Crap Cassettes

Crap Tapes Stack

Introduction

Sometimes nostalgia can be generated by the unlikeliest of objects. Take cheap audio cassettes for instance. What were once considered a poor man’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, these budget tapes have now had a bit of a revival thanks to the ‘Cassette Underground’, a growing body of people from around the World comprised of Low-Fi music experimentalists and Cassette Tape collectors. Like the veritable scary monster from your average horror movie, these bargain ‘beasts’ have refused to stay dead and are once again wreaking havoc on our tape machines. Retroscoop charts the rise, fall and rise of these unlikely survivors from yesteryear.


Crap_Tapes_Kay

If you were an impoverished child of the late seventies / early eighties who liked to record music from the radio or make (illegal) copies of friend’s albums, it is likely that you had to turn to one of the many brands of budget tapes that once flooded the market.

Priced at around 30p – 50p per tape (as opposed to their expensive counterparts such as TDK, priced at around £1.50 each) and sporting names such as Kingsonic, Topaz, Kay, Melsonic – and other ‘brands’ too numerous to mention, they were an absolute life saver for a youth on a tight budget. The incredibly cheap price was purely down to their place of origin – China, where incredibly low manufacturing costs allowed factories to churn them out in their millions for next to nothing.

We were under no illusion that what we got for our 50p was a very ‘low end’ recording experience and, as a consequence of being created out of materials too flimsy for the job at hand, the tape would invariably snap or get sucked into your cassette players mechanism. Due to these (and other) experiences I devised my own ‘3 Universal Laws of Cassette Tapes’, the first rule of which states:

The probability of your cassette failing is directly proportional to how important or irreplaceable the recording on the tape is to you.

Because these cassettes were considered to be extremely harmful to tape machines, they were never stocked in your usual Hi-Fi outlets such as Dixons or Currys etc. Instead, you had to head for the forerunners of today’s pound shops; the discount stores such as Oobidoo, QS Discounts, Superdrug and budget hardware stores that sold everything from thumbtacks to Moth Balls.

As previously stated, these tapes came in a variety of brands, but it didn’t take much observational skill to realise that the majority of them were manufactured by the same company, who did little to disguise the fact. In some instances, different ‘brands’ even used the same artwork and fonts on the cassette inserts. In particular, check out the artwork for Kingsonic and Topaz – identical in every respect save for brand names and font.

kingsonic_tape topaz_tape

Initial research indicates that there was one main firm in Hong Kong that produced all the raw materials, such as the cassette shells, guide wheels and magnetic tape, which was then sold off to one of several cassette assembling firms who put the tapes together and ‘branded’ them for their wholesale customers, printing insert ‘J’Cards and cassette labels, often for several different wholesalers simultaneously. Chances are, that whatever ‘brand’ of cheap tape you chose, you were getting the exact same product, with the same shell mouldings and components – right down to the quality of the oxide layer on the tape itself; the ultimate ‘illusion of choice’ in the audio world.

Crap_Tapes_Kingsonic

In its heyday, it has been estimated that Hong Kong cassette manufacturers produced on average13.2 million C-60s and 7.6 million C-90 audio cassettes every month, with most of these destined for the cassette buying markets in Europe.

Cassette tape entered its golden phase in the mid-eighties with the introduction of the Sony Walkman; a highly portable battery-powered cassette player that allowed you to play cassettes anywhere you wanted. But it was the advent of the Compact Disc (CD) and the portable CD player that ushered in the decline of the cassette tape. By the mid-1990s, the demand for cassette tapes had reduced dramatically, leading to the creation of Hi-Fi units without tape players altogether. The final nail in the coffin was brought about in the late 1990s by the introduction of digital recording formats such as MP3, and their associated hardware players which, for the first time, allowed you to take your entire music collection around with you on devices small enough to fit in your pocket. Suddenly Cassettes seemed incredibly bulky and awkward to use by comparison.

Crap_Tapes_Topaz

However, a mix of nostalgia and a rekindled desire to revisit the ‘excitement’ and ‘rawness’ of audio tape has led to the Cassette revival we see today. Even the mass produced Hong Kong brands are now back in demand with ‘Low-FI’ musicians and experimentalists snapping them up from charity shops and collectors fairs. Vintage blank cassette tapes are now exchanging hands between collectors for ridiculous amounts of money, especially silly considering their original retail prices.

In case you are wondering, the remaining two of the ‘3 Universal Laws of Cassette Tapes’ are as follows:

The amount of recording time you have left near the end of your cassette is always thirty seconds too short for the full length of the song you really wanted to record off the radio.

And

Although most cassettes come with tape boxes to store them in, when it comes to putting them all away, there is always one extra cassette left over when all the tape boxes are full. Always.

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Some of my Computing Past

BASIC Coding Sheet

BASIC Coding Sheet

The kids of today don’t know how lucky they are. Take computers for instance.

As I progressed through my latter years of secondary school in the late ‘70s & early ‘80s, a new subject was added to the curriculum that really appealed to the nerd in me: Computer Studies.

Before the 1970s, computers were huge, complex and expensive affairs that only resided in military, industrial or university establishments. In short, they were very much out of the reach of the average person. However, by the mid ‘70s all of that changed due to the birth of the Microcomputer. Suddenly, machines were drastically reduced in size, cost and reliability, making them increasingly accessible to the average person on the street. Naturally, being a huge fan of science fiction, I wanted to get my hands on them. So I enrolled on the course. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the computer we would be using was not located at the school, but in another town around 35 miles away!

We ‘programmed’ this computer by writing out BASIC* programs on coding sheets that were then sent via snail mail to a data centre in Crewe. Upon arrival, the sheets would be typed by hand into the computer. They would then run your program and post back a printout of the output. The whole process took around two weeks from sending off your coding sheet to getting back the results. However, if you had made a mistake, ie incorrectly spelled a command, missed out a comma, declared the wrong variable or, heavens forbid, the person inputting the data made a typo, no attempt would be made to correct it. Instead your program was run until it failed. Of course, on many occasions there would be multiple errors in your program, which you would only discover once previous errors had been ironed out. To cut a long story short, it could literally take months to get a program to run correctly.

Olivetti Terminal - taken from a publicity brochure Circa 1969

Olivetti Terminal – taken from a publicity brochure Circa 1969

After a few terms of this exercise in ‘delayed action insanity’, the school invested in an Olivetti teletype terminal complete with a punch tape reader and an acoustic coupler. Our computing lives were transformed overnight. Now we could enter our programs ‘directly’ into the Crewe computer via the phone line & acoustic coupler/modem and receive the results back in minutes, not months.

Acoustic Coupler. Photo: Peter Edin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peteredin/6148062456/

Acoustic Coupler. Photo: Peter Edin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peteredin/6148062456/

For those of you not familiar with acoustic couplers, they were large(ish) soundproof boxes which you placed your (land line) telephone’s handset into. Inside the box were two ‘cups’ which you inserted the handset’s mouth and ear pieces into. These ‘cups’ converted electrical signals from the terminal into sound (and vice versa) which were then sent down the phone line to the main computer in Crewe. The same happened at the Crewe end of the connection where the output of the computer was sent back to the terminal in the school. In these days of 21st Century Wi-Fi magic, this practice must sound terribly impractical and archaic, but to us in the late ‘70s, it was cutting edge!

Punch Tape

Punch Tape

As you typed on the terminal, each key depression was captured on Punch Tape. It did this by punching holes into a strip of paper tape in different combinations to represent each key on the terminal’s keyboard. The tape we used was wide enough to accommodate 8 holes (or spaces) per row. Each key had its own unique pattern, so if you typed in the letter A, for instance, the sequence was: Space / Hole / Space / Space / Space / Space / Space / Hole. When the tape was fed back into the reader, the patterns were read and converted back to the keys they represented. If you made a mistake, it was easy to correct by pressing backspace, where the tape would move back one row and all 8 rows were then punched out as holes. A pattern of 8 holes was read by the machine as ‘do nothing’.

'70s ASCII Art. Say Hello to Deborah!

’70s ASCII Art. Say Hello to Deborah!

Somehow, possibly via teacher visits to industry computing centres, we got our hands on rolls of punch tape that did not contain programs, but pictures made out of ASCII characters. The jumbles of seemingly random symbols made no sense until you stood well back to view them. This was our first exposure to computer art. Two I remember well were of a picture of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy with a calendar printed underneath and a ‘naughty’ picture of a nude woman (called Deborah) sitting on a tall stool. The latter tape got copied quite a few times and distributed to all the nerds in the school. I’ll be covering the history of computer art in more detail in a future post.

The Olivetti Terminal was kept in a tiny storeroom tucked away in the school’s maths block. The room was only large enough to accommodate the terminal plus around three people at a time. Due to the lack of space we worked largely unsupervised. Normally the thought of leaving pupils to their own devices would fill a teacher with dread, but since we were all nerds they were not worried. In fact, the only problem they had was getting us out of the room at the end of lessons.

PET Computer Advert - Taken from Wireless World July 1979

PET Computer Advert – Taken from Wireless World July 1979

By 1980, the school truly entered the computer age with the purchase of a Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor). The PET was an amazing machine. Ours was the 2001 version which came with a built in tape deck for reading and storing computer programs, a 6502 processor and a whopping 8K of memory. That’s right. 8 KiloBytes – 40 times less memory than you can find nowadays in the average Tamagotchi toy! 

The PET was a thing of beauty. With its angular shaped box and screen, it looked in my mind how a real computer should. In no time at all our programming skills improved in an exponential curve. Computing in those days was exciting, a new frontier accessible only to nerds. For me, there will never be another time quite like it.

But tell all this to the kids of today and they won’t believe you.

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Many thanks to Geoff Macdonald for supplying a few technical details for this posting. Check out his virtual computer museum at: http://geoff.org.uk/museum/index.htm

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*BASIC (which stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) was a computer language used to program most microcomputers in the 1970s and 1980s.