In the recently released rock and roll book Babysitting a Band on the Rocks the author writes about a time he hung out with Keith Richards for a night. When the topic of musical formats came up, Keith Richards mentioned that he thought cassettes were the best format the industry ever came up with. Most rock and roll fans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s when cassettes were at their peak of popularity may be surprised by Keith Richards’ comment. For many of us who used cassettes all the time, we often found ourselves very frustrated over how the sound quality would deteriorate every single time we played the tape. To quote Tommy Morrongiello of the Ian Hunter band, “This is only the second time I played this tape and I can already hear a difference in the sound quality.”*
Cassette tapes were a format in which magnetic particles placed on a tape were rearranged by the tape heads in order to produce the sound that we listened too. That may seem like a simple explanation but in reality, it was rather a simple process. The only problem was the tape would deteriorate, magnetic particles would separate and usually we would lose the high frequencies. Cassette tapes would then begin to sound muffled. For music fans who appreciated good sound, it was a nightmare.
The bigger nightmare for owners of cassettes was when the tape would get stuck in the tape player. Car cassette players were notorious for having these problems. There was nothing worse than ejecting a cassette while the tape was still inside the player and then trying to pull the tape out of the player. We would try to roll the tape back into the cassette, but most of the times the tape was ruined and sadly the cassette had to be trashed. This was not a fun experience and very very frustrating.
One of the worst issues we ever had to deal with in cassettes was the issue of the cassette pressure pad. In the center of the cassette was a small little felt head glued upon a metal piece. The pad was made of some sort of cotton substance. The felt pad in the cassette would push the tape against the metal head in the cassette player. Overtime, the little felt heads become unglued and fell off the metal piece. Once that happened, the cassette was useless. Of course, some people would try gluing the pads back onto the metal piece. However, they would still fall off again and then you’d have a gluey stuff rubbing against the metal head in the cassette deck ruining that head.
So let’s quickly recap why we hated cassette tapes.
# 1- They deteriorated over time ruining the sound.
# 2 – The tape often got stuck in the tape deck.
# 3 – The cassette head pads usually fell off over time.
This all leads us to the question of the day. Why would Keith Richards argue that the cassette tape was the greatest format in music history? There are two arguments that we could come up with ourselves that could help us assume were the same reasons Keith Richards loved cassettes. Our first argument would be the sound quality of cassettes. Yes of course we all know that the sound quality over time deteriorated. Nonetheless, sound quality of a brand new cassette had an incredible warmth and resonance to it. In many ways similar as to why many audiophiles loved records over CDs. Cassettes had their own distinct analog sound that was quite soothing and full. Sadly, that warm, yet brilliant sound would only last a few plays. It’s one of the reasons CDs, blew so many of us away. We could not believe that the CD sounded the same after 50 plays as it did on the first play.
The second reason we all loved cassettes so much was how easily it was to record onto them. You would plop the cassette into the cassette player/ cassette recorder and simply press record. To hear back what you recorded, you would press stop, rewind the tape and then press play. It was at simple as you could get. Most cassette player recorder decks had built in microphones. They were not always the best microphones but they did the job. Many of the decks also had 8 inch inputs for external cheap microphones.
Blank cassettes were usually cheap to purchase. The blank cassettes came in many different brands and varieties. Companies like TDK, BASF, and Maxwell made a fortune selling blank cassette tapes. You could buy a low level 3 pack for $5 or high-end metal Maxell 3 pack for 20. When CDs first came out before CD car players were in style, people would actually record their CDs onto the cassettes and play them in the car. CDs actually sounded really good on cassette tape. In the end, though those cassettes would usually deteriorate or get stuck in the car player.
Besides the standard cassette tape there are also the mini cassette tapes that we used in mini cassette recorders. These mini cassette recorders were used in businesses, college classes or anywhere someone needed a small handy dandy recording device. This is long before iPhones and digital media recording devices. When you think about it, 90 minutes of recording time on a cassette was actually much cheaper then what it cost to record 90 minutes of audio on an iPhone where memory is for the most part minimal.
Like everything in life, eventually there is a resurgence or comeback of some sort of an old fad or loved cultural item. Since appearing in the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, cassettes have made a small come back. Defined by the term mix tape, cassettes have become cool to today’s youth generation. In the same fashion that record players made a comeback because some mall clothing stores placed record players in their stores, cassettes are now””in once again. At least until this new generation that’s discovering cassettes also discover the medium’s limitations and faults.
If we look back over time at the various media formats such as vinyl, reel to reel tape, 8 track tapes, cassette tapes, DAT, CDs, and iPods and iPhones, it would be hard to argue that the cassette was one of the best of the lot. Nonetheless, there will always be people like Keith Richards and many more that will argue it was the best. We just don’t agree with them,
*A conversation I had with Tommy when we were in a band together.