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Author Topic: Audio cassettes still alive  (Read 4848 times)

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Audio cassettes still alive
« on: July 28, 2016, 10:26:48 pm »
For those who are younger and have only experienced CD's, the rebirth of vinyl records and the arrival of digital music downloads, did you know that back in the 80's and 90's, music was also available on audio cassettes and recorded on tape? There was even an older format prior that called 8-track (which I never experienced myself).

Tapes are known to often sound like crap compared to vinyls or even CDs, because of the tape deteriorating over time and the hissing sound that cassettes typically made during playback, but with the right storage, recording equipment and cassette player, they actually didn't sound as bad as what many people experienced. Most people just used those cheap $30 boomboxes or recorded music from the radio on cheap cassettes from the dollar store. Or they just didn't take care of their tapes carefully.

Back in the days most people bought cassettes instead of vinyls and CD's, though, because they were much cheaper. I'm personally not a big fan of tapes because they tend to deteriorate more over time but now it seems that tapes are making a comeback and there's still a factory producing them:



Some Bandcamp artists still sell them too. I'm curious if they'll eventually become popular like vinyls? That would be kinda weird O.O


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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2016, 02:06:01 am »
Some Bandcamp artists still sell them too. I'm curious if they'll eventually become popular like vinyls? That would be kinda weird O.O

Haha, that would be awesome. :P Cassettes were a major, nostalgic part of my life growing up (VHS, too, for better or worse). I stuck with them a long time before really moving to CDs, mainly because I could record on them (which I did a lot of), and burning CDs didn't become an affordable thing until many years later. Also, until portable players that could play MP3s written on CD-ROM format discs came along, tapes could still hold more audio than CDs. Finally, cassettes were more compact (I could fit the player in my pants pocket), and I still consider them more rugged. You can throw one across the room and it'll likely be fine, but it doesn't take much to scratch a CD or DVD to the point where it won't play properly.

Indeed, cassettes can actually sound pretty good with the right equipment. Technological advances like chrome/metal tape and analog noise reduction are pretty impressive considering that when cassettes were invented they were intended for nothing more than just-adequate-quality voice dictation. On the other hand, decent-quality tapes and players tended to be fairly uncommon and expensive, and it became worse in later years when cassettes were in decline and pretty much the only stuff you could buy anymore was all garbage. The same can be said about VHS to a large extent.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #2 on: August 20, 2016, 05:46:01 am »
If I had a lot of tapes I would probably buy a tape deck that got good reviews and isn't too expensive. I bet the shipping would be expensive, though, plus there is no guarantee that it's not worn out. As for music cassettes we went with them because they were much cheaper than CDs. When I was kid, CDs costed over $30-40 while cassettes were $15-20. Also with a decent boombox the quality wasn't that bad, after all, unless we recorded radio stations. But of course it didn't compare to CD's.

I disagree that cassettes held more audio, though, unless you are talking about the ones with thinner tape. Regular tapes ran for 60 minutes, while a CD can store 80 (or more in MP3 format). But yeah, there are cassettes with longer lenght, although the tape is lower quality.

And yeah I agree about VHS too. It seems like when it got less popular they no longer cared about making high-quality players. That said, it's not like VHS tape quality from movies you bought in stores was that bad. DVD was better, but two years ago I took a look at my 1995 copy of Mortal Kombat and put it in an old used VCR: There was no artifact, no hiss, no static, no warping. However, on an LCD TV there seemed to be interlacing issues.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #3 on: August 20, 2016, 01:16:52 pm »
I disagree that cassettes held more audio, though, unless you are talking about the ones with thinner tape. Regular tapes ran for 60 minutes, while a CD can store 80 (or more in MP3 format). But yeah, there are cassettes with longer lenght, although the tape is lower quality.

Yeah, I was considering the longer tapes. Though ones over 90 minutes tended to be more fragile and had to make some sound quality compromises due to the thinner oxide layer, I seemed not to have many issues with them in casual use (though maybe I just got lucky). 90-minute tapes, on the other hand, were extremely common and still had good quality and reliability, IMO. Any half-decent tape deck would have been optimized to handle C90s well, at the very least, though use of anything longer was often discouraged.

I may be mistaken, but I think 80-minute CDs came a little bit later in time, and they were made by tightening up the CD specification tolerances to the most precise limits and assuming the players' abilities were at least average to above average or so. Earlier in time, 74 minutes was considered the reasonable limit.

Quote
And yeah I agree about VHS too. It seems like when it got less popular they no longer cared about making high-quality players. That said, it's not like VHS tape quality from movies you bought in stores was that bad. DVD was better, but two years ago I took a look at my 1995 copy of Mortal Kombat and put it in an old used VCR: There was no artifact, no hiss, no static, no warping. However, on an LCD TV there seemed to be interlacing issues.

I have a sort of horror story about the last DVD/VCR combo I bought. :) It didn't last long at all. They cut costs by actually managing to eliminate the tape-end sensors and just wind the tape very slowly until it wouldn't wind anymore. But the firmware was so buggy that it frequently got stuck at the end forever until manually stopped, even when the reels were obviously not spinning (which the FW should have detected and shut down). Having the spinning video head rubbing the same spot of tape all night after hitting rewind and going to bed—great for VCR and tape health! I was amazed the tape wasn't powder by the time I found out.

I stopped using it when it started damaging tapes not even a year, probably, since I got it (tape kept falling off the internal guides and rollers in fast wind). Too bad it was so shoddily designed, because it had something like three or four cue/review speeds, and reverse(!) playback, which was kind of cool and which I didn't have in my previous VCRs.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #4 on: August 30, 2016, 02:30:25 am »
If I recall correctly, the thinner tapes had higher treble, right? I forgot. I have one of those and the sound quality is not bad compared to dollar store tapes, but still not great. I guess it depends also of the player you use, since some tend to eat tape easier and it's more likely to happen with tapes that are longer than 60 minutes. Back then I was also told that 90 minutes tapes are tolerable on that point, but to avoid 120+ at all cost. I also never saw a tape longer than 60 minutes being used by a commercial artist, but maybe it happened with compilations?

And yeah I recall CDs often being 75 minutes or so, but later I noticed that they became slightly longer.

Also wow your DVD/VCR combo was bad O.O. I would have been a bit scared of the noise if I had this happen to me. As for tape quality, the quality usually seemed to drop when you recorded stuff over previously-recorded stuff on a tape then repeated the process over and over. Eventually it looked and sounded like this:

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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #5 on: August 30, 2016, 02:45:24 am »
Reminds me of the guy who uploaded the same video on YouTube over and over 1000 times. At the end, it looks like nothing at all... Heh, lossy compression, never use that when editing videos.

Back on audio cassettes, my brother still have some albums on that medium so he can listen to them in his dad's car... Fun fact: cassette decks came with cars until 2004, so most 12+-year-old cars are still using cassettes and you would to either buy an adapter to plug your audio device in with a jack or even via Bluetooth (yes, that's a thing) or just replace the deck with the usual CD player.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #6 on: August 30, 2016, 04:12:33 am »
If I recall correctly, the thinner tapes had higher treble, right? I forgot. I have one of those and the sound quality is not bad compared to dollar store tapes, but still not great. I guess it depends also of the player you use, since some tend to eat tape easier and it's more likely to happen with tapes that are longer than 60 minutes. Back then I was also told that 90 minutes tapes are tolerable on that point, but to avoid 120+ at all cost. I also never saw a tape longer than 60 minutes being used by a commercial artist, but maybe it happened with compilations?

I'm not sure about what the sound quality difference was (I never noticed myself), but I've read on the tapeheads.net forum that it's lower (theoretically, at least).

I always hated the players that used the crude method of auto-stop which just detects tape tension at the end, because those would not stop when the tape started getting eaten (and I sometimes found them unreliable in general). Ones that actually detect take-up reel rotation would at least usually shut themselves off as soon as the tape started spilling. (Auto-reverse decks could be a problem, though, because they tend to just keep reversing over and over nonstop which makes the situation even worse.)

I'd also read that the longer, thinner tapes are more likely to have problems if the tape is started, stopped, and fast wound a lot as opposed to just being played continuously.

I think I've seen some commercial tapes slightly longer than 60 minutes (maybe around 70 or so), but not much longer than that.

Quote
Also wow your DVD/VCR combo was bad O.O. I would have been a bit scared of the noise if I had this happen to me.

The noise wasn't actually unusual in that case. But speaking of noise! I forgot to mention that the winding mechanism sucked. In fast-forward the motor was too weak and would easily stall. And if it did, you could hear some rather nasty sounds of gear teeth slipping and grinding past each other inside the VCR mechanism. The same problem occasionally happened with an older Sony VCR I had which was apparently actually built by the same manufacturer (very similar UI and menu interface, but at least had proper tape sensors :P). The gear clashing there was very loud and sudden, and that did freak me out the first time it happened. It didn't help that the VCR still wouldn't detect a fault and would happily sit there trying to kill itself.

Quote
As for tape quality, the quality usually seemed to drop when you recorded stuff over previously-recorded stuff on a tape then repeated the process over and over.

My tapes would often get horizontal dropout lines pretty quickly. A lot of them would get crinkled and creased by crappy VCRs causing a breakup or “vertical smear” effect where many scanlines could not be read from the tape.

Hi-Fi audio could also be a headache. It sounded great (practically CD-quality) when it worked, but proper tracking and noise-free playback was often impossible on non-matching VCR models, especially in SLP/EP mode. Unfortunately, conventional non-Hi-Fi audio used the same method as audio cassettes and actually sounded a lot worse because the tape speed is much slower (and possibly also because the tape formulation had to be optimized for video rather than audio frequencies, though I'm not sure if this made a difference).
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #7 on: August 31, 2016, 02:55:34 am »
Yeah I always got worried when a tape reached the end that it would take too much tension to be stopped, especially during fast forward. I always thought eventually the tape would snap or something.

On a side note, because I was interested recently in learning how vinyl records worked, I also watched a few videos of how 8-track tapes worked. Those are really weird. The sound quality seemed worse than regular tapes too and it seems like I'll pass on 8-tracks lol. But it was interesting nonetheless, because tracks are placed side by side on the tape, so you can switch songs as you see fit, and the tape seems to loop endlessly. I didn't check how betamax worked, though.

Also, laserdiscs, which seems sometimes as good as DVD in quality but can suffer from laser rot so you get weird artifacts like this (which makes laserdisc look like an analog format lol):



Apparently it depended of the manufacturer of the disc itself and they deteriorated over time. Some has to be avoided by collectors as a result.

Also apparently they tried to introduce a vinyl movie format in the 80's but it failed.

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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #8 on: September 02, 2016, 08:07:54 pm »
Yeah I always got worried when a tape reached the end that it would take too much tension to be stopped, especially during fast forward. I always thought eventually the tape would snap or something.

I believe that was part of the reason compact cassettes had the plastic leader (clear section of tape) at the beginning and end—that plastic was a bit thicker and stronger than the tape itself, so it added some strength at the stress points.

Most microcassettes seem to lack these leaders, having recordable tape all the way up to the reel hub, and I never felt comfortable using them. I've seen some tapes get worn to the point at the very end where they really did look like they were about to break apart. I actually accidentally snapped one at the end by trying to tighten up the reel by hand and pulling just a bit too hard. (I got lucky: I didn't happen to pull the broken end all the way back inside the cassette, which didn't have screws for disassembly, and was able to very carefully pull it back out and splice it back together.)

VHS cassettes have clear leaders, but they're very short, and they're designed for the VCR to detect with a light sensor and immediately stop before starting to pull on the tape from the reel. The newer ones with super-fast rewind speeds have to start slowing down early enough so that the tape can be gently stopped in time. I actually had a VCR snap a tape off the reel in rewind by somehow miscalculating where the end was and hitting it at too fast a speed, but it only happened once in all the years I used them. They're usually pretty reliable at doing this. This was a junk tape that was probably pretty much at the end of its life and in rather weird condition, though. (I still took it apart and repaired it anyway, just for the learning experience. :P)

Quote
On a side note, because I was interested recently in learning how vinyl records worked, I also watched a few videos of how 8-track tapes worked. Those are really weird. The sound quality seemed worse than regular tapes too and it seems like I'll pass on 8-tracks lol. But it was interesting nonetheless, because tracks are placed side by side on the tape, so you can switch songs as you see fit, and the tape seems to loop endlessly. I didn't check how betamax worked, though.

I had a few 8-tracks at one time when I was young (mostly just to play around with). I'm not as familiar with them regarding sound quality. I didn't notice much difference from compact cassettes, but I also didn't have as much of an ear for sound quality at the time.

They would have been annoying to me because they were impossible to rewind (other than playing the whole track). Some units had a fast-forward option, but I read it wasn't generally very fast and could cause the tapes to jam. 8-tracks seemed to have quite a reputation for being unreliable and prone to jamming.

They're kind of weird if you take one apart and look inside. The tape is wound all on one reel, and it gets pulled out from the center at the hub, goes through the business end of the tape, and then back around to the outside edge of the same reel.

I also once had a record player and some disks, too, but most of them sounded awful because they were in terrible condition. :P

Quote
Also, laserdiscs, which seems sometimes as good as DVD in quality but can suffer from laser rot so you get weird artifacts like this (which makes laserdisc look like an analog format lol):

They were an analog format—that's why the discs were so huge. ;) They didn't have the benefit of digital compression like DVDs, and they took up a lot of space, probably in part because they stored a much higher resolution signal than VHS and maybe also since the spiral on the flat disc was one-dimensional whereas analog videotapes had spinning heads that could record on a 2D surface (the tape's full width and length, by writing tightly-packed diagonal stripes across it). That said, I'm pretty sure it was far more space-efficient than storing fully uncompressed digital video would have been, though. :P

There were a lot of other weird and interesting video formats that never made it. There was CED, which was a video disk that looked like a vinyl record and even used a stylus like one. There was also Video 2000, which had video tapes that resembled audio cassettes that could even be turned over and used on the other side, and it had some cool ahead-of-its-time features like being able to pause and fast-scan without noise bars on the screen and not needing a tracking adjustment. But it failed because Beta and VHS were already taking hold and the design had significant technical and compatibility issues.

Quote
Also apparently they tried to introduce a vinyl movie format in the 80's but it failed.

Ah yeah, that could have been CED or something similar.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #9 on: September 13, 2016, 07:07:37 am »
I always thought that the plastic at the ends of the tape was in case some tape content gets lost during recording but that didn't make much sense lol considering the recording wouldn't be able to reach those ends either way. :P

Personally I always used boomboxes or walkmans with slow fast forward, so I never got worried as much about tape destruction, but I once had a tape recorder with a mic and it fast forwarded so fast that near the end I took no chance and stopped early lol.

And yeah about VCR's I noticed that newer ones slowed down when reaching the tape's end, which is a good thing. One thing I always wondered, though, about VHS tapes, is if it was dangerous for the tape if you pressed rewind while the tape was playing rather than pressing stop then rewind, or rewinding then fast forwarding back and forth. As for VCRs destroying my tapes I never saw that happen to any owned by myself or my mom, the only time a VCR failed it just stopped powering on and the time wasn't showing up at all. It might just have been the cord.

ALso lol I thought laserdisc was digital or at least something close, due to how they seemed to look like CDs rather than vinyl records. Did they have grooves or something? Also analog is a good thing if recorded with no quality loss or minimal one, because it often results into much better quality than DVD or even blu-ray sometimes. ALso, for people who use rabbit ears with a digital converter, the image quality is much better than some set top cable/satellite boxes because the signal isn't compressed. But the signal has to be good.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #10 on: September 13, 2016, 07:15:57 am »
There's something about slamming a cassette into the player and hearing it go click, and it coming on instantly, especially when you're in a car
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #11 on: September 13, 2016, 07:26:10 am »
Yeah true. I wonder when they stopped making cars with cassette players by the way?

As for myself, one thing I liked is how the song started playing instantly. But seriously, having to find the song was a chore lol.
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Offline Travis

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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #12 on: September 13, 2016, 10:12:03 am »
Quote
Personally I always used boomboxes or walkmans with slow fast forward, so I never got worried as much about tape destruction, but I once had a tape recorder with a mic and it fast forwarded so fast that near the end I took no chance and stopped early lol.

Some tape recorders with high-speed playback that I've had or used could be put in high speed while in rewind, making the tape rewind super fast, which was kind of cool when I was in a hurry. :P

Quote
And yeah about VCR's I noticed that newer ones slowed down when reaching the tape's end, which is a good thing. One thing I always wondered, though, about VHS tapes, is if it was dangerous for the tape if you pressed rewind while the tape was playing rather than pressing stop then rewind, or rewinding then fast forwarding back and forth. As for VCRs destroying my tapes I never saw that happen to any owned by myself or my mom, the only time a VCR failed it just stopped powering on and the time wasn't showing up at all. It might just have been the cord.

Ideally, VCRs are designed to treat the tape well when switching modes. Even when you press buttons really fast, the CPU remembers all the pending mechanical operations and finishes them properly in order, which is a lot better than the annoying DVD players which just flat out ignore you if you press something while they're busy. 9_9 But like all mechanical devices, there's always a chance that something can go wrong, and I would guess that when the tape is stopped and started or changed direction often, the probability of failure goes up a tiny bit further each time. The vast majority of the time everything's fine even if you do it a lot. But eventually something breaks someday and you can end up in a mess. Rubber idler wheels or pinch rollers go bad after a while, a belt can break, etc. I've had things like this happen, and then the tape gets stuck in the VCR with the tape eaten because the firmware tries to safely reel it back in but can't because the mechanism broke and there's nothing the code can do about it. I've also occasionally seen the tape snag or come off the guides in fast-forward/rewind playback and get damaged, usually from a crappy-quality late-model VCR or one where mechanical parts are getting loose or going bad in some way. With the required precision and complexity being so high, it's kind of amazing they're actually as reliable as they are most of the time, sort of like computer hard drives.

Some people feel that the picture-playback rewind/fast-forward is hard on the video heads. From what I understand, though, the video heads are already spinning so fast relative to the tape that the actual linear tape speed past the heads (whether it's normal playback or high speed) makes little difference. Fast-forwarding for ten minutes, therefore, probably wouldn't wear the heads out much more than ten minutes of normal playback.

Stopping the tape before rewinding, though, makes rewind much faster since it doesn't have to show the video at the same time. Older VCRs would completely unload the tape from the heads and wind it back into the cassette for this, which took a few seconds. Newer VCRs usually leave it wrapped around the heads the entire time which would seem harder on everything, but presumably they relieve enough tension on the tape to make it reasonable. (It actually does take some careful engineering to make such fast rewind with the tape fully loaded workable; it's not likely done just to save costs because it's technically a lot easier to just retract the tape first.)

Manufacturers of those tape rewinders would often claim you should buy their devices to save wear and tear on the VCR. But some of those rewinders can be so cheaply made that they often are a lot harder on the tape than the VCR is. I've heard that some people have had rewinders crinkle or otherwise damage the entire tape by the edge dragging on something or snap off the tape completely because they don't stop automatically just before reaching the end like VCRs normally do. Given that rewinding and fast-forwarding happens only a few minutes at a time, I never worried about it much. IMO, normal playback causes the most wear and tear simply because that's what a typical VCR spends the vast majority of its lifetime doing.

Quote
ALso lol I thought laserdisc was digital or at least something close, due to how they seemed to look like CDs rather than vinyl records. Did they have grooves or something? Also analog is a good thing if recorded with no quality loss or minimal one, because it often results into much better quality than DVD or even blu-ray sometimes. ALso, for people who use rabbit ears with a digital converter, the image quality is much better than some set top cable/satellite boxes because the signal isn't compressed. But the signal has to be good.

I believe it was an optical spiral just like CD and DVD, though the reflectivity (signal) would vary in an analog way sort of like grayscale, rather than being coded on-and-off “bits” like binary. It might have been sort of like the analog optical sound track on a lot of old movie films, which was a strip at the edge of the film that had dark and light spots according to the sound waves and was “read” with a light bulb shining through it toward a light sensor inside the projector.

Yeah, theoretically analog can be more accurate than digital because you don't have to “round” the signal to the nearest integer or take samples of it; you can just record it “as it is”. The drawback is that all the noise/distortion gets perfectly recorded, too. :P And because you can't do fancy math and bit manipulation like with digital data, it's harder to separate and remove the noise.

Quote
As for myself, one thing I liked is how the song started playing instantly. But seriously, having to find the song was a chore lol.

What I liked about tapes was that they remembered your place for next time you listen to them. Some disc players did this, too, but not all, and it only worked on that particular player, and they could only remember a certain number of discs at a time. Also, tapes keep their place even if the player loses power. :P

And yeah, CDs could be annoyingly slow to load, and MP3 discs were worse because they had a CD-ROM filesystem to load (several if there were multiple burning sessions). DVDs also, though some players are a lot faster than others. (My video recorder that can record to an internal HDD and copy to DVD is particularly slow at loading discs, sometimes as long as a minute or more. Really annoying when I need to search for something or check a bunch of discs really fast.)

But finding songs is much easier for sure with modern stuff. And I appreciate that the most, though I have to admit that for some reason there's something I find nostalgic sometimes about waiting for tapes to wind. I have a strange fascination with watching the tape counter change at varying speed through the tape depending on the mechanical setup, so much so that I sat down and worked out the geometry formulas and made simulation programs on my calcs. :P I can enter the sizes of the reels, thickness of tape, etc., and see what the effect is with different speeds and types of tape movement. I can start a simulation and a real tape player at the same time and have the counter readings and tape positions stay in fairly good sync.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #13 on: September 13, 2016, 10:02:05 pm »
Only being around since the turn of the millennium, I can't say I've personally experienced these tapes, but listening to 80s stuff nigh-constantly has a way of bringing you to them on occasion. One of the bands i listen to even released special "Cassetted" single mixes that are really fun to listen to.
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Re: Audio cassettes still alive
« Reply #14 on: October 03, 2016, 08:36:24 pm »
@Travis to be fair I am not a big fan of computers or machines processing all the keys I inputted after it's no longer busy, unless there is a way to abort the key input string. Otherwise this can lead to accidents. On the other hand, missed keypresses would be very annoying (see the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition and TI-84 Plus CE on-calc editors). >.<

On a side note I wonder which VCR's used to play the sound while fast-forwarding? I recall hearing those before but mostly in movies. And yeah @WholeWheatBagels I remember going on Bandcamp and discovering that some bands were still selling cassettes. I never took any chance, though, because I was always worried they would record them by themselves using cheap boomboxes or cheap cassettes.
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