Cassette tape
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This Is Why Cassette Tapes Will Never Die

In his history music history book High Bias, Marc Masters argues that cassette tapes will never die because they never really went away in the first place.

High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape
Marc Masters
University of North Carolina Press
October 2023

From the sleek, minimalist audio engineering labs of Philips to “the dusty rat-shit area of the cassette stall”, High Bias: the Distorted History of the Cassette Tape is a loving, fascinating, and sometimes obsessive history of the cassette tape. Music journalist Marc Masters explores the many, sometimes unexpected ways cassettes have reshaped music, history, and culture in a manner that appeals just as much to the curious observer as the hardcore tape obsessives. High Bias details how cassette tapes predicted – and, in some ways, contributed to – our current cultural moment. Indeed, the cassette tape’s arrival signaled the transition from the unidirectional monoculture of the album to the complete atomization of personalized listening created by the mixtape we see now in our hyper-accelerated era of playlists and algorithm-driven listening.

High Bias begins with a passionate survey of cassette tapes’ many virtues, serving as a manifesto.

The cassette tape is imperfect. It degrades, it tangles, it adds noise, it adds hiss. It puts a smudgy fingerprint on everything it touches, and everything that touches it does the same. It eventually dies, though it often lasts longer than you expect. For anyone who loves cassette tapes, its mechanics are magical. The way the case swings on a hinge like a miniature book, so satisfying to open and close. The way the cover, or J-card, folds into halves and thirds, with layers begging to be opened and perused. The way the outer shell protecting the tape is so smooth, molded, symmetrical. The way you can peek into the tiny window and watch the tape work, spooling forward and backward, or just let it sit still, waiting to be played, holding sound between its layers. The way the cassette tape fits about as perfectly as any object could in the palm of your hand.

A similarly effusive segment offers more praise while simultaneously hinting at High Bias’ methodology.

Cassette tapes are analog. They don’t replicate sound exactly as it is. They distort it, and the more you copy them, the more distorted the sounds become. The story of the cassette tape is distorted too.

In short, High Bias isn’t aiming for either objectivity or authoritativeness. Instead, it’s a passionate love letter written from an unabashed fan of the format. Its thoroughness, detail, and historical accuracy make High Bias an essential resource for pop culture historians and obsessives.

Chapter 1, “Killing Music”, is the most historical and technical. It tells the story of the origins of magnetic recording in 1878 through the story of engineer Lou Ottens. Ottens created both the portable cassette player/recorder as well as the “compact cassette”, kickstarting the advent of both portable tape and personal listening, which would come into its heyday with the introduction of the Sony Walkman. While the “Killing Music” chapter will be most interesting to media historians and archaeologists, it offers some fascinating asides, like the social role of boom boxes.

High Bias‘ remaining chapters will be of more interest to general music lovers as Masters takes a deep dive into the ways that cassette tapes have shaped music and even helped create whole genres. Much attention is given to the role that tapes played in making hip-hop the global force it is today, detailing the lives of relentless – and sometimes under-appreciated – innovators like DJ Kool Herc and Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw. This particular segment is especially entertaining for those who cut their teeth during the mixtape era, as it goes into great detail about the wizardry of “pause-button tapes”, allowing for the seamless editing that makes hip-hop possible. Masters performs a similar deep dive into House Music. 

The forays into lesser-known genres are just as entertaining and even more useful for anyone with a taste for lesser-known music. Masters discusses the importance of cassette tapes in the rise and spread of Go-Go in Washington D.C. He does an even deeper dive into the cassette underground of the ’80s, which is reason enough to read High Bias, as this dense, strange art movement is largely unknown outside of tape fanatics.

The next section details specific subcultures that have helped the cassette tape survive the dustbin of history. There’s a detailed chapter on live taping, discussing the world of recording and trading live shows from taper-friendly bands, usually of the hippy persuasion. It will leave seasoned heads feeling misty and nostalgic for their old Maxells and TDKs.

Chapter 5, “The Tape Hunters Traveling the Globe to Unearth History on Cassette”, is perhaps the most interesting and useful for current listeners, as it follows the rise of reissue labels that travel the world, unearthing rare sounds. The cassette tape has been even more important and influential outside of the US due to its cheapness and durability. Vast continents of sound have never been etched into vinyl or shellac, living only on ferric tape. Labels like Sublime Frequencies, Sahel Sounds, and Awesome Tapes From Africa are preserving these sounds and making them available to a modern global audience, creating an archive of international sounds that simultaneously fulfill the need for new, novel, and unexpected sounds in a world frighteningly short on wonder. 

The last chapter, “Tape’s Not Dead: The Cassette Comeback”, finishes with the role that tapes play in the current musical ecosystem. It starts by pointing out that the current interest in cassette tapes is not a “comeback” because they never really went away in the first place. They might not move as many units as they did in the ’80s, but they still sell respectably, especially in a world hungry for physical media, with vinyl becoming increasingly expensive.

This chapter discusses the current cassette tape underground, starting with negating the argument that the current taste for tapes is driven by hipster nostalgia. Masters concludes by talking to people at some of the current fascinating labels issuing singular, strange, inspired music of all kinds. He speaks at length to some of the biggest and most interesting tape labels currently operating, like Moon Glyph, Not Not Fun, Unifactor, Dinzu Artefacts, Tsss, and Umor Rex. This final section makes High Bias essential reading for anyone looking to get into, or back into, the beautifully, wonderfully strange world of cassette tapes. 

RATING 7 / 10