Adventures In Audio

The Cassette Revival - So wrong on so many levels (video edition)

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So cassettes are becoming popular again. That's crazy. The cassette was a great convenience format, but terrible for sound quality. Cassettes have so many problems they should have been sealed in their death tomb, in a lead-lined coffin, six feet under for eternity, rather than rising zombie-like from the grave.

More revivals (all so wrong)...

Automated transcript

The cassette revival this is just so wrong on so many levels people are buying cassettes again has there been an outbreak of mass hysteria just so wrong on so many levels that's a stock phrase used by naysayers who generally can only think of one level to complain about but cassettes there's a whole multi-story car park here firstly a bit of temporal personal temporal perspective most people can remember the first album they bought i bought two on the same day please please me and with the beatles by the beatles their third album in the uk a hard day's night was yet to be released i bought both albums on five-inch reel-to-reel tape and yes that was a thing in those days and so yes i do remember when the cassette or compact cassette to give it its full title was invented and i also remember my surprise when the so-called music cassette came out i remember that from reading a review in tape recorder magazine of pink floyd's the piper at the gates of dawn their first album and so fast forwarding through history i bought my first proper cassette machine an akai gxc 510d which had the best specification i could find and afford owning a hi-fi stereocassette deck was popular and common particularly among students what do people do with their cassette decks well from today's perspective one might assume that they used them as the centerpiece of their home recording studio but no they copied music from the radio preferably fm stereo with a decent aerial or obliging friends records totally illegally of course and if i ever did this my memory of this topic has unfortunately been long since erased but to be honest the cassette was is and always will be a rubbish format which is why the cassette revival is so wrong on so many levels okay the cassette revival yes apparently sparked by star lords sony tps l2 walkman in marvel's guardian of the galaxy vol 2 people want to buy cassettes and presumably cassette decks or walkman type devices to play them on apparently the uk is on track for a hundred thousand cassettes to be bought by the end of this year i am presuming that this time there will be pre-recorded cassettes rather than blank and you can choose from artists such as robbie williams the who coldplay beck and more so so many levels on how many levels is this an insane idea quite a few cassettes have many problems that should have sealed their death in a lead coffin six feet under for eternity rather than rising zombie-like from the grave level 1 frequency response the cassette format has an inherently poor frequency response consider that a professional reel-to-reel tape is normally run at 15 inches per second that's ips or 30 inches per second for superior high frequency response cassettes run at 1 and 7 8 inches per second there's no way they're going to have a decent hf response actually there is by using chrome or metal tape rather than the standard iron oxide often known more simply as rust but the poor hf performance was baked into the format at its inception and the remedy of inventing different tape formulations led to other issues level two noise going back again to reel to reel tape professionally the tape is a quarter of an inch wide a quarter of an inch wide divided into two for the two channels of a stereo signal there are also guard bands at the edges and in the center that reduce the width slightly the cassette format uses tape that is a mere one eighth of an inch wide and that the and that is for two stereo tracks so that you can turn the tape over and play it in the other direction so each track is one quarter the width of pro tape this leads to noise noise is troublesome enough in a pro recorder and in the cassette format it is to my ears intolerable once again though there came a remedy but the cure didn't come without significant undesirable side effects level three wow and flutter to be honest while when flutter didn't trouble me too much with the cassette if you're not aware already wow and flutter is an instability in the speed of the tape that leads to pitch variations wow is a longer term variation flutter is faster but having said that digital audio suffers no wow and flutter at all and it is with digital audio that surely cassettes must now be compared level four tape tangling anyone who ever had a cassette deck will remember this at worst the tape will tangle around the mechanism and has to be cut free a milder tangle can be teased out but the tape will be creased and the sound will be mangled during this portion of the audio if you're lucky then the tape won't be tangled at all there's just a loop sticking out of the cassette when you remove it from the machine you can use a ballpoint pen to turn one of the spindles to take up the slack note that some modern day cassette enthusiasts seem to think that this is a positive hands-on feature you'll probably know by now that i disagree level five dirty heads whoever cleaned the heads of their cassette deck ever hardly anyone yet the heads of a professional tape recorder would be cleaned at least once a day and how much dirty brown stuff should you expect to come off onto your q-tip when you clean the heads with isopropyl alcohol none the heads should already be so clean that any residue is invisible so a cassette deck with dirty heads what's the problem well firstly high frequency response suffers high frequency response drops rapidly if the tape is spaced away from the record playback head by dirt there's a formula that involves d the spacing from the head lambda the wavelength of the signal and the constant of 55 but i forget the mathematical arrangement it was a long time ago secondly see i haven't finished yet is that dirty heads make tangling more likely oh dear level six the infamous dolby button ray dolby helped invent the video recorder yes really and he invented the dolby button too which nearly all hifi cassette decks had what the dolby type b noise reduction signal does is boost low level high frequency signals on record and cut them back again on replay it's a little more complex than that but that's the gist the wonderful thing is that cutting back low level signals on replay also cuts back the noise by as much as 10 decibels which is very well worth having but there's a problem well two firstly the dolby system in all of its types only works properly if the level that comes off the tape on playback is the same that went on during record this is why the pro dolby systems have lineup tones so that engineers can check but having unity gain as we call it depends on the tape recorder or cassette being correctly aligned to the tape that's in use in pro studios lineup is a vital part of everyday analog tape routine whoever aligned their cassette deck um i did so the result of the tape not being aligned correctly was that the derby system could play back with too much or too little high frequency energy and of course dirty heads can make this worse the upshot of this was that many casual users didn't like the dolby button and left it switched out they thought it sounded better that way

level i've lost count incompatible tapes this relates to some of the topics i've mentioned already but it was an issue that there were different types of tape iron oxide chromium and metal which required the deck to have different alignments electronically in theory either the deck itself could detect which type of tape was inserted or the user could push a button in practice it caused a lot of confusion furthermore different brands of the same type could require different alignments incorrect alignment would lead to incorrect frequency response particularly at high frequencies and in correct operation of the derby system level no it's another level of i nearly forgot this one but azimuth azimuth is the orientation is the is is i'm watching myself on the screen it's the orientation of the tape head with respect to the tape the gap in the magnet of the tape head must be at 90 degrees to the direction of to the direction of tape travel in any one cassette deck correct azimuth wouldn't matter much because the same head is used for both recording and playback but record a cassette on a machine with incorrect azimuth and play it back on one with correct or simply different azimuth and there would be frequency response issues galore okay i'm exhausted and i imagine you are too and there are most likely other problems i've that i've forgotten about but surely any potential cassette revivalist will realize by now that they should be listening to spotify apple music or any of the other wonderful outlets for digital music with none of the faults i've recovered one more thing however it wouldn't be right to leave this topic without paying respect to design engineers who worked incredibly hard to put in an enormous degree of creativity to make some cassette decks that really could challenge pro reel-to-reel i'm thinking primarily of nakamichi if you want to treat yourself to views of some amazing audio engineering go to that video site it's called you you telly you you you thingy what's it or other and type into the search box nakamichi dragon cassette believe me you'll like it a big thank you to writers for the guardian newspaper zoe wood and ben beaumont thomas they inspired this article i'm david mellor course director of audio masterclass if you're still listening now you're crazy.

Thursday March 10, 2022

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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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