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Once upon a time, the world consisted of three different types of people. Those who used cheap Ferro tapes, the slightly cooler who listened to their music on the better Chrome tapes, and finally the real connoisseurs with their Metal tapes.

The last group sat at the very top of the tape hierarchy. When played with Dolby noise reduction, the Metal tapes could reproduce the heavenly sound of angles singing – and you would just about believe that they were actually right there in front of you.

 

Remember?

It all started when Philips began manufacturing a compact cassette with a plastic tape running between two reels. The plastic tape was coated with magnetic metal particles which could memorize information which it was “coded” with. Initially it was intended for the market of Dictaphone machines, but in no time the same technology made its way onto the bigger – and more professional – reels and not least the American 8-track. In only a few years, the quality of sound was hugely improved to easily match that of period radio transmissions. With its compact dimensions the cassette tape quickly became the second most popular media for storing music on, only beaten by the vinyl LP records.

Philips introduced the car radio with a cassette deck as early as 1968.

The cassette tape could be purchased with pre-recorded music as an alternative to the LP record, albeit with inferior sound quality. However, the cassette tape was also a little cheaper, and it would even fit into the narrow slot in your car’s stereo radio so you could enjoy all the latest summer hits while on the road. It wasn’t long before every petrol station had cassette tapes on their shelves too. But the biggest advantage compared to the LP record, and probably the very best aspect of the cassette tape, was of course that you could record on it – over and over again. This opened up for a brand new world, where many of our current day habits and expectations probably stem from. Just think of “On demand” recordings of your favourite radio program, playlists from friends and so on. You put together your own what you want when you want. Through the little microphone you could even record speech, bird song, you name it… The possibilities seemed never ending, and the cassette tape enjoyed huge success from the early seventies and right up to the nineties where the new digital media was introduced in the format of CD’s.

Lexus SC 430 – the last car with a factory installed cassette player.

Even then, the cassette tape was tenacious and difficult to shake. Perhaps because you could actually shake it – literally. As a transportable media, the CD was hopeless until decent anti-shake technology was developed, leaving it useless in a car or a Walkman. The last car to be delivered with a cassette tape player was the Lexus SC 430, which remained in production right up until 2010. Equally, Sony’s Walkman also kept the cassette tape going much longer than had been anticipated. The technology in the cassette tape was highly resistant towards both heat, dust and vibrations. There were of course downsides too, mostly based around the sound quality, but the advantages clearly outweighed them and it wasn’t until the late nineties that the those new digital wonders took over the scene.

However, once the transition happened, it happened with the speed of light. We barely had time to blink before those colourful cassettes had all but vanished. Gone were the joys of “auto reverse” which effectively turned the tape for you, the memories of having to use two fingers in order to start recording, and the magic of listening to your self-fabricated “Best Hits”. If your recordings were so good that you wanted to ensure that you would never lose them, you could simply snap off the two small plastic tabs at the top of the cassette. Your “Best Hits” were now safe. Should you tire from them anyway, all you needed was two small pieces of tape – ehrm… the adhesive type – placed over those two holes at the top of the cassette, and you were ready to practice you self-mixing DJ skills all over again.

We all celebrated the demise of the horrid tape salad, which came out of the car stereo or the ITT recorder after it had attempted to eat the tape. Trying to reel it all back in using a little finger or a pen was never much fun. Not to mention the catastrophe if the tape broke and needed to be put back together using a sharp knife and adhesive tape. This could lead to your favourite track losing its best verse and the all-important chorus. However, my better half has informed me that the tape salad was highly decorative when hung up next to posters in her childhood room. Very groovy and the brown tape complimented the palate of orange and beige tones in the room.

If you thought we had gotten rid of the cassette tape once and for all, you would be wrong. It’s back! – and this time with hi-res audio. Toshiba Lifestyle Electronics Trading have recently relaunched the cassette tape combining it with the latest audio technology. As such, their latest cassette tape player should match the sound quality of any other modern music media.

The cassette player is initially only sold within Japan at a price equating approximately Euro 125, and the latest reports claim that it is rapidly gaining popularity – also among the young and trendy.

Are you prepared to drop all your streaming playlists in favour of your friends many homemade mix tapes? Are you ready to be the center of attention at your next party as you rock up with the coolest partymix in town?

 

ViaRETRO bonus-information:

In 2016, sales of cassette tapes in the USA increased by 74% to 129.000 examples. Albums by Justin Bieber and The Weeknd only achieved very limited sales in this format.

Also in 2016, the chain Urban Outfitters, which has been selling vinyl-LP’s for quite some time, started marketing both pre-recorded cassette tapes and blank tapes. Ironically, these newly recorded tapes – which are available with both current and period music – don’t utilise the Dolby noise reduction system, as Dolby Laboratories no longer distribute or produce the electronic components which are necessary in order to implement the system for either recording or playback.

About The Author

All cars are lovable. Especially if they are Italian or French. I prefer them kept original, showing as few changes as possible. Sherry, a good cup of coffee and the sound of Miles Davis is the good life. Søren's keeper is a 1969 Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV - but he continually flirts with French connections such as DS, 2CV and R4.

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5 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt
    For a while now I’ve been wanting to swap the factory installed cassette deck in my daily BMW 330Ci from ’02 with a factory CD player. To be honest, it amazes me that a relatively expensive new car like my 330Ci would have had a cassette player as late as 2002. It’s somewhat at odds with reverse sensors, Directional Stability Control and all those other modern features.
    Ha! But now I might not have to worry about swapping to a CD unit. Cassettes are coming back, and soon enough the interior of my 330Ci will be littered with colourful cassette tapes just like in the good old days… ;-)
    Reply
  2. YrHmblHst
    Comeback? Shoot, they never left around here…of course, I also have 8 tracks and lots of vinyl.
    Cassettes rule.
    Reply
  3. Tony Wawryk
    I used to have literally hundreds of cassettes, mostly recordings of albums I’d borrowed from the library – as a student at the time, this was the only way I could really afford to listen to all the music I wanted to hear. TDK was my preferred brand, but while their portability – making it possible to listen in the car – was an advantage, I think it was the only one. They didn’t sound as good as vinyl or CDs, they constantly got eaten and usually mangled beyond repair by whatever machine they were in, and trying to find a specific track was a painful process. I threw 99% of my tapes out some years ago, and don’t regret it for one minute.

    It’s true that the cassette is making something of a comeback – one of my son’s bands recently issued a (very) limited run of one of their EPs on cassette, though I’m not sure if any of the millennial target audience has anything to play them on. Certainly we don’t, though we do have a cassette to MP3 converter.

    For in-car listening, in my daily 2017 220i Coupe, I can choose from endless DAB/FM/AM radio stations to CDs to MP3 to streaming Spotify from my phone.
    In the Lemon, the radio suffices, the car’s own soundtrack does the rest.

    Reply
  4. Dave Leadbetter
    Just after CDs came out I had a home stereo that would record onto tape, but cleverly faded a track when it detected that the end of the tape was being reached so you had a fade out instead of a hard cut. Even now, when rustling through old CDs I occasionally get surprised when a track doesn’t fade when I expect it to. Hundreds of plays on those old tapes whilst in the car clearly reprogrammed my brain. I also remember being very good at fast forwarding to skip a track, and landing on the next one with incredible accuracy. That’s just another skill I honed that had no value in the jobs market…
    Reply

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