Whether you have fond memories of your compact Sony Walkman cassette player or giant boom box, we think you’ll enjoy this look at audio tapes through the ages. On this journey, we’re starting a little further back – to a world before cassette tapes existed.
What Came Before Cassette Tapes?
If you’re a Baby Boomer or older, you might remember the reel-to-reel tape recorder and player your dad or grandpa had back in the 1960s or 1970s. While the first mono reel-to-reel tape recorder was introduced in Germany in the late-1920s, stereo machines weren’t produced until the mid-1950s. Prior to the digital revolution of the 1980s, all professional recordings were made on some type of reel-to-reel tape recorder, although consumer popularity dwindled with the introduction of far less expensive cassette players.
Cassette Tape History
The Dutch company Philips invented the first audio cassette, called a compact cassette. This format was introduced to a European audience in 1963 at the Berlin Radio Show and the following year made its debut in the U.S. market. Philips decided to license the format for free due to pressure from Sony, which inevitably led to the format’s popularity.
Although cassette tapes were originally designed for voice dictation use, prerecorded music cassettes were available commercially starting in 1965. As fidelity improved, audio cassette tapes became the second most popular format for prerecorded music after vinyl. Early audio cassettes featured a maximum playtime of 45 minutes per side, which was longer than LPs at that time. Following on the heels of the audio cassette in 1965, the 8-track tape was a less compact and somewhat clunky format that’s completely obsolete today.
Cassette Tapes Facts & Stats
- The Norelco Carry-Corder 150 by Philips was the first player available in the U.S. By 1966, more than a quarter-million had been sold in the U.S. alone.
- By 1968, Japan became the major producer of cassette recorders, with more than 2.4 million players sold by 85 different manufacturers.
- Audio cassette players became a standard dashboard feature in automobiles in the 1970s.
- The last new car to be factory-equipped with a cassette deck was a 2010 Lexus.
- In 1979, Sony released its first Walkman for $150. Measuring only slightly larger than a cassette tape, operating on AA batteries, and featuring a pair of portable, lightweight headphones, the Walkman was the first truly portable cassette player.
- Of the more than 400 million Walkman portable music players sold between 1979 and 2010, 200 million were cassette players.
- By 2001, cassettes had a market share of less than 5%.
- Music cassette tape sales in the U.S. grew by 23% from 178,000 units sold in 2017 to 219,000 in 2018.
How Does Cassette Tape Work?
Cassette tape is coated with magnetic particles composed of iron oxide or chromium oxide. Shaped like tiny needles, about 400 million of these microscopic particles are in each inch! The particles are mixed with a binder and transferred onto wide rolls of polyester plastic film. After the coating has dried and is smoothed and polished, the rolls are cut into 3.8mm-wide strips. The magnetic coating enables sound to be recorded and erased.
Recording sound onto tape is a fairly simple process. When a blank cassette is popped into a tape recorder, the tape passes around five magnetic heads in the recorder. The magnetic particles on the passing tape realign in patterns corresponding to the loudness and frequency (rate of vibration) of the incoming sounds.
Cassette Tape Features
Stereo cassettes feature two channels next to each other, so they can be played in stereo or mono players. All cassettes feature a write protection tab that can be broken off to prevent accidental erasing or rerecording. But you can cover the area where the tab was to enable recording new tracks.
If you owned audio cassettes, you likely experienced some of the pitfalls. The hissing was common and tapes could stretch and wear out, get mangled, wind around the guts of the drive mechanism, and melt in hot weather. No wonder other technology dethroned cassette tapes!
What Comes Around Goes Around
Although not on the same scale as the vinyl LP renaissance, cassette tapes have made a comeback of sorts! Cassette tapes don’t boast the superior audio quality of vinyl LPs, therefore, experts attribute the renewed interest to nostalgia and culture, including Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Convert Audio Tapes to Digital
Working boom boxes and Sony Walkmans are fairly scarce these days. If you have a stack of nostalgic old audio tapes that you’re yearning to listen to, the best bet is to convert them to MP3 files. You can do this yourself if you have a USB cassette converter, or rely on a professional service to do the heavy lifting for you.