The Lost Art Of Tape Compilation
It seems like too many years ago now that amateur compilers enjoyed the vagaries of the Tape Cassette. Introduced in 1963 it became a popular way to record and store recordings from the early ’70s onwards. In a moment of daydream, thinking about how things have moved on and how we now compile to iPod, other MP3 players or to CDR I thought it would be interesting (probably only to me) to re-visit the moment when any musically mad bedroom dweller could be the next best thing to a real record compiler, offering to his or her friends small glittering gifts of musical knowledge, taste and inheritance.
I think I saw my first tape cassette, along with it’s player in about 1973-’74, when as a young kid growing up on Pennington Bend, Nashville Tennessee I recall spending long hours facinated by how I could talk, or shout (more accurately) into a small microphone attached by a spavined lead to an even more decrepit recorder, one of those that you had to depress the play and record buttons with a loud ‘Kerrchunk’ before it would creakingly deign to come alive and record my squeeky, and later, very American sounding voice. The voice of a kid, the voice that I listened to 20 years later and then never again as the tape stretched, slowed in that, I just can’t get there quickly enough to press stop way, bust and refused to be repaired. That was the thing about cassettes, once they went, that was it, few had the tape editing knowledge or equipment, to open the blighter and repair the damage with a splice or three.
As we all grew up, tape cassettes became a way to prepare for adulthood, to record our own voices, a way to pretend to DJ radio shows (in my case) or to record for all posterity our supreme taste, our genius like knowledge of music and to enhance, by their dissemination our un-assailable place upon the podium of ‘Most Knowledgable Musical Mind’ at the yearly, I’m just a kid in my bedroom awards!
Compiling Music for others pleasure
The process of creating a Tape for a friend should never be entered into lightly, there were many reasons for creating one. Here are just some reasons why you might want to spend the time and effort in the first place.
1. To impress a girl (or boy), to share your inner most soul by some unspoken shared ‘musical language’, hoping that the baring of your soul, expressed by the selection of tunes on the tape would unlock some hidden majical connection between you both and she (or he) wouldn’t be able to resist the power of that mutual recognition. This provided any shy young boy or girl an ideal way to make contact with the frightening, yet promising opposite sex, without the horrific terror of having to actually express what you felt, verbally, and in the moment. Just why I once truly felt that ‘The Prisoner’ by Iron Maiden, or ‘Breast Cancer’ by Peter and the Test Tube Babies was going to cement a long term relationship that included the electrifying and urgent possibility of real live sex, is now beyond me.
2. As a simple introduction to someone new. If music is really important to you, and it’s very important to me, then a tape was a great way to say who you think you were and define yourself for all the world to see. Somehow, sending someone to your Last Fm profile to see just who you’re currently listening to seems to me at least, much less significant. For a start you have to make a tape, and as you’ll see later, that’s no mean feat.
3. To excuse laziness. Compiling a tape gave you an excuse to stay in your Bedroom, or Lounge if you were a bit older, and travel through the musical world, looking for new tunes, playing old ones. An excuse to spend time doing what you really liked to do, listen to music, but to listen with some sort of purpose separate from pure laziness and indulgence. Though indulgence is probably exactly what wasting too much time compiling a tape really was, it certainly made you feel a little better if you were riddled like a wood boring worm be-speckled timber from the ship wreck of the Mary Rose by Protestant Work Ethics.
4. To Pretend. When you were compiling your tape, you could pretend you were putting together the next most important record release on the face of the planet. A carefully compiled tape cassette could rival any professionally produced double Lp set, and as Cassettes ranged in length, you could choose the ideally suited C90, with ninety minutes of recording time, it was perfect for recording what would have amounted to two Lps, one for each side of the cassette. Alternatively the C60 was slightly less perfect for a full Lp, one imagined side for each side of the tape cassette. But more of choosing your ideal length later (oh Missus!).
5. Yes I could go on, but you get the idea . . .
The first step in producing your tape was to have some idea of what should go on it, you could go by theme, genre of music, favourite tunes, new tunes, whatever floated your boat at that moment. Most important though was to to design that particular ‘release’ for it’s intended listener, to avoid your own ego and to think about what they would prefer, what they would respond to. For example I recall putting together a compilation, doing so at a time later than the tape cassettes heyday, actually, in the heady days of Minidisc compiling (but we’ll avoid that chestnut shall we?) for a friend called Mike. Like myself both in name and musical taste Mike loved Jamaican music and more than I, Soul. The selection I eventually chose included a hearty grab at a few tunes on the record Darker Than Blue put out by Blood and Fire records and others I found laying around the place/ it remains, probably, the best compilation I’ve ever done, and I wish I had a bloody copy!
Initially there was only the normal Ferric Oxide to use for your craft, however later cassettes could be compiled and then recorded on Chrome Oxide, producing a much more responsive recorded frequency range to the signal you supplied it when recording and also less background noise.
To Dolby or not to Dolby
Dolby noise reduction, as far as I’m aware was invented to help tone down the background hiss (noise floor) of Ferric Oxide tape. It was considerably noisier than Chrome. There was initially only one option, on or off, but later we were offered a confusing three types of Dolby noise reduction on our tape recorders. A,B and un-remarkably – C. I never quite understood what they did, they seemed to cut down background hiss when used, and yet they really badly affected the frequency response, dulling the recording and muddying it’s sound. I never understood if I should use Dolby at the recording stage, the playback stage, or at both stages. Thus I finally decided after experimenting that I would not use it at all, but instead I’d spend the extra few pence on Chrome cassettes, I’m guessing this is what everyone did!
Manuals never seemed to explain, so even the most anally retentive of tape compilers, and I’m proud to say I think I’m one, never quite got it!
Timing was also an important element of the selection process to consider, ideally you wanted to have a selection as close to your cassette’s capacity available for inclusion. Remembering that though a C90’s length should be at least 45 minutes on each side, often it was quite a bit longer, allowing for the risky business of overrunning on purpose, however this was a thing to be considered by the ‘pro’ compilers only, beginners be wary.
Because of the average running time of the Vinyl Lp some tape cassettes were timed to provide the perfect partner for a bootleg recording of said Lps. This links the cassette indelibly with another dinosaur of a lost aural world, the 33rpm record, an object so completely fetishised that many online music sites offering electronic downloads represent the download link with a picture of you guessed it …. a record. Long dead Vinyl is still the very embodiment of what music means to us, and by us, I mean our future, the kids, the iPod generation. Sheeesh.
Flipping the Tape, where to stop and where to begin again?
The next most important thing was to remember that your tape was going to need to be turned over for the B side approximately 45 minutes after you started it. Thus you had to consider making certain that there was a suitable gap in your playlist, where side A’s recording could be finished and side B’s begun. So you might have 10 tunes for side A, the last of which finishes at a total time of … say… 49 minutes, the tune before it would take the total time to only 40 minutes, there were always some difficult decisions to be made in this instance! You could replace the last tune for something that timed better, but shouldn’t ever have for-gone the playlist’s coherence just to make your tape time better! Alternatively you could risk the overrun, or finish early. If you stopped the tape early though what happened was that you had to FF (that’s Fast Forward to non tape’ees) to the end of the cassette, then flip it. This was an inconvenience to be avoided if you wanted to be considered amongst the best of the amateur set of cassette creators. So what other options did you have? Well, you could flip the cassette just as soon as the end of the tune that was running a bit short of the tape’s end and then rewind a couple of inches of the cassette on the side you were about to record on, put it back in the deck, press record and pause and get going again.
Tricks of the trade
If you’d got this far it’s likely that you’ll have encountered a few of the tape cassettes jolly little traits along the way, such as, Jamming, Tightening Up, Breaking and Twisting. < Have you noticed that those few words of description are all either styles of Dance, or references to Reggae songs!
Jamming – Jamming was most normally caused by tightening up inside the case, if you had this happen I found that, three sharp bangs on a flat surface and then twisting the cassette by gripping the two opposite ends and rotating in opposite directions works well. Alternatively fast forward and then rewind the entire tape. If it continues to be a problem, throw it in the bin. If it continues to be a problem and it was once amongst your favourite cassettes, cry and then throw it in the bin.
Tightening Up – See Above
Breaking – If the tape snaps, you were generally done for, but you could if you were really determined, repair it. This was done by drawing the two opposites sides of the break carefully out of the cassette, then gently sandwiching the two between the thinnest sellotape you could find, splicing the bits together and then praying to your chosen deity to keep them together while you made a back up copy of your precious recording. A ghetto blaster recorded bootleg of ‘Hawkwind live at Stonehenge‘, where a bloke nearly gets knifed right next to a mate of mine called Chris by an Hells Angel, was saved in just this manner. Obviously you don’t want to do this too much as I’m certain the abrasive qualities of sticky sellotape are not appreciated by your tape deck’s playing head.
Twisting – Twisting was truly the most frustrating of all the fault peculiarities of the tape cassette. It looked like an easy problem to fix, nothing about it suggested the hours of tortuous ‘fixing’ you were going to have to go through in order to finally give up and throw in binwards. Twisting happens when the thin magnetic tape of the cassette somehow, it’s a bloody mystery how, falls through the moulding of the body shell of the actual ‘cassette’. It then becomes (in my case) permanently twisted inside the cassette. If this happens to you, believe me, GIVE UP trying to repair it, cry, hit walls, whatever it takes to get over your loss, and throw it … urm… binwards… again.
The Insert Card
The insert card opens out for the artistic amongst us a gamut of possibilities. Generally you could plumb for two approaches,
1 – The detailed approach, Tracks / Artiste, where they were gleaned from, how long they were, what time they could be found at on the tape, that sort of thing. 2 – The artistic approach, giving free range to those of us, who not only thought we were the next best thing to a real record compiler, but also those of us who thought we’d be the next Rothko, or Keinholz, Robert Crumb or Bridget Riley.
Somehow I just can’t imagine that compiling a list of tunes for a 60 minute CDR, burned to Red Book format in audio, or throwing unlimited amounts of tunes on an iPod means as much as the well chosen tape compilation once did. Somehow the process encouraged detailed thought, well considered choices, timing and choices over the quality offered. Now I wonder if I should encode at 128kbps or 192, and if the CDR I’ve just burnt should have a crappy jewel case, or and even crappier plastic sleeve. Either way my CDR compilations are already ignored, getting scratched and laying in piles with no sleeves at all and, even though I have nothing to play them on currently, my Tape Cassettes are in the Attic, in their cases, replete with liner notes, stored thoughtfully, away from strong electro magnetic sources.
Putting a tape together was a real joy, an art, an indulgence and a great way to meet chicks (not!)
post script – if you want to manually rewind your tape cassette you will find and average sized hexagonal pencil absolutely perfect for the job!