Dr. AIX's POSTS — 22 October 2014

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Are we really living in a world where everything old is new again…of at least worthy of resurrection? It seems as though we are. I received an email touting the return of the pre-recorded audio cassette. Yes, it’s true. On November 17, Hollywood records, a division of Disney Music Group, will release a limited edition audio cassette of the soundtrack of the Marvel movie “The Guardians of the Galaxy”. You’ll only be able to purchase the cassette version until the end of the year. And just in case, the target demographic doesn’t have the appropriate hardware to play an audio cassette, the package includes a code for a low resolution digital download.

I didn’t see the movie but apparently the soundtrack features a mix a retro tunes from my early days in college…the 70s. The soundtrack came out during the movie’s run and reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart…but that wasn’t as a cassette. This is clearly a publicity stunt and no matter how many cassettes they duplicate and sell through the chain of retailers associated with Record Day, I’m pretty confident that more digital versions will actually find their way into portable players than cassettes into Walkmans.

Getting a buzz going based around obsolete equipment is clever but when I mentioned this to my students yesterday evening, a few of them told me, “Oh yeah, cassettes are making a comeback.” I groaned. It’s tough to have all of the push back from vinyl LPs lovers and advocates for analog tape. Just today I got an email from a cable manufacturer claiming, “Master tape dubs still reign supreme in terms of what I’ve ever heard as source material.” I’m sending him some of my high-resolution files…I’ll be interested to find out what happens when he hears all of the dynamics that analog tape fails to deliver.

Cassette tapes were never intended to provide high-fidelity music playback. Phillips developed the format for voice recording…as a replacement for Dictaphones. Music fans like myself had no way to inexpensively record music from the radio or from vinyl LPs. No one had an open reel machine (although I did eventually…and still do!). Enter the audio cassette, Nakamichi, Dolby B noise reduction, the Sony Walkman and high output tape and cassettes launched the portable music revolution that we’re still dealing with today.

During last evening’s recording class, I began lecturing about recording and reproducing audio. I talked about AMPEX and Bing Crosby, tape formats, speeds, and methods of recording to tape. Cassettes run at 1 and 7/8 inches per second…compared to most consumer reel to reel machines at 3 and 3/4 ips or 7 and 1/2 ips. In the studio, we used higher speeds including 15 and even 30 ips. Dynamic range on analog tapes…even tape that carries four channels with a 1/8 of an inch…is dependent on wide tracks. Cassettes are a disaster. There’s horrible crosstalk, print through, wow and flutter, and just plain bad sound.

So congrats to Hollywood Records for dredging up a forgotten format. Who knows maybe I should get a hold of a Blättnerphone or a wire recorder and make a really deep reach into the past for my next promotion? Of course, it will come with a code to get the 96 kHz/24-bit digital files. Whew.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(14) Readers Comments

  1. actually, the movie’s hero has a mix tape that his mom made for him (and a Walkman) that he had with him when he was kidnapped from earth as a boy. He still has both as an adult. That’s why they are releasing it on a cassette.

    • That makes it a natural promotional gag. Thanks for the info. I’m waiting for it to come to Netflix.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Don’t forget the Advent 200 (with its Nakamichi transport) and the later 201 sporting a Wollensack transport. And then remember that the Harman Kardon CAD4 and the Fisher RC80 (or was it RC80B?) were there pushing the format way past Philips’ original intentions. None of them surpassed the LP of course but the Advent 201 in particular sounded pretty good to me “back in the day.”

    • I spent a lot of time with various cassette decks…including a Nakamichi.

  3. The reason both vinyl and now cassette are attaining” revered “audio status is because after the public has been saturated w/ awful compressed MP-3 128 files all these years, their ears greet ANY ANALOG source happily. It’s very simple Mark: some people prefer the distortions of analog, and others choose to adapt to the distortions inherent in all but high-quality digital audio. As the designer of one of the top tube brands in the world said to me years ago,” Everything has distortion; whose distortion sounds good?” That is not my own philosophy, but it does have relevancy. FYI , I find the interest in many vintage audio dogs unfathomable; oh yes, the wonders of that Pioneer SX-838 receiver-NOT. Best, Craig

    • You’re right…distortions are part of the analog sound. Accuracy isn’t a requirement or a flavor that everyone appreciates.

  4. Think I’ll do a startup of direct to horn, wax cylinder recordings. The very best of true analog sound.

    • If you transfer them to 96 kHz/24-bits or Double DSD, we can call them high-resolution audio.

  5. Vinyl will probably be around for some time to come: there are a lot of records out there, some of which aren’t available on current CD or download reissues. Most people will only bother to re-purchase or rip a few of those that they already own. And it can have a very appealing sound, if the condition of the record and quality of the equipment/setup are sufficiently good. Ensuring that all the conditions are met is obviously the problem!

    Cassettes are another matter—simply not Hi-Fi, or as you say, ‘a disaster’.

    However, I have less of a problem with this kind of one-off nostalgia promotion (almost interesting as a social experiment), than with major labels putting out new releases and digital remasters on vinyl, creating quasi-analog products with no advantages apart from the large format of the artwork.

    • Vinyl LPs is at the core of the traditional audiophile…it’s going be a small niche for a very long time.

  6. I still have a very nice 3 head home cassette recorder with Dolby C and all the bells and whistles. I also have hundreds of tapes I recorded, first from vinyl and later from CD’s. I even have a few dozen premium blank tapes. I don’t use any of it because I no longer have an automobile with a cassette deck, I sold the last one about 10 years ago. I don’t know why I keep it all, it’s just taking up space in a closet. I never listened to cassette tapes in my home stereo system, even the most carefully recorded premium cassettes were audibly inferior to vinyl and can’t hold a candle to CD’s.

    When cassettes were the best portable audio medium, far better than 8 tracks or FM, they were wonderful. Now they are an anachronism. Maybe 8 tracks will come back next.

    • It’s hard to let go. I still have a cassette deck in my rack.

  7. Hi Mark,
    I appreciate the limitations of conventional analogue tape recorders, especially domestic models, but what about recordings that were made on 2 inch tape or 35 mm film stock, providing much more recording real estate. What was the best that they could achieve re dynamic range and frequency response?

    • The usual 2″ tape had very narrow tracks because there were 24-tracks. These days some very esoteric machines have only two channels…and they are vastly more capable than the older decks. Highly impractical but lovely sound. 35 mm machines don’t have the speed thing nailed down…at least the run of the mill sprocket driven units.

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