12/13/2016 11:52 EST | Updated 12/13/2016 12:06 EST

Cassettes Are Cool Again!

Dimitri Vervitsiotis via Getty Images

Well let's face it -- cassettes were never actually cool. I remember as a teen flipping through CDs at the music store in the mall before settling for the cassette version of the album I wanted because I was a broke youth and tape was half the price. Compact Discs were awesome and I felt inadequate with my Walkman while the in-crowd had their anti-shock, mega bass Discmans. Damn those rich kids and their instant ability to choose which song to play...

I was so cash-strapped that I'd often record to tape from the radio, carefully timing the recording so I wouldn't get too much of a commercial or the blathering of a DJ -- I would spend hours listening to the radio to wait for a song I didn't already have. Countless hours were spent rewinding, hitting record, and positioning the tape in the correct place afterwards. Where did I even get my blank tapes? Probably garage sales and flea markets.

Despite the headaches of tape in my early years I've come back to it. It took many months of agonising over which cassette deck to buy and whether I'd even enjoy the hobby; after all, together with my wife we've amassed a large collection of vinyl records that offer a warmer, clearer, just plain higher sound quality. Switching from cassette to vinyl is like watching Planet Earth on a grainy black-and-white rabbit ear set and upgrading to a crystal clear 4K television -- still not as good as the real thing but darn close.

Why trade high fidelity wax for the hiss of chrome? Why trade at all? I want my cake and eat it too. Only not cake -- music.

New music is available on cassette

One website can change your life: Bandcamp. So much good music. You'll find your niche in the warm blanket that is this remarkable community. I prefer to filter all music by format (cassette), then spend hours deciding on what I want. Maybe you're going to grow the largest vaporwave collection this world has ever seen; or perhaps you'll hone in on some independent jazz from Russia that only you and three other people have ever heard of; or you might be that person who collects video game soundtracks on tape. My wife wasn't really into my new hobby until she found Hyper Light Drifter on bright purple and red plastic (on its second run!) and now she's as hooked -- if not more -- than I am. Whatever your taste you can find it -- and recommendations for many, many others like it -- all while directly supporting the artist. All good things.

Cassette decks are sexy

I don't mean a stereo -- I'm talking about a dedicated machine specifically built to play tape the way it's supposed to sound. I settled on a used 1983 Sony TC-FX25. You're not going to find a brand new high quality cassette deck just yet -- scour local thrift stores and pawn shops, and call up your used electronics store. You might even come across one at a record shop selling used tech (which is what I did). Get a good machine. I've been told mine is a basic model but the kind of "basic" model that's very good at what it's designed to do. Read some blog posts about it or check out some video reviews. You're likely to spend at least $40 for a quality machine, unless you can track down a diamond in the rough for less.


I got lucky with my deck -- when I called Heritage Music they had two machines they were testing out in store: one was a professional recording deck with two inputs and could play tape backwards -- too much machine for me; the other was a solid, not-quite-vintage slick silver number that came home with me. Go ahead -- make your parents jealous (or at least annoyed they got rid of their deck long ago).

Enjoy less-than-perfect

Digital music is crisp and exact (unless it's made to sound otherwise). The hallmark of the digital music age and why compact disc and mp3 were such landmarks when they first came on the market was their clarity of sound, which was far and away greater than previous formats. Tape on the other hand -- like vinyl -- has its own unique sound quality embedded into the medium: drums sound deeper and vocals sound warmer; many artists producing to tape today embrace that subtle hiss and deliberately incorporate it into the sound -- or, at times, depending on the artist and the genre, feature it -- rather than try to eliminate or hide the soft sizzle of chrome. It's entirely pleasant to listen to because it sounds more natural than digital and, as any audiophile or child of the 80s and 90s understands, compressed audio files just can't replicate that characteristic cassette sound.

If you're contemplating dipping a toe into cassette culture then there will likely be a number of other reasons you'll find to collect and listen to cassettes -- reasons that are uniquely yours, whether nostalgia, collectability, appearance, or otherwise. Ultimately, if you love music -- or spoken word, even -- and relish the thought of owning physical copy, I suggest you press play on tape and explore what the format can offer

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