A Compact Cassette Rival?

TDK D90Some people have been saying that cassette is due for a comeback for years. The thing is though, there are now some anecdotal – but actually quite telling – signs that the venerable Philips format, invented way back in 1963 as a dictation medium, is gaining some traction, after decades in the wilderness…

Lest we forget, the format was once mighty. In 1988, five years into the supposed digital audio revolution with Compact Disc being advertised on billboards in all the major cities of the world, in Britain the best selling format in history was Compact Cassette. That was the year that it reached its high watermark as a music medium, far exceeding LP (which had its finest year in 1975). By 1990, worldwide sales of CD players were 35 million per year, compared to 180 million cassette machines [source: GFK]. In that same year, vinyl sold 339 units, CD 770 million and cassette 1,446 million, making it 56.6% of all formats sold. Indeed, there were 1.2 billion cassette decks in existence, and ninety percent of all European households had one. No surprise then that the craze for ‘mixtapes’ took off, with large numbers of double cassette ‘dubbing’ decks on sale by the end of the eighties, as people strove to personalise their music collections. Whilst digital disc offered the promise of easy individual track selection, it was this little tape that give us the first modern playlist.

The great thing about cassette was that it was both a way of buying music, and of storing your own. Pre-recorded ‘Music cassettes’ (known to the retail trade as MCs) came out as early as 1967 in the United States, with Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis and Eartha Kitt being the first. By the mid seventies, MCs were widely available in record shops, selling at the same price as LPs – and by the late eighties it was the world’s favourite new music medium. Yet at the same time, cassette was also recordable and most people used it as such; music could be recorded in one place (at home, or outside at a live gig) and then played somewhere else. From the early eighties, most new cars had a stereo cassette player fitted as standard, and at the same time, Sony brought the format into people’s pockets with the Walkman portable.

Cassette’s low price and easy portability made it a cinch for enjoying music out and about, but its acceptance at home was by no means a fait accompli. Back in the nineteen sixties, home tape recording was the province of often rather worthy and snobbish hobbyists. Without the apparent complexity of open reel tape recording, cassettes ushered in a new generation of enthusiasts more interested in the convenience and less concerned with technology. It was no surprise then that the little tape wasn’t taken at all seriously at first, as a hi-fi recording format. This was not without some justification; cassette tape was half as wide as domestic reel-to-reel, and ran at 4.75cm/s, whereas most open reel music recordings were made at 19.5cm/s (or more). That didn’t bode well for cassette, and it took over ten years for it to achieve any kind of audiophile respectability.

At the beginning of the nineteen seventies, one excellent Japanese original equipment manufacturer which had been making large numbers of decks for various companies around the world, decided to go it alone and release its own brand of machine. 1973’s Nakamichi 700 was a revelation, and showed what was possible from the erstwhile ‘dictation medium’. Other Japanese manufacturers hit back and by the mid-seventies there was a full blown cassette war in progress. Machines from the likes of Akai (GXC-310D), B&O (Beocord 2200), Aiwa (AD-1250) and Yamaha (TC-800GL) conferred audiophile respectability on the young format. Sony’s 1974 TC-177SD – with its dual capstans, three heads and variable bias – was arguably the finest of that first wave of hi-fi cassette decks.

Five years later, things had moved on apace. Metal tape formulations had appeared, able to store more magnetism on the same amount of tape, and this finally put paid to cassette’s slightly soft, undynamic sound. A new generation of decks, from the likes of Nakamichi (ZX-9), JVC (DD-9) and Sony (TCK-81) offered lower noise, greater dynamic range and a frequency response that extended up to 20kHz – putting them far closer to domestic open reel tape machines, which suddenly seemed to be a rather unsophisticated breed. By 1980 arrived, the format was perfectly respectable in audiophile circles, and this created a space for the Compact Cassette boom of the eighties.

It could never have taken off like it did without the Walkman, though. Sony released the TPS-L2 on July 1st, 1979 to a rather muted reception, but dropped its price and renamed it a year or so later, and suddenly it caught the world’s collective imagination. Capable of surprisingly fine sound, it ushered in a whole new way of enjoying your favourite tunes and the genre of ‘personal hi-fi’. Debates range amongst hi-fi geeks about whether the Walkman was the first true portable (Philips can claim this with the EL3300 from 1966, or Nakamichi with its 500 from 1974 – while the concept itself was by Brazilian-German inventor Andreas Pavel), but this to miss the point. The little Sony perfected the package and made music truly personal for the first time, ushering in the format’s association with lifestyle and personal freedom.

The record companies began to raise their game too, making better sounding pre-recorded tapes available using superior tape formulations and Dolby noise reduction. It was a perfect circle; rising demand fuelled improvements with fuelled ever more demand. Mid eighties decks began to offer sophisticated track search too, and soon you could buy a mid-price deck such as Aiwa’s 1985 AD-R550 which offered ‘punch in’ track selection and sophisticated logic control. By 1988 when the format hit its peak, it was easy to use, convenient, affordable and capable of superb sound if you could afford a decent deck. Nakamichi’s CR-7E was pretty much the last word on the subject. The format was now capable of breathtakingly good sound, with tape recordings almost indistinguishable from the source.

Popular wisdom has it that MiniDisc, and – to a far lesser extent – DCC killed cassette. Both formats were introduced within a few months of each other in 1992, and both offered pre-recorded music and also recordability. MD was the better of the two formats, giving true random access, although its early sound quality was a good way behind DCC. Both used compressed digital audio, effectively a variant of MP3, where the bits of the music that you (allegedly) couldn’t hear were removed to minimise file space, and maximise that amount of music that could be squeezed onto the media. Sony pushed MD hard, and partially succeeded, while Digital Compact Cassette – introduced by Philips – was practically stillborn.

The last hurrah of physical media formats, they still didn’t quite manage to outlive cassette, and people were still buying new machines well into the mid nineties. For example, Sony’s own TC-K611S from 1993 was a very popular hi-fi recorder; surprisingly fine sounding inexpensive and full of functionality (Dolby S, full logic control, three head off-tape monitoring and variable bias) yet just £200. These were the sort of features you’d have paid three times as much for, a decade earlier.

By the late nineteen nineties, computer audio was the new kid in town – and in those early days of the internet, Napster give people the chance to download virtually any song for free. It was totally illegal of course, but it wasn’t until Apple’s iTunes Music store five years later that the concept of paying for music downloads was introduced, and during that window the final nails were punched into Compact Cassette’s coffin. Why carry around a battery-hungry Walkman and a bag full of (paid-for) tapes when you could download everything for free and stick it on your Diamond Multimedia Rio MP3 player? The venerable tape format had no answer for this, and forty years after its birth, called it a day. The gradual disappearance of cassette players from car dashboards was a telling sign – the very last one appeared in the 2010 Lexus SC430 convertible. Sony’s last dubbing deck (the TC-WE475) disappeared from hi-fi dealers’ shelves at around the same time.

Strangely though, the disappearance of cassette has left a gap in people’s lives that newer technologies have never quite managed to fill. A generation had grown up used to recording their favourite LPs, CDs, live gigs and radio shows at the press of a button, and suddenly couldn’t quite do it as easily. Mixtapes had become such a huge part of many people’s daily lives too – we were used to lovingly recording them for ourselves, our friends and paramours. These days, emailing someone your own Spotify playlist doesn’t quite have the same romantic appeal as a box-fresh TDK SA90 with all your favourite tracks hand-written in the inlay card…

Until recently, the end of Compact Cassette had pretty much been taken as a given, but Steve Stepp of National Audio Company says that was also true about vinyl until a decade or so ago. Several years after vinyl sales started climbing, so to did cassette, he observes. Now his company is manufacturing music cassettes for Universal Music Group, at a rate of up to 350 titles at any given time – over 2,125,915 miles of tape per year, no less. “What is happening right now is the under thirty five age group has discovered they prefer analogue sound to digital, and cassette is the less expensive, quicker-to-produce alternative to LP. The analogue audio tape is reinvading the industry!”

Suddenly Compact Cassette is cool again. In the US, the Urban Outfitters fashion chain has started selling them, and they’re going back on the racks in specialist music retailers. Cassette Store Day has grown from nothing to a celebration of the format from the UK and USA to Australia, New Zealand and Germany. Secondhand prices of classic cassette decks – especially early top-loaders – are climbing, and people are collecting Walkmans rather than throwing them way. Equally telling is the cost of the tapes themselves; ‘new old stock’ high end metal cassettes still sealed in their polythene wrappers are nearly ten times more expensive than a decade ago. Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Slayer recently had cassette releases, while an ICM survey showed that five per cent of music fans had bought a cassette tape, up from two the previous year. Something is in the air…

3 comments

  1. JB

    Maybe. Just, maybe…

  2. Sajid

    It’s a topsy world history repeats itself fashion come back as do vinyl records and cassette provide analogue sound and arguably people prefer listening to them.
    I still got my nakamichi dr3 and a box of tapes and looking at eBay prices the price of blank tapes are sky high am hoping like the recent news that Sony are making records that there be new cassette tapes being made again .

  3. You can still buy ‘new’ tapes! The Maxell UR 90 is widely available and only £4 for a 5 pack from Wilko’s. I am guessing these are ‘new old stock’ but they are surprisingly good for a budget tape and fine for everyday use. You are right about ebay though. TDK SA90’s are now around £5 for a sealed late gen copy.

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