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Rewinding history: Cassettes are back

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EVERYONE knows of the vinyl revival, which has steadily grown since the turn of the millennium. Remarkably, cassettes are now making a comeback too, and the biggest interest is from youth. Indie bands are releasing music on tape, sometimes as the only medium offered. In a backlash against the digital world, anything tangible gives a sense of radical resistance to the Great Reset mantra of ‘you will own nothing and be happy’. It’s like Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when he finds an old diary in an antique shop.

Let’s take a trip back to when the spools started spinning. In the 1970s a plethora of hi-fi brands emerged as a competitive market in electronic equipment reduced prices within reach of the masses. Vinyl records remained the most common means of listening to music, but cassette sales were surging (recorded albums and blank). While portable tape recorders were common, the full-size cassette deck became an essential component of a domestic sound system (alongside an amplifier, a tuner and a turntable).

Popular brands of cassette deck were so numerous that it would take too much space to name them all. British makes Ferguson, Bush, Binatone and Amstrad struggled against Japanese imports and eventually retreated from hi-fi to low-fidelity products, but you can still find their 70s tape decks on eBay. From the US there were Fisher and Realistic (the latter sold in Tandy electronics stores). Marantz, founded in New York in 1952, joined the Japanese legions of hi-fi producers: Sanyo, Sony, Hitachi, Aiwa, Akai/Tensai, Denon, Kenwood, Pioneer, TEAC, Yamaha, Toshiba/Aurex, JVC, Onkyo, Mitsubishi, Panasonic/Technics, Sharp, Rotel and Sansui. From Germany there were Grundig and Dual, and last but not least the Dutch firm of Philips.

Despite this variety, the basic product was fairly standard in design. A steel-encased machine, typically with faux wood veneer on top to suit the colour scheme of the 70s living room. The brushed-steel façade had the playing mechanism on the left, with piano-key operating buttons underneath. Remember carefully pressing ‘play’ and ‘record’ simultaneously, aided by ‘pause’, to record the Top 40 from the radio? On the right were illuminated VU meters and a recording level dial. Mid-deck were the tape counter, a selector for normal (ferric) or chrome tape (later a setting for metal tapes appeared), and Dolby noise reduction. The latter was necessary to suppress tape hiss, but it also blunted high frequency signal of the recording.

Recording was a skill that took practice. If the level was set too low, the music would either be marred by hiss or muffled if using Dolby NR. Set too high and the louder chorus would be distorted. Machines from the 1980s onwards had green and red LED lights, and you wanted intermittent flashing of the red for optimal recording quality.

Using the earlier decks, the cassette was inserted manually on to the spools, with merely a lid over the opening. In the late 70s an integrated door/tray was introduced that put the cassette into playing position. Another development was auto-stop. Before then, machines would continue to run on play or rewind mode after reaching the end of the spool, to the detriment of the motor. By around 1982, the quaint VU pointers were replaced by LED display.

I’m revisiting this audio history because I was lured into a nostalgic purchase recently. A local vintage hi-fi shop had a Fisher tape deck in the window for just £40. I decided that with its VUs it would look good in my hi-fi stack, even if it sounded unremarkable. Having connected to my amplifier, I pressed ‘play’ on one of my surviving cassettes (I had sold almost my entire collection to a second-hand music shop in Bethnal Green in 1991, in exchange for a handful of CDs).

The machine played only in one channel – so only one VU meter fluttered. I then had the realisation that to play a particular track, I needed to search back and forth to find it. But the main problem was the quality of sound, even after cleaning the head with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab (first time I’d done that for over thirty years). To me, this was not really hi-fi. I returned the tape deck and pledged never to take such a retrograde step again. Yet I remain tempted.

It is not just me who is somehow attracted to such obsolete mechanics. The owner of the aforementioned hi-fi shop had a 70s Pioneer cassette deck on top of his modern equipment, and a customer asked to buy it. He was told it was not for sale, but eventually the owner relented – for £700. 

Look online and you’ll see refurbished decks going for three figures, while broken machines are offered for spares at over £50. These prices are rising.

Let’s be honest: tape is a poor conductor of sound compared with digital discs or streaming. But cassettes played an important part in our musical culture. They were versatile: we could make compilations from the record player or radio, and play them at home, in the car or while jogging (the Walkman was the pinnacle of the cassette era, soon before the CD was launched).

Nostalgia is not a rational pursuit, and my hi-fi system may yet take an analogue turn. I can picture those VU needles and clunky keys . . .

This article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on May 25, 2024, and is republished by kind permission.

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