Hipster fashion embraces the cassette

This article originally appeared on the now-defunct dbrmuz blog.

The AllMusic Guide has an interesting piece on cassettes…

However silly or seemingly antiquated it may be to some, the lineage of cassettes, while always existing in the margins, is ongoing. From the early ’80s file-sharing prototype of home taping to Deadheads and punk collectors alike trading tapes of soundboard recordings from shows or rare demos, from the spray-painted limited editions that make up the foundations of the noise scene to lines around the block of DJ Screw’s Houston TX storefront whenever he released a new mix tape. Though fragmented and microscopically obscure, entire movements of progressive sound have thrived on tapes as the sole distribution of their work. The ripples of cassette culture, and the importance of the relatively voiceless musics they house are yet to be fully felt.

Some really astute observations are found in the accompanying comments, such as this from ‘Dave’…

Love how people argue against things like this. Best part is when people who listen to 128 kbps mp3’s on computer speakers complain about sound quality of cassettes. Suddenly, mp3 fans are audiophiles. Suck it. Bonhams drums on cassette are heavenly. Second, the sound quality difference between vinyl, CD, CDr, mp3, cassette, etc is pretty objective. BUT, preference for one over the other is subjective. Bottom line is: leave the ’sound quality’ discussion out of this. Any source can sound good, any source can sound like shit. Next, people who appreciate aesthetics often love handmade objects. Often love analogue. What’s wrong with that?

A common complaint with the compact cassette is poor frequency response, particularly the noticeable inhibition of treble. This is predominantly due to the use of poor quality recording decks or cheap type I ferrite tape. Like vinyl, or film, the analogue production process is an artform in itself. Ignorance lies again at the root of the issue. It’s like saying Nickelback (album pictured below) is a joke because they have released some poor quality material. Let the people who repeatedly see them live judge them properly, not the big mouths who are paid to pontificate on subjective matters.

Running the signal levels far too high (rarely an issue for more expensive metal or even chrome tape which have huge ‘headroom’) causes the resulting recording to exhibit distortion and corrupts the treble. The distortion is usually only noticeable with heavy percussion.

View more cassette pornography courtesy of  DJ Fligu

Of course, tape recording from a compact disc on a $100 Chinese boombox will sound like shit, perhaps unless you seek out metal tape from a reputable manufacturer such as BASF (Emtec), Maxell or TDK. If you are that lazy, you won’t find much joy in the medium and you’ve probably ditched DVD and CD media as well.

Dubbing a copy of a copy (including live Grateful Dead recordings) or employing high speed dubbing at any time suggests you’re not grasping the fundamentals of the process. You might as well re-encode your digital music collection which you probably purchased at 320 kbps bitrate (or pirated online in a lossless format!) to 64 kbps bitrate!

Most combination systems don’t even offer the gold-standard Dolby B noise reduction, let alone the vastly superior Dolby HX Pro which does not require decoding on playback. Recording decks incorporate sophisticated noise reduction circuits such as Dolby C or Dolby S (video below) which was used in multiplex cinemas it was so good! I used to be a tape hater/CD lover until it dawned on me that I wasn’t using even average quality equipment!

Degeneration of broadcast quality reel-to-reel tape is a different issue entirely. Luckily my pre-recorded albums purchased secondhand at record fairs, such as Supertramp’s Breakfast in America from the 1970’s have no evidence of deterioration. Mind you, these were recorded on chrome tape. I feel for anyone trying to deal with deteriorating tape, but the usual common sense applies, surely? I’m not judging, but fuel your body with buckets of KFC deep-fried chicken and you may suffer consequences in the long term. Record on 50 cent tape and your recordings may not last twenty years either. The Frankster writes…

I had a job recently restoring some old Sydney radio recordings from someone who had a lot of quarter-inch reel to reel tapes – but instead of them being in half-track stereo (where the deck records across the entire width of the tape at once), these were quarter-track… Ampex stopped using whale oil to make the tape binder due to whaling being banned in the 70′s and using a synthetic replacement, its this replacement that has affected over 1 million reels of tape, and engineers are finding old master tapes are not playing back without a fight.

But ‘you’ve got the read the fine print’, just like Happy Harry Hard On says. I’m not saying analogue is superior. But I will argue the compact cassette can sound equivalent to audio CD for those that make even a semblance of effort. In fact, tape manufacturers proved this with double-blind listening tests. Audiophiles couldn’t consistently pick whether they were hearing the original CD or the chrome/metal tape recording .

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Commercially produced CDs won’t suffer drop outs (provided the error-correction can handle the disc’s blemishes) and are less likely to suffer from speed fluctuations. CDs are more compatible with players and may last longer in hot regions if stored correctly. Listeners can seek tracks instantly. That’s impossible with analogue media.

I’ll end with a 1985 article from the Chicago Tribune. I believe this was a time when R & D was being poured into producing the best tape formulations, with Europe, of course, leading the way.

Comparisons of different tapes must be done on the same machine properly adjusted for each tape. This means a machine with manual or automatic bias and Dolby level adjustments. Challenging program material, such as recording from a Compact Disc or, better still, a live concert with professional mikes and mixer will extract a tape`s maximum potential.

So with $20,000 of professional recording gear (in addition to an Onkyo TA-2090 cassette deck) we adjourn to a local folk music club featuring the Best of Friends. This trio uses a variety of guitars, banjo and electric bass. It repeated the same set for each performance. Two premium cassettes were chosen, first a TDK SA-X C-90; second a BASF Chrome Maxima C-90. Dolby B noise reduction is used during the recording.

The tapes were played back and compared at leisure on an audiophile system. Since the testing is not double blind (that is, I knew which tape is which), the results are subjective. Both sound very, very good, but the BASF sounds better than the TDK. The biggest difference results from a lower noise level on the BASF Chrome Maxima cassette. There`s less tape hiss. Distortion also seems slightly lower on the BASF tape. The BASF shell (encasing the tape) fosters smoother tape movement, although this may change when Chrome Maxima receives a new shell in a few months.

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2 Responses to Hipster fashion embraces the cassette

  1. dbrmuz says:

    Any half-decent tape deck should incorporate Dolby HX Pro AS WELL AS at least one of the main Dolby NR systems.Dolby B being fine for all-round purposes;Dolby C for those using the same deck all the time. Dolby S for the lucky bastards-I currently own three decks,and missed out on Dolby S every time.

    Nakamichi released a high-end deck a decade ago (I'm talking AU$1800 at the time) that amazingly missed out on both Dolby S AND HX Pro! Unbelievable.Though of course it was still an awesome piece of hardware.

  2. dbrmuz says:

    And for the record-fuck the Hipster douchebags!

    They're the wankers buying 30cent cycling caps and paying US$50 – $60 for them,just because they have the letters R A P H A on them.

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