I was saddened to learn of the passing of Lou Ottens, a Dutch Engineer credited with inventing the humble cassette tape format whilst working at Philips in the 1960s. Crucially Philips had the foresight to licence the format and it quickly became the de-facto standard for consumer audio recording. It made me reflect on just how much of a constant companion music on cassette has been throughout a large part of my life.
I still can remember getting my first “cassette recorder” as a birthday or Xmas present as a youngster and being fascinated by the seemingly infinite possibilities of recording sound.
Music is a huge part of navigating the world as a teenager as we try to work out who we are and where we fit into society and the “compact cassette” (as it was officially known) played a huge part in my formative years. People of a certain age in the UK will no doubt remember with fondness the Sunday evening ritual of “recording the Top 40” – a special time when the FM frequency used by BBC Radio 2 was given over to Radio 1 for a few hours. Countless tape-decks all over the country set to PLAY/RECORD+PAUSE waiting for your favourite tune to be announced and playing the game of cat & mouse with the announcer trying to record just the music without any of the DJs voice at the start or the end of he recording. Happy days indeed.
My first car didn’t really feel right until I installed a radio-cassette player in it – taking those first solo drives after passing my driving test with that feeling of freedom were just as much about the soundtrack as the destination. “Making a tape for the car” was a thing 😉 The portability of the format was key: you couldn’t (easily!) play vinyl records when you were on the move but portable tape players (and later the Walkman) meant that you could take you own personal curations with you wherever you went.
In an increasingly digital world analogue music formats like cassette and vinyl are making a comeback. I recently bought a new turntable and retrieved my old Hi-Fi tape-deck and minidisc deck from storage. There is an undoubted emotional connection that is made with physical media that changes the perception of and engagement with the music – especially when you can see it move as it plays the sound. Something about producing sound from motion is definitely more engaging (for me anyway) than other formats where you can’t see the media move; obviously streaming, as there is no physical media as such but also CD/Minidisc/DCC/DAT etc. where the physical media is usually sucked into the machine on a tray or drawer and the magic happens inside a closed box.
The physical & technical limitations of using magnetic tape inside a plastic housing are well understood but still the analogue-ness of the format fits with our understanding & experience of the physical world as humans.
Curating & recording a mixtape is a special thing, so much more than just “making a playlist” and of course the physical format allows decoration of the tape & its box with yet more personalisation. Handwritten notes on the tape itself and inlay cards add yet more emotional connection. Making mixtapes was more than a necessity it became a hobby in itself 😀 Mixtapes for the car, for specific journeys, mixtapes for parties and of course mixtapes for the girls I was trying my hardest to impress 😎 LOL.
As a teenager I was in a band with some friends at school – all hail “Aquainted with the Nite” and “Prophase” (band names created in English & Biology lessons respectively 😀 ) – cassette tape played a large part in recording practices/gigs and making “demo tapes” to send to whoever we could. I even used a couple of standard stereo tape decks (one of them my dad’s old classic Amstrad 7050 tape deck!) to do multi-track recording of original pieces. Electronic music was entering the mainstream and I definitely caught the feeling that consumer electronics like cassette tape decks were helping ordinary people create in their own homes.
I tried myself to make new sounds from radio programmes and the instruments & effects I had available purely by using cassette tape decks, sometimes just randomly pressing pause during spoken passages…
I even wandered around my parents house recording ambient sounds, recording the BT phone ringing, dial tone, announcements with a sense of archival, saving all these sounds for later…
As a nerdy Physics & Electronics student I was somewhat obsessed with audio electronics. My very first cassette recorder didn’t last long before I took it apart to see how it worked. At Uni the first talk I ever gave to my (small) tutor group was about “The Dolby B noise reduction system” and how it worked. Looking back I was also completely obsessed with Maxell tapes and the brand Maxell in general. Imagine my excitement when I received a letter from them on official headed paper… 😀
As a massive Prince fan I can remember the hype around “The Black Album” (Prince famously changed his mind and persuaded his record company to cancel the album release just a week before it was due at the end of 1987) and being given a bootleg copy on a tape in 1988 was yet another highlight in my compact cassette journey 😎
In June 1990 a friend and I decided to drive non-stop from Merseyside to the South of France (Sainte-Maxime + Fréjus) in my Mk1 Ford Fiesta 1.3GL 😀 Because “Why Not?”… We were in our early 20s and the world was our oyster. Of course, we had to have a mixtape for the journey…
And so, as all good things must come to an end, in the 1990s it seemed like newer digital recordable formats like Minidisc or DAT (or even DCC) might kill the analogue compact cassette but even those were quickly superseded by “computer audio” file-formats like MP3/FLAC and recordable/re-writable CD, DVD, SD cards and the iPod! Streaming services and the now ubiquitous smartphone mean that instant access to high-quality entire audio catalogues are the norm…
But…. Compact Cassette – I still ❤ you 😍