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Tape is Back!

With the new year upon us, electronic musicians are anxiously awaiting to see what new technology will be developed in 2022. As our high-tech world continues to grow is there any room left for a lost format to make a comeback?

The year was 1989 and annual sales of cassette tapes had peaked at 83 million. I had just graduated high school and was spending the summer listening to my favorite albums and making mix tapes to share with my friends. Little did I know that my prized possessions would soon be obsolete.

The digital age

It wouldn’t take long. I remember seeing the first portable compact disc player at my local shopping center in the early '90s and before long I was converting my tape collection to compact discs. By the year 2000 compact disc annual sales had reached 942 million, but it would soon start its slow decline as websites, like Napster and the mp3 audio format gained popularity. As with every other audio format the mp3 has also been replaced as smartphones and online streaming services have continued to grow and develop. Today, nearly any song is available for you to listen to at the press of a button. Many listeners don’t even own music because they can stream it from the web any time they want. It is the epitome of modern convenience, but there is something that has been lost in that convenience and that is connection. There was a time when music fans would anticipate a new album. It was a bit of a ritual. You would go to the record store, look through the racks, maybe even preview a track or two at the listening station, decide on your purchase, and bring it home. Then, you would put the album in the player and while you were listening with excitement, you would read through the liner notes, read the lyrics, and look at the cover art. It was an experience-one that my friends and I enjoyed for many years. Now, however, that experience is gone. The connection to a tangible piece of art has been replaced with the latest Spotify playlist and liner notes with a google search for information on the song, artist, or album. For many, listening to music is something to do while doing something else.

Back in style

However, just as vinyl records are making a comeback so too is analog tape. Cassette tape sales are on the rise, reaching 100,000 units in 2020, and should continue to climb as more artists like Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Bjork, and other main-stream artists release albums on cassette. The Covid-19 lockdowns also helped fuel the comeback with listeners turning to the lost format for a physical connection to their favorite artists. Many younger listeners are discovering cassettes for the first time, finding them to be a novelty and fashionable. For many of us, who grew up listening to cassettes, we are choosing to listen to our music on cassette again because of its character. The way it sounds to us. There is a bit of nostalgia to be sure, but it's more than that, it's the connection, the experience of something real, and the familiar sound. Now that we have a choice of formats, we can choose to experience music on our own terms.

The test of time

Of course, tape never completely went away. Professional studios around the world have continued to record on large format reel-to-reel tape machines. Many artists prefer it and there are recording studios that specialize in all-analog equipment. Many independent artists today still release their music on cassette tapes and make copies themselves. Some record labels only release music on cassette, especially for particular genres, like punk or 80’s music, for instance. Online music sites, like Bandcamp, cater to cassette and vinyl releases. There are things that tape can do that are very difficult to do in the digital realm. For instance, you can easily change the playback speed of tape to half speed, and it sounds very pleasing. In the digital realm, slowing a file to half speed introduces artifacts that destroy the sound of the recording. Tape has a lo-fi quality that many artists find very pleasing. It adds to their “sound” and aesthetic. Cassette tapes can also be looped, spliced, and degraded physically. Some artists utilize these features to create unique music. Using looped cassette tapes and vintage multi-track tape recorders, they create ambient soundscapes by “playing” the tape recorder like an instrument, fading tracks in and out to build interesting combinations of sounds and textures. Some artists have even recreated vintage instruments, such as the mellotron, using voltage-controlled cassette players that adjust the tape speed to produce different notes. While other artists modify the erase heads of their tape recorders to allow for sound-on-sound recording in which new sounds are added to the tape every time it loops back around to the recording head.

Best of both worlds

As we look forward to 2022, it is clear that analog tape has found a foothold within our world of unlimited streaming and digital music libraries. Now that technology has advanced to the point where most people have access to the music they want to listen to online, many of us are deciding that there is still something worthwhile to listen to music on cassette tapes. Whether it is the lo-fi quality of tape or the sense of connection to a physical piece of art, tape is still relevant today. Digital streaming has its merits and in today’s environment, it is the best way to discover new music. It is also a great way to take all of your favorite tunes with you as you go about your day. But consider what you have been missing. There is something to be said for purposely listening to music. In fact, the next time you discover a new artist that you enjoy, consider buying their music in a physical format, like vinyl, cassette tape, or compact disc. If you take the time to sit down, listen to the album, look at the artwork, and read the lyrics and liner notes, you might rediscover the connection to music that so many of us have lost.

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