Musically Musing: The
Resurrection Of The Cassette
Original image Yohan Creemer and used under a Creative Commons license.
First, Audiophiles Realized How Great Vinyl Had Been And Now Everything Old Is Turning New Once Again As Cassette Tapes Are Finding Devoted Followers Thanks To Their Low Cost And Ease Of Duplicating
By Mitchell Hillman
Special for Modern Times Magazine
Sept. 30, 2013 — There was a time when it was a novelty for a recording studio to become an instrument unto itself.
But then visionaries like Phil Spector and George Martin — and later Brian Wilson — came along. Within the span of a decade, the creation of pocket symphonies within the realm of pop and rock ’n roll was a ‘holy grail.’ What followed were a handful of masterpieces that would nearly be impossible to reproduce live and in-concert.
With every great advent there are consequences and unfortunately, the pursuit of this kind of technical precision eventually led to the horrors of prog rock where mathematicians without passion would spend an entire side of an album noodling on the newest kind of keyboard to impress mainly themselves. Worse, these masturbatory productions were lauded as brilliant.
Luckily, punk came around with an aim at killing these self-serving exhibition atrocities.
One of the aesthetics of punk — or rather a necessity — was that it was decidedly DIY and often superbly lo-fi in it’s delivery method, much more so than vinyl. And, the medium that helped launched the age of punk was the audio cassette. Rick Wakeman must have lost his mind the first time he ever heard a lo-fi punk recording on a cassette, if he ever heard one.
What’s Old Is New Again
If there is one technology that I never thought would return (aside from the mini-disc, the 8-Track, BETA and the RCA Picture Disc) it would have to be the audio cassette. Until a couple years ago, I thought these things were dead. Admittedly, I still have hundreds of them (I’m not sure why), but I’m not entirely confident I have anything that will play them. When the compact disc was released for mass audiences it was at a pivotal time when my musical interests had shifted quickly from classic rock staples to early alternative, punk and indie artists. This made it easy for me to miss the fact that CD quality at the time was total rubbish.
After all, the sound quality was better than cassette (YEAH! No tape hiss!), but if I had ever heard the albums on vinyl that I was buying onto CD, I would have realized the age old truth that yes, nothing beats vinyl. It’s nothing to fight about, it’s science—it’s not up for discussion. It wasn’t until many years later when I was replacing classics in my collection on CD that I realized the flat transfer horror that was digital technology. So it’s easy to see, why I never thought cassettes would come back. Compact discs have greatly improved and vinyl is still king. I believe it all comes down to charming aesthetics, cool kitsch and a bit of nostalgia.
If you cut to the 1980s, even amidst the release of the CD, cassettes were king and so too was the return to lo-fi recordings. After the studio precision of gutless, passionless records for nearly a decade dominating the record business or vapid synth heavy minimalist recordings with equally less heart, it was little wonder that kids in the suburbs decided to pick up cheap 4-track recorders and begin bands and labels once more in their garages.
Labels like SST, TwinTone, Blast First, Dischord, Sammich, Amphetamine Reptile and eventually Sub-Pop, began to sprout up everywhere. Many of these labels would also issue “cassette only” compilations or add exclusive bonus tracks to the cassette release. Music, to me, has always been about the passion, the urgency and the feel to me — in fact, anytime anyone starts to go on about “production values” and say things like “I’d love this album if it was produced better, perhaps if they remixed and remastered it” my eyes start to glaze over.
When I think of my youth and the anthems that ignited my soul, it’s songs like “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag or Husker Du’s “Real World” or anything by Minor Threat — in short, some of the shittiest recordings ever laid to wax (or cassette), but brilliant in their visceral delivery.
I’d rather have a lo-fi masterpiece of pure feeling delivered to my ears than a technically precise, beautifully-designed mass package. So too, it seems, would a lot of other people out there, as suddenly, lo-fi recordings and cassette collectives are coming back in style and that’s music to my ears.
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