Top Tip – Luvverly Dobly

Cassettes are making a comeback if you haven’t noticed.  Free of the hipster cred associations it’s cooler cousin vinyl is burdened with, cassettes are defiantly lo-fi and proud.  When the format was first launched in the US in 1966, it was a solution in search of a problem.  The poor quality of pre-recorded tapes and the crappy artwork squashed and rotated to portrait format didn’t provide much incentive to swap over from LP records.  The early decks also did not handle the format well.  Hiss was a constant bugbear and Dolby B noise reduction simply skimmed off the highs on playback (a reasonable compromise was to add it at the manufacturing stage and leave consumers the choice of switching it on the their player too, which is what happened).  Cassettes hung on until the Sony Walkman arrived in 1979 and this was followed by a huge expansion in the availability of blanks plus recording/dubbing decks.  Suddenly the cassette could go everywhere and carry whatever music you wanted.  Sales of tape albums boomed but the attraction of tape was in the scope for self-expression: mixtapes, 4 track demos, Grandmaster Flash’s party tapes, street dancing to boomboxes.

Improvements to the technology brought low noise chrome tape, fancy exciter systems like Capitol’s SDR/XDR and better plastic housings and transport mechanisms (less wow and flutter or aarrgh! chewed up tapes).  It was to no avail as the CD killed the format for home listening and inevitably so.  Yet, I would insist again that the great tape democracy was about how they were used rather than passively consumed.  Cheap and easy to make, they put you in control of your product and the cassette portastudio was a potent creative tool in the right hands, check this track recorded in a home studio on one (albeit with DAT bounces).

So the top tip is – embrace the grunge.  Try setting up the cheapest cassette tape recorder you can find (argos still do a £35 Philips model) alongside a microphone on vocals, guitar, drums whatever.  Set the record volume from low to high depending on how much fuzz you want.  Start the tape playing, record to digital as normal but remember the count in!  Record the tape player’s output to your DAW and line up the signals manually.  Even the crummiest tape recorder overdrives before it clips – instant cassette culture.

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