Fantastic Formats: An Exploration into the Popular Music Format Part 3 (plus win a haul of Pale Master cassettes)

In the third of our Fantastic Formats Series, the Waveform Transmitter’s Andy Weights takes a look at the format king; tape.

The format world would not be the same but for the invention of tape, and this month we have a bumper issue of Fantastic Formats.

The Waveform Transmitter’s Andy Weights gets his hands dirty, dusting off some old technology, and splices some juicy info on the magnetic world of reel to reel and its baby brother the compact cassette. Not only that but be in with the chance to win a clutch of modern cassette releases from Liverpool label, Pale Master.

The earliest audio tape recorder thought to be made was a non-magnetic, non-electric version invented in the Volta Laboratory around 1886.

Some years later, the first sound scientists to truly embrace the reel-to-reel or open reel audio tape technology sprouted up, in Germany circa 1920, with one of the earliest machines called the Blattnerphone, that used steel tape. The Magnetophon, devised in the 30’s, recorded onto paper tape and both were predominantly used by radio stations to broadcast war propaganda.

America got its hands on the technology and with the help of Hollywood and Bing Crosby brought this amazing new recording technique to the attention of influential developers of the format.

As we boldly leap into the 1950s, the reel-to-reel format had earned its name and companies began to see the potential ‘home use’ market with the first full size cassette developed by RCA in 1958.

8-track cartridges were a short-lived, but popular, tape format, created in the 1960s for the everyday listener, 8-track lasted through to the 70s, although it is now considered an obsolete format.

From the 1960s onwards reel-to-reel tape recorders became the first choice for pro-studios and serious audiophiles.

Multi-tracking came along and enabled studios to record multiple tracks at once. the early 8 track reel-to-reel recorders had the nickname of ‘the Octopus’ and was first used by the likes of Les Paul in 1955.The appearance in the late 80s of the more versatile, much easier to edit Alesis Digital Audio Tape or ADAT would begin to spell the end for the much-loved reel-to-reel in the recording studio.

(Or would it?)

Nowadays many artists comment on the warm, saturated, natural sound that analogue tape produces describing it as giving a fuller-sounding mix, thickening up the bass and naturally compressing the treble. Studios and artists are still using reel to reel too devastating effect.

Our ears don’t lie and reel-to-reel tells the truth.

Cast our minds back to Compact discs and the Vinyl LPs apparent demise and again the format never went away, did it!? Reel to reel just stashed itself underground away from popular fashion content with knowing that the people who loved the sound would always listen and follow further, listen harder, care deeper and dedicate more time and effort to the cause.

Reel to reel we salute you!!

Music audio storage, just like fashion, has ebbs and flows. We see formats come and go and then just as we have got our heads around the current trend a new technique is thrust in our faces, we’re told the old way is not good enough anymore, so get with the times. The format resistance re-positions itself underground, and out of the publics gaze it’s the audience that evolves.

Especially if you’re a Compact cassette fan.

You see, it all stems from our desire to store information and listen to recorded noise. In the form of tape, first came the reel-to-reel, a rather large spool of magnetic tape that fed onto an empty spool. Even the first cassette was deemed too impractical for the average listener, so along came Phillips (pioneering again) with the compact cassette or Musicassette that, in 1962, grabbed the attention of the mellifluous world and started the compact tape revolution. Since then it hasn’t looked back and continues to fan the audio flames of many a listener.

The history of compact cassette has many traditions, such the bootleg or pirate tapes of unreleased or live recordings that sneaked their way around groups of friends like a feel-good germ that everyone wanted to catch. Mix tapes, the unique art of describing our feelings through other people’s songs. Then there is the rewinding or fast forwarding with a pencil. The boom box and Walkman, retro technology that saw us through personal times of introspection and the occasions to share and party.

Cassettes were found in schools, in vehicles, they were found everywhere! The cassette technology broke through barriers reaching inaccessible areas of the planet such India, Africa and behind the iron curtain.

Inspiring generations, compact cassettes taught languages and skills and most importantly shared the human emotion of music. It’s easy to forget how much smaller and accessible the world is presently. Cassettes represent a time and an analogue attitude that we should not forget.

Cassette culture, or the cassette underground was the art of amateur creation and distribution of home-made audio cassettes which started in the 70s. It involved independent artists sending tapes to networks through the post, either as swaps or traditional sales. There were also several outlets where they sold tapes and merch such as Rough Trade and Falling A.

The movement is related to the DIY ethic of punk and promoted individuality and musical eclecticism and saw its peak between 1978-1984.

Created in direct opposition to the music money grabbing corporate machine,’ tape labels’ such as Third Mind Records were championed by bands like Cabaret Voltaire.

Modern releases by labels who release on tape such as Liverpool’s own Pale Master, and Vancouver’s 1080p Records continue to quash their customers insatiable thirst for tape- fresh, harmonic resonance and with shops said to be stocking both classic and new album cassette releases, the future looks luminescent for the compact cassette.

Take a look at Re-loop USB  Mix Tape Recorder. It connects to your mixer and then pop in a USB stick and it records in mp3 direct to the USB device. The Reloop Tape can also be used to record your old vinyl / cassette collection and convert it to mp3.

The sonic world is still in love with the cassette! Although, I’m not saying they aren’t without their operational hiccups, try and find a track in the middle of an album side or when it’s chewed up and spat out and all your left with is a corpse of curly tape! This all enamours them to me though.

Cassettes aren’t heavy but store 90 minutes of data, they followed and created revolutions, they help people learn new skills and inspired generations of modern musicians, they are durable and are standing the test of time. Thanks, cassettes.

The audio compact cassette, it’s big brother the reel-to-reel, 8-track, and all the machines that came before make up the tape family which should be considered the format king.

I dare you to check some of the new cassette releases out, OK you probably haven’t got a tape player but someone you know will or just nick an old car with a cassette player in it. Either way you may be surprised with the results.

We spoke to Pale Master‘s JC about his opinion on tape culture. Here’s what he had to say.

When the topic of the ‘resurgence’ of tape culture comes up, people’s reaction is usually to assume that it’s some kind of rebellion to the disembodiment of music in today’s current streaming/cloud culture. Whilst this may be true of vinyl, I doubt very much that anyone today starts a tape label because of this retaliation away from digital trends.

The underground tape scene has been around since tape’s conception, before the rise of the wide world web, (home recording, pirating, mixtape exchange), but the reason it is far more accessible today is exactly because of the rise of digital/internet culture. I see the two very much working in harmony and this is one of the core ethos to the Pale Master label. 

For an example, look at what it takes to produce a vinyl record. First, it’s expensive to get pressed, that’s even if you find a relatively cheap pressing plant, (usually someplace in deepest darkest Europe). Then you have to get all that wax shipped and pay postage. On top of that you have artwork and packaging costs.

If you’re a label and are spending that kind of money then you’re going to only want to release established artists onto vinyl that you know you can sell, (because you’re going to have to press at least 200 plus to make it worth your while.) And whilst it’s not all about the money, if you run a label, you have to make a turn around to be able put out your next release. Vinyl, for this reason, is political.

Tapes are apolitical. Because there are very low overheads in running a tape label. To put out the first three Pale Master tapes cost around £120 give or take. It’s precisely because of the internet that I could do this, because the suppliers are there. Tape is easy to produce and is quick. I only have to sell about 6 tapes to make my money back on a release.

The point is that I can approach and work with far more artists then I could if I was releasing any other way. I can take far greater risks. It becomes far more engaging for me. It becomes a tool for exploring and exchange.

On one level, the internet has bought the means of production closer than ever to us and on another level, it has also brought artists closer together. This year Pale Master is working with Kenji Yamamoto, (who runs the great Wasabi Tape label in Japan) and also Euro 2000 out of Ghent in Belgium. It would have been impossible to work with these people on a physical release if it wasn’t on tape. You simply wouldn’t have the budget to take that kind of risk. 

For many of the same reasons that cassette culture has become popular once again over the last few years, so is true of the internet/digital realms. People like streaming/downloading because it’s fast and practical. Cassettes hold the same audio data that the cloud does, but with cassette you get an exchange of data, and you also get that articulation of a virtual host in a physical body. Vinyl and CD promise this, but like the internet, tape delivers, in a far less bureaucratic way. I believe this to be the true reason behind the so called ‘resurgence’.”

We’ve got a bunch of Pale Master tapes to give away. To win, all you need to do is FOLLOW the Waveform Transmitter on Facebook, and SHARE the post below.

Author: Ste Knight

Editor at The Waveform Transmitter. Lover of acid basslines, cavernous kick drums, and dark rooms. Cut his teeth to Surgeon's blistering techno assault at T-Funkshun in Liverpool and hasn't stopped for breath since.

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