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October 9, 2014 / Erik Ritland

Cassette Tape Magic

by Erik Ritland

Rambling On is a seriously fun blog and podcast covering sports, music, culture, and more. Check us out on Twitter, Facebook, or at our website.

Originally published in January 2014 as part of Rambling On’s Daily Ramble series.

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There’s a kind of rush that I can’t explain
Tearing off the cellophane
Reading off the card, cueing up side A
Starting up the car and hitting play
– Johnathan Rundman

I have sentimental attachment to cassette tapes. Along with thrift store LPs they were the only format I could afford to buy music on growing up, due in equal part to not having a lot of expendable income and CDs being stupidly expensive.

I always dreamed of making a cassette tape. When my friend Nate Houge sold me his TASCAM cassette recorder I went crazy. I began writing and recording songs for the first time in my life. I was about 15 and obsessed with David Bowie and Uriah Heep. I wrote really bad socially conscious folk songs, meandering love songs, and bad punk rip-offs.

When I was in high school I got as far as making artwork for a tape of my recordings called Lower than Lo-Fi, Cheaper than Cheap. The only problem was that I had no way to transfer my music from my four track onto other tapes. I think I still have the artwork for it somewhere. Song titles included “Society’s Song,” “Giving In,” and the title track. Many of them I re-recorded for the first demo that I made (once again with Nate Houge).

Evidently 2013 saw a resurgence in cassettes. Honestly, I have no idea why. LPs sound better, MP3s are easier to manage, and CDs are, well, nearly as useless only they have better sound.

In an article for Rolling Stone cassette obsessive Rob Sheffield makes a good case in favor of cassettes, though:

Why are cassettes back? It’s easy. They’re cheap and they make noise. They’re quick. They’re intimate. They have personality, not just another digital file. And they sound great, if you like the ambient hum of cassette sound. (I do.)..Tapes are the ultimate DIY format – bands can crank out their homemade goodies fast, design a groovy cover, stack them on the merch table for $5 a pop. It’s a way to indulge weird experiments or the drummer’s side project.

I can get behind this sort of romanticism. A lot of my favorite ideas are side projects that never came to fruition. If I could spend all my time making music I’d come out with a bunch of cassettes. I’d write songs forever and work with all my friends on a ton of different stuff. The romance of a person, or band, creating songs and releasing them will never lose its mystery.

Speaking of mystery, Shefflied continues:

They also have a bit of old-school mystery. You can’t just click on a cassette and get the back story. You have to let the tape roll in real time, asking yourself questions like “Where did this come from?” or “How long does this stupid thing go on?” or “Why the hell did anyone spend an hour of their life making this?” You have to forget what you know and surrender to what you hear. It’s a format that rewards the curious of ear and stout of heart.

I often bemoan that in our fast food, digital world people don’t take the time to immerse themselves in music anymore. Albums (not vinyl, but a collection of songs) are dying as a format. That you can’t skip over a song you don’t like right away forces you to listen to it and maybe find something you didn’t expect. Instead of “surrendering to what you hear” each song surrenders to the whim of the individual listening to it.

I had no idea that anybody made cassettes anymore. I’m certainly on board, though. After all, who doesn’t like a little tape hiss?

Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik’s music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.


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