People of a certain vintage couldn’t help but feel a pinch of sad nostalgia earlier this month with the news of the passing of Lou Ottens, the inventor of the tape.
In the very early 1960s, while working as an engineer in the new product development team at Phillips, the Dutch electronics maker, Ottens had an accident with an old-school coil-to-coil machine that saw a bunch of tape unrolling uncontrollably. speech This caused him a lot of irritation, prompting him to entrust his co-workers with the task of finding a better solution. He set out to build something much more user-friendly.
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In 1962, working in the offices in Hasselt, Belgium, a goal was set: Could a reel-to-reel mechanism be reduced to the size of a block of wood that could fit in a shirt pocket? After another year of work, the compact cassette – two tiny reels in a plastic case – was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Show (the Funkausstellung) to the amazement.
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The audio quality was not great. The tape was only 3.81mm wide and was moving at an ice speed of 1 7/8 inches per second, originally enough for 30 minutes of recording per side. But since the vision was to use the new format for simple office dictation tasks, that was no problem.
The tape also created a lot of industrial jealousy. German manufacturers Grundig and Telefunken, as well as several Japanese electronics companies, were working on their own version of the tape and adoption of Ottens’ invention was not assured. It wasn’t until Phillips signed a licensing deal with Sony in 1965 that the compact cassette became the de facto standard on the planet.
Pre-recorded cassettes first appeared in 1965 under the name “Music-Cassettes” with the release of 49 titles. Better tape formulations followed as ferric oxide gave way to chromium dioxide and then metal particles. In the 1970s, cassette machines were an essential part of any home and car audio system.
Sales really took off in the 1980s after the introduction of the Sony Walkman and other portable music devices and for a brief period, cassette was the best-selling pre-recorded music format. Until the early 1990s, cassettes sold more than the compact disc (another format that Ottens helped invent).
The artist uses cassettes for musical experimentation
Over the decades, more than 100 billion cassettes have entered the global market, including billions of blanks that have been turned into mixtapes. But with the rise of CDs, file sharing, iTunes, digital music devices, and streaming, the need for tape has gone.
Good riddance, I say. Cassettes served their purpose back in the days before digital. Now is the time to get rid of the cursed things.
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Why? Let me count the means.
They got stuck. Fade in the sun. The hinges of the cases would snap if you looked at them in a funny way. Clear cases did not stay transparent, cracking, scratching and darkening. Even the best and most carefully recorded tapes exhibited a hiss and relatively low frequency response. Many prerecorded tapes sounded horribly. J cards (which passed for illustrations with prerecorded tapes) often did not contain any liner notes. They fell into the feet of the cars and were kicked under the seats. The glove compartments were littered with them.
Mixtapes had to be done in real time, which meant that between selecting the music to record and sending it to tape, it took at least 90 minutes to create a 60-minute mixtape. And then there was the frustration of trying to fill each side of the strip as much as possible so that you didn’t have a whole lot of silence at the end. (I became somewhat of a ninja master at measuring how much time was left on the side of a tape just by looking at it.)
Most of those who are nostalgic for cassettes weren’t around when we had no other option to make our music portable.
But for some reason, the tape continues to be fetishized as something that must be preserved. There is this strange nostalgia for technology that no longer serves any useful purpose. They have no reason to exist.
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Yes, there have been reports of a boom in cassette sales, but don’t believe the hype. MCR / Nielsen Canada does not even track sales of pre-recorded tapes. Its weekly sales and streaming report tracks CDs, digital albums, digital tracks, streaming, and vinyls. Cassettes are grouped into a category called “other”. Of the 3.8 million prerecorded pieces of plastic sold last year, cassettes made up only a tiny fraction. Last week’s report shows 1,787 “other” units sold since the start of the year in the country – and that figure also includes music DVDs.
Yes, there is Cassette Store Day (2013 est.) Every fall, but its success is light years away from what Record Store Day has done to vinyl. Last year there was a 103 percent increase in UK cassette sales which sounds great until you realize that brought the total to around 100,000 units. in a global recorded music industry worth US $ 20 billion. Big deal.
But who are these people who insist that tapes are great? They can be divided into several groups.
- Hipsters luddites: For this group, the downside of cassettes in the digital age shows how much they love music more than anyone else. “See what I’m willing to endure for an authentic music listening experience? They continue on the care taken in creating mixtapes, saying they are compiled with more of a human touch than any other digital playlist. Well. You go with that.
- Curiosity: They are sold by artists as tchotchkes and collectibles. How many pre-recorded tapes are actually played? How many people even have a cassette machine in the house? And have you recently tried to buy a new one?
- Emerging nations: Cassettes can be sturdy against heat and dust in some places. As recently as 2019, I walked into a store in Bali that was filled with pre-recorded tapes for sale.
- Japan: It might be the land of the electronic gadget, but walk into any small store and you will find packs of tapes for sale. Parts of Japanese culture are very conservative and continue to cling to old ways. (Tip: Need a fax machine? Japan is where you belong.)
- Prison releases: Enough people are incarcerated in the United States – around two million in 2020 – for convicts to form a viable music market. CDs are prohibited in prisons because they can be turned into shivs. MP3 players are allowed, but without Internet access they are unnecessary. Vinyl? Barely. The only option left is the lowly cassette. Companies like Fortress Audio and Duplication.ca offer blank cassettes made with transparent shells (to prevent smuggling) and without any screws (to reduce militarization) specifically for use in prison.
- Graphic competition: Want to boost your position on the music charts? Offer your new album in an additional format. Your die-hard fans will play the record, buy the vinyl, take the CD, and grab the tape. If your fanbase is enraged enough, tape sales could add up to 1,000-10,000 more sales, enough to make a difference to where you stand in the chart.
If you like cassettes, enjoy it.
But for those of us who care about true portability, high fidelity, and convenience, keep your favorite tape to yourself.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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