The Cassette-Tape Revolution
For a middle-school music-appreciation class within the suburbs of Washington, D.C., within the late nineteen-seventies, our instructor requested every of us to herald a bit of recorded music to play on the classroom’s transportable document participant, which was a slate-blue field with a fats tone arm like a crab claw. I knew precisely the recording that I needed to share: “Switched-On Bach,” the 1968 album by Wendy Carlos, which I’d found in my father’s expansive document assortment. Though I’d not too long ago began spending my allowance on albums by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel, some bootlicking a part of me was sure that the instructor would like my classical-adjacent choice to the modern FM-radio favorites my classmates have been possible to herald.
There was a hitch, although. My father, a severe audiophile, refused to permit his copy of the Carlos album to be ravaged by the varsity’s document participant. He provided to make a recording of “Switched-On Bach” on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. Did the varsity have a kind of? The subsequent day, the instructor confirmed that they did, however she warned that she didn’t know function it. That can be as much as me. My father gave me a tutorial on his TEAC at dwelling, however when my flip got here in school—after each different child had performed their choice on vinyl—I couldn’t make the varsity’s reel-to-reel machine work correctly. The music got here out accelerated, as if carried out by Alvin and the Chipmunks. I crumpled with embarrassment as my classmates laughed.
A less complicated resolution existed, after all: the cassette tape. Shaped like a deck of playing cards (or a pack of cigarettes), the cassette was low-cost, transportable, straightforward to make use of, and eminently shareable. A cassette may dwell within the footwell of the household automobile or the underside of your backpack. But it was additionally seemed down upon by audiophiles like my father. As Marc Masters notes in his latest e book, “High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape,” the cassette “places a smudgy fingerprint on every part it touches,” including noise and hiss, the sound high quality degrading with every playback. My dad by no means adopted the audiocassette—he jumped to compact disks within the nineties—however for my technology, the audiocassette’s virtues have been immediately obvious and its flaws straightforward to miss. Writing in ArtworkForum, Hua Hsu noticed that “the cassette inaugurated an period when it was attainable to regulate one’s non-public soundscape,” one thing all of us take without any consideration now. The novelty of that management was thrilling to these of us raised on vinyl. Suddenly, anybody with an affordable tape participant may document music, sequence it, distribute it, and—maybe most powerfully—erase it and exchange it with one thing else. Largely seen as a nostalgic totem nowadays, the cassette tape was revelatory and revolutionary in its time; its disruptive energy anticipated the even larger tectonic shift that the digital age would deliver to music.
The compact audiocassette (to offer it its full identify) was conceived by Lou Ottens, the pinnacle of product improvement on the Dutch electronics firm Phillips. One day, within the early nineteen-sixties, pissed off after “fidgeting with that rattling reel-to-reel” (as a colleague later recalled), an exasperated Ottens instructed his design crew to create a model of their reel-to-reel tape that was small and transportable, with the spools of tape contained inside a case. He needed it to slot in a pocket and imagined it will be utilized by journalists and nature lovers (the latter to document birds and different out of doors sounds). Phillips launched its new cassette system in 1963 and the fast response was underwhelming. Before lengthy, nevertheless, imitations of their compact cassette participant started cropping up throughout the globe, most continuously in Japan.
Ottens then decided that helped increase the format. To promote standardization of the cassette, Phillips waived royalties, permitting anybody to license the design at no cost so long as they adhered to the corporate’s quality-control requirements. This averted the sort of schism that videotape would face through the VHS-Betamax struggle and insured that the Phillips cassette can be the dominant design. By the tip of the sixties, eighty-five completely different producers have been producing cassette gamers, with gross sales of two.5 million models. By 1983, cassettes have been outselling LPs.
The ascent of the cassette brought on a serious freak-out amongst record-company executives. Nearly anybody who has ever purchased vinyl will probably be accustomed to the cassette-and-crossbones picture that was for a few years printed on document sleeves, accompanied by the dire warning: “Home taping is killing music.” On each side of the Atlantic, the recording trade sought, futilely, to make the duplication of music on cassette tapes unlawful. Other proposals included a compensatory tax on clean tapes. A member of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers even went as far as to equate cassettes with leisure drug use: “Very quickly it turns into a interest. And after it turns into a interest, it turns into a behavior.” None of these methods blunted the recognition of the cassette tape. As Masters observes, the “notion that dwelling taping was unlawful or at the least immoral . . . succeeded in making tapes appear even cooler and extra rebellious.”
While the design of the audiocassette hasn’t modified a lot since its inception, the machines used to play it have advanced in magnificent and unpredictable methods. There’s an exquisite scene in Zack Taylor’s 2016 movie, “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape,” wherein Ottens examines a show of tape gamers within the Phillips archive, together with a telephone-answering machine, a deck that might play a stack of cassettes in sequence, and the primary AM/FM radio-cassette combo. The two most consequential improvements within the tape participant, nevertheless, have been the growth field and the Sony Walkman private stereo. One allowed you to externalize your musical style, the opposite to internalize it. (Indeed, a Walkman was typically one of the best protection in opposition to the sonic assault of a growth field.)
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November 19, 2023 at 09:45PM
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