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The cassette returns on a wave of nostalgia (theguardian.com)
34 points by longdefeat 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

As far as I remember, the only advantages tapes had were the fact that you could record to them yourself (making copies, or recording radio sources), and you could play them in a car. The sound quality wasn't better than vinyl, it was just more flexible and portable. But if you're not making your own recordings or playing them in your car, what's the point in bringing them back?

The vinyl revival make a lot more sense. Of course, the biggest pop star in the world selling a few hundred cassettes may not constitute a 'come back' either.

Portability (also walkmen and boomboxes, not just car stereos), recording (copies, mixtapes, radio recordings), durability & price.

You could loan someone a tape without worrying about scratches. You could make your own mixtape, which became a romantic trope and let people take creative part.

Cassettes were usually cheaper than vinyl or CDs. Also, you could record your own tapes. I have tapes of me talking as a toddler. You could record a lecture or interview. There's a reason people still say "album" and "demo tape." Tapes could be produced in 1s and 10s. Vinyl presses had big minimum runs. So.. underground music happened on cassette tapes.

I would flip it. Vinyl's only advantage was sound quality (assuming the needle was sharp and the record unscratched). Cassetes had every other advantage.

There's a reason they were so popular well into the cd age.

Cassette tapes also lost that advantage around 2000, when CD-Rs became cheap — cheaper than tapes ever were.

Some friends in unknown bands produced ~100 CD-Rs of their music and left them lying around bars and nightclubs. That cost £20 and a lot of time spent swapping CDs at the computer.

True. But I've always found cds awful from a UX point of view. Delicate, needed to be kept in their box and handled with care to avoid fingerprints. And it was sometimes tricky to get them out of their boxes, maybe with one hand while driving. While I used to have tapes scattered around the car, just push a button, eject it and throw it anywhere, pick another, push it in. Perfect format.

>Portability (also walkmen and boomboxes, not just car stereos), recording (copies, mixtapes, radio recordings), durability & price. You could loan someone a tape without worrying about scratches.

>You could make your own mixtape, which became a romantic trope and let people take creative part.

Whilst I agree, that in absence of any real alternatives, the Compact Cassette had these features/qualities that made them very convenient and ubiquitous. However, it was an inferior medium as they were a pain to look after i.e. if you left them near unshielded speakers or in the car on hot days or try and avoid having the player chew it up, then spend hours trying to spool it back with a pencil, splicing the tape etc. There was also the Zen of Cassette Player Maintenance with the 'head-cleaning' routine..

If I had to bring back a format, it would be the MiniDisc (versus the superior DAT), not only for the nostalgic element but also for it's sheer versatility and durability.

OP said all that:

> Portability (also walkmen and boomboxes, not just car stereos), recording (copies, mixtapes, radio recordings), durability & price.

And the question remains:

> what's the point in bringing them back?

Ah.. well the point is obviously not that they're objectively better. They're a collectible souvenir.

Back then, yes, there's a reason they were so popular. But nowadays? What do they bring?


It's so old it's new.

This might sound small but it was a big deal to me: it starts exactly where you left it.

It's a Quality of Implementation issue.

The tape does this because it was mechanically simpler. But in other systems, where it may not be, this is still what you want. So, a good Implementation should do it anyway.

Portable minidisc players _could_ have been made slightly cheaper by removing the solid state storage, then they would have skipped if jogged like old portable CD players (and unlike a portable tape player). But all the official ones had solid state and so the experience for the end user was that they "didn't skip" even though of course in reality a spinning disc can't achieve that, the solid state storage hides it from you for long enough. Good Implementation. CD players copied this technology eventually as RAM got cheaper.

This is the same for TV channel up/down on most digital TVs. It's very slow. Why? Well, mechanically changing channel is more complicated, and so by default it will be slow. But that's not really _why_ the real answer is that consumers prefer a cheaper TV that has poor Quality of Implementation and so those have won. Vendors could spend $5 extra on the BOM (duplicate tuner and decoder circuitry following adjacent channels) and a few hours engineering to make it nice and fast, but why bother when customers won't pay a dime extra?

Yes, quality aside, the "stateful-ness" of tape is very useful. Using VHS is quicker to pick a show back up where you left off than DVD.

The SD Card full of MP3s in my van always starts back at the first alphabetical song in the first alphabetical folder every time you turn on the car, or switch to radio and back. It's infuriating.

That's just a reminder of how utterly awful OEM headunits are in vehicles. This was NEVER a problem for the $20 8gb MP3 player you could pick up in the walmart checkout aisle

Some people put a silent track called "A" on their media to make this less annoying.

For small indie artists, cassette tapes make perfect sense. Releasing digitally is of course the easiest way these days but artists usually want a physical artifact as well. It's easier to sell a tape than a download and it's nice to be able to touch your achievement. Vinyl pressing is insanely expensive in comparison and usually requires much larger batches to be produced

Isn't burning CDs just as easy as making tapes, if not easier? It's also better sound quality and you'd have a larger audience of people who have a CD player lying around than people who have cassette players.

At least, I imagine anyone who has a cassette player also has a CD player while many people who have CD players don't have a cassette player.

But.. why not CDs?

Because everyone sells CDs. On tape you have a distinct feeling.

The weirdest album I've seen for sale at a show was a Sega Saturn (or maybe it was a Megadrive) cartridge.

It would have been a Megadrive cart then, because the Saturn used... you guessed it, CD's ;)

Because CDs are boring?

Maybe because of the misconception that CD is a compressed digital format like mp3?

Cuz it's not. CDs use the same sound encoding method as vinyl, just stored in variable reflectiveness instead of variable height. The "files" you see when you pop one in your computer is an abstraction generated by the operating system, they're not really there, there's not any digital data after the table of contents.

Well, no, CDs are definitively digital, hence the format being called CDDA (Compact Disc Digital Audio). Everything is encoded as binary, not variable: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_disc#Physical_details

But still, that hardly makes cassettes better sounding.

Of course, you are completely wrong as other posters have pointed out -- CD is indeed a fully digital format (but it does not have a filesystem, just a continous stream of binary data with a TOC section near the beginning of the disc to tell the CD player about the timecode location of the tracks)

I thought it would be worth mentioning that you may be confusing CD with Laserdisc, the video format. Those look a lot like huge CD's but are in fact analog and work more like what you describe.

That's not true. CDs store discrete data and vinyls continous data. However, it is true that CDs can store formats of higher quality than mp3s that cause no sound degradation.

I think the point I was trying to make was that tape is something different than digital. You can download high fidelity files as well and if you buy a CD you'll probably end up importing the files anyway.

With that said, cassettes are definitely not a hifi option and I'm quite sure it's genre dependent as well.

There was this thing called Digital Audio Tapes, for what it’s worth. Never got much consumer traction though, eventually repurposed for digital data storage, DDS.

And there was also DCC, the Digital Compact Cassette.

DAT, of course, saw reasonable success in the recording industry for transferring 2-track digital lossless audio to and fro studios and such before CD burners were commonly available. DCC saw very little, if any, success anywhere :)

Also walkmans and other cassette players did not spy on you!

Don't forget the Walkman, you could put a device in your pocket and listen to music using headphones while out walking or even running.

Cassettes seem very durable compared to CDs and vinyl.

> Of course, the biggest pop star in the world selling a few hundred cassettes may not constitute a 'come back' either.

I saw that figure of 540 cassettes in one week, and it reminded me of the article "How Many Copies Of An Album Do You Need To Sell To Hit #1 On The Australian ARIA Chart" [1]. TLDR: Ed Sheeran got to #1 with just 3777 album sales across digital & CD.

[1] https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/music/how-many-copies-...

I think it was 2004 when Hillsong topped the AU chart with a worship album for the first time. It turns out having a conference with ~10,000 people who are all inclined to buy your new CD lets you top the album chart for a week.

I don't care for cassettes, but I hope the Compact Disc never dies. It is a nearly perfect physical music format.

Edit: I really appreciate the simplicity of it, it's DRM free (the only DRM-free digital prerecorded physical format still pressed?) and contains lossless uncompressed stereo PCM at the frequency and bitdepth that is still the standard for digital music, good enough no human ear can distinguish it from theoretically superior successors.

Rotating plastic that relies on sensitive optics? No thanks, that seems far from perfect for lossless, digital data. I will take a solid-state medium any day over spinning discs.

Rotating plastic that relies on sensitive optics?

I mean, that sounds fragile when you put it like that, but in reality you can go to any thrift store and pick up a 1988 CD player and a 1982 CD and it will more than likely play perfectly. CD transport and decoding has been a solved problem for literally decades. CD is very, very robust as long as you handle the discs like an adult.

Perfectly is overstating it.

You could take a CD pressed in 2002 directly from the store into a reader and many of the data blocks would already be corrupted.

Audio CDs last for a while because they are not lossless. Data CDs have a lot of redundancy to try to fix that, but even then don't last for very long.

Unless your 1982 CD has rotted https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disc_rot

By "as long as you handle the discs like an adult" do you mean that dance you get to do while you hold the disc with your fingers around the edges, while you search for the case that either the little plastic ears broke off of so it doesn't hold the disc or the other cardboard case that scratches the disc when you put it in?

“lossless, digital data” is a contradiction in terms if the source is analog. When converting analog to digital, resolution is finite.

All practical analog audio signals are band limited and have a nominal noise floor. Given those characteristics, the conversion from analog to digital can be considered mathematically lossless.


Then you consider the fact that our own ears are band limited and dynamic range limited and you realise pretty quickly that CD audio at 16 bits 44100 Hz is, for all practical purposes, an objectively lossless audio format.

No it is not!

As long as you stay in the frequency range of the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem the source signal is indeed lossless.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this you should look it up.

Don't forget, that a vinyl has frequency limits as well.

In this context, lossless refers only to what happens after the data is already digital. Some digital formats apply data compression the reverse of which doesn't recover the original bits exactly. Some digital formats (including CD) use no data compression or a form of compression that recreates exactly the same bits.

It's similar to the difference between JPEG and PNG. There is a quality parameter when creating a JPEG because the decompressed image will not be exactly the same, but there is no such quality parameter for PNG because PNG will restore the exact value of every pixel.

The mistake is thinking the precision of analog sound is infinite.

Flash media has capacitance based charge that degrades with time, a CD will degrade approximately never.

CDs do absolutely degrade. CD-Rs are so unreliable they're almost useless as an archival medium, and not a few commercial CD run had manufacturing defects which affected long-term stability.

CDs are also imperfect. There are two levels of error correction. Both affect the sound.

The only perfect format is digital storage of a lossless source such as a bit-perfect CD rip or direct digital master copy, with multiple copies in different locations.

CD-Rs are not so bad if you don't write them at maximum speed (you'll still need to store them in a dark place / case). It is pretty well reported that writing at maximum speed causes higher initial error rate and worse longevity, yet most people don't even seem to consider the possibility to reduce speed.

Disc rot is, sadly, a thing, but in general commercially produced CDs are pretty reliable.

The possibility of getting a bad batch exists. Slightly different I know, but of the Warner HD DVDs I own, approximately 80% are now unreadable due to IIRC the glue used.

The first CD players let you stick the disk in with case and all. You would never get a scratch. It was a shame it didn't stay that way.

Not the cases the CD came in though. You had to buy special cases that where compatible with your CD player. Handy, but it started to get expensive once you had more than 20 or so CDs.

Also, our early CD drives for our computer had this, except the caddy could be opened up and the CD inside changed. We had one caddy for the computer.

AFAIK it was an open question, if they were going the diskette way, or go with open discs. The polycarbonate plastic was deemed so tough, and of course it was cheaper to just produce the discs without a caddy, so they went with naked discs. IIRC.

Yep. It's too bad the CD format didn't specify this caddy, so that every commercial CD came in a caddy and was non-removable from it.

Wow, I never knew this. Can you give an example of such a system? My initial search has returned nothing.

Ha, not too dissimilar to a floppy disc really.

I guess you weren't alive back then because.... no, no they weren't, this never happened.

You don't know what you're talking about. I had one of these types of CD drives in my first decent computer. It used special cases with a spring loaded cover that opened when you inserted it into the drive.

I know what you're referring to, but I think you're talking about something different to the grandparent. They said "The first CD players let you stick the disk in with case and all. You would never get a scratch" which implies something where you never take the disc out of its case, because unless you never take it out of the case how does it avoid all scratches?

The case could very well have been the caddy. There wasn't a practical reason to have both; it was a design decision.

I don't think there was a caddy for every single CD. My recollection was that you had a single caddy for the drive and swapped discs in and out of it. So I don't see how the caddies made much practical difference for stopping CDs from getting scratched.

It depends on the user. We had caddies for almost every CD we regularly used.

that was a CD-ROM, not an audio CD

I used cassettes a lot a while back. I took my cds and made tapes of them for my car and Walkman. Had a pretty good tape deck for my home stereo (Yamaha 3 head..)

Cassettes are terrible. You have to clean the pinch rollers a lot or you can get a weird “wah” sound as the speed changes slightly as the tape is being pulled through.

And the hiss, even with Dolby b noise removal it was kinda not great. Dolby c and Dbx where so much better but without having it on walkmen/car players the point was lost.

OccTionally you’d get a jam and the tape would pull out of the shell. you’d have to try and get the tape back inside without a twist..see the first photo in the article

It was an interesting format (write protect tabs on the top, that would prevent you from recording over accidentally. There were also differ holes in the top of the tape which indicated which “type” of tape it was (cro2, metal or normal)

I don’t miss them though.

I think the nostalgia that a lot of folks feel is that a tape is a physical unit of audio. With digital audio, your device can fit a ludicrous number of songs (or stream magically from the cloud). With a tape, that physical object _is_ the sound that's played. It makes it more precious. It requires a substantive amount of effort to create or duplicate.

CDs were like this too, for a while. When everyone had a burner and you could fit 650MB of MP3s on them, the magic faded. The CD was just a vehicle, not the song itself. The songs could be downloaded and shared trivially. If you wanted a song on tape, you had to buy it or find someone that had it and make a copy in a slow manual process.

The closest we've ever come to reclaiming this magic, IMO, is HitClips.

The thing with a cassette, aside from its physical tangibility, is that it's time-boxed, with no track skipping. Vinyl has the same appeal. The point of it is that you have a physical document of a recording with a clear beginning and end, with the expectation that you listen to it from start to finish. OK, cassettes will pick up where you left off, but you get the idea.

It may sound obvious, but in a world with infinitely scrolling feeds and bottomless Spotify/YT playlists, it's practically novel.

Not sure if it's completely nostalgia, or also an element of corksniffing-meets-Chinese-whispers.

I saw a recording forum where someone had read up on the wonders of tape, looking for the elusive 'magic' talked about. Then was surprised and disappointed at some lo-fi hissy results. Somewhere along the line, it's not communicated that the nostalgia is for 1/4" to 2" studio tape, and not a box of TDK C90's from a garage sale.

I have no nostalgia for SSSSSSSSSSS...

But with vinyl, I do shamefully admit a bit of nostalgia for thunk, rumble, snap, crackle and pop.

The intro and outro were part of the recording. It's like the three thumps on the floor with a stick, from a guy on stage before a moliere play.

I very much enjoyed an album experience and I try to relive it with a CD, but CD encoding de-humanises the inter-track moments. Even the fade-out is sometimes gone. "re mixed for your listening pleasure" as if the beatles didn't record in Mono deliberately.

What works for me, is Keith Jarret and Glenn Gould, because they mutter and fidgit while playing. But I miss that initial thunk,rumble, snap crackle too.

Another "porky" prime cut...

I have nostalgia for my early adopter friend's setup. He had his mp3 player (a jazpiper?) connected to a fake cassette for playing in his car.

I drive a 2004 vehicle. This is still my daily life

Not just that, vinyl does have much higher bandwidth, up into the 50kHz (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eC6L3_k_48) Of course we cannot hear above 20-22k but I expect the non linearities in the equipment to downmix some of that into the audible baseband. "warmth" is not a myth after all ;)

Vinyl warmth is created by the RIAA curve that removes most of the bass and tries to recreate it in the preamp. This adds some nice creamy distortion to the low end.

Vinyl also has a much lower dynamic range than CD.

I've actually come to hate vinyl as a format. I love the artwork, but I hate the impracticality, the cultishness, and most of all I hate the distorted low-fi sonics.

Nothing matches a high resolution digital source file played on good equipment.

I have to disagree: a well-mastered recording on vinyl is superior to a high-resolution, digital recording when the music has been auto-tuned, mastered, remastered, and compressed to death. (I'm talking about dynamic-range compression here.)

Have to disagree. With the mechanical wear interaction between the stylus and groove, it's often estimated that you start to lose detail after about 10 plays.

Plus a whole lot of EQ compromises have to be made to stop the stylus jumping out of the groove, which don't exist on digital formats.

So if you add up the HF and LF rolloffs, rumble, wow, and general snap crackle and pop from vinyl that probably isn't completely dust-free, you have a grab-bag of imperfections that won't exist in a FLAC file ripped from a CD when it was mint and free of read errors.

There's nothing stopping you avoiding all of these things on CD. All things being equal, the CD will sound superior to the vinyl (at worst equal to it).

Some recordings are not available on CD, or only terribly remastered. I haven't looked into downloads, but I doubt they are better remastered.

This has nothing to do with the technical characteristics of the format.

Of course, but it has everything to do with real-life availability of records.

Sounds like you're conflating the playback format with the production then.

Nothing's stopping you from putting brick wall compressed mastered music on record just as nothing's stopping you from putting a track with more dynamic range on cd.

You're right, except that in practice some wonderful historic recordings are only available on vinyl, so a blanket statement like: "I have come to hate the vinyl format" should be qualified.

some wonderful historic recordings are only available on vinyl

Now you're conflating the media with the content.

> Of course we cannot hear above 20-22k

You need a 44kHz digital signal to reproduce a 22kHz analogical one. That's why CDs default to 44.4kHz.

I don't think tapes got anywhere nearly as high.

Small correction: the CD sample rate is 44.1 kHz.

A perfectly recorded metal tape (I believe metal tapes are no longer manufactured) in a very high-end deck can maybe reach 20 kHz under optimal conditions. For normal cheap-o ferric tape you're looking at maybe 12-16 kHz. Add in faster than real-time factory dubbing, tape wear, and substandard playback equipment and you're probably usually not even getting 12.

This will get buried but I am writing in hopes one day google picks this up and someone finds it as facinating as I do.

The thing with tapes is that they have 2 sides. Artists previously utilized that fact in interesting ways. It was a logical way to break up songs or themes.

One of my favorite examples of this is Metallica's black album. The first side begins with enter sandman which has this mellow but building intro. The second side hits hard right at the start with Through the Never. Today, most listeners have no idea how this album is partitioned.

This is extremely common throughout the history of music. The original context of a work is almost always lost as technology and culture change, presenting familiar pieces in new ways. How often are Chopin's pieces performed in huge recital halls, when they were meant for small salons/private parties? How about Schubert's songs, which were sang in very private settings for friends? Or the contrasting sides of two records? Or the continuous flow of record/tape/CD from one track to the next, vs. Spotify playlist's penchant for combining songs from all over the place. What about sampling tiny pieces of a work? Theme and variations on a work from an opera for a piano? Adaptations for new instrumental groups of old pieces?

Since music is inherently playful, and society is great at inventing new musical toys, I think we're destined to an ever-shifting musical landscape.

This goes the other way, too...where once a recording engineer had to decide how and where to split up a long work, the entire uninterrupted piece can now be played digitally.

Don't forget about the late great Tom Petty and his famous "Hello, CD listeners, in fairness to cassette owners, we'll take a quick pause while they flip their cassettes over.

Another example: Emerson Lake & Palmer, album Brain Salad Surgery, track Karn Evil 9. That's the line "Welcome back, my friends / To the show that never ends". The song is split across the two tape sides, and that's how the second movement begins, to greet you right after reversing the tape. That's a similar partitioning detail, lost on CD and any other purely linear format.

And even if you had an autoreverse cassette/record deck there was a noticable pause between sides.

I want standalone MP3 players with removable media and simple controls (no touch display) to make a comeback. You could make your crush a "mix tape" with those old 32MB SD cards everyone has lying around from the good old days when everything was a standalone device. Someone could manufacture little stickers to put on the SD cards so you could customize each one. And little cases to carry them around in. Bands could release albums on them. And your modern car will probably be able to play them too.

SanDisk still makes the Sansa Clip which satisfies your requirements and takes microSD cards. I have a previous generation of the same, it's a very nice device that does (mostly) one thing and does it well.


And of course, as far as bands releasing albums on SD cards with artwork... They tried that with something called MQS SD. Needless to say, it didn't go so well.


Very close to what I'm looking for. I was thinking pretty hard about it a few months ago, and I did considered that exact one. Ideally, I'd like no screen (small LCD at most); push buttons (SanDisk looks like touch, but the description doesn't clarify); SD card; standard replaceable battery (this is the hardest feature to find); ogg and flac support.

This is the closest I could find: https://www.agptek.com/?product=agptek-u3-16gb-portable-usb-...

Take out the built in USB and internal storage, add ogg/flac support, it'd be excellent.

Just physical buttons often would be nice, some phones have an extra customization one... buttons please.

As someone who has had music put out on tape in 2018 and 2019, and as someone who owns and regularly plays over 300 modern (post-2015) tapes, it's just a part of the scene for some genres. There's a certain object fetishization among underground/niche/extreme music fans. We like to cop the physical releases because they're a direct, tangible way to connect with the artist. They're easy to DIY (moreso than vinyl, perhaps less easy than CDrs, though), and they're an interesting medium to package for (I have releases that have come in everything from ziplok bags to custom-built wooden boxes).

So, yeah. We do play them. At least those of us who are serious about the format.

It's interesting that this comes ~30 years after cassette's peak (late 1980s), and the "vinyl revival" came ~30 years after that format's peak.

By that measure, we should see a nostalgic CD revival around 2030.

I wonder if Guardians of the Galaxy has anything to do with it.

Cassettes were nice (they were compact and sturdier than vynils), but they are just plastic pollution now. You can put thousands of songs into one tiny flash drive. To satisfy your retro angst, just get a cassette shaped mp3 player or something like that.

Think of it like buying a plastic Nicki Minaj figurine that happens to be playable.

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