by the Audio Publishers Association, audiobooks remain very popular, with sales up 16% last year from 2018 at $1.2 billion. The release identified Mysteries as the most popular genre. Over 60,000 new audiobook titles were released last year.
In 1992, Philips took the cassette tape to the next level with a new format called DCC (Digital Compact Cassette), not to be confused with Sony’s Digital Audio Tape (DAT). Do not feel bad if you do not remember it or never heard of it. It all but vanished a mere four years later. DCC touted better sound quality since the tapes stored the music digitally like CDs and were 18- bit vs. CD’s 16-bit. The hardware was backward compatible with analog tapes for playback only, not for recording- a rather significant drawback. Tapes were loaded into a slide-out tray, not a pop open door like analog tape decks. Another cool feature lacking from its analog cousin was meta data…the playback machine’s display could show the artist, track number, and song information embedded in the DCC’s auxiliary track of the playing tape, something even many CDs did not do at the time.
The DCC was not the tape deck’s last gasp, however. In 1996, as the cassette was preparing to meet its maker, Pioneer brought out several new models featuring a 20-bit digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converter which digitized and processed the cassette’s analog audio and then converted the digital signal back to analog for superior sound. These decks also had Pioneer’s proprietary Digital Noise Reduction which virtually eliminated all tape hiss. Finally, Pioneer included what it called Digital FLEX which measured the tape’s frequency response and automatically “filled in” any missing high frequencies. With Dolby C engaged, these Pioneer decks could achieve a signal-to-noise ratio of 90dB, approaching CD-quality. Unlike the DCC format, Pioneer’s new technology was designed to work with standard cassette tapes. I have a gently used Pioneer Elite CT-05D I bought on eBay which has the same suite of digital features. The Digital Noise Reduction feature is quite remarkable. I well remember selling these Pioneer decks when I was the Assistant Manager at Cambridge SoundWorks in Portland, ME. We did not sell many, but kudos to Pioneer for having dug deep into their bag of tricks to try to rescue the cassette deck. Unfortunately, it was too late for the tape.
As much as an advancement as cassettes were, the format was far from perfect. Almost every cassette- user had experienced a time when, without warning, the tape spooled out inside the tape deck. If you were fortunate enough to catch it in time you could extract the tape and wind it back into the cassette housing by sticking a pencil in one of the reel holes and rotating it. The nightmare scenario was the tape getting mangled around the pinch roller and/or capstan, “eating” the tape and thus relegating the cassette to the dust bin. Tape decks had to be cleaned and demagnetized regularly to maintain good performance, and sometimes required head re-alignment and bias adjustment. Cassette owners also had to be careful to keep their tapes away from magnets which could erase tapes (never a concern with records or CDs).
In the musical words of former Beatle George Harrison, all things must pass. When the compact disc burst onto the scene in the early 1980’s in all its shiny, futuristic glory, it was the nail in the cassette’s coffin, metaphorically speaking. I have been in therapy for PTSD ever since. Analog tapes had a warmer sound compared to the CD’s colder, digital sound, and made recording uber easy. But let us face the inconvenient truth- the cassette did not stand a ghost of a chance against the CD. By 2003, the cassette tape had all but vanished from the major music labels’ catalogs.
Trivia: According to bands.co.uk, if every cassette sold from day one until today were placed end-to-end, they would stretch from the earth to the moon and back again four times. Houston, we have a resurgence.
New Cassette Releases
Like records, the cassette tape has been making a comeback of late, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. As the saying goes, everything old is new again. According to Nielsen Music, 219,000 cassette tapes were sold in 2018 in the USA, up from 178,000 from the year prior. There is even a Cassette Store Day (CSD), though it has not enjoyed nearly the same traction in the USA as Record Store Day has. The UK’s Sam Fender made his latest album available on cassette, as did Jenny Lewis. Naturally, you can source used tapes on eBay, at your local thrift store, and on-line from web shops like 3rdfloortapes.com, tapeheadcity.com, and Etsy.com, but some vendors actually sell new cassette releases. Urban Outfitters sells titles from Billie Eilish, Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, and a Guardians of the Galaxy mix tape among others. UO’s limited edition (now out of print) cassette of Lover by Taylor Swift sells for big bucks on eBay. Newbury Comics has a few cassette titles as well. Popmarket.com and Burgerrecords.com offer hundreds of new cassette titles on their respective websites (though I will be darned if I recognize any of the artists). You will find cassettes at Walmart.com. Surveying Amazon, I found tapes for Eminem, Nirvana, Dr. Dre, Metallica, Def Leppard, and others. Links to all of these sites are provided at the end of this article. Some lesser-known artists on Bandcamp offer their music on cassette. In a sadistic twist, almost all new cassette titles are not recorded with Dolby noise reduction because most new tape players made today lack Dolby decoding. Call me old school, but new cassette releases without Dolby is like Vegas without gambling.
Be that as it may, tapes are like acoustic comfort food, and a tape collection will occupy less space than records. They also require less cash, as most new titles retail for less than new vinyl records. That is because cassettes are inexpensive to make, even in short runs, making them a “reel” deal. Used tapes are the ultimate bargain. I bought a half dozen used tapes at a Salvation Army thrift store for $1 apiece.
Trying to find current hard numbers on US cassette sales proved challenging. The best I could come up with was a top ten list from 2018 published on statista.com:
|1||GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 1||VARIOUS|
|2||GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2||VARIOUS|
|3||TWENTY ONE PILOTS||TRENCH|
|5||BRITNEY SPEARS||…BABY ONE MORE TIME|
|6||GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY COSMIC MIX||VARIOUS|
|7||GUNS N’ ROSES||APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION|
|8||METALLICA||GARAGE DAYS RE-REVISITED EP|
|9||ELVIS PRESLEY||WHERE NO ONE STANDS ALONE|
|10||WU-TANG CLAN||ENTER THE WU-TANG|
This list from officialcharts.com ranks the top 15 selling cassettes of 2020 so far in the UK:
|1||CALM||5 SECONDS OF SUMMER|
|3||NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM||1975|
|5||FUTURE NOSTALGIA||DUA LIPA|
|6||ORDINARY MAN||OZZY OSBOURNE|
|8||DEEP DOWN HAPPY||SPORTS TEAM|
|9||NOTHING IS TRUE & EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE||ENTER SHIKARI|
|10||DEDICATED – SIDE B||CARLY RAE JEPSEN|
|11||JUNK FOOD||EASY LIFE|
|12||MORE. AGAIN. FOREVER.||COURTEENERS|
|13||THE NEW ABNORMAL||STROKES|
|15||HOTSPOT||PET SHOP BOYS|
Trivia: One of the most expensive cassette tapes ever sold was a rare promotional copy of The Artist’s (Prince) “The Versace Experience- Prelude2 Gold”, given out to attendees of 1995’s Paris Fashion Week, which sold on Discogs for $4,117.00.
“According to Nielsen Music, 219,000 cassette tapes were sold in 2018 in the USA…”
Sourcing blank audio cassettes for recording is a different story. Maxell’s blank chrome and metal tapes were highly regarded back in the day. Who could forget the iconic black and white Maxell advert of the cool dude in dark sunglasses holding on for dear life in his high armed chair while getting blown away along with his martini (complete with flying olive) by his JBL loudspeakers? Incidentally, I happen to own a pair of those JBL speakers. You can still find Maxell’s Type I blank cassettes for sale, but their Chrome and Metal tape formulations have been out of production for some time and are quite expensive today. A company named Mulann manufactures their own high-quality blank cassettes based on AGFA and BASF specifications under the brand name “Recording the Masters”. They are located in France but have authorized resellers around the world including the USA.
National Audio Company is one of only a handful of US companies that still make cassettes and is the last remaining company in the US to manufacture their own tape. The family-owned, 135,000 square foot factory is located in Springfield, MO. Unfortunately, they exhausted their supply of consumer-grade audio tape about a year ago and have been working on a new Type 1 formulation which they say is “designed specifically for maximum performance when recording on real-time consumer cassette decks.” I spoke with NAC’s President, Steve Stepp, about the new tape. Stepp said his tape will use the same process and oxide as the big brand name tapes of the past with comparable performance. He expects to start shipping them next month and estimates the cost at roughly $2 per tape, give or take, with a minimum 10 pack order. They will also be sold under other brand names by other outlets. Music tape duplication accounts for most of NAC’s business. They made the Guardian of The Galaxy tape which was the number one-selling cassette in 2018. NAC has done cassette projects for Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins and they have partnered with Disney, Sony, Universal, and several independent music labels.
Stepp also revealed NAC will offer a new Type II formulation which will use cobalt instead of Chromium dioxide, yet it will use the same bias and equalization as Chrome. Stepp says this will result in better frequency response and improved bass. Look for it in January of next year. Tape lovers, rejoice. Pricing has not been announced, but Stepp says the formulation is twice as expensive as Type I and is harder to source.
If cassettes are a part of your current music library, or you plan to build a new annex to start a collection, you will be glad to know you can easily connect your tape deck to your Como Audio music system via the rear Auxiliary input. You just need an audio cable with RCA jacks on one end (going to the output of your tape deck) and a stereo 3.5mm (1/8th”) stereo mini jack on the other to fit your Como Audio system’s input (or an adapter that converts RCA to 3.5mm). For that matter, you can use the same kind of audio cable from your Como Audio music system’s Line output to your tape deck’s record input to record from Internet radio, FM (provided your deck has an MPX filter), etc.
So, are cassette tapes the new vinyl? Not by any means, and a Como Audio cassette deck is not on any roadmap, so do not put one on your Christmas list. Why, then, are tapes popular again? Perhaps it is nostalgia. Perhaps it is because they are cheap. Perhaps because, unlike playing a music file, they provide the full sensory experience…ripping apart the cellophane like unwrapping a Christmas gift, popping open the plastic case, unfolding and scanning the artwork insert, grasping the tape in your hand and sliding it in the tape deck door, pressing the play button, and enjoying the fruits of your labor. See me. Feel me. Touch me. Heal me. Or, perhaps it is because they are analog. After all, our ears are analog. We were not born with a DAC in our brain. Whatever the reason, take comfort in knowing cassettes completely altered the music landscape, in a good way, and they are still relevant for many music lovers, yours included. Long live analog. Just one more way to enjoy the (taped) music.
Trivia: According to Wikipedia, the 2010 Lexus SC430 was the last domestic car to include an in-dash radio/cassette combo player as standard equipment.
*Dobly is a trademark of Dolby Laboratories. Crolyn is a trademark of DuPont.
Time to Vote (again)!
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Trivia: According to CNBC, as of November 2, over 94 million votes had been cast around the US, far surpassing the total pre-election votes cast in the 2016 election.
Next Tech Rap: What’s New at Como Audio
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016. If you have a comment or would like to suggest a topic for a future Tech Rap, Peter can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org