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.

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