Mixtapes were great. Cassettes? Not so much.

Grandpa Cassette

Grandpa Cassette” by Zack Finfrock aka Splashed Ink, Los Angeles, CA. Available at Threadless.com

Have you ever toiled at a crappy job only to reminisce years later and think, “you know, that was a pretty fun time?” Our brains have a cognitive bias toward hanging on to the positive and letting go of the negative. And that’s what I believe has been happening with the ever-growing number of modern references to cassette tapes.

Amid all the nostalgia I see these days for mix tapes or the cassette format in general, I’m decidedly glad do be done with tapes now and forever. I do not miss the “good old days” of how music used to be consumed. Here’s why:

Tapes sucked.

There’s no denying the absolute fact that cassette tape quality was capricious at best, and crappy at its core. Even the concept of the “best sounding tape” sounds like an oxymoron. Is it live or is it Memorex? Are you kidding me? It’s definitely Memorex.

Peter Murphy of Bauhaus in a UK Memorex cassette commercial

The chief redeeming quality about cassettes was that they were very easy to copy, so that made sharing and compiling music very straightforward. Mixtapes were something I enjoyed in a sublimated sort of way, since their inherent transience belied their crappy quality. Because, of course, the price for the whole endeavor was progressively eroding quality through generations of copies. But hey – it was still cheaper than actually purchasing new music. And even that never quite felt right – spending good money to hear music in cassette form? It’s like part of the deal was that you understood you were getting ripped off.

Dig the irony of the company who came to dominate mp3 players getting its start thanks to cassettes. Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr.

Dig the irony of the company who came to dominate mp3 players getting its start thanks to cassettes. Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr.

CDs were a welcome end to all this, but even then, record stores and record companies grossly inflated the prices. Why? Because tapes sucked so badly that consumers were willing to pay a premium for everlasting quality. I see CDs as a bleak transition period, followed finally by the now-developed world of mp3s, bringing us to where we are today. I did away with all my CDs in 2002, going full-on digital from that day forward and have never looked back – I even had a Rio before an iPod. And while they do have some memory-biased charm, and despite my years of close interaction with them, I am happy to leave cassettes in the past.

What do you think? Did you ever spend a lot of time with cassettes? Do you have fond memories of doing so? When is the last time you touched a cassette? Have you gone completely to digital music? Let us hear from you in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Mixtapes were great. Cassettes? Not so much.

  1. Schuyler The Cat

    I lived on Cassettes through the 80’s.

    I managed a record store, and ended with with 3,000-3,500 LP’s by the time I left. Most were promos and freebie: I didn’t LIKE Madonna, but I had 3 copies of her first record.

    What I liked was bootlegs and MFSL pressings and imports (lived in the States, and Japanese/German pressings were always well thought of) and rarities of my favorite bans – mostly prog rock but a lot of classical and jazz.

    So I’d get a new record and take it home, clean it off, play it a bit with tape monitoring ON and a tape on pause to see where the needles pegged, and I would tape it.Then I’d put the records in poly sleeves and pop them on the shelf, never to be played again.

    In the end I had 850 or so tapes. 100 or so of them were done on TDK MA-R blanks, which cost a bloody fortune back then.The rest were on Maxell XL or XL-S and TDK SA or SA-X blanks. A lot were recorded with a Teac V-9, but I ended up with a rather expensive Nakamichi RX-something-or-other that was superb.

    Working in the record store I was so completely saturated with music I didn’t care. I had a Micro Seiki turntable which cost more than I could normally earn in a month, bought while working at a high-end audio shop, but it was of no concern that despite my “audiophile roots and hand-wound Koetsu cartridge, I was blaring Rush and Pink Floyd from tape. I just quit caring.

    In the end I threw out 2500 or so records. A prog rock fan never really needed 2 unplayed promo copies of “Bad” by Michael Jackson anyway, and in 1998, when I tossed them, I couldn’t have gotten gas money for them.

    Worse, though, was tossing my tapes. I did that in 2008. Notwithstanding a single MA-R 60 tape, with whatever recorded on it, can fetch $25 on eBay (up to $100 for a sealed blank), and all those rare bootleg captures I made from friend’s collections, and recordings of my (really, really awful) band, I let them go because I didn’t think I’d ever own a cassette deck again.

    Stoopid me.

    Kids will spend $50 on a pressing of something nice these days, and they’ll hem and haw and fret about dust and tracking weight and the quality of their turntable and vintage versus contemporary, and I suppose if I was young, not making the money I make, and dropping that kind of money on a medium that’s likely to fade away again, I’d fret too. I don’t, though. I have an old Thorens turntable and an old Marantz receiver and some old JBL speakers, and I love them, mostly because the familiarity of the format. I run most of my music through a streaming player though. I love hearing the needle drop, all that, but I am still saturated by the music as I was back in 1982-ish.

    So, yeah. Wish I had those cassettes. They sounded just fine. In fact, in some cases, I would assert my home made tapes sounded better than the average MP3, but no matter. I love the buck-a-song price model, and the functionality of digital music.

    Reply
    1. rsmithing

      Wow, thanks for sharing your great perspective! I was always a Maxell XL guy, myself. I found them more durable over time than any other; far less susceptible to degradation over time.

      And for quality’s sake, you at least always had the original LP to go back to if you ever needed to re-record. That sounds like a pretty good system, actually.

      I just did an ebay search for “tdk-ma-60″ – it really takes me back seeing the “Best for CD” labeling!

      Reply
      1. Schuyler The Cat

        Richard – me too. Actually the “best for CD” labels were downright funny. Reminds of of a joke about ducks getting onto Noah’s Ark: “what for?” I never, ever recorded a CD, although I am preparing to build mixes of LP, CD, and MP3 on reel to reel. There’s a serious mixtape.

        We “purists.” Sheesh.

        Reply
  2. ironhelix

    I had to have the best quality cassettes as I was a live DJ on commercial radio and I couldn’t tolerate the hiss on cheap cassettes. Also, I never recorded over a tape more than once which would reduce the quality and reveal possible gaps of noise from previous recordings. So when CD’s came out in 1984, I jumped on it and never looked back. But I have an extensive collection of vinyl in prisitine condition which I will eventually digitize. Cassettes were an upgrade from 8 Track, but digital run through vacuum tubes is pure bliss.

    Reply
    1. rsmithing

      It’s funny; I remember “investing” in the better quality tapes for more important music. And yet it all seems so primitive now. And you remind me of an anomaly in my own collection, speaking of digitizing. One of my favorite albums is a set of MP3s that I digitized from a cassette recording of an album. The hisses and cracks are still there, and it’s definitely more “warm” than pure digital to me. Thanks for commenting, ironhelix.

      Reply
      1. ironhelix2048

        Roxio makes a software tool to remove some of the hiss and the pops and clicks. We used an SAE (Scientific Audio Electronics) appliance which oversampled the music going out to “clean it up” before it got to the air, All said, nothing beats the warmth of vinyl but there are some pre-amps out there (expensive) that can return that warmth to digital by running the track through vacuum tubes. If you’re an audiophile like me, it is worth the bucks.

        Reply
        1. rsmithing

          Very interesting to know what went into making cassettes work for radio! And yes, I’m with you on the tubes. I’ve heard them and it’s definitely an experience.

          Reply

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