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doswonk
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Confessions of a cassette junkie

Stephen Mejias has the guts to defy the disapproval of the rest of the tribe and tell the world he wants a cassette deck because he wants to hear music that's available only on that format. I salute him because....well, mainly because I'm kind of like him.

Ah, cassette....Back on the cusp of the 1980s, when I was a mere yoot, it was the only format for making recordings at home, unless you were really flush and had an open-reel deck. WFMT broadcasting Wagner's Ring Cycle conducted by Sir Georg Solti from Bayreuth & you wanted to preserve it for posterity? (Solti gave up on Bayreuth after one season, so that *really* was a once-in-a-lifetime catch.) Rafael Kubelik conducting the Chicago Symphony in Smetana's Ma Vlast LIVE from Orchestra? Placido Domingo singing Otello at the MET one week, conducting La Boheme the next, and singing Lohengrin on the third Saturday? Hup, hup, schleppen der kassetten in der decken, ach yah!!

Brings back memories, many of them involving that sinking feeling when you realized that it's pretty darned hard to squash decent stereo hi-fi sound onto the four teeny, tiny tracks (stereo tracks going each way, side A and side B) on the 1/8" wide tape in the cassette. But I kept at it, dammit, because I wasn't going to let a few technical glitches stop me. I suspect it was also some sort of unconscious attempt to snatch a bit of immortality. I still have about 20,000 of the things racked up on shelves in my semi-climate-controlled basement, only now I know that whatever I do with them, I'm still going to die someday. Whatever.

Then one day in early 2003, I'm sitting in my office at work when The Thought hits me: "Holy crap! Cassette's a dying format--I gotta get a backup player before it's too late!"

I had a thing for Yamaha decks. A practical, sturdy, basic, no-frills, but oh-so-scantless, low-slung and black KX-200 purchased at United Audio near Chicago (blast from the past name, eh, Chi-Town audiophiles?) saved me from my existential angst about those two fickle, oh-so-cruel little tracks. That cold day on the cusp of spring in 2003, I wanted a new Yammy so badly I could taste it. But already, single-well Yamaha decks were a thing of the past in the U.S. market. (I think they continued to sell one for quite a while in Europe and other markets.)

So I settled my heart on a KX-W421 dual deck. Recording capabilities didn't matter to me because my minimal recording activity had migrated to a CD recorder by that time. But the '421 had the same little magic adjustment knob that my KX-260 single-well'r had, and I knew I wanted the knob. You know the problem with cassettes and Dolby noise reduction: the deck that you made the tape on played it back like a champ, and Dr Ray's magic circuit took out all that nasty tape hiss (mainly caused by trying to stuff two, 2-channel tracks into a ridiculously narrow strip of tape). Problem is that slight differences in head alignment from one machine to another meant that the same tape might sound annoyingly muffled or too bright in another machine with the Dolby circuit switched in. (It was bad enough with Dolby B; Dolby C was hopeless.) This is a universal problem with cassette decks; tapes made on your Nakamichi Dragon that sounded killer when played back on it......may have the same playback problems as tapes made on my humble Yammies.

ANYway, the little "Play Trim" (now, I remember what it was called) knob on the '260 and '421 let you make minor, subtle, but often profoundly helpful adjustments to the high frequencies, giving a little goose to a dull-sounding tape, or taking the edge off the overly bright ones. I know......true Audiophiles are reeling in horror at such tonal modifications, but when you were a Cassette Junkie, moral niceties went out the window. They had to. Your life was built around compromise. You got out and lived it by the seat of your pants. And made bargains with the Deity like, "It's James Levine and the Chicago Symphony doing Mahler 8 LIVE at Ravinia, and I put in a virgin Maxell high-bias tape, PLEASE let it come out all right and I'll follow the narrow path of virtue and righteousness for the rest of my mortal existence." That's how it worked. We were a hardy lot, the tapeworms.

A series of calls to any retail establishment in the vicinity of Milwaukee (where I was living at the time) with pretensions toward serving the audiophile carriage trade came up bupkis vis-a-vis a Yamaha KX-W421. I was desperate enough to call the Tweeter store back in the City of Broad Shoulders. (They'd bought out United Audio and were already well on the road toward running themselves into the ground--obviously Tweeter management hadn't made the right bargain with the Deity). Nope. Finally, another fabled name in Chicago audio retail circles, Audio Consultants, gave me the gratifying "Yes, we have one left." In the past, I'd found AC more than a little snooty and standoffish, but by that point we *were* deep in the post-Dot-Com crash, post-9/11 recession, and the salesman couldn't have been nicer. The hollowed out spot in my heart left by the body-snatching of United Audio got a good bit smaller that day. BTW, I can't quite remember what I paid for the '421. At that point, money was not the main object.

The '421 performed exactly as expected in playing back the cassettes made on my various previous recorders, with just enough "Play Trim" adjustment to let me play the tapes with Dolby switched on.* It still sits in the rack of my main system, right below the Denon DRM-555 single-well deck I acquired six months after the Yammy because, well, the cassette format was going dead as the do-do, so I wanted a backup deck for my backup. Two years later, in an eBay buying frenzy, I added several Tascam and more Yamaha decks to backup the backup's backup and back up each other. Yeah, I build a lot of redundancy in my systems; I hate getting caught off guard.

A lot of my cassettes are now only would-be fodder for the local landfill or, with the anti-record notches taped over, fed into the maw of my Dad's old-time radio show recording project. Dad's a bit behind the times; he's still waiting to see if digital really has legs. But I don't regret the time I spent diligently and laboriously recording my cassettes; I basically gained a good working knowledge of the products of our planet's greatest musical creators. Wouldn't trade that for anything.**

And periodically, I pop a cassette into the Yammy, partly because it reminds me of when I was young and actually believed some of what my guidance counselors told me, partly because I'm want to dub something to CD, and partly because, dammit, I CAN.

Yr. Obdt. Srvt., Lawrence (aka "Doswonk")

_________
* Oddly enough, it didn't occur to me until the very last cassettes I recorded that Dolby noise reduction system's various shenanigans could be entirely obviated by simply NOT using it and living with a little elevated hiss no worse than the average 78 rpm historic recording I regularly enjoyed. Duh.

** OK, I do regret the time spent diligently and laboriously handwriting detailed cassette labels in my best penmanship. But even there, I gained an unshakable memory for the key signatures and opus numbers most of the bedrock works of Western musical achievement.

rvance
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

GREAT POST!

Freako
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

I agree!

Sadly I have no more idle RCA-in's on my amp, so my DRM-800 is having a rest. I am not getting rid of it though

doswonk
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

Freako~ The DRM-800 looks like the '555's more feature-rich older brother. If it performs anywhere near as well, it's way too nice a piece of gear to gather dust in a closet. Plus, I firmly believe that these things are like classic cars--they're more likely to stop functioning if you *don't* use them enough. (Note the guy who just posted a comment in Mr Mejias's blog about the Nakamichi he's been using hard for years w/o a bit of trouble.)

What ya need to get your '800 back in action is one of these:

In the U.S., you can get this (the Sony VS-4) or something similar at Crutchfield.com, Amazon, Radio Shack, probably even Best Buy--just about any place that sells A/V gear.

Used to be Radio Shack sold a couple of audio-only stereo switch boxes, but I can't find them on their site any more. I have one of them keeping my '421 and '555 "in the loop." The one above'll give ya the same benefit though; you just won't be using the composite or s-video connections. Yeah, I know, the purists are flipping out at the mere thought of introducing such a device into your signal path. But we're being practical here, and it's a connection for a cassette deck, not an SACD player. If you keep the cables between the deck and the box, and the box and the pre-amp/receiver short, I don't notice any loss in sound quality.

What I find fascinating about my old cassettes is not how much their sound has been superseded more modern digital sources, but how well they hold their own.

Freako
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

Thx for the hint doswonk, but I would go by it in a much easier way: Disconnect my computer from the "tape in" sockets and connect the DRM-800. Then I can listen to computer music through my headphones if necessary. The music there isn't of a serious quality anyway (mp3/320)

The DRM-800 performs great; I believe it was one of the best cassette players in the price category when I bought it.

Elk
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

Wonderful post, doswonk.

I still use my aging Nakamichi periodically. I hope it never dies.

smejias
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

Wonderful post, doswonk! Thanks for sharing all of that. I think I'll come back to your story as my own renewed appreciation for tapes grows.

MJS
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Re: Confessions of a cassette junkie

Doswonk-

I really enjoyed the read and I sure remember the days of "crafting" cassettes for friends, parties, etc. Even though I won't return to tape, I can see the intrigue in owning a killer cassette machine for next to nothing.

Thanks for the memories!

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