Introduction: Cassette Tape 1101 - an in Depth Look Into This Analog Tape Recording Media
*** this instructable will teach you about different cassette formulations, how to use them to mold the sound your looking for in your recordings, some cassette history, and what to look for in quality tapes. ***
out of "style" for about 20 years yet they just hit their 50 year anniversary and are still being made.
cassettes are what brought about the move from listening to music in a group setting, to listening to music in a private setting while on the move. without cassettes, the walkman wouldn't have happened and who knows which way portable entertainment might have gone.
audio hobbyist are rediscovering cassettes. this resurgence is fueled not only by nostalgia, but also cost. it's cheap for a small band to put out music on cassette tape and it gives the fan something tangible to take home. a tangible item is something an mp3 download will never be.
this instructable should take the average geek from being totally clueless when it comes to cassettes, to being somewhat of a guru. we'll cover tape types, brands, era's, and clues that may help you decide if an unknown tape is of good quality.
if you're interested in learning more about the inside of cassettes and how to fix them, please visit my instructable on cassette tape repair.
Step 1: Audio Cassette Types
in the audio cassette world, all cassettes are the same shape and same size. "type" refers to the chemistry of the tape. knowing the chemistry is important because different type tapes have different effects on sound reproduction. audio tape is not a sterile media. tape imparts it's own signature (distortion to you engineer types) on recorded music. knowing a little about what the different tape types do can help you choose what tape to use to achieve the sound reproduction you want. tape also soft clips not like digital media that does not clip gracefully. an overloaded tape will give your music a fuzz that may be the effect some musicians are looking for.
knowing the tape type is important for proper settings on your tape player / recorder. most of the better machines will have sensing switches inside that detect special notches in the tape shell to tell it what tape type is loaded into it. on older machines and most portables, you must set the tape type switch to the correct setting to get proper recordings and playback sound. on really low end machines and things like voice recorders, you don't have the option of using anything but type 1 tapes.
in the pic you see a row of 4 cassette tapes. note the different notches on the top edge of the housing. those notches line up with switches inside machines equipped to auto detect the different tape types. what you see from top to bottom is as follows.
1) type 1 with record protect notch intact
2) type 2 with record protect notch intact
3) type 4 with record protect notch intact
4) type 4 with record protect notch knocked out
the record protect notch is nothing more than a plastic tab you break off to prevent someone from erasing your tape on a tape recorder. the tape can still be erased using a bulk eraser or damaged by a magnet. if you have a tape with the notch removed and you wish to record on it you simply put a piece of scotch tape over the area that the record notch was and your machine will allow you to record on the tape.
why no type 3?
more on that in the type 3 section of this instructable.
why is knowing tape type important?
while all cassette recorders can record on type 1 tapes, not all can record on types 2-4. trying to record a tape on a machine not equipped to handle that specific type will result in lousy recordings. you'll get incomplete erasure of old material on the tape and muddy sound. you can however play any tape type on any machine without very adverse affects. playing types 2-4 on a machine only intended for type 1 will produce accentuated highs. some folks actually like the sound as it makes basic machines like cheap boomboxes and such have a tad more highs.
next, cassette tape types in detail.
(image courtesy of wikipedia)
Step 2: Type 1 - the Workhorse of the Cassette World
type 1 tapes are the most common out there and still being made to this day. pic 1 is of a modern day type 1 tape. they may be marked normal bias on the packaging.
type 1's are also known as ferrics to cassette tape enthusiasts. they are really nothing more than very finely ground rust mixed with some chemicals and stuck to a mylar plastic tape base. the tape itself can have a brown color ranging from burnt orange to very dark brown. the quality can range from rubbish to amazing. pic 2 is of a highly regarded type 1 tape formulation.
be leary of cassettes labelled as type 1 yet have black or very dark gray tape in them. some low end vendors sold reject video and computer tape as cassette tape. this stuff yields poor recordings and is barely suitable for recording lectures and such. black tape should only be found in type 2, 3, and 4 cassettes. some "black magnetite" ferric formulations may appear black but if you take them out in bright sunlight and look at the tape, you will see it's extremely dark brown. tapes made from junk video tape will have a blue or gray-ish hue to the black.
every manufacturer that got into cassette tapes offered a type 1 formulation, many offered several grades of type 1 tapes. any cassette machine you run into can properly play a type 1 tape. same with cassette recorders, they can all handle type 1 tapes.
type 1 tapes are known to have the best low end reproduction but will come up short on high end reproduction when compared to other formulations. if you're looking for a "warm" sound on your recordings, type 1 is your go to tape. the "warm" effect type 1 has on music can be used to your advantage to take harsh digital recordings and mellow them out a bit. the effect tape has on a recording is tough to put into words everyone can understand so experimentation is your best friend here.
type 1 tapes are by far the cheapest and easiest to find. there are some premium versions but for the most part, new name brand type 1 cassettes of decent quality can be found easily for under $2. $1 each is pretty common.
what to look for...
a visual check can give you some clues about a tape. take your pinky and spool the tape past it's leader. what color is the tape? generally the darker, the better. is it shiny or is it dull? you want a high polished shine. does the shell feel chintzy? quality materials usually mean a quality tape.
is it dull or is it memorex?
memorex sold a great many tapes and had some amazing ads. the trouble is their tapes were not of the same quality as their ad campaigns. be leary of memorex tapes. the older ones in black or grey shells are dreadful and some may even leave nasty crud on your machine's inner workings. the more modern ones in the colorful shells where better but still not the best bang for your buck when compared to other major brands.
generic white shell cassettes..
these are called duplicator cassettes. see pic 3. these are often used by people doing tape "runs" for bands, for books on tape, and by churches. these can be had very cheaply. i have bought them for under 0.25 per tape shipped from online auctions in lots of 100. most of the white shell cassettes you find out there will be type 1 but not all. they could be ordered in type 2 or even 4 if the buyer wanted to shell out the cash. the quality on these varies from voice grade to music grade. i have yet to find a truly terrible bulk pack tape. a good cassette deck with tape tweaking abilities goes a long way towards making exceptional use of these bargain tapes.
take note that these duplicator tapes can be found in colors other than white and in clear cases. the common trait though is they have NO labeling. it's a plain shell with at most, the length of the tape stamped up on the top edge. some will have the tape length stamped on the leader part of the tape. these can be found in anything from 0-122 minute lengths. it will be a number preceded by the letter "c".
on a final note, all the major brands sold type 1 cassettes. most pre-recorded cassettes you may find will be type 1. a good cassette deck with the ability to tweak bias can take the lowly type 1 tape and make it sound superb.
Step 3: Type 2 - It's Chrome Baby!
type 2 cassettes are the second most common cassettes found. these may be marked high bias on the packaging. some will boast about being "chrome" or some mixture of chrome. all three pics are of commonly found type 2 tapes.
what's this chrome thing about?
the chemistry of the tape uses chrome based particles instead of just ferric particles. this results in the ability to record higher frequencies and higher levels. the trade off is low end suffers slightly. a type 1 tape will reproduce low bass better than a type 2 tape. a type 2 tape will give crisper highs than a type 1 tape.
type 2 tapes will reveal digital harshness in your source material. your source material needs to be clean and pleasing to the ear before laying it down on type 2 tape. don't expect type 2 to warm up harsh sources like type 1 tape does.
type 2 tapes can be played on any machine. if they are played on a machine not equipped to handle them the result will be slightly accentuated highs which some people seem to like. you will need a machine capable of recording on type 2 to make proper recordings on this type of tape.
Step 4: Type 3 - an Odd Tape Born From an Interesting Idea
type 3 tapes are very uncommon. they were only made for a few years and not many recorders where setup to properly record on it. a type 3 tape is basically a sandwich of type 1 and type 2 chemistry. the idea behind it was to give you a tape that had the crisp highs of a type 2 while having the full low end of a type 1. the idea was good but it didn't take off.
all the type 3 tapes i have seen are notched like type 2. using them in a machine not setup for type 3 will result in poor recordings that are either too bassy or two crisp. on a machine with auto tape calibration, popping in a type 3 might cause the machine to error out as it doesn't know what to do with it. if you have a machine that has manual bias adjustments, you might be able to get them to sound good via experimentation. there were decks made to handle type 3 tapes but they are uncommon and up in age at this point.
these tapes are fairly rare. if you find any sealed, their collector value will exceed their user value.
Step 5: Type 4 - Metal, Not the Heavy Kind
type 4 tapes are also known as metals. they are high bias tapes but more often than not the word "metal" will be blatantly advertised on them.
these are premium tapes. they generally command the highest prices. they were premium when new and didn't sell anywhere near as much as the lowly type 1's did. this makes them uncommon on the second hand market.
some of the most prized collectors cassettes are type 4's. there are some that have actual metal frames for a cassette shell. sony offered one that was a composite ceramic. all this makes for nice eye candy but few people posses machines good enough to hear the difference between the regular type 4 offerings and those extreme upper crust tapes.
for the user, type 4 will give you cd like sound and the highest output levels of any tape. if your a musician looking to "warm" up your sound, type 4 is not for you.
in the pics you will see a early to mid 80's maxell mx90, a sealed maxell mx90 and a tdk ma110 from the 90s, and a sony metal XR from the 90's. the sony metal XR tapes are still commonly found (as of 2013) on auction sites for as low as $1.50 each in big lots. they are considered by many to be an entry level type 4.
Step 6: Cassette Tape Oddities
here we have 3 of the more often seen cassette tape oddities.
pic 1, the reel to reel cassette.
if you're an 80's kid, you saw these in every ad for anything that had a cassette player in it. they look cool ...and it stops right there!
these tapes are terribly unreliable. the design of the cassette shell was not intended to have little reels turning in it.
in order to accommodate the reels, the shell had to be made thinner and the lubricated slipsheets that the tape lies against inside the shell of a normal tape had to be removed. this result in constant chaffing of the tape as the reels turn and the reels also rub against the shell. particles of chaffed tape begin to collect inside the shell and the nice clear shell develops scratches from the reels inside turning against the plastic. they look cool but that's it. some of these reel to reel cassettes command big prices on ebay so if you find one sealed, keep it that way.
pics 2 & 3, LORAN tapes.
LORAN tapes are the ruggedized tapes of the cassette world. the shells are made of lexan. the company bragged about the extreme strength and heat resistance of these tapes. ford used them for their demo tapes included in many of their cars. these tapes also had a unique feature for the copy protect notch, it was actually a piece of plastic that could be turned instead of just a tab you broke off.
LORAN tapes may have an impressive shell but had lousy tape in them. i've taken all of mine and replaced the tape inside the shells with TDK type 1 stock. the shells themselves are not as accurate in guiding the tape as the better conventional shells. they are however able to put up with incredible amounts of physical abuse.
pics 4 & 5, endless tapes.
never buy another tape again! (just kidding folks). these cassettes where intended for things like tape based answering machines. in the shell is a short length of tape that is spliced together with foil tape. the machine that plays these uses the foil tape to sense where the start of the loop is. the tape is in an endless loop like an 8 track tape is. this means NO rewinding or you turn the whole thing into a knot. do NOT try to flip one of these over to play the "B" side. there is no "B" side. you will knot up the tape.
these tapes were also used long ago for repeating messages at public venues. before there were digital recorders blabbing the same thing all day long, there were endless tapes that wore out and needed to be changed often.
Step 7: BOOTLEGS!
bet your saying WHAT!?!
yep.. fakes made to pass off like real commercial tapes from the big labels. these were very common outside of the USA, specially in the middle east. rumor has it many were made in places like singapore, the philipines, and indonesia and then sold all over the world but the biggest market was the middle east.
the tapes in the picture were given to me by an older guy that was working in saudi arabia in the 80's. he claimed it was cheaper to buy the bootleg than buy a blank and record it yourself. all the the bootleg counterfeit cassettes i have heard so far sound like they were made from records. a master was made from a record somebody brought over and then the master was duplicated till it wore out. then another master was made and the duplication continued.
747 and 355 were popular brands of counterfeit tapes but they used what look like cheap stock. same with a line that used two bare feet as their logo. some better pirated tapes actually went as far as using what looks like good BASF and maxell tape. i still haven't been able to confirm if those BASF labelled tapes are indeed real or if that was a knockoff as well. once i have that info, i will update this instructable.
sad to say but some of the better knockoff tapes like those from king or the fake atlantic records versions have nicer boxes than their real counterparts. they used a nice plastic enclosure that went over the standard jewel box. these upscale knockoffs don't sound bad at all and the tape stock seems to be of good quality.
notice how the BASF and maxell tapes are marked on the top edge? that's a sure sign they are from a bootleg operation. BASF and maxell never branded tapes on the top edges. another good sign is no corporate address for who made them. any tape from any well known band will have the record company's info on it somewhere. after all, a real record company wants to sell your more tapes, not hide.
these tapes turn up infrequently at fleamarkets and such. the music selection is typically stuff already available in the USA so it's nothing you cant already find on a legit cassette, LP, or cd. they are cool collectibles though.
Step 8: How to Spot Lousy Tapes
this is by no means the absolute authority on tape buying decisions but will hopefully give you some clues on whether or not to purchase tapes you are unfamiliar with.
tapes that come 3 in a bag (pic 1), department store house brands, tape brands from companies that don't make audio products, brands that look like misspellings of well known brands, and tapes that brag about "high power" or "stereo" are all tapes to avoid.
a sampling of brands to avoid in the USA but by no means a concise list..
gemini - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine
kmc - kmart brand
recoton - inconsistent
scotch - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine
ampex - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine. one of the worst offenders
certron - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine (they have one line that is good but very uncommon)
smat - inconsistent and brittle shells
DAK - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine. don't let fancy case fool you
irish - inconsistent
laser - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine
RCA - inconsistent, but the better of the cheap tapes
universal - inconsistent. see pic 9. those are universal tapes. note the different tape color despite being same shell.
old memorex - muddy sound and tape sheds crud in machine. the later stuff in the clear colorful shells is acceptable for basic use.
another somewhat loose guide is labeling. lousy tapes from the 80's and into the 90's still used paper labels like all tapes from the 70's did. i also have yet to see a tape that's made in china or hong kong that has been a solid performer with the exception of tapes made by SKC. SKC tapes perform ok but have a high noise floor and some form of noise reduction like dolby must be used unless you don't mind above average tape hiss.
the tape in pic 10 is posing as a vintage TDK D series. the tape in pic 11 is trying some word play to pass off as a maxell. both are cheap tapes trying to pass as quality product. yes, there are counterfeit tapes out there. some folks collect these for the novelty but don't expect knockoff tapes to sound good.
Step 9: Buying Used Tapes and Spotting Cassette Tape Failures
used tapes are out there for cheap. most thrifts in the USA charge from $0.25 to $1.00 per cassette. in my part of the country 2x$1 seems the norm. this makes for a very cheap hobby of hunting down cool old tapes. just like any other product, the appearance of a line of cassette tapes would often change with the times. the TDK SA line for example went through over 5 different radical design changes to its shell and packaging during it's production life. when you find a tape line you like, keep an eye out for it's siblings.
why buy used tapes?
there are still new tapes out there if you look around online and in your local shops. what you will likely find in quantity will be maxell UR, TDK D, or sony HF type 1 cassettes. these tapes will give acceptable results when used with a good recorder. there is plenty of new-old stock still out there of better grade tapes but you wont find those at your local drug store, you'll have to go online or hunt the local thrifts for elusive sealed tapes. used tapes are a viable option if you know what to look for. used doesn't have to be abused.
clues that a tape is abused or worn out..
look at the screws on the shell of the tape if it has them. look for signs of rust or corrosion on the screw heads. this means that tape got wet, pass on it. some tapes are welded together and have no screws so this tip wont apply for you.
look at the case of the cassette. plastic takes on a patina from lots of handling. the shell should be smooth and shiny. on older tapes its expected that they will have more wear so use your judgement. on colored shells you can still tell how much abuse a shell got by catching a reflection off the plastic and noting the amount of surface scratches.
look for nicks, chips, and cracks. cassette shells tend to be made of brittle plastic. the clear shell ones being the most brittle and will easily chip or crack of dropped on concrete.
take your pinky, shove it into the hole in the tape spool, and wind the tape till you get past the leader strip and are actually looking at magnetic tape. you need to have good eyesight for this or carry a magnifying lens. pics 2 & 3 show the surface of two different low end tapes. note the color is inconsistent, almost like somebody dragged an angry cat across it. a surface like that is a telltale sign of a lowend tape. the color should be solid with no streaks and the surface should have a nice polish.
in pic 4 you see the surface of a tape that has what they call "orange peeling" in the paint industry. it's bumpy, not smooth. this is a 90's sony tape mind you. this tape will perform ok but if you're looking for top notch type 1 tape, this isn't it. once again, you want consistent color across the tape and a nice polish.
a drastic indication that a tape is worn out is train tracks. basically you have creases running parallel to the entire length of the tape. this is caused by repeatedly playing a tape on a worn out machine or by playing a tape on a machine with a misaligned tape path. train tracks are bad. unless you plan to reload the shell with fresh tape simply because you like the look of the shell, pass on it.
finally, look for moldy deposits on the tape spool. look at the tape in pic 1. if there were white spots or flakes randomly scattered on the spooled up tape it would be a red flag that the tape was in a very humid environment of it may be breaking down. pass on that tape.
what about really old tapes?
cassette tech advanced rapidly and quality reached its peak in the 80's and then started a slow decline. tapes from the 60's and 70's are miles behind tapes from the 80's as far as quality. pic 5 is of a very old philips tape. this tape is likely to be from the late 60's. while cool from a nostalgic point of view, it's performance would leave lots to be desired. i look for these old tapes because they look correct in my oldest recorders. most of these will shed rust colored residue in your machine and the sound quality will be a tad muddy. pass on these if you need tapes to actually put to use.
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in pic 6 you see a cassette tape that was made in germany. up until recently, the only tapes i had ever seen with square cut flathead screws were german. i recently found a very early philips cassette, maybe from the late 60's that was made in holland and it had square cut flathead screws. that i know of, no japanese or american made cassettes ever used these type of screws. eventually everybody that was using screws to hold their shells together went to philips head screws.
Step 10: Cassettes by Era
here's a rough visual guide of cassette tapes by era. don't take this as the gospel truth, it's merely observations i have made over the years.
see pics 1-3. most where off white colored. some did come in translucent cases. it was common to find a "compact cassette" logo on these early tapes. all had paper labels. these are cool for collecting or to display inside a vintage deck. don't expect good performance from tapes this old.
80's era tapes..
see pics 4-6. notice how things got square. gone where the little angled trimmed edges on the labels. cheap tapes kept the angled top paper labels which is one of the tell tale signs of a questionable tape. the "compact cassette" logo is gone as well on namebrand quality tapes. on many 80's tapes, the labeling changed drastically. memorex went for the whole crazy 80's colors theme which you see pictured. the 80's were the peak of cassette tape quality.
90's and current..
see pics 7-9. in the late80's-early 90's some manufacturers went overboard with crazy shell designs. the BASF in pic 7 is a good example. as the cassette got de-throned and CD took over, so did tape sales. tape quality started it's decline. the end of the era is marked by colored clear shell tapes. many where just tinted but some sported bright red, purple, green and other colors. all the modern day namebrand tape offerings i can find are in tinted clear shells. while not terrible, their 80's counterparts are of better quality.
Step 11: We're Done.. Now Go Round Up Some Tapes!
i hope this instructable will foster some love for this cool bit of media history. not many things are as iconic as a cassette tape. 50 years after their invention, they are still being made and so are devices to play them on. i'd like to see the mp3 make that claim!
enjoy those tapes!
into old tech? follow me on instagram as vintagetechguy to see random pics of interesting old tech.
for those of you that are playing and recording cassettes on a regular basis, you may want to check out an in depth "how to" i wrote on properly cleaning the tape path on cassette machines. it can be seen here.. https://www.instructables.com/id/How-To-Clean-a-Cassette-Recorder/