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Welcome to the Eighties! The transition from legacy media to digital technology is beginning, and within this strange decade of mixed medium comes the rise and fall of the audio cassette magazine.
Audio cassette magazines (or ‘tapezines’) were an experimental journalist platform used to promote a music niche generally not promoted by mainstream platforms. They combined songs, news and interviews with artists and sounded much like podcasts released today. The trend began around 1981 across America, Australia, and the UK. However, the cassettes never lasted longer than a couple of years, with only one audio magazine in Manhattan outlasting the market by ten years.
Each of the magazines focused on a particular music genre or geographical location producing music.
The founding cassette magazine, Fast Forward, focused on post-punk music based on the creators’ passion and knowledge of the Punk genre beginning in the ’70s. The tapezine was available worldwide for music lovers to learn about Australia’s post-punk music. The magazine gained attraction in America, particularly by Bruce Pavitt, the founder of Sub-Pop. Inspired by Fast Forward, Pavitt created cassette compilations to accompany his magazine, promoting undiscovered talent from Pacific Northwest.
On the other side of America, a new challenge against mainstream radio began. Tell Us cassette magazine was an art project documenting New York’s downtown music. The cassette spliced together spoken word, music, and performance pieces with a visual accompaniment. It favoured avant-garde and no wave music, experimenting with different genres of sound. Tell Us’ fluidity with sound and art gave the magazine a longer lease of life, lasting for ten years before the project ended in 1993.
Unlike America and Australia’s underground music promotion, UK’s SFX Cassette Magazine was inspired by MTV’s promotion of New Wave music. An experiment in music journalism created by Hugh Salmon and Max Bell, SFX was advertised as the first audio cassette magazine ever published. However, Fast Forward had defeated SFX to the punch a year earlier.
The benefit of producing cassette magazines was the freedom to experiment with editing spoken word with music. The manual splicing and combining of interviews with sound gave a new found freedom in promoting music compared to printed press.
Bruce Milne from Fast Forward explained that he wanted to create a medium for promoting new music not restricted by the number of adjectives in the English language.
“I’d spent a number of years writing about music and you definitely get to the point when you’re writing about music that this is ridiculous, I’m trying to describe something, and I’ve sort of run out of adjectives.” – Bruce Milne, One of the two founders of Fast Forward
Likewise, radio stations had restricting guidelines on what music was appropriate to play. This meant DJ’s had to discard other lesser-known musicians who did not fit the genre. The cassette magazine combines the two forms with the freedom to play songs not advertised in mainstream media.
Plus, cassette tapes were cheap to buy!
Fast Forward managed to buy their cassettes cheaply by recycling erased pre-recorded tapes and repackaging them. Similarly, Sub Pop’s cassette compilations were said to be worth making as long as they sold 200 copies. After completing three unique cassette compilation magazines, Sub Pop decided to use cassettes to supplement their printed magazine.
However, copyright laws and the creators’ limited access to music restricted tapezines production. SFX had to fight for their right to play 20 to 30 seconds of a song by persuading the Performing Rights Society that previewing music is an excellent way to sell music.
Likewise, Bruce Milne and Andrew Maine from Fast Forward used their radio show to find and access music to play on their cassette magazine. These mainly consisted of cassette or reel to reel demos sent in by independent musicians.
Both magazines struggled to avoid record labels paranoia around home taping destroying music. The creators of Fast Forward learnt a lot about copyright infringement and avoid playing music from large record labels. Meanwhile, before SFX even hit the shops, it was under criticism for using re-useable tapes because it might encourage home taping of music. Hugh Salmon disputed the criticism insisting that listeners would view the tape as a collectable.
Salmon was right to dispute the criticism. The success of SFX led to one of the most famous interviews with Paul McCartney that now sells for profit on eBay. The recorded conversation was the first time McCartney openly talked about the murder of John Lennon. However, SFX’s reign quickly ended after only 19 issues due to the high production costs. Most likely due to their focus on mainstream New Wave music.
Sadly, the novelty of tapezine quickly wore off as mainstream printed magazines began using cassettes to promote new music. NME created a collection of cassette compilation albums to accompany their magazine. Their most famous compilation album released in 1986 (simply named C68) had huge success. But, it marked the beginning of the end to mixtape culture and sharing independent music via cassette tapes.
At the same time, publishing music magazines on cassettes began to feel limited compared to the popularity of MTV. Cassette tapes poor audio quality caused interviews and music to be challenging to listen to. It had nothing on the visual captivation and audio clarity offered by music channels on TV.
Although MTV and copyright laws brought the downfall of the tapezine, these magazines have left a mark in music journalism. Today, Tape magazines are collectable items holding a slice of authentic music history from the ’80s.
The interest in neon sounds found in retro pop has had a resurgence much like how Stranger Things reminded us of freewheeling through the neighbourhood on an 80’s summer evening.
Music recording has changed a lot over the past century, and many elements that became synonymous with these eras of time have been lost to advances in recording methods. As a result, there is a huge amount of cutting-edge tech dedicated to replicating these sounds without the need to acquire any old gear.
We’ve previously touched on some modern artists known for their vintage sound, but what makes music sound vintage?
To answer this question, we have to touch on how music is recorded in the digital age.
Before digital recording became the standard in the music industry, most music of the 1950s to 1990s were produced using multi-track cassette recorders.
These came in the form of large desks with gauges and sliders galore, as well as a slot for a tape to record sound onto. A microphone plugged into the tape recorder would record each track onto a different area of the tape. Producers combined the recordings together to create the finished product.
As audio technology progressed through the Digital Revolution, studios began using increasingly high-tech methods to capture musicians’ vibrations.
This culminated in cassette recorders phasing out favouring computers with a program known as a “Digital Audio Workstation” (or DAW for short). The process of capturing sound remains similar but with huge improvements in cost and versatility.
Sounds could now be edited in ways which were previously impossible due to the limitations of cassette recorders. DAWs use VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins – these are digital effects that distort your sounds any way you like. This could be adding echoes, delays, reverb or synth.
Now with context established, let’s go through some ways in which studios use plugins to replicate cassette recorders.
One of the more notable subtleties saved by the magic of plugins is the sound of tape delay. Adding a delay to a sound makes it echo and repeat itself.
Tape delay has a different sound to the digital delay due to the wear on the tape, causing slight pitch changes. Before the tape delay, musicians would have to record in a naturally-echoing area to capture any delay sound. This was not cost-effective, hence tape delays being developed.
A physical tape delay unit would essentially record a sound onto a tape (for example, the sound of a guitar coming through an amplifier) and play it back alongside the live sound.
“EchoBoy” is an industry-standard plugin that recreates the sound of a tape delay. It features ready-made presets which replicate the sound of many of the most famous tape delay units of the 1950s to 1980s.
Wow is a subtle pitch variation heard in music played on cassette. Tiny changes in the recording speed causes the pitch to change. This results in the classic, warbling sound of a vintage cassette.
Flutter is a similar occurrence, but at a higher frequency. The perceived pitch of the sound changes faster and can cauae vocals to sound more shrill. A worn capstan most often causes flutter in the tape machine itself.
Tech-drenched studios can recreate this sound with a plugin called “Wow Control”.
This plugin lets you adjust the amount of flutter and the speed of the “tape”. There’s even a randomisation button if you need some inspiration!
What? You thought we’d do the entire article without mentioning the glorious vinyl?
Arguably the most iconic “retro” sound is the subtle crackling of a dusty LP. Static buildup or dust and dirt in the vinyl’s grooves causes the crackling sound heard on a vinyl record.
Of course, there are many plugins striving to give producers the option to add this iconic crackle to their tracks in the digital age.
However, there is only one plugin that does this and much more – iZotope Vinyl.
iZotope vinyl is a vintage sound titan. This plugin produces vinyls’ crackle sounds, the audio cutout caused by big scratches in a record, and the pitch wobble of a record warped out of shape.
Prefer your vinyl artefacts a different flavour?
iZotope Vinyl can even switch its entire sound to resemble LPs from the 1930s, ‘50s, ‘60s, 70s, 80s and 2000s!
With complex yet affordable technology, even a beginning bedroom-producer can create vintage music straight with digital plugins.
Of course, nothing beats the real thing, so why not use the UK’s number 1 media digitisation service to get your classic audio tapes/reels converted to digital!
If you’ve been buying albums recently, you may have been confused as to why bands are now offering cassette tapes. Cassette tapes are making a comeback and it is time to embrace it!
In a trend that has flummoxed the nation, cassette tapes have had a 103% sale increase in 2020 compared to 2019 (according to The Official Chart Company). It is a similar trend seen by vinyl records which have now surpassed CD sales in the US this year. Physical copies of records are becoming more popular than downloads. But, it begs the question why someone would choose a cassette rather than CD or vinyl. When comparing the cassette tape to CD format, there are many reasons not to buy a tape: the poor audio quality; the smaller file space and let us not forget the faff of having to switch sides! Perhaps it is because they are cheap to make. Yet, if you are an upcoming band, I can’t imagine releasing music on a cassette would increase your popularity.
Some music companies (NME, Official Charts, Billboards) have suggested that the new trend for cassette tapes is because many fans enjoy collecting physical copies to display in their homes. Cassettes have become a music fan’s commodity. And, since they are so cheap, it is an easy option for fans who cannot afford the expense of vinyl.
Recently, to tackle the competition between cassette to digital formats bands have released their music on cassette and advertised them as a collectible. For instance, Glass Animals have released four cassettes for their new album with different artwork on each one. To entice their fans, they liaised with record stores and offered fans tickets to a limited release concert if they pre-ordered a CD, vinyl or cassette. The cassette being the cheapest option for fans to access these tickets. An easy way to persuade loyal fans to buy physical copies of their music.
What is fascinating about the rise in cassette sales is that it is mainly under-25’s who are buying them! After the release of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 (which based their soundtrack off a mixtape saved on a cassette) the sale of cassettes began to rise and a trend began to set. A pursuit of films and television series followed (Stranger Things, Baby Driver, 13 Reasons Why to name a few) which defined their setting through the legendary audio tape. There is a nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s – and perhaps, a novelty for those who never owned a tape.
Well, if you are in possession of cassettes now would be the optimum time to rekindle your love for them! Since cassettes are now a collectible, you might be in possession of a rare tape which will sell for a small fortune. Although it is the aesthetic of a cassette attracting people into the market, the crackling audio has a charm to it as well. Transferring your audio tape to CD or download file will give you the option to listen to the music without needing a cassette player and give you the chance to relive your favourite albums in the car again.
At Digital Converters, we offer a premium cassette to CD service to help make transferring music into digital formats easier for you. This service is particularly handy if you are wanting to listen to and share old recordings you made before the new millennium. Now is the time to pull out your tapes and revive all those recordings you saved – follow this link to get started.