Cassette Tape, technique, engineering, and creative processes

Here’s a spot to discuss the use of cassette tape as part of your process, including

  • Creative uses of cassette
  • Influence of cassette on your creative process
  • Specific engineering insights and first-hand experiences

If you are looking for photo gallery of specific machines and mechanical/maintenance etc check the Tape Gear topic.

To start off, I have a question for other tape junkies:

I heard somewhere along the way that in multitrack cassette recorders like the 4-track and 8-track machines that the “inside” tracks (track 4 and 5 on a Portastudio 8 track, for example) were in some way “better” to record on, because the edges of the tape were thinner or more prone to the variances in tape quality.

Anyone know if this is true or not or have some experience on it? I’m about to configure a patchbay for a Syncasette 238 I just added and am wondering if I should set up my patchbay all confusing-like but take advantage of the center channels for when I set up the normalling.

tldr; Center stripes of a multitrack cassette—better than the edge stripes?

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I’ve also got a tape question: are there any sources for proper high quality professional metal (type iv) recording media anymore for cassette distribution? It seems everything readily available is type i or ii.

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I haven’t seen Metal or IV in many years. Type II stock ran out last year or the year before. NAC and a company in France are making fresh Type I.

I have luck scavenging old lots of cassettes and finding some on Type II—usually non-commercial vanity projects.


Brand new type ll…

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I think the tape inside that shell is NOS

That would make sense in more than one way.

Especially with smaller systems, the head contact is tighter towards the middle of the tape. Depending on head material, normal wear is more pronounced towards the edges (source).

If for some reason the transport’s pinch-roller is tilted from the capstan (because of some mechanical problem or just a bad bout of dirt), then the tape itself tends to shift towards the edge of the cassette shell. And it could be that the heads have corrective “brackets” on them so azimuth still holds, that still leaves the risk of friction near the pinch roller, wrinkling the edge. (I’ve spent too many hours messing about with a horizontal transport cassette deck at home to know this)

With regards to head transformer effect, around the edges of the heads you could expect that to be somewhat different, also you’d want the sync stripe (i expect that signal is loud) to sit away from more delicate content, at least a couple of tracks away.

Is there a big difference? It depends on the technical design of the machine in question. It could be big, though I’d expect not so much. But once you know how the original sounded, it would stick out (until you let go). Patch up your machine as it makes sense to you, why optimise it before you know what you’re optimising for (or away from)?

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That’s a shame. There’s very little difference between type i and ii in terms of snr and noise compared to type iv. They sound strident and tinny to my ears by comparison. Type iv has a little more of the feel of good studio tape in my experience.

Noise is ~3dB lower on Type II tape, and maximum output without noticeable distortion is 3-4dB higher on Type IV than II. With noise reduction on, these differences add up. Listening closely, Chrome sounds a little thin because below 2.5kHz its saturation point is lower. Metal tape sounds amazing with Dolby S, though that takes some of the finest detail away.

I’ve had luck finding Type IV unopened cassettes on Ebay but they do cost. CrO2 seems to be a reasonable compromise.

I have two Tascam Portastudio 424 decks (mkii and mkiii), and I haven’t noticed any differences between inner and outer tracks. Maybe it would be noticeable with 8 track machines. I’m also not looking for small differences–my use of cassettes is specifically for the quality they lend to clean material. The biggest quality differences I’ve noted have been with different decks–and the quality can vary widely here because of aging components, wear, and alignment/calibration.

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On open reel machines you would often not put any crucial material on the outside tracks as they were more prone to wow and flutter, but I don’t remember on cassette 4-track.

I think it’s funny that 4 tracks and cassettes in general have become so en vogue. I remember back in high school, like around 1992 or 1993, that’s all we had to record on, and we’d struggle so hard to get something to sound good. As soon as the first digital standalone recorders came along we couldn’t wait to get rid of those crappy 4 tracks. Ive kept mine from back then, because I have so many unmixed tapes that I wouldn’t be able to listen to without the machine. But when I started seeing everyone like Hainbach and Lightbath posting 4 track stuff on their Instagrams I tried mine again, and honestly it still sounds not so great to me. I just find it funny what has the allure for the past for each new generation. I’m sure all those people into DX-7s in the 80’s couldn’t wait to get rid of their analog stuff and it was the same for them.

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Funny you mention that. I never thought cassettes sounded that great, when they were at the peak of their popularity. I never intended to get a cassette recorder until I realized how much I was digging modules with tape-like effects, like Magneto. After getting a couple Marantz field recorders—I loved the quality of recorded modular material played back alongside live modular. That lead me to experimenting with cassette multitracking-which I have to admit is a ton of fun, and can sound great when used judiciously. The Tascams are sort of lo-fi, but the EQ controls on the channel strip are great for shaping sounds-especially that parametric mid.

I remember recording on them in the late 80s and early 90s too. But really got into the different artifacts even then. I absolutely appreciate digital but there’s quite a lot that I love about the creative process involved with tape as well as techniques and creative uses.

My first introduction to music of my own choosing was through recording things onto cassette, both from the microphone that was built into my first “portable” deck (I never used it with batteries but if I’d wanted to spend £10 on size Cs I theoretically could have done) and from my midi system (I remember when “midi” meant the size between “mini” and “hifi” in terms of my home stereo… and nothing else).

I had no concept of noise at that stage - I just loved that I could record things - any things! I would record the radio or TV and then as I got older I would collect albums on Nth generation dubs. I had no idea about levels (my unit had no meter) so I would cook the recordings and that, along with the hiss of cheap tapes and the fact that they were tapes of tapes of tapes, became something I subconsciously identified as part of the sound. Add in late 80s/90s bitcrushing from low bitrate samplers and there was a clear aesthetic that became embedded in my mind. Factor in the high end roll off that came with my “tone” knob or “bass boost” on my Walkman and my whole sonic approach was cast in bronze before I’d even got half way through secondary school.

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My partner recently gave a dictaphone with a line-in that she used to use for making voice notes at school. I’ve been wandering around recording anything and everything on it - without much regard for if I’m taping over something. Now already when I listen back to the tape it’s a fun record of the past few days, a combination of sounds that instantly make me remember what I was doing - and others that I have no recollection of. I’m finding it quite similar to using w/ in eurorack.

I don’t have much nostalgia for tape as a medium, but the portability and instantaneity of the a dictaphone is really really nice.

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Yeah its funny you mention Magneto, because I don’t think it actually sounds like real tape at all, it sounds kinda fake to me, I sold it for that reason. I had a Fulltone Solid State Tape Echo for a few years and I got pretty acquanted with that sound, and Magneto sounded very little like it. Yeah I think its casettes I really don’t like because the signal to noise ratio is so bad. You are cramming 4 tracks on 1/8th inch tape, just not really set up to really be good. My thing is that I was heavily into the Beatles and other classic rock when I was in high school and they were masters of using 4 tracks (albeit really nice ones), and i was always frustrated how noisey and band limited the 4-tracks we had sounded. I wanted stuff to sound much more pristine, and it was always a battle.

Admittedly, I’m not really into ‘lo-fi’ stuff that much. I always favored the later Pavement records because they didn’t sound all grungey and muddy.

I think is should revisit the 4 tracks again though, because I remember making a bunch of tape loops on casettes about 15 years ago and that was pretty fun.

And, I do like Alessandro Cortini’s stuff, and he uses it to good effect.

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I think the recreations of “tape” in digital/analog hardware and plugin are interesting from the perspective of employing the meaning of “tape” as signal/not-signal/anti-signal and also around the ideas of authenticity/“authenticity” in sound. Definitely additionally layered for those of us old enough to remember cassette from the first time around but also intriguing in relation to understanding what current/later generations react to in the nature of the sound to repurpose semantically.

tldr; I enjoy seeing what generations who are new to cassette use or repurpose from cassette culture and what kinds of meanings and signals they perceive. It helps me reformat and identify further areas for pursuit of music and meaning.

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I love this too. It’s quite fascinating what lofi means to people who have only existed within the absolutely-highest-of-fi era. That’s not intended to be snark, btw - I very much genuinely mean it!

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Going slightly off track here with a tale about a cassette and its journey to a digital file. A friend gave me a cassette he put together for me, I thought it was going to be a mixtape… It was actually the first two or three seconds of a bit of classical music, then a clunk as he stopped recording, then another piece of classcial music, only a few seconds long… and so on… he went through his extensive CD collection of calssical music no more then 4 seconds and then stop. Every now and then you could hear milliseconds of a fragment of sound of whatever was on the tape that he was recording over… And that was it for 90 minutes! It was great.

About the same time I was just starting to mess around my first music software and I knew I wanted to get this tape as a digital file and into my computer, to sample. I found a very cheap personal stereo cassette player (I think £4.99 from Argos and this was in 2005 or 2006?). It had a line out so managed to record it into my computer. The quality of the cassette player was awful and once it became a digital file via this crappy cassette player the tape had a whole new layer of static, hiss and quite harsh electro-magnetic interference, you could still hear the classical snippets burried underneath the noise and hiss. It was quite something, I still listen to it from time to time, it kind of makes the ears bleed.

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I once heard a tape by Bonnie Jones where she randomly recorded onto cassette a couple seconds of each show she played over the course of a year. Becomes super mind-melting after awhile.

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i’m not quite sure we live in a “highest-of-fi” era. To me it’s just the artefacts that are different. Cheap LCDs in every laptop mean people see all the time images with no real black content. Codecs are audible on most radio stations. Cell phones have a terribly aggressive sound, much worse than good old landlines. Digital TV is a blocky-glitched saturated blob of moving faces. Print is full of 72 dpi pixelized placeholders left there because it looked ok on the screen.
The only hifi things i can think of are oil companies advertising and surveillance cameras.

(end derail). I don’t use cassette tape (because i have a few 1/4 inch machines).
But, i have a microcassette dictaphone. It’s quite wonderful, but only i you approach it like a “preset” mangling filter, which is about the only creative use i have for it. Its other use is to listen to old business phone calls made decades ago (or any other content old random cassettes have). That’s a weird meditation on the technological mediation of the world, not totally unrelated to my high-fi rant above.

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