The humble audio cassette tape, or Compact Cassette to give it it’s original name, may have been around since the early Sixties, but growing up in the Eighties it was a very important thing in my life, as it was not only an easy way of listening to and recording music, but more importantly to me personally, it was how I could save and load software for my home computer.
The compact cassette was an invention of electronics company Philips, who were also the innovators behind the compact disc. It worked by allowing music or data to be recorded by altering the magnetic properties of a piece of thin plastic tape coated with ferric oxide. This was of course nothing new, as reels of tape had been used in this manner for storage for decades prior, but as it’s name suggests, the compact cassette was a winner thanks to it’s relatively small size.
At the time of introduction vinyl was still the medium of choice for music storage, and indeed it arguably remained so for many years, but by the time the Eighties came around the cassette tape truly became a big player thanks to two technical innovations – the Sony Walkman, and the Home Computer.
Whilst they were certainly easier to transport and easier to use than vinyl, you still had to be careful with your cassettes. Winding them back and forth repeatedly could stretch the tape, causing the sound to warp as it was played back, and in extreme cases led to the dreaded tape snag, where you pulled the tape out of the player only to find the tape was still stuck in it somehow and it started to unravel from the plastic casing.
It was also easy to record over stuff very easily, unless of course you broke out the little write protect tabs from the top of the casing, although given that cassette tapes were double sided and thus had two little tabs, it was also easy to break out the wrong tab and thus write protect the wrong size. If this was done a piece of sellotape or a piece of paper screwed up and shoved in the hole could make that side recordable again.
Cassettes came in various different recording lengths, which was denoted by the letter “C” (presumably for cassette) followed by a number, which was the total number of minutes that could be recorded on the tape when using both sides of the tape. C60 and C90 were probably the most popular for taping music off the radio and so on, whilst shorter tapes, most notably C15 and C30 were used for computer storage. This was because the shorter length allowed thicker plastic tape to be used, which made them more reliable. Important when you’ve just spent 10 minutes waiting for a game to load only for the computer to reset at the last second due to a read error.
The cassette tape has now all but vanished it would seem. Music is no longer sold on cassette (or if it is, you can’t buy it in most normal shops) now that the CD rules the roost, although it’s days are possibly numbered with the growing rise of digital downloads. The last bastion of the cassette tape for audio was surely the car, where a cassette radio was common place right into the Nineties, until CD finally took over there too.