Cassette Tape Nostalgia (Rick Astley Nearly 30 Years On)

Three albums helped me to come out as gay, at least to myself, back in the 1980’s when to do so publicly was far more taboo than during these liberated times. These works of art were, Rick Astley – Hold Me In Your Arms, With The Beatles and The Pet Shop Boys – Please. I owned all of them on cassette (the shop bought pre-recorded variety), and I referred to them as my “guilty pleasures”.  Sadly, when I downsized my accommodation, I threw out my cassettes and cassette deck as there simply wasn’t room to keep a lot of tapes in various stages of deterioration. By this time, I had vinyl copies of 2 guilty pleasures and had made a tape to digital transfer of the Astley LP, along with a handful of other albums that I didn’t want to part with but hadn’t yet replaced.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have spells of nostalgia for the old format though. In fact, far from it. A conversation about cassettes and mini-discs with this blog’s beloved Ashley this evening had me dashing to my iTunes Library to check that I hadn’t accidentally deleted my old Rick Astley tape transfer. There it was, lo and behold, a cassette played back on a high quality consumer Yamaha KX580 SE deck, with Dolby B Noise Reduction, recorded into Apple’s Logic Software and converted to Apple Lossless Files. (Not for me those bizarre digital Ogg Vorbis and FLAC formats that only the geekiest Linux User would have the slightest chance of understanding!) Now, say what you like about the deadly Stock, Aitken & Waterman, but they knew how to record an album that would make a quick killing, profits-wise. Yes, it sticks in the throat to say that.  Hold Me In Your Arms is not referred to as a guilty pleasure for nothing! I hit the Play button on my iMac, and — wow! It sounded fantastic coming through the DAC of my Rega Saturn-R. Yes, I appreciate that the digital conversion would have altered the sound but Rega have always prided themselves on making their digital products sound less clinical than other makes, mentioning no names Sony. More Analogue sounding, if you will. In the past, I’ve described the inherent sound of cassette tape as “the analogue goodness of vinyl, just less of it”.  And earlier this evening, there was Rick Astley, the first guy I admitted to fancying way back in 1988, proving me correct!

It wasn’t always so however.  Back in 1963, when Philips developed the cassette format, it was never intended to be a music medium, let alone a hi-fi one.  The cassette (and the machine to play and record on them) was compact and simple enough to make a good dictation system for the office.  There were a number of restrictions that hindered the cassette’s use for music playback.  These boil down to 2 main factors – tape width and tape speed.  Professional audio tape, as used by studios right up into the late 80’s, came on large 10inch spools.  The tape master (e.g. all 24 or 48 instrumental tracks mixed down into stereo) would typically be an inch wide, and travel across the tape playback head at 30 inches per second (ips).  The cassette, in contrast, ran at only 1 7/8 ips (one and 7 eighths) and was only about an eighth of an inch wide.

Tape is inherently noisy.  If I were to play a completely blank tape cassette at sensible-to-loudish listening levels, I would hear a low pitched hiss sound similar to what I’d imagine Darth Vader would sound like with man-flu.  However, if I were to double the speed of the playback, the hiss would be higher in pitch.  An octave higher, in fact.  So by multiplying the recording speed of cassette by just over 15, to 30ips, AND ALSO playing it back at 30ips, the hiss is raised in pitch  by over 12 octaves.  The ear is nowhere near as sensitive to quiet, high pitched sounds.  So tape hiss on studio quality equipment is avoided, simply by playing and recording at speeds so fast that the hiss is transposed to a signal so high that even a dog wouldn’t be able to hear it.  Of course, this would mean that for one 25 minute side of an album, far more tape would be be needed than for the same amount of music as recorded onto one side of a cassette.  Hence the 10-inch spools used for winding the tape back and forth.  These are much smaller for cassettes, and they are housed in a plastic shell.  The tape is exposed along one of the long sides of the cassette so that a metallic spring-like device onto which is affixed a sponge pad can press the tape against the machine’s tape head, so that the latter can “read” the signal that has been encoded onto the tape.  (Belittle ye not this sponge pad – it’s arguably more important in the design of the cassette than the quality of the magnetic oxides that coat the plastic tape.  If you’ve ever tried to play a tape whose sponge pad is falling apart, you’ll understand the wisdom of that statement.)

Please don’t confuse the “higher tape speed, lower noise” example I discuss above, with the high speed dubbing features that were prevalent in cheap twin tape decks that allowed copies to be made of cassettes to give out to your friends.  The concept is quite different.  Space prevents me from discussing these decks here, save to say that they are not hi-fi.  If you need further explanation of the difference between a studio quality reel-to-reel deck and an Alba twin cassette deck where one lowly belt has to drive both decks, ask your bank manager.  She’ll know!

It follows then that if the audible noise of cassette tape hiss is not to interfere with the listener’s ability to hear even the quietest passages of a Schubert string quintet, then those quiet sounds have to be louder than the hiss.  The crescendoes could be ten times louder than this, and of course, the hiss will be all but drowned out.  But herein lies a problem.

Imagine a single rally car travelling around a course where the track is very wide.  There are no hazards to watch out for, so the driver can really have fun belting round the track.  Except that further on there is a chicane where the track  reduces to about an eighth of its original width and suddenly the whole thing becomes more hazardous.  Similarly, where the width of the tape is an inch wide, a far louder, healthier sound can be recorded onto it.  So, our studio grade tape can handle anything from softly played violins with inaudible levels of hiss (due to the fast tape speed) to Iron Maiden ear splitting levels (due to there being more physical space for musical signals to occupy.)

It doesn’t end there however.  Imagine one red and one blue car trying to navigate the rally circuit above.  At the chicane the available space for each car is effectively reduced to a 16th of its original width.  Music, since the late 1960’s has almost always been recorded in stereo.  So the typical studio-grade playback tape head effectively divides the tape width into 2 “lanes” called tracks.  Think of the lines separating the lanes of a dual carriageway.  Our blue car carries musical signal intended to come out of the left speaker, and the red does the same for the right channel.  This is why for example, with correctly placed speakers, the guitars might be heard on the left and the piano on the right, with vocals coming from the centre.  If the guitar is louder on the half track of tape intended for the the left speaker, it will appear to be coming from the left side of your room (or in your left ear for headphones users); the opposite is true for the piano on the right. If Nina Simone’s voice is recorded with equal strength on BOTH tracks, it will appear in the centre space between the speakers.

10-inch spools of tape cannot be “turned over”.  So, when the music intended for side 1 of the LP or cassette tape has been successfully recorded, a fresh spool of tape is needed for the second side.  However, your cassette CAN be turned over for the music on side 2.  So, going back to our rally circuit, it’s necessary to think of it as a 4-lane motorway.  2 lanes of traffic are going the same way that you are, and there is a protective fence separating the 2 lanes of traffic coming in the opposite direction.  When we come to the chicane, where the whole width of the 4 lanes of traffic is reduced to an eighth of its original width, now each car can occupy only one 32nd of its original space.  This means, in musical terms, that the  signal that can be recorded to one-32nd-of-an inch tape is minuscule, compared to the half inch width of studio grade tape.

On playback of side 1, a cassette machine will transport the tape from the left spool to the right.  The tape head will read the musical signal on tracks 1 and 2 of the tape.  If the head were capable of reading tracks 3 and 4 at the same time, you would hear the first song on side one  as normal, at the same time as the LAST song on side two, played BACKWARDS.  Think of the CCTV spying on the cars on our imaginary circuit.  It would be possible to angle the camera so that it could capture all 4 lanes, but 2 lanes would be going the right way, and 2 lanes would be going the wrong way.  It would also be possible to place the camera so that it only ever saw the 2 lanes of cars going the right way.  It’s the same with a cassette.  The tape head only reads 2 tracks at a time.  When the music is finished on side 1, all of the tape has been wound onto the right hand take-up spool.  When the cassette is turned over, the right spool becomes the new left, and so tracks 3 and 4 are read by the tape head, but this time they are being played the right way round!  (The head used by a simple mono tape recorder can also read two tracks at a time, but both signals are combined so that they only emerge from a single speaker.  In this way, stereo tapes are backward compatible with mono equipment.)

Jon Bonham, the drummer of Led Zeppelin, threatened to throw his drum sticks at studio engineers who dared venture too close with their microphones.  This is because he wanted the freedom to whack merry hell out of his kit, but he knew that if the mikes were too close there would be a danger of overloading both the microphones and the tape heads of the very expensive tape machines.  We’ve all heard the results of distortion – mildly distorted music sounds harsh and tinny whereas heavy distortion causes nearby surfaces to rattle and buzz, and sounds quite terrible.  If Jon Bonham was worried about overloading a studio grade tape, with all its extra width, physically capable of recording loud signals, what hope is there for the tiny width of the tracks of cassette tape?

Well, recording engineers across the globe got fed up with the likes of Jimi Hendrix coming along with their guitars and drums and whatnot, and wrecking precious equipment by wanting to play louder than the band in the studio down the street.  Possibly (and I have a very vivid imagination!) they took their inspiration from guards on trains.  Once the carriages become too full, anyone coming along with a tandem bike and expecting to be able to board the train hears the guard shout, “That fing ain’t coming in ‘ere mate!”  The guard, then is a “limiter”.  In the studio, prior to about 1966, the “limiters” were engineers in white coats yelling at the drug-addled hooligans to turn that thing down!  Of course, this created tension, and one or other party ran the risk of being strangled by the other.  Studio engineers began to design electronic limiting equipment.  The split second that any guitar chord or drum crash or operatic shriek reached a volume level that would overload the tape,  the limiter jumped in and effectively reduced the volume to the maximum allowable limit.  Let’s call this maximum allowable limit zero decibels (or 0dB).  A singer, getting just a bit too excited on the odd syllable here and there, might trigger the limiter by about +1.5dB, which, because of the odd way that decibels work, is roughly the perceived volume of the maximum allowable limit plus half of that volume.  Jon Bonham might be playing his drums at a consistent +9dB, which is the maximum plus 8 times that.  Nevertheless, the limiter would be puffing away, reducing that volume to 0dB before it landed on tape.  It’s clear that although the drums as played back by the tape give the IMPRESSION of being louder than the vocals, in actuality, they are NOT!  But what has happened is that the transient “thwack” of the drums has been curtailed significantly, so with very heavy limiting, that might compromise what I call the danceability of the music.  In effect, it loses its groove.  No wonder Mr Bonham wanted to be far enough away from the microphones to reduce the risk of going “into the red” and thus triggering limiters that robbed the music of its rhythmic character.  It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see how by judicious use of limiting, even the loudest 1-inch wide master tape can be “squeezed” onto the tiny width of cassette tape, and APPEAR to be loud, even though it actually isn’t, especially if compressors are used too.

Think of a compressor as a drama teacher, working with a motley crew of 11-year-olds, who, whether they want to or not, WILL appear in the end of year pantomime.  There will always be the drama queen who wants all the attention on them.  For these pupils, the response is, “Be quiet for goodness’ sake!”  Then there will the children for whom the only response is, “S-L-O-W-E-R AND LOUDER!”  A compressor essentially says, “If those frightened little mice of kids aren’t at LEAST -3dB, then I will raise their volume levels until they are!  If that really arrogant one doesn’t stop hogging the limelight, then I will bring their volume down to about the same as the quiet kids!”  In other words, it evens out the levels, but it offers more control than a limiter.  The latter is like a hammer bopping all loud notes on the head, whereas a compressor treats the music like a lump of plasticine that can be used to gently squash the levels so that quiet signals are not drowned out.  Pop music is not generally known for its huge dynamic range – even the pop divas such as Whitney were hugely limited and compressed, so the verse at the beginning which is voice accompanied by a piano isn’t really any quieter than the caterwauling at the end.  I find that effect grating in the extreme. But nonetheless, practised in MODERATION, it’s a necessary evil if the end result is to be satisfyingly loud but undistorted cassettes, LP’s and, to a lesser extent CD’s, whose capacity to accept a wider dynamic range than analogue formats is, at least in theory. much greater.

So I’ve spent quite a lot of time discussing how the disadvantages inherent in the cassette format mean that it shouldn’t work as a hi-fi format.  But due to its portability, and the fact that cassette tape is harder to damage than a vinyl record, by the time that Rick Astley was enjoying his 3 hours of fame, the cassette format was far outstripping both vinyl and CD’s in sales.  Believe it or not, in 1990 when I did a Christmas stint as a salesperson in the Sound and Vision department of Boots, there were personal cassette players that came with bog-standard headphones retailing for as little as £9.99!  I am not kidding.  A family of 4 could feed themselves fish and chip suppers for that kind of money back in the day.  The skill of producers such as Stock, Aitken and Waterman is that they were producing music that sounded barely passable on the cheapest equipment available.  They did this by turning the weaknesses of cassette tape – and the machines that played them back – into strengths.  It’s said that the sound human beings are most attuned to is a baby crying, and that even in a war zone, that sound will be picked up, especially by females.  It’s those frequencies that cassette tape is at its happiest reproducing.  Extensive research shows that – at least back in pop’s heyday, I don’t know WHAT they’re playing at these days, teenage girls spent the most money consuming pop music.  A baritone singer, such as our Rick, will produce his most beautiful top notes in the same frequency range as a cute little baby.  Cassettes were the most popular medium throughout the mid-1980’s.

Rick Astley.  Girls fancied him too, apparently.

About Mark Pearce

Mark Pearce is the author of the YouTube Channel MarkPMus. Check it out if you're interested in Hi Fi, songwriting and music reviews. Nuggets include 2 series of ABBA Gold Anomalies / More ABBA Gold Anomalies, the Magical Musical Moments series and Hi Fi 101. You'll also find examples of the author's songwriting and photography.

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