Not only were they small and easy to carry, they were also easy to load — and with no external reels involved, you could skip dealing with typical threading or alignment issues. (They were a lot trimmer than 8-track tapes, too.)
That said, the technology wasn’t perfect — they were prone to jams, distortion, and wear. Along with images showing lots of old tape brands, you’ll find some classic advice from the 70s, written to help consumers choose and take care of cassettes.
Of course, we know now that no matter how well you stored the little things, very few cassette tapes from back in the day withstood the test of time.
In the greatest irony of all, this kind of portable magnetic media turned out to be far less durable than vinyl records — the technology they were supposedly replacing.
Top tips to help you choose and use cassette tapes
1. Advantages of the cassette tape
The cassette format has the advantage of being easy to use and store, and the size has been standardized so that all cassette hardware will accept every manufacturer’s cassette. As for fidelity, even purists agree that cassettes can hold their own with open-reel tapes.
The biggest drawback of cassettes is that they are difficult to edit. Only the most dexterous and knowledgeable audiophile should ever attempt to open a cassette (the better ones are sonically sealed) to splice the tape.
2. What audio cassette tapes are made of
Magnetic recording tape is basically a ribbon of plastic (the base) coated with magnetic particles. These may be ferric oxide, gamma ferric oxide, chromium dioxide, or a combination.
The early tapes had a paper base. Later tapes were made with an acetate base; some of the less expensive tapes still are. The modern tapes have a polyester base. The tape package usually indicates the plastic used.
3. High-quality and low-quality
The difference between a good-quality tape and one that will bind, flake and record badly is mostly dependent upon the quality of ingredients used to make the tape and the care with which these ingredients are mixed and coated.
Most of the better-known brand-name tapes are those that have an even dispersion of fine magnetic particles aligned in an orderly manner and coated onto the plastic ribbon so that they will not rub or flake off. The tape is the same width from first foot to the last, and will move through the tape transport with ease.
YOU CAN STILL BUY THEM: Check out the new cassettes available today
4. Don’t let your audio cassette jam
To help prevent jamming, buy a tape with a textured carbon backcoating. The coating traps air between each layer, creating an even wind.
Backcoating also helps to drain off static, which, if allowed to build up, can cause pops and temporary loss of sound.
5. Recording music vs recording voice
The tapes are made to meet the exacting needs of different recording situations. The dual-coat Scotch Classic cassette, for example, was designed to record and reproduce concert hall-quality music.
The high-fidelity inherent in this ferrichrome cassette tape is not needed (indeed, it’s a waste of money and good tape) if you’re recording speeches or lectures. For voice recording, a good quality low-noise tape is sufficient.
6. Cassette tape recording time
In addition to selecting the correct format and the right formulation for each recording situation, also consider the time factor.
Two things determine recording time: tape length and recorder speed. Obviously, the longer a tape is, the longer it will play. Recording time, however, varies inversely with recording speed. The slower the speed, the longer the time.
Cassettes are available in 60-minute, 90-minute or 120-minute lengths. The size of the enclosure remains the same, but the thickness of the tape varies. The shorter the length, the thicker the tape. By using relatively thin tape, more tape can be wound on the same size reel.
Recording speeds have been standardized at 1-7/8 ips (inches per second). This has made it easy to show running time on cassette packages. A C-60 cassette, for instance, offers an hour of playing time — 30 minutes on each side.
7. Wind your audio cassette tape carefully
If a cassette is not completely rewound after use, it may have slack — a common cause of jamming. Before putting the cassette back in your machine, insert a pencil or pen into the hub opening and turn it until it makes the other huh move. This will remove the slack.
You will note that when you hold the cassette with the openings up (the side with the tape exposed), the right hub will move counterclockwise to tighten, and the left hub moves clockwise.
8. If you go chrome
When using chromium dioxide cassettes, make sure the recorder or playback unit is equipped with a switch that activates the special circuitry needed when using chromium dioxide tape. And, make sure the switch on your tape player is on “chrome.”
Photo by Benjamin Paquette | Dreamstime.com
9. Store cassette tapes properly – and not in your car
Keep cassettes out of the oven-like heat of a closed car in the summer. Most manufacturers subject the cassette and the magnetic tape within the cassette housing to some grueling tests.
However, when conditions are extremely hot and humid, the molded plastic cassette housing could warp and the tape within the housing could deform. So play it safe, and take cassettes out of the glove compartment when the mercury rises.
Also, always store cassette tape in a box with hublocks. This avoids tape slack, a major reason for jamming. One firm manufactures a lock-together drawer storage system which also lets you label and organize your tape collection.
10. Play your tapes at least twice a year
3M recommends that you play your tapes at least once every six months so that the stains and adhesions due to the tape not being unwound are released.
Vintage Maxell cassette tapes: The answer for the sound you’re after (1973)
Everything about Maxell cassette tapes is designed to make your recording simpler and the sound truer.
Maxell low noise or Ultra Dynamic Tapes are in a class of their own. From the unique new tape leader that cleans the heads on your sound equipment to the quality of the sound itself you’ll find that Maxell is the answer.
BeeGees and Blondie for Ampex cassettes (1980)
Vintage Maxell UD 90 cassette insert (1980s)
Maxell cassette tape features
In the cassette, Maxell adapts the unique 4-function leader to incorporate the cleaning properties of its original head cleaning tape. The special finish assures continuous cleaning without fear of head wear.
1. Non-abrasive head cleaning leader tape.
2. Indicates A or B side ready to play.
3. Arrows indicate direction of tape travel.
4. 5-second cueing line.
Handling /storage instructions
• To prevent the tape from developing trouble in travel, take up any slack in the cassette by using a pencil stub as shown in the illustration.
• Removal of the breakout lug from the cassette (illustration) will render the recorded material unerasable and will protect your valuable recorder to obtain smooth tape travel and high quality recording/playback.
• Store the cassettes in their plastic cases after use. During storage, keep them from heat, humidity, magnetic fields and dust.
Scotch Cassettes. They just might outlive you. (1976)
We wish. A 1995 report by the Council on Library and Information Resources noted, “According to manufacturers’ data sheets and other technical literature, thirty years appears to be the upper limit for magnetic tape products, including video and audio tapes.”
In my own reality, cassette tapes from the seventies and eighties proved to be a disappointingly delicate, heat-sensitive, and otherwise impermanent method of preserving music or other memories.
Sadly, my many concert recordings and interview tapes have been unplayable for years — having long ago turned to static, dust, and miles of slightly warped brown plastic.
Record them over and over again. The life of a Scotch brand cassette is a long one. Even when you record on it time after time.
Because there’s a tough binder that keeps the magnetic coating from wearing off. So even after hundreds of replays or re-recordings, you get great sound quality.
Play them back without jamming… Because there’s a Posi-Track backing that helps prevent jamming and reduces wow and flutter. And the cassette shell is made with a plastic that can withstand 150 degrees F.
We wish you a long and happy life. ‘Cause you’ll need it to keep up with your Scotch cassettes.
More old audio cassettes: Maxell & generic brands
An audiocassette collection from the 80s/90s
A vintage DIY cassette tape holder (Dynamite magazine – 1983)
Vintage Disney cassette of 101 Dalmations (1982)