Happy Birthday, Cassette!

Trash or treasue?

The venerable cassette tape is 50 years old.

According to sources, it was on Friday the 30th of August 1963 when Mr. Lou Ottens of Dutch consumer electronics giant Philips introduced the EL-3300 “Pocket-Recorder” and a new magnetic tape format at the IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung) in West Berlin.

The “Compact Cassette” would eventually go on to revolutionise the way we experienced and shared music.

Although this was by no means the first cartridged tape (RCA, for instance, had already introduced a format in 1958 that could best be described as looking like a double-sided VHS tape), it did cause a sensation on account of its size and ease of use. In order to win an impending format war against Grundig and at the behest of Sony, Philips decided to license it to other manufacturers free of charge. Everyone jumped on board, and soon this re-recordable and robust little cartridge became a dominant medium.

EL 3300 Pocket-Recorder: 120 Hz to 6 kHz

Use it to record phone conversations!

The first pre-recorded cassettes (“MusiCassettes”) appeared in 1966.

Since the cassette was originally designed with portability and lo-fi applications like voice dictation in mind, improvements in magnetic tape formulation and further developments like Dolby Noise Reduction eventually allowed tapes to go seriously Hi-Fi.

Sony captures more music...

Usurping 8-track players, tape decks became standard accessories in cars by the end of the decade, and when Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979, things really took off: Music got portable and truly personal. Mix tapes flourished. People began to listen to books while commuting to work. Underground and pirate labels were established, unsigned bands and artists had a cheap medium to record their demos onto, “forbidden” recordings could get smuggled in and out of countries with oppressive regimes. Entire industries and subcultures formed, giving rise to recorded sermons, self-help tapes and fostering techno rave mixes. Players were cheap and ubiquitous; music could now be shared.

Hip-hop would probably never have happened if it weren’t for tapes.

Did Terry Venables support music piracy?

During the decades that followed, the cassette played permanent second fiddle to the primary audio carriers of the day: first the LP, then the CD. According to Nielsen SoundScan, in 1993 as many cassettes were sold as were compact discs (the latter, co-incidentally, also co-developed by Lou Ottens). 1997 still saw global sales of some two billion blank tapes but numbers fell sharply thereafter as the new millennium dawned and widespread use of computers, the internet, and the MP3 ushered in an all-digital era.

Try as I might, I personally couldn’t warm up to recordable CDs as a viable personal music recording medium in the same way as to the old analogue cassette. Each tape type, each manufacturer — they were all different. The CD-R lacked warmth and personality.

Another reason I feel this way is because by then I had left my carefree teenage years and therefore associate them with a very different period in life — as do most people who still wax nostalgic about tapes. Observers might notice that those who do collect, document and discuss these remnants are usually in the 35-55 age group, and it is perhaps not surprising that a much younger demographic has re-discovered the cassette and now re-purposes and re-cycles these “found tapes” as media for other works of art.

They’ve taken re-mixing to extremes.

Playback loop

Then, of course, there are innumerable experimental and “noise” labels where the cassette is often as much a part of the work of art as the recordings themselves, bearing testimony that its re-usability and resilience were as much a factor of its success as the detail that a cassette fits snugly into human hands and pockets like no other sound carrier.

Unlike digital media, analogue is tangible. A cassette has character. It has charm.

Happy 50th Birthday, Cassette! Here’s to many more.

Images via hmvh, flickr, tumblr and other forgotten sources

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