Introduced as a new and compact innovation in 1963 and reaching the height of popularity in the 1980s, cassette tapes have a distinctive personality. Unfortunately, along with being portable, fragility is an inherent trait. If you’re of a certain age, you may recall listening to a favorite tape when it suddenly ground to a halt. You pressed the eject button and tried to pull out the cassette, only to find the player had a stubborn grip on it. Once you set the tape free, you carefully removed the knots and attempted to smooth out the wrinkles before winding it back up. Not surprisingly, “the player ate my tape” was a common phrase uttered back in the day! As you likely recall, cassette tape repair is a tricky endeavor. Your favorite tape never sounded the same again and you may have given up when it got caught in the exact same spot a second time.
Common Cassette Tape Issues
Tears/tangles: Moving parts inside cassette tapes (e.g. rollers) are subject to wear and tear, which can cause jamming or breakage of the magnetic tape itself.
Water damage: Storage in a damp environment like a basement can cause water damage, even if actual water hasn’t touched the cassettes. Mold and mildew can grow on the magnetic tape or inside the casing, badly damaging the tape. Most tapes recovered from floods aren’t damaged by exposure to water and debris, but by mishandling by their owners.
Broken shell case: Subjected to abuse like being dropped, stored in a car’s glove box, piled in a stack around a boom box, or crammed into a pocket often caused the casing/shell of cassette tapes to break, making them unplayable.
How to Fix a Cassette Tape
Cassette tapes are typically held together with screws in each corner or welded/glued together. It’s easy to remove the small screws, however, welded cases literally need to be broken in half before attempting most repairs. DIY repair methods for tears and tangles are the easiest to tackle but still require considerable time and effort. Broken tape in which both ends are hanging out of the shell can be spliced without opening the shell.
- Run the backside of the tape over a rounded surface such as a pen to re-flatten it as best as possible
- Carefully align and reattach the strand ends against a backing of special Mylar splicing tape, then trim the excess off either side
It’s possible to remove dirt and debris from cassettes with water damage if you do this correctly, however, professional cassette tape restoration is the best option.
- Use only cool distilled water, not tap water because chlorine is highly damaging
- Gently pour distilled water over the tape or submerge it, gently moving the tape from side to side to dilute or remove contaminants
- DIY drying is best done by exposing tapes to cool, dry air and positioning them on the edge, not lying flat
To replace a cracked or damaged shell, the tape needs to be carefully removed from the old housing and placed into a new one. This is tedious and slow at first, but it gets easier once you get the hang of it.
- Open the case and carefully wind up the entire length of the tape by placing your finger on the edge of it, then place it in a new case that has screws and close it
Bottom line – the best way to preserve the groovy sounds of yesteryear is to get them converted to digital files. At ScanCafe, we use a state-of-the-art deck to capture the sound on both sides of the tape from beginning to end and save this in a .wav file you can play anytime, without worrying about the player eating your tape!