Audio cassette tapes first rocked our socks in the 1970s! And these easy tips kept us grooving

How to care for an audio cassette tape - Tech tips from 1975

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Top 10 audio cassette tape tips, plus a look back at dozens of old tapes

Compared to reel-to-reel tape — the gold standard in the 60s and into the 70s — audio cassette tapes were very simple to use.

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 less bulky than 8-track tapes, too.)

Collection of vintage cassette tapes
Picture by dasha_romanova/Deposit Photos

That said, the technology wasn’t perfect — audio cassette tapes were prone to jams, distortion, and wear. Here — 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 audio 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.

Memorex cassette tapes (1986)

Top tips to help you choose and use audio cassette tapes
1. Advantages of the audio 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.

Vintage Maxell UR 60 cassette tape
Vintage Maxell UR 60 audii cassette 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.

Vintage cassette tapes - various brands

3. High-quality and low-quality audio cassette tapes

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

Old TDK red transparent cassette tape D90

4. Don’t let your audio cassette tape 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.

4 vintage cassette tapes - various brands
Photo by Delstudio |

5. Recording music vs recording voice on audio cassette tapes

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.

Old Maxell XLII 90 minute cassette tapes

MORE: See 24 Walkmans & other portable tape players that made headphones the ultimate fashion accessory

6. Audio 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.

4 vintage cassette tapes - various brands
Photo by Delstudio |

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.

Old Philips FS-90 cassette tapes in boxes

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.

How to care for cassette tapes - Tech tips from 1975

8. If you go chrome

When using chromium dioxide audio cassette tapes, 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.”

Vintage Sony HF 60 minute cassette tapes

Photo by Benjamin Paquette |

9. Store audio 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 audio 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.

How to care for cassette tapes - Tech tips from 1975

10. Play your audio cassette 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 TDK SA 90 cassette tape in package

Vintage Maxell audio 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.

Vintage Maxell cassettes (1973)

BeeGees and Blondie for Ampex audio cassette tapes (1980)

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.

Vintage Maxell UD 90 cassette insert (1980s)

Scotch Cassettes. They just might outlive you. (1976)

Still dancing to your old tapes when you’re a grandma, like this set of Scotch ads from 1976 suggests?

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.

1976 - Scotch cassettes might outlive you

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.

Scotch cassette tapes might outlive you - 1970s

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.

Scotch Cassettes - They just might outlive you 1976)

More old audio cassettes: Maxell & generic brands
Vintage cassette tapes - various brands
Photo by Delstudio |

An audiocassette collection from the 80s/90s

Collection of vintage cassette tapes in cases with covers

Collection of old 80s 90s cassette tapes in cases with covers
Photo by Benjamin Paquette |

A vintage DIY cassette tape holder (Dynamite magazine – 1983)

A vintage DIY cassette tape holder (Dynamite magazine - 1983)

Vintage Disney cassette of 101 Dalmations (1982)

Vintage Disney cassette of 101 Dalmations (1982)

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. In high school in the early 80s, my best friend had a giant JVC “boom box”, and I had a huge collection of cassette albums… so we made quite the formidable team. I always liked cassettes because, unlike vinyl, they were portable and could be played in the car. Plus, they were fairly sturdy (worst case scenario, you could buy replacement cassette housings from Radio Shack). I can still remember the weird chemical-ly whiff you got when opening up a new cassette for the first time! I often bought vinyl records and recorded them onto cassette for daily play, preferring the CrO2 cassettes from Maxell or TDK (the Metal cassettes were much more expensive and didn’t yield that much better sound quality).

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