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A "rant" on cassette culture (by Robin James and Dick Metcalf, aka Rotcod Zzaj)

9 years ago
17 posts
You can read this (with images) and much more from Zzaj at

Cassette culture as a prelude to the Internet Audio Arts Community

By Robin James & Rotcod Zzaj

Many months back, I invited Robin to do a “collaborative” article with me about analog/tape vs. digital formats. He (very faithfully) sent it to me within a couple of weeks… & I let it lay for about 2 months… then got ZAPPED with the layoff in September… then moved back to Washington state… & NOW read through it & say… W-O-W… this will WOIK! WE (both) look forward to your feedback on our (somewhat ancient) diatribes about thee “good ole’ daze”…. (ROBIN is in bold… “i” am in italics…)

These days it is possible to be heard and collaborate using an array of digital technology. You can make a digital recording and then email the file to anyone who has the same kind of software that can “play” the recording. Though many would be surprised at the amount of “underground” artists who still use the analog tape as the medium for capturing and moving the music back & forth to each other. That analog tape STILL has a tremendous amount of value, with it’s better ability to preserve the “true” sound of a recording…

In the old days, before the CD, before the Internet, before MP3, we small-time big-idea artists had only the cassette. The Philips cassette at that time was held together with five tiny screws. Now the same class of cassettes only comes with heat-welded shells, no tiny screws. What good are the tiny screws? If something were to happen to the tape, for example, if it were to get caught in the tape player and break or get stretched, the tape could be opened and the surviving part of the recording could be salvaged. I have seen many ingenious adaptations of running the tape from one recorder or player to another to create wonderful regenerative loops and other
effects. Cassette tape loops require much patience, but they can function to create incredible effects for the sonic artist. Though we are missing the “screws” these days, I think the “goal” of artists going the digital route is to GET THE TAPE in hand & (probably using a 4-track) get it melted/recorded down to a .wav file. Once it’s on the computer, many of the manipulations that used to be performed with tape loops, etc., can be accomplished with software. The KEY POINT, though, is to get it ON THE HARD DRIVE & manipulated (any way you want) before doing the final cleanup/digitization. I’ll admit, though, those screws WERE A LIFESAVER sometimes…

Basically the idea is still the same, an aspiring sonic artist, which includes all kinds of musicians as well as the sound-poets and “others” which are impossible to classify; you make your recording, you decorate it appropriately, and then you send it around to clubs and venues where you want to perform live, and get gigs that way. Someone there at the club would
get the recording over to the local college or community radio station and get it played on the air, signaling the people in the community that they might expect this kind of sound to be heard, at such and such a place and time. As the net expands (& an amazing & rapid expansion it IS), these kinds of “auditions” will likely be all digital… .mp3 or .wav files posted to a lonely server somewhere, waiting for th’ right “agent” to come along & listen. We (th’ undergound artists) are still “impossible to classify”, & becoming ever more so, methinks! & that is a GOOD thing… it sort of pulls back away from th’ “Star Syndrome” thing… the only DISadvantage to that, actually, is for the listener… they have so many choices these days that it’s often nearly impossible to find something they really LIKE!

Decorating the cassette is so much more fun than decorating a CD. With a CD you get the label that goes on the disc, and you get the jewel box inserts. You do have the option of a booklet that fits in the jewel box or you can create a larger object that can contain the CD. With cassettes, you have the two sides of the cassette itself, you have the J-sheet which goes in the box
and is folded in various ways, plus you have the inserts. The advanced cassette publishers go further, creating an assortment of objects, gee-gaws and little pieces of paper to put into the mix, contained in a larger box or plastic bag, etc. Ah, b’well… here we diverge, friend Robin. I do agree that the cassette culture inspired many ingenious designs, but I believe that same inspiration is beginning to take shape for those of us who do CD’s now, too. The front insert for a CD can be folded in multifarious manners, too… it can be printed on both sides, so bios, “gee-gaws” & other art-i-facts can be placed (digitally, o’ course) on th’ inside. Personally, I don’t like the booklet solution, but many choose that route. With clear back cases, there are many neat things that can be done with a double-print, there, too… so that once the owner takes the CD out to play it, they are (often) surprised by an additional piece of art… like the cassette, these little nuances can be a pleasant “bonus” for the person who purchases the CD… while I don’t disparage the creativity that went into many cassette artists’ works, I believe we will see many unique variants on jewel case inserts in the coming years… not to mention the fact that as we become better at the craft, we should/will be able to insert multimedia surprises for the consumer, too. THINK of th’ possibilities!

To make a run of 200 cassettes, you listen to the recording 200 times, making sure that the beginnings and ends are precisely where you want them (cassettes can vary somewhat in the amount of tape inside, by moments or minutes, translated as inches or feet of tape). Then you gather your materials: photos, poster art, band paraphenalia and memorabilia, and make a
run to the copy machine (over break at work, or at Kinkos, or the grocery store, library, wherever such a machine can be found), advanced cassette decorators would print onto sticker-paper, sometimes color copy machines would be available too. But back then color copiers were very rare animals indeed. I think that’s probably an argument in FAVOR of digitized music(s), don’t you, Robin? I mean, I’ve been through the “listen to it over & over”, too… once you’ve got your recording/mix down on a digital product, it will record the same way OVER & OVER… withOUT having to spend hours… + which, in the old days, there was always the hazard of gettin’ a little too phroggy & attempting to record an 80 minute tape onto a 60 minute receptable? Remember those nights? If you FORGOT to label the tape correctly & couldn’t remember how LONG the tape (really) was – you were in a HEAP o’ trubble, yah?

After the materials are gathered and prepared, usually in front of the tv, while the cassette copies are being dubbed, the assembly line would begin, each tape is processed, inserts inserted, plastic boxes stuffed and sealed with a bit of cellophane tape. The most interesting tapes prepared in this manner have little sculptured stands that hold the tapes and must sit by themselves next to the rest of the collection. By far the most tapes all conform and fit into the shelves with the rest of the tapes.

DO NOT paint the inside of the cassette boxes. They look really cool, but sooner or later the paint comes off and goes into the tape player, from there into the inner mechanisms of the player causing the premature demise of the machine. Hmmm… wonder how one would/could go about “painting” the inside of a jewel case? There’s no QUESTION but what that WOULD be “hazardous to the health” of your CD player…

Cassettes were/are recorded in various fashions, the classic method is to put the portable tape recorder (aka blaster or boom-box) closer to the vocalist than to the bass drum, push RECORD and go through all the numbers the band knows. That can be manicured and edited in various ways, or it can
be left raw. If you have a recording studio handy (this was all before computers) it would either be in the form of a portable cassette recording deck (Tascam, etc.) or an expensive mixer, reel to reel recorder, even a real studio. When video beta tapes became more popular it was common to record using the soundtrack of the video tape recorder to capture the sounds, and then transfer the sounds to cassettes for popular consumption. Actually, I (still) prefer the (4 track) cassette deck method for ALL my recordings… not only does it retain the analog sound, but I can (then) produce mixdown tapes FROM it… a favorite trick (of mine) in the past has been to do a “spoken-word” set (2 of the tracks are vocals or spoken-word), melt it down to (either) digital or analog, then go BACK OVER the vocal tracks with instruments & send it off to another improvisor… to see what different interpretations come out of it (just) instrumentally… it’s often VERY different. ALSO, then the “true master” is always analog, too.

In the old days (ten or twenty years ago, young reader) most record manufacturers did not take cassettes seriously, so if you were to buy a cassette version of a commercially recorded album from your favorite rock band, it would be on the worst possible tape, it would leave brown dust on your capstan (if you were to bother to look in there), I have always assumed that the record companies considered cassettes to be the worst possible
threat to their monopoly of musical formats. Back then it was only vinyl, cassettes and the 8-track. & if you read up on it, there is a massive campaign (now) to “dishonor” the “CD-R” home recordist’s output, too… ANYthing to keep them OUT of the market… because they represent VARIABLES, something which does NOT go well with “standards”, “marketability” & “predictable consumers”. Nothing new, here, though… the “big companies” have always tried (& many times are quite successful) to manipulate the consumer into listening to (only) what THEY produce… you remember “PAYOLA”, kiddies? Look it up on yer’ favorite search engine…

There is a reason that the 8-track is so rare now, they were manufactured to standard lengths, so that when a specific album was put on a cartridge, it would be interrupted in four places as the cartridge would cycle through its playback-head positions. For example, the Doors albums would always have
songs chopped in odd places, you’d be grooving to “Riders in the Storm” and it would just stop abruptly for a moment, the player would click as the playback-head would shift, and then the music would abruptly continue. One may or may not even notice this, depending on what one was doing while listening. Typically these players would be in cars, and the true audio-phile sophisticate would have a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the home for personalizing audio entertainment. But vinyl was king. An artist was not legitimate unless they had products out on vinyl. Us old farts still have enormous collections of vinyl, but it is very difficult to find functioning turntables any more. So we can only sit around and look at the jackets, read
the liner notes and remember. I recommend sewing clear polyurethane into large pockets, hanging these pockets on the wall and displaying the LP cover art. Hmmm… I’ve still got FOUR cartridges for my turntable (DENON), & though it occassionaly gathers some dust, I pull it out every once in a while to listen through an old album (though I HAVE pared the collection down from (about) 300 to 50 or so… just FAR too expensive to be moving around all over the world)! The other thing to mention here (especially for those “young readers” Robin alluded to) is that you OUGHT to listen to some vinyl to see how CLEAR it comes across when running it (back) into a digital format… it’s just SWEET (unless your albums are scratched… the REAL drawback of vinyl).

At one time there was legislation to tax blank tape sales, it was observed that people would buy albums and want to make their own recordings, choosing favorite songs from the album and placing them on the cassettes according to their own whim. Now the new formats for recording music are changing so
rapidly there is no way for the record companies to lobby effectively for taxing formats that allow this kind of renegade treatment of the recording industries various products. Don’t think for a MINUTE that they’re not (STILL) trying to control the formats, though… the next big wave is/will be in digital downloading… & the “privacy schemes” (some parts of which are good) for digital songs/pieces is where the big companies will assert themselves. The GOOD thing about all this, though, is that there are so many folks out there (now) who are “digitally sophisticated” that the diversity of styles & musics has prevailed. As I mentioned earlier – the real dilemma, in my opinion, is that the “consumer” will find it such a “maize” that they’ll get lazy & “fall back” on what is spoon fed them over Internet radio (& such tools) & the wheel will just “turn” again. The BETTER scenario (in my mind) would be that EVERYONE will be playing/recording/digitizing their OWN music… NO ONE will be able to “own” it… can you imagine… a “digital campfire” session, in which everyone shares the .mp3’s they made last week? TOM SWIFT returns, yoh?

Till next time….

Rotcod Zzaj
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9 years ago
0 posts
In the beginning, GAJOOB's policy was only to review cassettes. At the time (late 80s early 90s) that was an effective way to make sure the music I was writing about was independently produced. When CDRs came around, that policy changed and it became harder to determine indie cred as record companies began promoting new bands as indie. For me, I was just interested in the whole independent ethic and arts exchange. I think that's what you're alluding to when you talk about a time when everyone creates and shares creations. I always tried to make GAJOOB foster that exchange.

I actually always hated cassettes and still do. They're a cumbersome media to play and record on. I disagree that the format uniquely lends itself to custom art. Any other physical format has equal artistic potential. I also believe Digital has its own artistic potential yet to be realized. I want to create something a listener can touch and keep while experiencing digital. Or not.

I think art is more about the artist than about the media. Marketers call it "brand," but I think youth today gets it beyond its manufacture. They're looking at the real thing, the whole thing -- the person creating whatever. You see it in the popularity of youtube vloggers. Vlogging is the new mail art. We all should start vlogging.

I think the current cassette and vinyl resurgence is manufactured. Retro is in fashion. Look at graphic design trends and you'll notice this too. But new retro is never truly retro. New cassettes are missing the EXCHANGE ethic of cassette culture. And I'm not sure new cassette labels care about it. They're not really going for that. They're doing something new, defining a new paradigm and I like that about it. Don't try to recapture an old age, define your own. Keep pushing those boundaries.
9 years ago
17 posts
You're right, Bryan... in the end run, it all comes down to the ENERGY LEVEL that the players perform with! There is still a TON of great music (some of it even "true indie") being produced out there... tape or digits, CD or vinyl, it's the "creativity quotient" that makes the diff