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Cassettes of Plenty

If you haven’t made mix tapes you either don’t love music, aren’t at all romantic, or both. Dawn and I bonded spiritually, aesthetically and otherwise when I made mix tapes for her.

I was the DJ, the music writer, the one with the 20,000 record collection (well, maybe 12,000 seven years ago), and it was my role to share the fruits of my recorded soul with her. This was only fitting for me to woo her in this way since she wooed me in other ways.

I have made many a platonic mix tape over the years as well, seeking not romantic love but to share the fruits of my sonic wanderings. In a sense, since I program it myself, my radio show is a mix tape of the air: although, even unintentionally, other considerations come to bear on radio that don’t apply to the pure tape.

Hank Stuever, in a thoughtful and wistful rumination in the WaPo, discusses mix tapes and the verging on extinction cassette tape in general:

    Ones and zeroes sound better than oxide-coated polyester or vinyl. Everyone accepts this, driven to fits of pleasure by iPods, and wonders why a few of us can’t: the kid in Best Buy who shrugs when you ask if there are any Sony Walkman cassette players left besides the two models on display; the car salesman who is pretty sure you can’t get a cassette deck as standard equipment in any of the models on the lot; and the record industry, which saw the cassette format slip to below 4 percent of total music sales last year (from a mid-1980s high of 66 percent) and has decided to let it quietly hiss into history.

    ….The end, on some strange and intellectually picky level, of the crucial dialectic between Side A and Side B, and the idea that songs talk to one another and take you someplace.

    Is the death of the cassette as sweetly sad as the death, years ago, of the vinyl record?

    No, the professor sighs. Well, maybe yes. “It’s a mixed romance,” Jaczko says. “From a fidelity standpoint, I’ll be happy to see cassettes go. I never felt the way about tapes that I did about my albums — the sound, the beautiful art on the cover. Tapes never had that romance, but . . . we do lose something with the romance of making someone a mix tape.

    “My wife,” he says, “is the queen of the mix tapes.”

    He used to make them so carefully for her, when they were falling in love.

    The whole, fraught, goosebumpy methodology of it. The ego involved. Releasing the “pause” button so precisely to start recording. Rewinding and re-recording over awkward and unintended song choices and segues, the way a lover stammers to articulate his emotions. “Fitting the songs just right so they would fill up each side,” he says. “The songs titles lovingly handwritten on the inside of the case. I find old mix tapes in drawers now, and they’re like a personal record, like finding an old letter.”

    He has not yet burned any love CDs for her.

    “There’s something about pointing and clicking,” he says. “It’s not quite the same.”

    ….Tape, the fast-forwarded version:

    Oberlin Smith, a cohort of Edison, described magnetic recording in an issue of Electrical World magazine in 1888, conceiving of a magnet and a string dipped in iron filings. The idea had come to him 10 years before that, but he didn’t build it. Valdemar Poulsen made magnetic heads in 1894, patented it as the telegraphone, and recorded Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef mouthing off at the 1900 Paris Expo.

    Then the Germans. (Always the Germans.) Pfleumer and his magnetic powders, followed by the invention of clunky-looking contraptions like the Stahltonbandmaschine, a steel tape recorder, circa 1930. Then came the wire recorder.

    At the German Radio Exhibition of 1935 (a world away, Elvis was being born; see how unrelated events happen to work together), the chemical conglomerates Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik (BASF) and Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) unveiled the first mass-produced tape recorder, the Magnetophon. (It looked roughly like the reel-to-reel machines of yore, the kind that later would be set to self-destruct in TV spy shows. The London Philharmonic was the first group to make a tape recording, at a concert appearance in Ludwigshafen.

    Then the war.

    Concentration camp prisoners worked in the BASF factories.

    Later, an American colonel, John T. Mullin, was sent to Germany to investigate Nazi technology. He came back with something that blew the mind of Bing Crosby, who then used tape to record his radio shows starting in 1947.

    Royal Philips Corp. developed the Compact Cassette in 1963, but couldn’t quite get the mechanism perfected and standardized until about 1966. The cassette became available — expensive, and without identity. It was supposed to be the future, but the future of . . . what, exactly? Answering machines? Dictation? Audiophilia?

    Only in 1979, with the appearance of the Sony Walkman, does it become quite clear:

    The cassette was invented to make sure that you would not have to listen your mother, in any environment, but especially in the car, from the ages of 13 to 15.

    ….”I’m one of the defectors,” says Jim Januszewski, a Seattle software engineer who runs a Web site in his spare time called Art of the Mix, where visitors submit playlists of mix tapes (now mostly mix CDs) they consider to be a perfect expression of the form. “I just like MP3 better, it’s so much easier,” he says. “With the tapes you could screw it up. Now you just move it around, when this song doesn’t work with that song.”

    These matters are still handled with a certain measure of love, Januszewski says. “Only better. People still take time to think of the songs, to design their own covers. Is it a high art form? No. Not really. But it does give agency to the music listener. It makes it something more than a passive experience. That’s what we learned with the cassette tape — you could do it on your own.”

    ….A cassette tape lets you know when it’s dying.

    It starts to give off the sound of music that would be played by a very small band in a suitcase, and then it sounds like that suitcase is inside another suitcase. It sounds like the singer is wearing little socks on his teeth. Consonants go away. Dolby Noise Reduction technology gives up, and if you didn’t know what “Sussudio” meant in the summer of 1985, then there’s no hope of knowing now, not when you pop in the cassette version.

    Everything unspools.

    Tonight you are feeling faithful anyhow. There’s a tape in you trying to get out, and you feel like doing it the old way. You will stay home, by yourself, have a drink, and turn your attention to the bulky components stacked like artifacts in homage to bachelorhood. With the teak-colored stereo speakers large enough to rest your beer upon.

    All the important cords are jacked into the tape deck.

    Obsessing into the small hours, pulling record sleeves from the shelves, the LED display pulsing into the red zone when you record. You can nudge the knobs toward more bass. High bias, normal bias, basically you’re just biased. You are very careful, like a doctor on the verge on the sheer genius.

    (Or: madness.)

Great article. I never liked prerecorded cassettes: they seemed like half-assed versions of the record (pre-CD) to me, and I never liked the sound. But your own tapes, recorded on a fine dual deck like my AIWA HX Pro AD-WX888, with pure amorphous heads, I’ll have you know, is golden.

Oh well, CDs sound better (though MP3s do not). Time marches on.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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