Compact Cassettes - nostalgic rubbish or digital's saviour?


The roots of my interest in blank audio cassettes were formed during the early-mid 1980s, having spent numerous hours loading complex computer code into Sinclair ZX81 and 'speccy one-two-eight' home computers and attempting to record broadcast music via a mono cassette recorder. The recording / playback quality at this time was sufficiently bad to limit any objective comparison of different brands of blank cassette - if the tape wasn't 'chewed' it was fine... and they all sounded great... apart from when you were loading a game and pulled the lead out at full volume...


This situation changed overnight with the arrival of my first quality cassette player, a Sony Walkman 22. Not only was the unit stereo, but it featured an intriguing CrO2 / metal switch...

The experience of listening via headphones immersed you right within the music, revealing previously-unheard detail with 'decent tapes', but also revealing how limited my earlier recordings were - there was little incentive to actually play them. I was also reluctant to subject my new hi-fi to the particularly-abused examples of my tape collection (the majority) as they seemed to smear a brown deposit over the delicate components...

Being a 'young person' at the time - obviously 'boracic' - I could not afford to feed my Walkman too many pre-recorded albums. Even at 'Our Price', new album releases were around £5.95 (cassette and vinyl). Singles sold on 7" vinyl (and later as cassette singles), but the exciting music at the time was on 12" vinyl... (at £2.99). I would need a hi-fi cassette recorder to transfer the choons to the WM22...

Fast-forward (or cue... ) many months and I was now the proud owner of an AIWA ADF-260. Suitably-armed for metering with sixteen 'fairy lights' and a BIAS FINE control (hmm... ), I was ready to hit Dixons for recording ammunition. Dixons was rubbish though... too 'mainstream'. Limited choice usually meant packs of five 'normal' Sonys or the dreaded Saisho ferrics...

Unexpected salvation came in the form of my local(ish) camera shop which, perhaps rather strangely, by now not only stocked the (almost) complete range of TDK, maxell, That's and Sony blank cassettes, but sold them individually, making experimentation (more) affordable and purchase-decisions more difficult...

What happened to 'Type III'?

The shop staff were great. They knew about cameras. They knew about lenses. They knew about filters and photographic techniques. They knew about gadget bags and tripods and darkrooms and film processing. The issue for me, was that their enthusiastic technical explanations became slightly vague when it came to explaning the differences in the various blank cassettes... In an attempt to make an informed decision - or maybe to speed me out of their shop! - the saleman would often pull the short-listed cassettes from the display rack on the wall and we would both look at the logarithmic frequency-response charts and technical data on the packaging. I would then buy the cassette which looked the best or felt the heaviest...

Late 80s Choices

It seems incredible now how large the range of competing products was. The major blank cassette manufacturers often produced several type I / II / IV tapes at any one time and regularly updated their whole ranges (if not annually, then every other year) with better shell mechanisms / new graphics / new lengths of tape (recording time) - the actual tape formulations usually remained constant. This was all backed up by big budget TV / press marketing campaigns. Blank tapes were omnipresent, as everyone had at least one cassette deck, either on their person, in the car, or in the home.

At this time I was generally making two or three recordings a week, either copying my vinyl for portable playback or recording FM radio broadcasts (pirate and commercial) and later producing mix tapes. It was a pleasure to purchase different new tapes and see which ones responded best to my tweaking efforts. By the early 90s, the compact cassette had evolved into a high-quality, 'digital ready' precision item. Manufacturers topped their ranges with rare and exotic 'reference designs' - the ultimate blank cassettes - as well as releasing limited-editions (er... for blank cassette collectors?) of their more popular tapes.

TEAC V-3000


1992 saw the arrival of my TEAC V-3000 cassette recorder, a superb machine which enabled live monitoring of my tweaking efforts due to it being a '3-Head' design. Certain tapes could now be accurately pushed 'far into the red', negating the need for any Dolby noise reduction. My recording rate increased and the enhanced quality encouraged further fine-tuning and experimentation. All the tapes sounded great again! even if certain brands were not particularly accurate in their reproduction...

Enough of this re-winding...

Back in the reel-world (sorry) of 2010, I have tasked myself with digitally-archiving my surviving blank cassettes before they are struck by an alien EMP burst, or worse, domestic dust. It's quite a task, as I estimate there's 250-300 cassettes (mostly 90 minutes) and it all happens in realtime - it equates to over fifteen days of solid listening... and then editing and file-conversion time (recording @ 44.1KHz / 16-bit stereo wav files - then converting to mp3).

I have taken the opportunity to take some photos of the more attractive examples from the collection (see above).

Thoughts and findings

Returning to the cassette format after fifteen years has revealed;


In answer to the article's title question, my response is 'neither'. Cassette tapes can undoubtably influence your attachment and enjoyment of listening to recorded music in subtle and sub-conscious ways - the beautiful analogue compression, the satisfaction of knowing you've made a really good recording or the trance-like state you fall into watching the reels rotate... or they can drive you mad with impatience and frustration trying to locate the 'good bit' on side B.

After fifteen years, the tapes haven't changed (they sound more involving / human? than the majority of my recent digital downloads), but I have. The lure of instant-access, consistent quality and perfect cloning that digital audio can provide is too strong - despite the nightmares of DRM, statistical data-mining and the lack of anything tangible. I do miss scribbling on the A/B stickers though... and where is my music?...

Original stereo recording / playback equipment

SONY Walkman WM-22 / AIWA ADF-260 / AIWA ADF-360 / TEAC V-3000


Digital transfer equipment

TEAC V-3000 / M-Audio Audiofile 2496 (PC soundcard) / Steinberg Cubase Essential 5 (software)



Links to websites featuring cassette tapes

Project C90 - cassette tape database

Tapeheads - analogue audio enthusiast site

Vintage Cassettes - cassette tape database 1963-2000

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