A new toy reminding me of old experiences…

So, there are a couple of electronic music artists who release predominantly or only to cassette tape that I wanted to listen to. I have held off buying their work, because I have not owned a tape player since the early 1990’s, and haven’t really had an interest in getting one. All I really remembered was flutter, and my father attempting to fix the Sony WM-R202 I’d saved up to buy that I broke when it fell off my belt, and failing and salvaging a really strong magnet, and me being very disappointed — part of the realization that parents are not infallible that every person goes through, I suppose. When MiniDisc came out, I just gave up on tape completely for making mixes and things, and I had only dabbled in ambient sound recording when I was younger (largely discouraged by my mother, who had very poor childhood memories of growing up with my grandfather who tape-recorded everything. I thought this was an exaggeration until we started cleaning things out of his garage.)

So I decided to get a tape player. At first I figured I’d just get an inexpensive one — did the drug store still sell them? Radio Shack isn’t an option; they’re out of business. I did a bit of Googling and decided I’d get a used one instead; the general consensus online was that it would be difficult to find one new in a store, and the quality of a new one was significantly inferior to an older one of good quality — both the construction and sound quality. I did not want to obsess about sound quality, but I did not want to experience what these artists had done in a manner as poorly as my dim memories of cassette music suggested. So I went on eBay and found a Sony WM-D6C. I picked this one after reading a couple of forums; the fact that it could also record was appealing, as an adjunct to the other music stuff I’ve been doing.

My Walkman

Of course, it came before the music I ordered did (nothing against those labels, mind you!) Excited to use it, we went to Logo’s, the only used book and music store left in Santa Cruz, which I’ve been shopping at since high school. I ended up buying a handful of tapes — a mix of nostalgia stuff and random stuff (some African guitar, some zydeco, and a Styx album —- I have not listened to Styx even once since 1983).

The whole experience has been absolutely fascinating. Logo’s only had forty or fifty tapes. Going in not knowing what I wanted, and the mix of serendipity and constraint that provided, was really weird in comparison with how I consume music now — either “This is what I want” and buying it in a store (rarely) or from Amazon or online, or streaming music from the playlists of people I know. Also interesting was the fact that in comparison with 1990 or 1995, my last interaction with used albums, I found that I had essentially unlimited budget relative to the inventory at hand. If I’d wanted, I could have conceivably just bought everything they had, because it was about five dollars a tape.

Consuming music on cassette is a really different experience than consuming music on a phone or computer, and I’d forgotten most of it. The tape player has red lights, a meter that goes up and down with the volume of the music. There’s a very slight vibration when you hold the player when it’s running, which I had also forgotten. Thinking about it, I remember that iPods with hard drives felt similar, but phones don’t have moving parts. When you turn the player over in your hands with a tape playing, you can feel the gyroscopic effects ever so slightly. The buttons are very, very clicky — tactile in a way almost nothing I’ve used now is.

Sound quality is generally excellent, even on old used tapes. One of the tapes was flawless — the zydeco music; I have a sneaking suspicion it was either well taken care of, or only played once or twice. The other two I’ve listened to have the occasional dropout. There’s a bit of hiss — you hear the hiss just a little bit between songs, and occasionally if you really listen during soft parts of music. On tapes with Dolby that’s better of course.

I won’t get into it being “better” or “worse” than digital — or even “different”. I will just observe that it’s better than I expected, sometimes much better. It helps that I am using good headphones, that this was a high-quality player when it was manufactured, and was taken care of reasonably well, I’m sure.

When it’s worse, it’s much worse. The third tape I played has some serious problems — if I were listening to it to hear specific qualities of the group, I’d be seriously disappointed. It’s interesting to hear as sounds aside from the produced music, though, as a failure mode. There are dropouts and a lot of wow — it’s not the player; I put in another tape, and it sounds fine. But this tape is obviously stretched. Taking it out of the player, you can see the wear on the tape. The defects have a very clear character in their sound that I remember, a sort of warbling, and short and long spots where the volume is lower.

It really has me thinking about our relationship with media today — especially younger people’s interaction. Some of my coworkers have probably never seen a cassette player. (I later confirmed this.) The experience of interacting with a limited inventory and browsing for novelty is almost completely different than going to Spotify or Google Music, where the choice is wholly unconstrained by comparison. I mean, it was really “zydeco or Zappa? Abba or Depeche Mode? Who the heck are these other artists?” And that’s about it.

And then there’s all this tactile interaction — batteries to put in and take out, things that open, close, shut, slide, click. It’s difficult to pick a particular song, or skip a song. After a while, the music just stops, and you have to do something (flip over the tape, unless you have auto-reverse, which I don’t). And then, a while later, things just degrade and the music stops again as the batteries die.

In comparison with the instant access and commodity of modern music online, the consumption experience is just completely different.

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