Compared to reel-to-reel tape players — the gold standard at the time — cassette tapes were just so easy to use. Not only were they were 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.
That said, the technology wasn’t perfect — they were prone to jams, distortion, and wear. Here is some classic advice from the ’70s to help consumers choose and take care of cassette tapes.
Of course, we know now that no matter how well you stored the little things, very few cassette tapes from the ’70s and ’80s 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.
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.
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 counter-clockwise 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.”
9. Store cassette tapes properly
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.