A Short History of the Cassette

by A Produce , Trance-Port Tapes

From: The Cassette Mythos, Autonomedia 1990

The "compact cassette," as it was originally called, was patented in 1964 by the Philips Company, though most of the world did not really become aware of this new revolutionary item until a few years later. Originally created for the sake of convenience over reel-to-reel tape recorders, early cassette tape formulations were primitive, lo-fi by today's audio quality standards. Norelco (the electric shaver company) was an early licensee of the patent (as was Sony); thus the now-conventional plastic case that virtually all cassettes are sold in was dubbed the "Norelco case."

Record companies were slow to accept the new audio format as one which could be commercially viable. Early on, the tape-buying public in general was considered a fringe market. Record companies had been releasing LPs in reel-to-reel format for years, but mostly for those who were roughly the equivalent of today's audiophiles. When a release was made available in tape form, either reel-to-reel or cassette format, it was after its disc counterpart had been released. Such tactics led one company to chortle on its dust jackets, "Remember, it always happens on records first."

At about the same time that the cassette was beginning to make some modest inroads into the marketplace, another format effectively stymied the cassette's development and acceptance for several years. With big bucks behind it, the 8-track cartridge was foisted upon the American public as the new way to take your music with you in the car or to the beach. Essentially a bastard form of the broadcast radio cartridge which is still used in radio work today, there were immediate problems with the pre-recorded, ready-for-mass-consumption 8-track cartridge. For one, it was essentially a long piece of tape with a piece of sensing foil; when the program head reached the foil, it would switch programs with a loud click, often in mid-song. Programming the loop so that all the tunes would somehow fit often led to re-sequencing the order of the songs from the original LP which, in one extreme case, led to "A Day in the Life" being heard before the rest of Sgt. Pepper. Another big problem was the inability to record your own tapes on most 8-track players. The majority of units were essentially players, not recorders. Despite all these shortcomings (which the cassette had none of), the 8-track tape player was the favored mode of portable music by non-discerning music consumers in the late sixties and early seventies. It was not until 8-tracks were exposed for what they were (junk), and a new wave of technology began to affect the tape industry, that the cassette tape began to emerge to the place it holds today. Improved tape formulations, Dolby noise reduction circuitry, and more sophisticated tape decks began to hit the market, and some outright competition began between rivaling companies--which in effect acted as its own promotion device. Despite the fact that big companies like 3M, Ampex, and Sony had been making cassette tapes for years, it wasn't until Maxell of Japan entered the cassette blank tape market in the early seventies, providing a quantum leap in tape quality, that momentum increased for the cassette. Another Japanese company, TDK, was soon to follow, and the race was on to see who would prevail. In the meantime, consumer awareness about the virtues of cassettes rose dramatically.

Maxell was the first to make a super-premium cassette tape, releasing its UDXL formulation on the market in late 1975. It proved that consumers were now sophisticated enough to appreciate the quality difference and willing to pay the extra money for it. In 1977, they followed with a UDXL-II chrome formulation which was similarly successful. By the end of the seventies, Maxell and TDK had become household words in the cassette blank tape market. All sorts of incentive promotions began to appear: "buy two, get one free" deals, free cassette cases if you bought five tapes at once, etc. In 1980, super-expensive metal tape was introduced, supposedly providing the ultimate in cassette tape technology.

The major record companies had come a long way in releasing practically everything they released on disc on pre-recorded cassette tapes at the same time. Sensing that the home taping market was depriving them of dollars that were rightfully theirs, the record companies embraced the cassette medium totally (having discontinued releasing 8-tracks), and record store owners found themselves opening entire cassette tape departments.

The final shot in the arm that effectively made cassettes a part of world audio culture was the development of two new battery-run cassette machines--the Sony Walkman and the so-called "ghetto blaster," both of which became available in the late seventies. Both served the same purpose essentially, although one was intrinsic and the other extrinsic: access to high-quality portable music. For many who had never experienced the enjoyment of music under headphones, the Sony Walkman was a new audio experience. Small, sophisticated headphone sets were developed, making the walkman the ideal jogger/sidewalk-surfer companion. It effectively shut out the outside world (which most people found hard to deal with anyway), and like the ghetto blaster, allowed people to create their own real-life soundtracks. Later Walkman models had AM/FM stereo radio components, adding even more diversity to what a user could program under the phones.

Whereas the compactness of walkman-type cassette units was facilitated by the lack of any external speakers, the ghetto blaster variety depended on them. A rule of thumb was quickly developed--the bigger the speakers, the louder they were played, the hipper it was to walk down the street with this mass of technology on one's shoulder (in some cases, the truly massive GBs came equipped with thick leather shoulder straps). Inner-urban areas were quick to pick up on this new form of diversion (what with breakdancing becoming a phenomenon on its own), but other music cultures quickly followed when a scaled-down version became available. Today, practically everyone owns some kind of cassette unit, cheap or expensive, big or small. Many people own more than one, having a deck for their own stereo system, a cassette player in the car, and possibly even an inexpensive walkman or ghetto blaster unit. The competition between companies making blank cassette tapes has only gotten more fierce, resulting in even higher-quality tape formulations--so improved that the difference between tape and source has been narrowed to almost nil.

Cassettes have so saturated the present culture that they are now in the process of becoming a medium in their own right--that is, cassette-only releases by musicians and artists for whom the cost of making a record is prohibitively high. TEAC and Fostex have developed "portastudios" which contain in one unit a miniature set of controls found in most conventional recording studios.

Clearly, the Age of the Cassette has arrived. It is an Everyman's medium that allows anyone with a small budget and a lot of imagination to achieve worthwhile results and express himself or herself in their chosen medium: music, prose, sound, or whatever. In addition, the compactness of the actual cassette has lent itself to being packaged in non-conventional ways in an attempt to individualize homemade products and get away from the homogeneous plastic cases that most cassettes are still sold in.

Given the cassette's versatility and uniqueness, one can only guess what future applications cassette tapes will be used for. Clearly, though, they have become an integral part of world audio culture as an incredibly viable communications instrument.

This article originally appeared in Sound Choice magazine.

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