Remember cassette tapes? Those little plastic shells that protected the two spools? You would usually buy blank ones and produce your own tape, recording from the radio, say, or compiling music from records. I used to love cassette tapes. In fact, I still do. (more)
Of course, tapes came with all kinds of problems. There was white noise - they tended to “hiss” a little. So you had to worry about “Dolby”. It wasn’t all that bad - I preferred having to deal with that problem over the extra sounds that records make. I’m a perfectionist in that sense: When I listen to music, I don’t want to hear the sound of the medium.
Sometimes, the player would “eat” the tape. Machines can’t really eat anything, but what happened was very aptly described by calling it “eating”: The tape would end up garbled and wound around the various little contraptions inside the player. Usually, you’d end up ripping the tape out, and it would be ruined.
There were some people who would repair ripped tapes by gluing the two ends back together, but I never went there.
Tapes could also have all kinds of mechanical problems. Sometimes, you’d have to slap them - I’m not making this up - when they’d run too slowly, because you didn’t want the player to eat the tape. You also wanted to hear your music at the right speed.
The music industry treated tapes as if they were the enemy. Tapes, so we were told, were the end of the recording industry. Except that they weren’t. The recording industry didn’t have to worry, and when CDs came around - boy, did they rake in the profits by overcharging consumers for CDs and by re-releasing older music in “remastered” form! But back to tapes…
Then there was the walkman - a portable tape player with headphones. You could take the tapes out of your own home and listen to tapes riding the bus or your bike. People became alarmed and warned that the walkman would make everybody deaf, or that it would make people stop talking to each other.
Some people really suffered from hearing loss, but nobody I knew started talking to me or anybody else. Seeing a kid sit in a bus with headphones and a walkman was not the end of the world.
You would make mix tapes for your friends or, ideally, for someone very special. In the solitude of your room, you would carefully select the songs you wanted to present in a special order. Then you would create some cover art, cut out the paper, fold it, and put it into the tape’s container. What was better than that?
So I really loved my tapes for what they were and what I could do with them, and I accepted their various flaws.
And then the music industry discovered CDs. It was the end of tape, and of course, it was also the end of records. For a while, I hated it - until I accepted CDs and started buying them. I still used tapes, but I used them less and less. At some stage, during some move, I gave away my tape player. Only much later - in fact, very recently - did I get re-interested in tapes.
Tapes can now (usually) be had for very little money, in thrift shops or at yard sales. I buy the ones I like. I also bought an old walkman - also at a thrift shop. There it was again, that “something” about tapes. The old excitement was back.
Things started to change a little when I asked myself what my interest in tape was based on: Was I interested in tapes, or was I interested in music? And given that I am in fact interested in music, why was I getting so hung up on tapes?
In fact, I don’t like the idea of being interested in tapes just for the sake of, well, tapes as an object. It’s true, they’re tactile, but so is my iPod. It is true, they look slightly cooler than my iPod, but all things considered tapes and my iPod are all extremely ugly objects: if I didn’t have to deal with them I certainly wouldn’t.
It is also true that the music on my iPod sounds a bit different from the one on my tapes. But unlike many other people I refuse to claim that one sounds better than the other. Some of the music I listen to might sound a bit “warmer” (whatever that means) on tape, but I hate the tape noise. And some other music does in fact sound better on my iPod. (audiophiles, please don’t email me about this)
So I suppose what this all comes down to is that I loved tapes for whatever they were when they came out and when there was no mp3 music. The sound of music (the actual sound, not the kitschy musical movie) has not got any better or worse - not even all that different - with the advent of mp3.
When I listen to my favourite pieces of music using a record or a tape or some mp3 file, what I’m listening to is the music, not the device.
This article is not about cassette tapes.