It wasn't the heat, and it wasn't the humidity. The steady stream of hot water that began as a minor drip from my bathtub faucet is what eventually killed my multi-track cassette recorder.
I departed for New Jersey this past Christmas thinking my landlord would take care of this minor issue while I was away. He didn't, and when I returned I was startled to find my bedroom feeling like a rain forest. Moisture had gathered on the ceiling, sending water droplets on a collision course with plenty of expensive musical equipment in my bedroom.
After opening windows, toweling the walls and turning on all the fans, I began to test each piece of equipment. An electronic tuner was out of commission, as was the heart of my recording operation, a Tascam 414 MKII cassette recorder.
I was heartbroken. I had come to depend on that machine as a convenient device for capturing all my sonic indulgences. Even worse, when I went online to search for a replacement, I discovered that Tascam stopped manufacturing multi-track cassette recorders two years ago.
“It's very expensive to manufacture the custom four-track heads, and even cassette mechanisms are getting very difficult to find,” says Jeff Laity, marketing manager for Tascam. “We're actually one of the last manufacturers that manufacture cassettes at all.”
There exists an entire culture of tape purists who still hunt down not only the recorders, but also the cassette tapes. In fact, the only item more difficult to find these days than cassette recorders is the cassettes themselves. What used to be an easy find at Guitar Center now feels like an excuse to torture an audio-department sales rep as he or she digs through every drawer in the store in search of one.
Some enterprising individuals never faced this problem.
“For the first five years, I don't think I bought a single tape. I would hang out behind Salvation Army and would basically steal whatever tapes I could find when people leave them behind after hours or at the drop,” says Jeremy Ladoux, who records music under the name Jeremy and the Time Machine. “So I'd record over James Taylor tapes and just horrible tapes. [On] my albums that are available, you'll hear at the beginning of the song, something like Chicago bleeding through for a few seconds.”
Ladoux, who has used three different Tascam Porta-02 cassette recorders during the last 10 years, shares one trait with others still recording to cassette: He is prolific. Same goes for Grant Clarkson, a local jazz musician who recorded exclusively on a Tascam 424 until 2005. While Ladoux thinks people who stick with cassette recorders are either “romantic or broke,” Clarkson has a different reason for continuing with the format for so long.
“I stuck with it because I was productive on it,” he says. “Between [the] period of 1993 and 2005, I composed and recorded over 100 LPs of original music on that deck—not to mention recording about 70 albums' worth of live performances on that deck. At that same time, starting around 2000 or so, I had a lot of friends that were doing the Pro-Tools thing”—a common computer-based recording software—“and they were saying how great it was. I would always say, ‘Well, show me something,' and I would never hear anything finished. All I heard was stories about them laboring on the software, but not actually composing any music. Meanwhile I was cranking out album after album on this simple deck.
“When I would play the finished recordings for other musicians, I would never tell them what means I used to make the record,” Clarkson continues. “They would just listen to the finished CD, and they would always love the sound. They would ask me how they could copy that sound, which was ironic because I was using things that they thought weren't good enough, when, in fact, that was the sound they were chasing after with much more fancy equipment.”
Tascam's Laity says the company began producing multi-track cassette recorders in 1979. The first one, the Portastudio 144, was a four-track recorder that came out in September of that year. Laity says the format reached the peak of its popularity in the '80s, when the company manufactured two different eight-track cassette recorders. The eight-track recorders were short-lived, as the standard four-track format proved to be more popular. Laity believes the Porta-02, a bare-bones $99 recorder, was the best-selling unit in the company's cassette multi-track arsenal.
“Basically, for the price of a guitar tuner, you could plug in a microphone, record 12-bar blues, then rewind it, then record a little solo over it,” Laity says.
But then came the digital revolution. CDs and software made tape recorders obsolete. And while most musicians are now using newer methods (even Ladoux has recently made the switch to digital recording), many still find alternative uses for their old units.
Derrick Ward, a Russellville, Ark., transplant who records under the name No Time to Carry, uses his Portastudio as a “pre-amp,” running his mics through the unit before their signal reaches his computer. He says this process gives him an analog sound even though there's no tape involved in the recording.
Meanwhile, Travis Trevisan, the principal songwriter in Tape Deck Mountain, employs a technique where he places an old cassette tape in his Porta-02, plays some of the tracks and then loops that audio back through effects pedals and into the four-track.
“On a lot of tracks on the Tape Deck Mountain albums there are noise interludes, and most of the stuff I did on the four-track,” says Trevisan, who released TDM's first EP on cassette.
But with companies like Tascam essentially abandoning the cassette culture, the future appears more digital than ever. With time, these machines will continue to look increasingly archaic, but for those who depended on them as sonic scrapbooks at one time or another, their charms will never cease.