Tapes making a comeback

Author: Neville Roberts   Date Posted:19 June 2019 

Guest Editorial
The Comeback Cassette
No Longer Just on eBay. New Releases Are Also Appearing Now!

Now that the vinyl format has well and truly returned as a mainstream music source, we can really no longer talk about the great vinyl revival. More recently, we have been seeing an increase in the number of companies that are producing music on open reel tape. The original pre-recorded open reel tapes that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s were quarter-track 7.5IPS stereo releases on 7-inch spools. They were mass-produced, quarter-track recordings, usually made on high-speed duplicating machines. This resulted in a reduction in the sound quality but enabled the recordings to be sold at prices that could compete with vinyl LPs.
Chasing the Dragon is now selling "Real Time Cassettes," copied directly from the original master tapes.
Then along came the compact cassette. These are also quarter-track recordings, but made on eighth-inch tape running at 1.75 IPS. Commercially made pre-recorded cassette tapes were also made on high-speed duplicating machines, and developments in tape formulations meant that very high-quality recordings could be made at this slower speed and on the narrower tape of a cassette. 
When the CD appeared on the scene, cassette sales dwindled as consumers headed for the new digital format. However, in recent years, people are realizing that the old analog formats still have a great deal to offer in terms of sound quality. The current revival of interest in pre-recorded open reel tapes is not about the mass-produced quarter-track 7.5 IPS tapes of yesteryear but about true copy master tapes made at the original mastering speed of 15 IPS on 10.5" NAB spools. Some companies focus on re-releasing master copies of the master tapes of original analog recordings, while others are now producing modern recordings that have been made on professional analog tape. The problem for many is that copy-master tapes are made on expensive media and making a copy is a time-consuming process as it has to be made in real-time. This makes the end product rather costly when compared to the LP, although the sound quality is generally considerably superior.
Now, we are beginning to see a resurgence of interest in the compact cassette. According to a report released by The Official UK Charts Co., sales of cassette albums in the UK in 2017 more than doubled compared with the previous year. Sales in 2018 were even better, thanks to a number of high-profile artists releasing their latest albums on cassette. This has prompted UK audiophile recording label Chasing The Dragon to start releasing its catalog of recordings on cassette. As far as I am aware, this company is one of the first, if not the first, to do so. These cassettes are not made on high-speed duplicating machines, but like their copy-master open reel counterparts, they are recorded individually in real-time from the master tape on a Nakamichi CR-7E, which re-calibrates the bias and azimuth before every recording. The tapes are Chromium Oxide standard play C60 cassettes from ATR, recorded with or without Dolby noise reduction, depending on the customer's requirements. Even given the labor-intensive process, the cost is considerably less than copy-master open reel recordings - around the same cost as the LP version. Also, you don't need to purchase an expensive studio-quality machine to play the cassettes.
When recording and playing Compact Audio Cassettes, the Nakamichi CR-7E is considered one of the best available machines, proven also by its long-term maintainability.
Needless to say, I was eager to get my hands on one of these cassettes and I chose a recording of Vivaldi in Venice in both the Dolby and non-Dolby versions. I have the same recording on LP and open reel tape, so I was able to compare the cassette against other analog formats. My first job was to dash up to the loft and dig out my trusty Technics RS-B665 cassette deck. After removing the cobwebs from the tape heads and giving it a general service, I plumbed it back into my audio system.
I lined up my copy-master open reel tape on my Studer, lifted my stylus over the same track on the LP, and positioned the cassette at the same point on my Technics. I was then ready to press "play" on both tape machines and lower the stylus onto the record all at the same time. With all three recordings playing simultaneously, I was able to switch between the different formats to make comparisons.
ATR Magnetics acquired a stock of the increasingly scarce BASF Super Chrome Cassette tape and is now selling type II cassettes in boxes of 10 in the C-60 and C-90 format, 30 and 45 minutes per side, respectively.
The results were somewhat surprising. Both the open reel master tape and LP were superb, but the open reel tape conveyed more of the atmosphere and realism of the live performance. What I was not expecting was that the cassette was really up there with both these analog formats. It really sounded pretty close to the LP, although the background noise was quieter on the LP and the open reel tape. The non-Dolby cassette had all the dynamic range and extended bass response of the open reel tape, at the expense of a little bit of tape hiss. However, that is a small price to pay for nearly an order of magnitude lower cost. The Dolby cassette, as you would expect, did not suffer from the hiss of its non-Dolby counterpart, but lacked the openness, attack, and clarity of the non-Dolby cassette. With Dolby, the bass performance was similar, but the top end of the strings felt a bit more restrained and also edgy. Overall, I preferred the non-Dolby cassette, but I can see others wanting the quieter noise floor of the Dolby version.
Hmm - I wonder if it's worth me bidding on an unopened, ten-pack of TDK SA60s on eBay.

Leave a comment

Comments have to be approved before showing up