Fade Out

As the tape format dies, rewind those memories

| July-August 2006

  • cassette

    Image by Flickr user: Dennis AB / Creative Commons

  • cassette

I held the deadly object in my hand with fascination as I committed my first crime at 9 years old. Holding a bulky tape recorder up to a speaker to capture a Van Halen marathon on local radio, I unknowingly placed myself in the middle of a decades-old format war. More important than a tinny copy of “Hot for Teacher” alone suggests, this battle had far-reaching effects for both consumer freedom and how art is made.

Now effectively useless, the cassette became the first technology since radio to challenge—with its appealing openness, cheapness, and portability—music companies’ control. By giving listeners the ability to copy and share music, tape not only entered a copyright debate that still rages, but also became a way for an entire generation to express friendship, cultural affinity, and even love.

Tape wasn’t the first home recording technology. Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph could record, but the process was unwieldy, and it was soon supplanted by Emile Berliner’s gramophone, whose flat, round discs counterintuitively crushed the music experience into a one-way relationship. That is, until the 1950s and the rise of tape.

When companies began marketing reel-to-reel recorders that used ferric oxide bonded to plastic tape, it didn’t make an immediate impact on consumers. As is the case with many new technologies, artists first realized the potential. Composer Edgar Varse once declared that he longed “for instruments obedient to my thought and whim, with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, which will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.” Varse found that instrument in tactile, easily edited, and instantly playable tape, and he would incorporate sound collages into his groundbreaking 1954 composition Deserts. His work would influence composers John Cage and Steve Reich and pop acts such as the Beatles.

“Tape used to mean a lot to me,” says Roger Miller of postpunk icons Mission of Burma, a band that used loops during early performances. “The price of quarter-inch tape made it a functional way to document my music and discover new sounds.”

As a popular format, reel-to-reel recorders never succeeded the way cassettes eventually would. Unlike the luxury “hi-fi” units associated with vinyl, cassette players were inexpensive and portable. By the mid ‘70s, the music industry began to notice that sales of cassettes had begun to outstrip the LP. Something in our relationship to music was reasserting itself.

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