The Way We Listened Then

Have you read that, yet? Okay, now read this: “Reconsidering the Revival of Cassette Tape Culture,” by PopMatters’ Calum Marsh.

If the idea of a “cassette tape revival” completely freaks you out, then think back to our July 2009 interview with Thurston Moore, guitarist of Sonic Youth. When the conversation turned to preferred music formats, Moore, a fan of the vinyl LP, admitted to finding the most new music via cassette tape:

I’m really into bands who put out stuff on cassette only. There’s still a cassette underground that puts out a lot of the best music I hear.

These are strong words, coming from someone who is a founding member of one of our most innovative and influential rock bands. And it was sort of a shock. Cassettes?

As soon as I read it, though, I started seeing the colorful, plastic cases everywhere I went. Walk into Hospital Productions, clairvoyants of dark and heavy cool, and you’ll find an entire floor-to-ceiling wall of cassettes, released by bands with names like These Feathers Have Plumes, Chaos Majik, and A Murder of Angels. Or visit Fusetron, or Hanson Records. Or walk into Brooklyn’s Academy Annex or Desert Island. You’ll find tapes. And tapes. Or, for that matter, check out Period Tapes, releasing exciting new music from Anthony Mangicapra’s Hoor-paar-Kraat and Sarah Lipstate’s Noveller. This isn’t what you might think: These are heady, meticulously crafted pieces from young, forward-thinking artists. Released on cassette.

But why? Why cassette?

That’s the question Calum Marsh tries to answer. And I think he does a very good job at tackling it. His conclusion seems practical enough:

At best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value; but at worst, it’s a confused, regressive cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit. There is danger here, and despite the intentions of its advocates, this is a trend that’s less a tribute to the DIY mentality than a betrayal of its basic premise.

Clearly Marsh feels there are better avenues for artists to explore—an undeniably fine point. But I can’t help from feeling that Marsh is somehow, albeit slightly, mistaken: The artists have some say in this, no doubt. And if they have decided to communicate their art through cassette tape, then there will inevitably be those of us—as music lovers, mind you, and not as audiophiles—who acknowledge the inherent value of that art. And, perhaps it is not a mistake to trudge about in confused, regressive steps. Maybe it's exactly what we should be doing. After all, isn’t that what the world around us is doing?

We are lost (aren’t we?), searching for something to hold onto, waiting for the next strong light, struggling to keep up. In the meantime, we are flooded by extraordinary art, and I feel a responsibility to appreciate it while it lasts. But what I want to know is this: When was the last time something like this happened? When was there such an explosion of new, outstanding art, and what were the circumstances? When my friends and I discuss the greatest, most adventurous time for popular music, we find ourselves always turning to the late 1960s, and especially, 1969. Think about what was happening then. First Woodstock, then Altamont; albums released include: The Band; The Stooges; The Velvet Underground; Led Zeppelin; Yes; Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma; The Bee Gees’ Odessa; Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline; Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde; Let It Bleed; Abbey Road; Tommy; this could go on for a very long time. WTF?

What was going on in the music industry back then? Music cassettes were first introduced to the US market in September 1966. Through the 1970s, cassettes battled for space alongside the popular vinyl LP. Along the way, the 8-track tape came in to muddle everything up. In the 1980s, with the arrival of the Sony Walkman and all the convenience it provided, cassettes gained a dominant market position. There are many comparisons to be drawn between that music cassette and today’s MP3. What am I trying to say? I’m not sure, but I hope you’ll help me figure this out. In any case, we are living through a confused, confusing time, and I’m beginning to think we should embrace that confusion, in the best possible way.

So. I’ve been considering making a purchase. Or better: an investment. In addition to a good tube amp, I’m thinking about a new source. Something like the Nakamichi CD-1.

“CD” stands for “Cassette Deck,” in case you were wondering. Funny.

thad6000's picture

as someone well immersed in 'underground' culture for the better part of my life, i have traveled down the path of the DIY scene and all it has to offer. i have boxes and boxes of cassettes - and not just from the underground but all genres. in my younger days as a music fan (in the early/mid 90's) the majority of my time spent listening to music was in the car. cassettes made sense for that purpose. what do those cassettes do now? collect dust. i can't bare to part with them though b/c they are such a big part of my past and what has become my current musical vocabulary but in all honesty they, they sound like shit. that doesn't always matter to everyone and that's fine. vinyl has enjoyed a sort of comeback but back in the early 90's, i was buying vinyl when it had all but been abandoned. it was the same underground scene that was pressing music on vinyl. i think the reality is that this was done for the novelty more than anything - which is what i would suggest is the primary mot

Fred Walker's picture

I still have my Luxman 406s linked to my Lux TP-114. Running a cassette front end in my Westfalia; and a 10 disc changer under the sink.Cassettes, I still have hundreds of them. Not unlike the LP; when the CD is history, about that time cassette will have a revival of sort. Might lack some dynamic punch and top end, but I have yet to lose one to unseen errors that cause CDs to die in a decade or so.FWIW.

Lionel's picture

I have a Nakamitchi deck that I bought (in perfect shape) on eBay a few years back for $40. (It had originally been $800) Once in a while, I'll find a tape of something never rereleased, and will play it and/or rip it (all of my old band recordings are on cassette as well as well as mixdowns of 4-track demos, etc...). Honestly? They don't sound that bad. Some missing high end (even the Nak doesn't reproduce above about 13khz with any reliability) and limited dynamic range, but given a choice between a well-recorded tape and an average pre-2000 CD, I'll usually like the tape better. (But then I didn't own a CD player until 1997 or so) And any prerecorded cassette I've ever owned has sounded better than a 128bps MP3.One of these days I'll buy an outboard DBX decoder and try to use the Nak to move my 4-track masters over...

turbojohn's picture

stephen,marsh actually makes a strong case against a return to cassette's, though you would never know if from the several sentences you quote. reading your snippit - the closing wrap-up sentences from the article - left this reader adrift in a bunch of meaningless faux intellectual post modern argon, bereft of meaning. actually, these closing sentences did have a clear meaning, which was absolutely clear after reading preceding paragraphs. you would do your readers a real favor, as well as doing right for march, by embedding the hyperlink to his article.

mike's picture

Hey, Stephen. As someone who spent his youth mixing cassettes down from a 4-track recorder to an old Denon deck, I think I have this trend's number. In those days, I'd have killed to have Apple's Garage Band. Today, the pendulum is swinging back and here's why. In the instant-hyper-connected world of online labels, indie blogs and myspace music, everyone gets to reach a global audience. While this is an amazing revolution for fans, I think it makes some artists a bit uncomfortable. The cassette trend isn't a misstep, it's a cultural statement. It's about hitting the local sweat-soaked venues and digging through local record shops. It's about keeping the underground, well, underground.Fire up those tubes and get Lo-fi!

charlie's picture

i have a handfull of cassettes that i still listen to in my 2002 ford escape. yup, they were still putting in cassette decks then. anyway, it's the only way you're gonna get an analog source in a car, so for cd haters (which I'm not), I'm not sure why cassettes aren't more popular. A resurgence makes sense to me.

Jim Tavegia's picture

the only real drawback to me of cassette was the high noise floor. At -60 db level that noise can be heard, especially with classical music recorded with great dynamic life left in.I still hve close to 200+ tapes that I will listen to due to the great content, but i do suffer with the sound.There is nothing like the digital black backdrops that that lets you hear deep into the music. As a math major who appreciates science the cassette as well as the LP are stunning achievements and sound way better than they have any right to. At 1 7/8 ips the cassette is remarkable.

Stephen Mejias's picture

you would do your readers a real favor, as well as doing right for march, by embedding the hyperlink to his article.turbojohn: I did. In the very first paragraph of my post, I link to Calum Marsh's essay.

turbojohhn's picture

ah. indeed. mea culpa. i am now linked to marsh's main outlet. his essay was compelling. a gray saturday, perfect for listening to piles of cds. i remain connected to physical manifestation of the commodity. the joy and the madness of endless music. music for every mood, inclination, fancy; yet, still so much music and so little time. i try to avoid music nervosa.

Scott Atkinson's picture

I picked up a late issue three head Sony a while back and am generally pleased. It's true cassettes are inherently limited - but a good recording can sound very good indeed. The majors generally didn't do it well - I bought new copies of the last Columbia/Sony reissue of the Hot 5s & 7s and Miles' "Directions," all music I'm very familiar with and it sounded...good. Not great, not analog warm nor digital precise, just good. As for the hipster thing, my 22 year old daughter is a musician and she just *loves* cassettes.

George's picture

Skip Cassette, go all the way back to 78's. What a load of ... . Pet ROCKS are coming back in a new improved version too. Black and White tv's with mechanical tuners, for that mechanical analog image quality, of poor contacts, dirty and clunk clunk clunk as you tune. Today's HDTV's are just so cold and bright, and revealing of all the flaws in our beautiful stars. Bring back analog video, with mechanical tuners. We don't need crystal clear images and sound.

james's picture

I was against it at first as I appreciate fidelity. As tapes started showing up in the mailbox, I started enjoying listening to *certain types* of bands on cassette. Black metal bands who don't have any dynamic range sound good on tape. Huddled around pedals noise bands and other experimental stuff like Hospital or Hanson would carry sound good on cassette. My ears are actually happy that some of these tapes have no high end.

Dismord's picture

As the proud owner of an ancient Nakamaichi 'Dragon' cassette deck still running to original specification the idea of a cassette revival appeals enormously.

sdecker's picture

With all the high-end talk of 'analog tape' being the ultimate hifi storage medium, though at least 1/4" tape@15ips, cassette is certainly 'analog tape' and on many of the best decks their resolution exceeds CD. Just like vinyl, set-up and maintenance is a pita compared to a 5" disc, and it's harder to find good tape now than good vacuum tubes, and a good cassette always cost more than a CD-R or DVD-R. But an SACD recorded on a good cassette deck sounds better (ie truer to the original) than dubbed onto my CD recorder where it becomes just another CD. I may be 'biased' with a 35-year collection of cassettes made on good Naks and Tandbergs, but if the tape holds up, the sound can still remain virtually the same as the original source material & playback gear. I don't know about a cassette 'revival' but I'd sure like to see more blank tape available, and cassette decks still offered in new cars. It's also a lot more convenient than digital for live

tonyE's picture

Cassettes? ROTFLOL...Since my very first stereo, I had a very good cassette deck (for the time), Superscope/Marantz, Kenwood, Aiwa, Teac. My last one had multiple motors, three heads, auto cal, etc, etc.I used to buy the metal tape, metal body Teacs at something like 10 bucks per 90 min. tape back in the early 80s. Those did not melt and buckle, too much, in the SoCal heat, but even the best car and home decks required maintenance and cleaning.I used to travel with a 200!! cassette box in the car. That was a huge box, with my own LP recordings.Today, that's bogus. I finally threw away my fancy 1000 dollar tape deck (in '86) two years ago. I threw all the cassettes as well.CDRs, then the iPod and now USB memory sticks are simply FAR better solutions.I stil have the LP collection, now over 4000, but the cassettes were just a weak way point.Of course, I still have the Akai 4 channel reel to reel.. Now, THAT's a real tape deck.Get real. Cassettes today are just

Al Marcy's picture

Uh, SM, retail outlets always have huge displays of cool stuff people want to buy. Duh!

Tom Collins's picture

Ah, cassette tapes: memories of who had the coolest car stereo. At the time, it was a Sanyo. Also good memories of drunken field partys with the doors open and the cassette player wide open. Very fine memories of one night in a borrowed Olds 442 with the cassette player going on some kind of "mood" music whilst a younger, more limber me performed gymnastics in the back seat. life was good. however, i am no longer as young (or limber), the 442 is probably rusting in a junk yard somewhere, my last field party was 30 years ago and the girl is my wife. so, i'll stick to modern tech.

George's picture

sdecker..........cassette resolution exceeds CD? How is that even capable of being thought up? analog tape is one of the better mediums, back in the 80's 70's 60's. Now in the 21st century digital DSD will work much better. Digital is much easier for live work than any tape methods. Nothing like tape hiss, dropouts, wear, endless problems. Digital, in portable recorders from makers like Tascam, Korg, no wonder tape vanished. Does anyone realize it took extra "processing" to make the original Philips cassette, worthy of some hi fi? It was originally developed for dictation, voice only. When Advent developed the first Dolby cassette, it almost became hi fi. Without the extra processing, it was a dictation machine. So all the anti digital people, who make the claim that it's over processed, chopped up, Dolby reprocessed it during recording then on playback. analog tape on large cumbersome 30IPS 10 1/2" reel, is the true tape medium, a bit unruly for practical use, except

John G's picture

For all it's detractors (strangely deranged in their hostility) the cassette has many great advantages over CD's. First of all, scientifically speaking as well as anecdotal, they hold up much better in tough conditions. Also, the processing required to make them a valid HiFi format is much less severe than the processing required just to make CD's work. At all. Period. It's fair to consider each format only when considering the state of it's art. Owners of Nakamichi 3 head 3 motor decks can attest it was and is every bit a valid HiFi format. Do you use the fact that most commercial CD's and most mass market CD players suck to damn them, no. Should you, yes. Because CD's were intended to carry data, and incidentally made it in to music. And, the format they carry sucks for HiFi reproduction. And, they are not very durable. And when they wear out, they aren't just lowered in fidelity, they are ruined. But still, we use them - happily. Get off your high-horses.

Boober's picture

A cassette revival? Two words - dumb and dumber (one for the person who came up with the idea, the other for the idea itself). Really, are people this hard up for attention?

Boober's picture

just had a further thought - maybe we can bring back the 8-track too! And what about corded remotes - remember those! The ones that sat flat, were the size of a hardcover book, and made a clickety-clackety sounds as you moved it's little handle from channel 2 up to channel 13 with your finger?! Anyone else have any silly ideas? Might as well call this one a lost blog post SM.

Johannes Turunen, Sweden's picture

Well, I still have my 3-head Na...chi deck. Sound is so and so. Format is somewhat handy but frankly an MP3-player or memorystick outbeats it in every way. Hard to convinse youngsters anything else. Simple and safe handling is the future. Cassette-sallad anyone?

sdecker's picture

George, I was waiting for somebody to call me on cassette having better resolution than CD! Defined purely on digital terms of equivalent sample rate and bit depth, then not quite. A good deck&tape w/o NR can be flat to 23KHz w/ 60dB S/N. You can hear beneath the noise floor unlike digital, and NR gives another 15dB S/N. But from specs alone, why does vinyl sound as good (or better) than CD and at best on par with SACD? I may be pro-analog but I'm certainly not ant-digital. Cassette has less dynamic range, more IM distortion&flutter than open-reel, but with good heads and electronics can still offer much of open-reel's advantages, as I tried to suggest by my taping of a good SACD. I got cut off when I meant to say cassettes are more convenient for live location recording, ie unknown peak levels, rugged conditions vs a CD recorder (& sonically maybe DAT & MD). John G brings up good points wrt durability over time and the processing req'd - dolby C is a LOT simpler than the manipulation PCM requires.

Mark Higgins's picture

When I was a teenager in the early 90s, my Dad had a Nakamichi DR-2 cassette deck and a Krell KPS-25i CD player. I loved that tape deck just as I loved mixtape culture. In thse pre-iPod days of using public transport, the quality of your mixtape dictated the quality of your bus or train ride. There was a real craft to making a good 90 minute mixtape. Having the luxury of a such a good source and deck made a big difference to my listening pleasure. I recently rescued that DR-2 from my parents attic and gave it a whirl. The sound was so-so, but no worse than 320kbps MP3. Here's the kicker, though: the iPod has made us lazy. Recording in real-time and carrying only 2 or 3 tapes with you meant you had to get the right songs in the right sequence. Endless options to and shuffle your way through a vast library now means that there's always a better song around the corner. On paper that's better I guess, but I can't escape the feeling that having so much choice ultimately cheapens the whole listening experience.

Paul Rosenblatt's picture

I'm a revivalist by nature! In the last two years, I have revived my 1970s vinyl rock record collection - and added to it SIGNIFICANTLY - especially in 1960s garage and psych bands - and have revived vintage 1970s stereo equipment to play this stuff on. I also love the look and feel of cassettes and have saved all of the mixtapes that I have received that have survived being eaten by hungry, dying cassette players in homes and autos...and that is the problem. Records are pretty darned durable, andn even sound good to me with a few pops and scratches - not that I WANT them there. But tapes and CDs and even in a way MP3s are so fragile by comparison. Pfft, the tape gets eaten and mixtape: gone.So, like you, not sure exactly what I am saying either, but maybe food for thought.Best,

Artie's picture

I have a 2001 Jetta with a cassette player. My "metal" tapes, recorded on a Nakamichi from either vinyl or a Naim CD player, sound MUCH better than CDs played in my wife's new Beamer.

George's picture

So a cassette renewal will be Mickey's next DVD? How to align cassette player heads and clean the oxide off the heads? Or how to rewind the tape after you get it out of the player and it's a tangled mess. Or how to replace stretched dried out belts that cause the mess in the first place, because the motors and capstan ain't spinning properly? Or the rubber rollers are all dried out? WOW and FLUTTER, it's so much more realistic sounding. Carbon mics are coming back too, since modern condenser mics sound too good. Hopefully the 5" black and white DuMonts will also come back. For some reason even Philips who invented the compact cassette, back in the 60's has moved onto digital dictation units. Because, they work better, cheaper to make, and work better. And mostly work and sound better. Let's rename Stereophile to Audio Antique World.

Tom Collins's picture

wow george. 2 bitter comments about older technologies. did you have some kind of bad experience in your youth with vinyl and cassette?

pjd's picture

i'll do them one better. How about some underground music on elcassette.pjd

The Audio Dufus's picture

Dear Friends, Collegues, and the rest of you. It appears that after all of these years you have missed the boat. Cassette decks were nice, but the true audio enthusiast knows the superiority of one format---Sony Super Betamax. Yes, you have all extolled is visual virtues, but NO format has have had the audio pinache, the sheer musical bliss of Sony Super Betamax. I and a select priveleged few personally own the Sony Super Betamax Theater SL-HFT7 from the year 1986. It Sold for $1,000. SuperBeta Theater with built-in stereo amplifiers and different sound fields ("surround," "concert hall," etc). All you added was speakers. Hi-Fi stereo, 148-ch. cable-ready tuner, 7-day, 6-event programming. Mine is is lovely mocha finish---so hard to find today in high-end audio salons. I almost feel guilty in letting this cat out of the bag as it will surely drive sales of the remaining units off the market. But, it would be wrong for me to keep this from you and for the good of mankind, I share it with you. Go now.

Bottomfeeders R us's picture

Deer Oppo! What a surprize! U know who we R don'ch u! so that's about it. I pretty much used all the words I know by now. But that's ok. Ok then, bye!PS I love tapes. the problem is they don't fly as smooth as records do... but! there are endless possobilities to tie oneself!

Clifford Kiracofe's picture

I agree with the point that the artist has every right to present his/her/their work in the medium of their choice: cassette, cd, vinyl. Marsh's rather more strident than coherent polemic while interesting was not persuasive IMO. He seems rudely dismissive of artists and seems contemptuous their freedom to create. He does not convincingly address, for example, the issues of the quality of sound or the quality of the experience. And then there are considerations of enjoyment for the audio hobbyist who likes analog and browsing bins for old vinyl and cassettes. MP3 may be convenient for some but there are well known shortcomings. I have several systems at home and play vinyl, cds, and cassettes and also listen to FM. In the living room, a trusty Revox B215 running through a late sixties Mac MA6100 integrated brings a grin to guests with its greenish glow and tape turning as music moves through the room...If those indie music folks want to present their art on cassette they have every right to go for it.

DLKG's picture

I hate to be like this but c'mon cassette tape sucked from day 1!! When I was a kid and didn't have the playback system to hear a great difference between Lp and cassette I still knew I wouldn't waste my money on those things. That's how bad most of them sounded compared to the record. I did make mix tapes with cassettes but that's all we had that was portable. Now I still make mix discs from Lp's to CD. Lp is still, to me, the King of formats!

david's picture

This is for all the folks who posted saying they have a nakamichi that sounds soso. You need to get that deck cleaned and aligned! Most naks have freqency response that's flat up to 21kHz. If you're iffy above 13k you've got problems.As for a cassette revival in general. After R2R cassettes have the best quality sound reproduction of any of the easily distributable non-virtual formats. Nobody mentions one of the big issues with digital distribution -- musicians get ripped off -- even worse than before! And apple gets richer. Very few people buy mp3s. CDs are ripped automatically when you put them in a computer. At least with a cassette the perp has to make a concious and concerted effort to disrespect the artist.Cassettes will stay niche. One has to have priorities that are a lot different from the mass consumers to value the benefits that tapes have over mp3. But if you prefer underground art, quality over quantity, DIY, and freedom from corporate influence tapes have a lot to offer.