We’re witnessing a cassette tape comeback! The humble compact cassette experiences its biggest sales in over 20 years. Here’s why you should consider re-discovering the format first launched in 1963…
Cassette Tape Comeback
You may have seen the headlines in the mainstream press, “cassette sales boom” or “tape makes a comeback” for example. For those of us of a certain age, this might seem rather unbelievable. And yet, it’s all true! We really are witnessing a Cassette Tape Comeback!
The humble cassette tape, first launched by Phillips back in 1963, is experiencing its biggest sales boom in decades. But why are more and more people turning to this analogue relic from the last century? More importantly, here are some of the reasons why you should consider recording and releasing your music on cassette tape…
The Compact Cassette
Originally previewed back in 1963, the Compact Cassette, to give it its official name, was debuted by Phillips. Invented by Lou Ottens, the Cassette sought to overcome existing tape format issues: cost, complexity, reliability, and ease of use.
By pre-threading the tape in an easily loadable tape “cassette”, you could now listen to music without having to worry about threading up open reel spools. Additionally, the tape speed was reduced to 4.75 cm/s, the tape width to an eighth of an inch, and the tape tracks split across four interleaved tracks.
These design decisions mean you can fit a lot of music on a cassette tape for little cost. Unfortunately, it also means there’s a constant battle against tape noise. It took until the 1970s and the advent of better tape formulations, and latterly Dolby Noise Reduction before the audio fidelity of the Cassette Tape improved.
Thankfully, by the time the 1980s arrived the cassette tape was all primed for its most iconic decade. Sony’s Walkman arrived, and every teenager had a boombox in their bedrooms allowing them to make their own mixtapes and take them with them… or in their begrudging parent’s car!
Cassette Tape for Musicians
You might wonder what all this nostalgia and the cassette tape comeback have to do with music-making in the 21st Century, and that’s a valid question! Compared to digital formats, cassette tape offers a terrible signal-to-noise ratio, and limited bandwidth.
However, even here in the 21st Century, the Cassette Tape has a lot to give us as musicians. Those same qualities designed into it in the 60s, are still relevant if you’re looking for an affordable analogue music format.
A look at the plugin market shows we still desire the unique sound and sonic character of cassette tape. If you’ve never worked directly with analogue tape before, you might be surprised at what a creative medium it can be. Pushing the record levels into saturation gives a lovely, gentle distortion and compression to audio signals. Additionally, that tape hiss, noise, wow and flutter can be just the antidote to clean, perfect, stereo signals!
Bouncing to tape
One of the easiest ways of getting tape tone is simply to bounce your audio from your DAW to tape, and then re-import it. To do that you’ll need a tape recorder; scour the local 2nd hand ads and you’ll still find one cheaply. Alternatively, there are still a handful of tape decks still available, new!
My top tip would be to try and find a “3 head” tape deck; these allow you to monitor the signal directly off tape, in real-time. Additionally, a 3 head deck means you can get some authentic slapback echo effects, just like the 1950s!
Of course, the cassette tape has been used in a number of dedicated pieces of music kit over the years. The most famous of which is the Tascam style Portastudio that became so popular in the 80s and 90s.
While it’s unusual to be able to pick these up cheaply nowadays, they can be a very rewarding tool. Utilising all four tracks of the compact cassette (and sometimes even offering as many as eight tracks), along with varispeed, a portastudio offers a unique experience for musicians.
Releasing your music on Cassette Tape
Without a doubt, the fuel for the cassette tape comeback has come from artists choosing to release their albums on tape. We recently discussed the merits of physical formats vs digital streaming and cassette tape has a big part to play in that discussion.
If you’re looking to release your music on a physical format, then you may have considered a vinyl release. Unfortunately, production costs and lead times for vinyl have become prohibitive for many independent artists; enter once again, the humble cassette tape!
Tape duplication doesn’t rely on the long and expensive mastering and production processes necessary with vinyl. As a result, it’s possible to release your music relatively cheaply and with little fuss on cassette tape. As a merch item for shows, its small size and affordable price point make it a great merch option; especially if you include a digital download code!
What’s your view on the cassette comeback? Is it a welcome return to a format of your youth? Are you new to analogue tape and discovering it for the first time? Or, do you feel cassettes belong in the bin along with all the other retro nostalgia? Let us know in the comments!
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