In part one of this article we discussed the return of cassette tapes and the appeal they do/don’t hold. In this part we’ll discuss what you need to know to get started with tapes. This is purely an introduction to tapes for new comers or a quick refresher for those of you who have forgotten the nuances of tape ownership. Will you be a tape expert after this? No. Then why bother? Like classic cars and old houses, cassettes were designed in an age of “maintenance and repair”. In comparison, modern electronics are designed in an age of “break and replace”. This means if you want to use cassettes, then you need a basic level of knowledge to get a decent result. Additionally, over the years some things have changed; repair shops have disappeared, manufacturers have ceased production, etc. so we’ve offered some tips specifically geared for the modern era of tapes.
Obviously the most important thing you need to know about is what makes the music magic flow from the magnetic tapes. There are three main varieties of tape players; tape decks, portable players, and car systems. Car systems are discontinued and often you’re not left with much choice, so there’s not much to say about them. The other two varieties, like many things, boil down to brand names.
There’s really only one name you need to know in portable players, the brand that coined the term “Walkman” which ultimately became a generic name for all portables, we’re talking about Sony. Back in ye ole days Sony actually made quality products, in fact they were so well built they’ve lasted well past their prime. Sure Aiwa and Panasonic made some decent players, but upkeep/repairing one of those players can be expensive and time consuming. Sony Walkman are built superior, are fairly easy to disassemble, and they have the largest number of second-hand repair parts available. If you decide to buy a portable that isn't Sony, then you should at the least ensure it says “Dolby NR” on it because that will guarantee some level of playback quality if it even works.
What about new production players? There’s a few models on the market specifically designed for transferring tapes to digital files; but these are all noisy, easily broken, poorly designed garbage. Unfortunately if you want to listen to retro music you have to bite the proverbial hipster bullet and buy a vintage player.
What should I look for in a player? At bare minimum there are two things you should look for:
1. Dolby Noise Reduction. Easily identified by the Dolby double-D logo, this helps eliminate some of the background static produced by the old analog format.
2. Normal - CrO2/Metal Tape Selector. Tapes are made of different materials, having a manual switch or automatic selector allows you to play more types of tape.
Other features you may look for in a player vary, but here are a few to consider:
1. Auto-Reverse. This allows you to listen to both sides of the tape without flipping it over, saving some effort.
2. Equalizer Slider. Often coming in groups of three, these can be used to balance the output lows, mids, and highs to your personal preference in real-time.
3. Bass Booster. Sony’s bass boost is called “Mega Bass”. These players have extra circuits for increasing power output and lower frequency bass sounds. The result is similar to modern “Beats By Dre” headphones.
4. Recording Input. Many recorders only had mono built-in microphones for dictation, but some player models have a standard 3.5mm “red-jack” input allowing you to record music from your PC to cassette using your player.
If you’re looking to buy a working Sony Walkman you better have $50 to $150 laying around. The later 1990’s all plastic bodied players are your best bet for working perfectly on arrival, but finding one with Dolby will be more costly. The 1980’s sport models appear to be the most modestly priced for the vintage, but most will need a new belt. Other higher quality metal body players in working order start at $100 or more. Your best bet is still finding a working one at a resale shop, garage sale, or repairing a non-functioning player. If you don’t require portability, then considering a stationary tape deck will save you money and usually produce better sound quality.
When it comes to table top players your selection is much larger and even just $30 can score you a decent player. Unlike portable players, quality stationary tape deck systems were/are available from many manufactures; while brand is important, the manufacture year and model should always be taken into account and researched. Nakamichia, Tandberg, Marantz, Aiwa, and many other Japanese manufacturers are considered as high-end manufacturers. Because there is so many option available, the only thing we can say is be sure to research any deck you plan to buy. The internet is full of knowledge. If it’s an obscure brand that literally nobody online knows about, there is good chance that it is junk. ALWAYS demagnetize used tape players before use.
Maintenance & Repair
To be brief, you’ll want a to do four things to your player:
1. Clean. This should be done after every 50 hours of listening or more. The theory is basically cleaning the route the tape travels to prevent particulates from inhibiting playback. Cleaning can be done with a cleaning tape or q-tips using isopropyl alcohol. More advanced cleaning is generally recommended but varies for each player. See this How-To for more detailed description: www.wikihow.com/Clean-a-Cassette-Deck
2. Demagnetize. Most cassette demagnetizers are the type that look like cassettes with circuits inside. Just install a new battery in the demagnetizer, remove the batteries from and unplug your tape player, insert the demagnetizer, then press play. After letting it work for awhile your tape head will be neutral and ready to play again. Realistically you should do this with ALL used players before use, after that maybe once a year. This essentially removes the magnetic charge that builds up from running electric current through the reader head. For detailed description about the process of cleaning and demagnetizing watch this video www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2LQr63X7lk
3. Lube. What and when to lube is specific to each player, but generally this is required once or twice every ten years. This means that any used player you’ve purchased could probably use a good lube.
4. Belt Replacement. About every ten to twenty years the rubber belt in your player will deteriorate. It’s natural and unavoidable. If you’ve bought a used player that isn't functioning, this is generally the first part you should check. If it’s a Sony player it should be fairly easy to determine what size replacement belt is required from manuals or sellers online. If it’s a different brand of player, then you’ll need you run a string through the wheels to measure the missing belt and hope it’s correct. Measuring the existing belt is not recommended, since the rubber stretches with age. Replacement belts are called “scy/sbo square belts”, they come in many sizes and thicknesses. Most Walkman belts are 0.5mm to 0.7mm thick and 70mm to 170mm in diameter. You can order them from sellers who specialize in walkman repair, but it will be expensive; usually $5 to $20 per a belt. If you are confident in what length you need, then you can order a replacement belt direct from china for less than $1.
Unlike most CD’s, not all cassettes are built to the same specs. Some are complete junk that sound like old 1930’s radio; some cheap tapes can even act like sandpaper on your player’s head. Good tapes can produce frequency ranges that cheap headphones can’t even reproduce and sound quality indistinguishable from the highest quality MP3’s for the casual listener. Finding good tapes is mostly a quest for people recording and audiophiles since most prerecorded music is released on tape types not conducive to the best quality playback. No matter your listening level its important to get educated on the types of tape and specifications.
Firstly there is the “Type” of tape. Type I (Normal) tapes are coated with iron oxide and produce the lowest quality sound and the most pronounced noise. Most distros and artists release on Type I tapes because they are cheap. Type II (Chrome/CrO2) tapes are coated with a chrome cobalt compound, these are vastly superior to the Type I tapes; they produce less static noise, last longer, and of course sound better. Don’t worry about Type III’s, you most likely will never see one and they’re more trouble than they’re worth to new tape users. Type IV’s (Metal) are even better than Type II, they produce the best sound and least noise. Unfortunately Type IV’s cause much more wear on your player’s head. With modern distros Type I’s are usually your only choice but with older releases you should definitely choose Type II’s or IV’s if available. To identify the type of tape usually only requires a glance at the top of your cassette’s shell. Little notches on the sides and center help the player determine what playback is necessary. If there are little flaps of plastic covering these notches, DO NOT break them out. These notch tabs are what allow you to write to a tape, once they are broken out the tape is considered “write protected” and you won’t be able to record to that tape. If you want to record on a write protected tape, you will need to cram something hard into the notch to make the player think it isn't write protected.
The brand of the tape also makes a difference in quality and durability. Some brands make great shells but poor tape, and vice-versa. Many brands also developed their own proprietary chemical process in manufacturing tape coatings, so even tapes of the same type sound different between brands. This is mostly of concern to people who are recording their own music, since prerecorded tapes rarely come on branded tapes. TDK and BASF tapes are generally considered to be good quality overall, while brands like Maxell and Sony yield mixed results based on the model, and other brands like Scotch and various tape brands that came in blister packs are almost universally bad. Those looking for the best results will have to delve much deeper into the world of tape collecting to determine which brands, models, vintages, parts, and tape compositions will work best with their specific player for their specific use.
Usually every tape model includes a two-digit number in it’s name, this is usually the length of a tape. The most common tape lengths are 60 and 90 minutes. A 60 minute tape is actually 32 minutes per a side; 30 minutes of recording time with an additional 2 minutes of extra recording space for editing reasons. The longer the length the thinner the tape, the thinner the tape the more likely it is to break or be eaten by the player. Some tapes are as long as 110 minutes but these are very fragile and not recommended for use in portable players. If you plan to copy your CDs to cassette, then keeping 60 and 90 minute tapes in stock is a good idea.
Equalization and Bias
Without going too deeply into the properties of tape, these are two things you should know for all tapes you plan to record on. Equalization is usually listed as a two or three digit number, while bias is often described with words like “high” and “low”. When recording you will need to match these numbers with your players settings to produce the best quality recording. Ideally there are ways to use and manipulate these properties in real-time, but this is a skill you will have to learn about in a more detailed guide.
Distros and Indies
Have a player? Well let’s find you some music. Many artists on Bandcamp offer their media on cassette but often in limited runs of 50 to 200 copies. If you can’t find what you’re looking for from the indie scene, then check out your favorite label or do an internet search. Very few music stores carry cassettes but some of the larger metal labels are releasing limited runs of major artists on cassette. Season of Mist is one international label selling cassettes featuring names like Mayham and Destroyer 666. If you haven't had luck with the larger labels then smaller distros that specialize in cassettes are your best stop. Personally I’ve used Red Stream of Florida, Out of Season of New York, and Tour De Garde of Canada with good results. Some tapes are simply recorded improperly or on junk equipment resulting in low quality playback no matter who you buy them from. Ultimately everything boils down to online purchases; sometimes you can find a good heavy metal tape in a resale shop but the chances of black or death metal are slim to none.
Professionally recorded tapes too expensive? Can’t find your favorite album on cassette? Well making your own tapes is likely the next step. Mix tapes we’re hugely popular in the 80’s and early 90’s for sharing music. Obviously we have to discourage illegal distribution of music, but if you want to make your own tapes for personal use then here’s a few things to know.
Best recording results are usually achieved on high-end tape decks using two or three heads. The first head erases the tape, the second head simply records or records and plays the tape, and the optional third head plays the tape. Using higher quality type II or IV will produce the best playback quality and life-span for the tape. The recorder’s equalization and bias MUST match that of the specific tape you are recording onto or you will not get the best possible result.
If a tape deck is not available for recording, then your second best option is usually to record the tape using the player that you intend to listen to it on. It won’t sound amazing, and it will sound even worse if you listen to it on a different player, but it’s the cheapest route. If you’re listening to old lofi black or death metal then the quality difference likely wont be very noticeable anyway.
Yeah there’s a lot of words up there and you presumably made it through all of them. Now do you know everything about cassettes? Nope. Tapes are a whole hobby within themselves. There are tons of brands and models of cassettes that all have different quirks. Players have their own quirks too; some tapes simply work better in certain players and the quest to find the best tape for a particular player can be lengthy itself. This guide is purely an introduction. A compilation of basic knowledge to help new comers who never grew-up with tapes or have long forgotten the essentials of tapes. Still want a reward for all your hard reading? Fine, you earned a banana sticker.