Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tape recording

A "Throwback Thursday" memoir

I've been thinking about tape recording a lot this week. It's probably because of an article I read that mentioned that Monday was the 70th anniversary of the first public demonstration of tape recording in the US. A huge event—tape changed the audio industry forever. It was both good and bad—it gave flexibility to recording companies, but helped open the door for the overly processed recordings we all know and hate.

Tape also had a profound influence on home users, particularly the humble cassette tape. Indeed, cassette tape was a major format for teenagers when I was growing up in the 80s. Indeed, I imagine some teenagers then had a record collection of exactly zero, but had countless tapes. Teens of the 1980s could use cassette everywhere, unlike records. One could play tapes at top volume on the family stereo system when the parents were out. One could take tapes over to a friend's for that wild Friday night party. One could play a tape in the car while cruising around town. Or one could play a tape in class on a Sony Walkman in hopes of drowning out that boring teacher's lecture.

My cassette listening was limited to home. I didn't have my own car when I was in high school, and for some reason I think Walkman was prohibited at school. I don't even recall having any interest in having a Walkman.

For that matter, I wasn't much into prerecorded cassettes, unless there was no other option. Almost all the prerecorded cassettes I had back then were some sort of “low-fi” voice material. For example, there was a period I was interested in old time radio, and cassette was the common distribution format for old radio shows.

Most of my music tapes were recorded myself off of records I owned. Indeed, I was a good example of another trend of that era: the person who'd buy a record, but immediately record it onto tape. The tape was the daily driver format; the record was a seldom-used master format.

One vivid memory of that era was getting blank tapes. A local college's bookstore—where I shopped for mundane school supplies when I was in high school—had a huge barrel full of blank BASF Type 1 tapes. It seems to me they were cheaper than other tapes, plus these tapes served me well—I don't recall ever having a BASF tape fail on me. So I could go in and get a new notebook I had to have for dreary homework, and stock up on tapes. And, if I were really lucky that day, they might have a display of records on sale. (Records were not a routine item, but every now and then they'd have specials. I think they were routinely remaindered records.)

That college was also probably my introduction, indirectly, to tape in the first place. During the 1970s, my mother did some study there, and at some point she had to  get a tape player to handle some spoken word tapes. She got a cheap portable Panasonic, and I remember her surprising me with her purchase. She started playing a Neil Diamond tape (which she presumably bought with the recorder), and brought the player into the dining room. How cool! A little black box plays music! No stereo needed! Fortunately, I wasn't an audiophile then, so I didn't notice how bad the sound quality was!

As far as I can recall, I surprisingly never did much with mix tapes. Actually, it might be more accurate to say I did nothing. The closest I came was when I helped my mother tape some of her favorite records—she was sold on the idea of putting the wear on tapes. The tapes often had blank space at the end, so my mother's idea was fill up the space with a favorite song, which might come from a different record.

These home recorded tapes helped keep some music available for the period right  before I got my first good system. At that time, the only audio system I owned was an old mono console unit that was a conversation piece in my bedroom. I had an old tape deck lying around, too, that turned out to be electrically compatible with the console. It was probably not the best sound possible, but the alternative was no sound.

My interest in cassette tape ended about the time I got my first decent audio system. Indeed, I had half-known that would happen—I figured that once I had a good turntable, I'd be more interested in playing the record itself. And, as the local dealer pointed out, record wear was not a huge issue when one uses a good turntable. Indeed, I remember once asking the dealer about LAST record preservative. His response was along these lines: “I don't carry it. We carry turntables like the Linn, and when you have a Linn, you don't worry about record wear. Records don't wear out on a Linn.” Perhaps he'd overstated the case...but record wear definitely is less of an issue on any good turntable, be it a Linn LP12 or Rega RP1, than, say, a 1970s console stereo BSR. (Old joke: BSR stands for “Bound to Scratch Records.”)

So when I got a decent system, the cassettes were a casualty. I kept spoken word tapes. The music tapes I'd recorded from records a few years before went bye bye. I can't say I really ever regretted that decision, although it might be interesting to play one now just to hear how bad a tape recorded on the rack system I used in the 80s sounds to my audiophile ears of 2016!

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