audio cassette

Grundig C 100 and the early history of the Compact Cassette

The recent arrival of a Grundig C 100 cassette in the Greatbear studio has been an occasion to explore the early history of the compact cassette.

grundig-c100-cassette-tape

The compact cassette has gained counter-cultural kudos in recent times, and more about that later, but once upon a time the format was the new kid on the block.

The audio cassette was revolutionary for several reasons, an important one being its compact size. The compact cassette, introduced by Dutch company Philips in 1963 could be held in the palm of your hand, while its closest neighbour in media history, the RCA Sound Tape cartridge (1958-1964), needed to be held with two.

The compact cassette also offered a more user-friendly experience for the consumer.

Whereas reel-to-reel tape had to be threaded manually through the tape transport, all the user of a compact cassette tape machine had to do was insert a tape in a machine and press play.

Format Wars

One of the less-emphasised histories of the compact cassette is the alternative cassette standards that were vying for market domination alongside Philips in the early 1960s.

One alternative was the DC International system developed by the German company Grundig who at that time were a leading manufacturer of tape, radio and Hi-Fi systems.

In 1965 Grundig introduced its first cassette recorder, the C 100, which used the Double Cassette (DC) International system. The DC International used two-reels within the cassette shell similar to the Compact-System promoted by Philips. There were, however, important differences between the two standards.

The DC International standard used a larger cassette shell (120x77x12mm) with a ¼” tape width and recorded at 2” per second. The Compact-System was smaller all around: 0.15” tape width and recorded at 1⅞ in/s.

audio-cassette-grundig-c100-comparisonFervent global competition shaped audio cassette production in the mid-1960s.

Grundig’s DC International was effectively (and rapidly) ousted from the market by Philips’ ‘open’ licensing strategy.

Eric D. Daniel and C. Denis Mee explain that

‘From the beginning Philips pursued a strategy of licensing its design as widely as possible. According to Frederik Philips, president of the firm at the time, this policy was the brainchild of Mr. Hartong, a member of the board of management. Hartong believed that Philips should allow other manufacturers access to the design, turning the compact cassette into a world product….Despite initial plans to charge a fee, Phillips eventually decided to offer the license for free to any firm willing to produce the design. Several firms adopted the compact cassette almost immediately, including many Japanese manufacturers.’ [1]

The outcome of this licensing strategy was a widespread, international adoption of Philips’ compact cassette standard.

In Billboard on 16 September 1967 it was reported: ‘Philips has scored a critical victory on the German market for its “Compact-System”, which now seems certain to have uncontested leadership. Teldec has switched from the DC-International system to the Philips system, and Grundig, the major manufacturer of the DC-International system, announced that it will also start manufacturing cassette players for the Philips system.’

Cassettes today

The portable, user-friendly compact cassette has proved to be a resilient format. Despite falling foul to the digital march of progress in the early 1990s, the past couple of years have been defined by claims that cassettes are back and (almost) cool again.

Although the Recording Industry Association of America have denied reports they are tracking cassette sales again, it is clear that ‘a small, but engaged niche audience… is steadily growing’ for tape-based releases.

Whether that audience is gorging on tapes from do it yourself tape labels or sampling the delights of Justin Bieber’s latest album, cassettes are a hit for low-budget music-makers and status-bearers alike.

Compact Cassette Preservation

Amid this cassette fervour, Greatbear remains embroiled with the old wave of cassettes.

Cassettes from the 1960s and early 1970s carry specific preservation concerns.

Loss of lubricant is a common problem. You will know if your tape is suffering lubricant loss if you hear a horrible squealing sound during play back. This is known as ‘stick slip,’ which describes the way friction between magnetic tape and tape heads stick and slip as they move antagonistically through the tape transport.

This squealing poses big problems because it can intrude into the signal path and become part of the digital transfer. Tapes displaying such problems therefore require careful re-lubrication to ensure the recording can be transferred in its optimum – and squeal free – state.

Early compact cassettes also have problems that characterise much ‘new media.’

As Eric D. Daniel et al elaborate: ‘during the compact cassette’s first few years, sound quality was mediocre, marred by background noise, wow and flutter, and a limited frequency range. While ideal for voice recording applications like dictation, the compact cassette was marginal for musical recording.’ [2]

The resurgence in compact cassette culture may lull people into a false sense that recordings stored on cassettes are not high risk and do not need to be transferred in the immediate future.

It is worth remembering, however, that although playback machines will continue to be produced in years to come, not all tape machines are of equal, archival quality.

The last professional grade audio cassette machines were produced in the late 1990s and even the best of this batch lag far behind the tape machine to end all tape machines – the Nakamichi Dragon with its Automatic Azimuth Correction technology – that was discontinued in 1993.

To ensure the best quality transfers it is advisable to play back tapes using professional-grade machines. This enables greater control of problems that can arise with azimuth, wow and flutter which often need to be checked and if necessary adjusted prior to playback, a process that is not possible on cheaper, domestic machines.

As ever, if you have any specific concerns or enquiries regarding your audio cassette collections, please contact us to discuss it. 

Notes

[1] Eric D. Daniel et al, eds. (2009) Magnetic Recording: The First 100 Years. Piscataway: IEEE Press Marketing, 103-104.

[2] Eric D. Daniel et al, eds, Magnetic Recording, 104.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies Audio Cassette Transfer

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is widely heralded as a classic of 20th century English literature. The book adorns English Literature syllabuses throughout the UK, its provocative events continue to inspire debate about the nature of humanity and ‘civilisation.’

We recently transferred an audio cassette recording of the Nobel-prize winning author reading his famous novel.

The recordings were made, Golding’s daughter Judy Carver tells us, in ‘the space of a few days during September 1976. He went up to London and stayed for a few nights, spending the whole of each day reading the novel aloud in a studio. He found it very hard work, and was extremely tired by the time he’d finished. We all remember the date for a particular reason. He went to Waterloo to catch the train home, phoned my mother, and she greeted him with “Hello, Grandpa!” My eldest son, their first grandchild, had been born that morning.’william-golding.co.uk

Excerpts from the transferred tapes will be uploaded to the commemorative and educational website www.william-golding.co.uk, helping to meet the ‘steady demand’ for Golding-related material from documentary makers.

Judy is currently organising the Golding family archive which ‘holds a great deal of material in written, audio and visual form.’ A large amount of the written archive will be lent to the University of Exeter, building on the landmark deposit of the handwritten draft of Lord of the Flies that was made in 2014. ‘We are giving some thought as to how to archive family photos and other items.’

As with organising any archive, Judy admits, ‘there are many and various tasks and problems, but it is a fascinating job and I am lucky to have it.’

***

Many thanks to Judy for answering questions about the recordings for this article.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, 0 comments

Audio Cassette Parallel Ingests

The scale of digitisation jobs we do at Greatbear often varies. We are asked by our customers to reformat single items to large quantities of tape and everything else inbetween.

Reformatting magnetic tape-based media always takes time and care.

Transfers have to be done in real time; if you want a good quality recording there is no way to reformat tape-based media quickly.

Some jobs are so big, however, that you need to find ways of speeding up the process. This is known as a parallel ingest – when you transfer a batch of tapes at the same time.

Realistically, parallel ingest is not possible with all formats.

An obvious issue is machine scarcity. To playback tapes at the same time you need multiple playback machines that are in fairly good condition. This becomes difficult with rarer formats like early digital video tape, such as D1 or D2, where you are extremely lucky if you have two machines working at any given time.

Audio Cassettes

Audio cassette tapes are one of few formats where archival standard parallel ingest is possible if tapes are in good condition and the equipment is working well.

Stack of professional tape machines, including Marantz PMD 502 and Tascam 322

Great Bear Parallel Ingest Stack

We were recently approached by Jim Shields of the Zion, Sovereign Grace Baptists Church in Glasgow to do a large scale transfer of 5000 audio cassettes and over 100 open reels.

Jim explains that these ‘tapes represent the ministry of Pastor Jack Glass, who was the founder of Zion, Sovereign Grace Baptists Church, located at Calder St.Polmadie, Glasgow. The church was founded in 1965. All early recordings are on reel but the audio tapes represent his ministry dating from the beginning of 1977 through to the end of 2003. The Pastor passed away on the 24th Feb 2004 [you can read obituaries here and here]. It is estimated there are in the region of 5,000 ministry tapes varying in length from 60 mins to 120 mins, with many of the sermons being across 2 tapes as the Pastor’s messages tended to be in the region of 90 minutes plus.’

Sermons were recorded using ‘semi domestic to professional cassette decks. From late Sept 1990 a TEAC X-2000 reel recorder was used [to make master copies] on 10 inch reels then transposed onto various length cassettes [when ordered by people]’ chief recordist Mike Hawkins explains.

Although audio cassettes were a common consumer format it is still possible to get high quality digital transfers from them, even when transferred en masse. Recordings of speech, particularly of male voices which have a lower frequency range, are easier to manage.

Hugh Robjohns, writing in 1997 for the audio technology magazine Sound on Sound, explains that lower frequency recordings are mechanically more compatible with the chemical composition of magnetic tape: ‘high-frequency signals tend to be retained by the top surface of the magnetic layer, whilst lower-frequency components tend to be recorded throughout its full depth. This has a bearing on the requirements of the recording heads and the longevity of recordings.'[1]

Preparation

In order to manage a large scale job we had to increase our operational capacity.

We acquired several professional quality cassette machines with auto reverse functions, such as the Marantz PMD 502 and the Tascam 322.

Although these were the high end audio cassette recorders of their time, we found that important components, such as the tape transport which is ‘critical to the performance of the entire tape recorder'[2], were in poor shape across all the models. Pitch and timing errors, or wow (low speed variations) and flutter (high speed variations), were frequently evident during test playbacks.

Because of irregular machine specifications, a lot of time was spent going through all the tape decks ensuring they were working in a standardised manner.

In some cases it was necessary to rebuild the tape transport using spares or even buying a new tape transport. Both of these restoration methods will become increasingly difficult in years to come as parts become more and more scarce.

Assessing the options

There are certainly good reasons to do parallel ingests if you have a large collection of tapes. Nevertheless it is important to go into large scale transfers with your eyes open.

There is no quick fix and there are only so many hours in the working day to do the transfers, even if you do have eight tapes playing back simultaneously.

To assess the viability of a large scale parallel ingest you may want to consider the following issues: condition of tapes, how they were originally recorded and the material stored on them.

It may well be that parts of your collection can be reformatted via parallel ingest, but other elements need to be selected for more specialist attention.

As ever we can help with discussing the options so do contact us if you want some specific advice.

Notes

[1] The gendered implications of this statement are briefly worth reflecting on here. Robjohns suggests that voices which command the higher frequencies, i.e., female or feminine voices, are apparently incompatible with the chemical composition of magnetic tape. If higher frequencies are retained by the top layer of magnetic tape only, but do not penetrate its full depth, does this make high frequencies more vulnerable in a preservation context because they never were never substantially captured in the first place? What does this say about how technical conditions, whose design has often been authored by people with low frequency voices (i.e., men), privilege the transmission of particular frequencies over others, at least in terms of ‘depth’?

[2] Hugh Robjohns ‘Analogue Tape Recorders: Exploration’ Sound on Sound, May 1997. Available: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/may97/analysinganalogue.html.

*** Many thanks to Jim Shields, Martyn Glass and Mike Hawkins for sharing their tape stories***

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments
Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

We recently received a fascinating collection of tapes from the archive of Robert Chenciner, an ethnographer with over thirty years experience studying the cultures, human rights and current affairs of Daghestan.

Daghestan is located in the north Caucasus region, its neighbouring countries are Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Georgia, while its eastern border is flanked by the Caspian Sea.

In the early 1980s Robert had unique access to Daghestan and other parts of the Soviet Caucasus in the twilight years of the USSR.

During visits Robert made recordings of Daghestan’s rich culture. This included music, documenting ethnic instruments such as the Chagana, as well as singing and dancing.

Although Robert believes that claims to authenticity must be treated with suspicion, he nonetheless told me that these recordings document the traditional folk culture that was practiced in the villages of Daghestan.

These tapes also document the 31 mutually unintelligible languages spoken in Daghestan such as Avar which is spoken by 900,000 people.

Listen to excerpt of a tape from the collection. The tape had experienced mould growth and had snapped. It therefore needed to be repaired prior to transfer. Robert explains: ‘The recording was made in Untsukul c.March 1990. You can hear Russian being spoken with a heavy accent, some Kumyk and some Avar. It was joking and talk about who was I and where from.’

Type IV metal cassette with shell open. Visible thin layer of dust on the surface.

Type IV Metal Cassettes

When Robert travelled to Daghestan he was keen to get the most professional recordings he could. For this reason he used type IV metal audio cassette tapes, a tape formula that had been introduced in the late 1970s to offer better quality recordings.

By the mid 1980s, the tape tardis explains, these tapes

‘had been adopted by a lot of enthusiasts. They remained too expensive to be bought in bulk by the average consumer, but if you wanted to record something special – and particularly if you produced music yourself – you’d probably be highly attracted by the exceptional recording quality of a good metal cassette.’

The science behind the type IV cassette, according to the Museum of Obsolete Media, was to use ‘pure metal particles instead of metal oxides. This created a hard-wearing tape with superior frequency response and greater dynamic range.’

Since completing the recordings in the mid 1980s, as with so many of the tapes we receive at Greatbear, they have been tucked away in a drawer and out of circulation.

Due to being stored in poor conditions some of the tapes were displaying signs of mould growth.

Another problem some tapes exhibited was the degradation of the foam pressure pad. This had ‘stuck’ onto the tape and stopped it it from playing. In one case the tape had snapped as a result from a previous attempt at playback. Melted foam pressure pad on a type IV metal tape

Fortunately this issue did not effect our ability to do the transfer. We use Nakamichi tape decks to do optimal audio cassette transfers. The transport design within Nakamichi machines doesn’t use the tape pressure pad to play back the tapes. This is because, Wikipedia tells us,

‘Nakamichi found that this pad provided uneven and fairly inaccurate pressure and was therefore inadequate for reliable tape/head contact. Furthermore, Nakamichi found that the pressure pad was a source of audible noise, particularly scrape flutter (the tape bouncing across the head, a result of uneven pressure), and also contributed to premature head wear. Nakamichi’s dual-capstan tape decks provide such accurate and precise tape tension that, unlike other decks, the cassette’s pressure pad is not needed at all.’

Head pad lifter on a Nakamichi tape machine

The insides of a Nakamichi machine that has no need of a pressure pad to play back tapes.

Re-publication plans

Recent interest from musicologist Stefan Williamson-Fa, the driving force behind getting the tapes transferred to digital files with Great Bear, will enable these unique recordings to be heard by new audiences.

These include what Robert believes to be the only recording of an Andi Zikr ritual. Banned by the Tsar and later the Soviets, the Zikr ritual proved to be a resilient part of Daghestan’s Sufi culture. Zikr involves a group rotating in a circle, stamping the ground and grunting in order to create a mystical and ecstatic experience.

Stefan and Robert have plans to make the transferred digital files available online.

Robert reflected that when he was collecting the tapes in the 1980s his imagined audience for the recordings was pretty small. With the possibility of online publication this audience has substantially increased.

Furthermore, through people uploading material to sites such as YouTube the amount of Daghestan’s culture that can be accessed on the internet continues to grow. Robert’s links with the academic community in Daghestan also means the recordings will gain exposure there as well.

It is no doubt that those interested in the cultural history of Daghestan will await the publication of these recordings with much excitement. When the website is available we will of course let you know!

***Many thanks to Robert Chenciner for talking to us about his collection, and to Stefan for putting us in touch***

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, 0 comments

Digitising & Restoring Personal Archives – 1/4 inch reel to reel audio tape

In today’s digital society most people have an archive. On personal computers, tablets and mobile devices we store, create and share vast amounts of information. We use archives to tell others about our lives, and the things that are important to us.

Gone are the days when archives were dusty, dark places where experts went to research esoteric knowledge. Archives are everywhere. They are dynamic, digital and personal, as well as being institutional, historical, corporate and civic.

The creation of personal archives is of course nothing new, but the digital age forces us to have a far more intimate relationship with information, and its organisation. Put simply, there is loads more information, and if it isn’t collected in a systematic way you may well drown in a sea of your own, not to mention everybody else’s, data. Maybe this is happening to you right now! If so, you need to embrace the archival moment and get your own collections in shape.

Part of this everyday information management is migrating archives stored on obsolete formats, such as the many different types of analogue and digital magnetic tape we work with at Greatbear. Digitising tape gives it new life, allowing it to be easily circulated, shared and used with today’s technologies.

A significant amount of the Greatbear’s work involves digitising the diverse collections people produce in their everyday working, creative and social lives.

Here are two recent digitisation projects which are a good example of our work.

Swansea Sound 1976

1/4 inch tape with water damage on the box

We were sent a number of ¼ inch reel to reel Scotch 3M tape ‘made for the BBC’ tape, recorded at the rate of 7 ½ inches per second from local radio station Swansea Sound in 1976. The tapes were all in good condition, although the boxes had some evidence of water damage. Over time the tension in the tape pack had also changed, so they required careful re-spooling before being played.

The recordings were fascinating to digitise because they communicated how little the format of radio programmes have changed since the late 1970s. Jingles, news reports, chat and music were all part of the show, and anyone familiar with BBC Radio 2 would certainly enjoy the recordings, that still seem to be played every Saturday morning!

Brian Pimm-Smith’s recording diaries and tape letters

A collection of Brian’s 1/4 inch tapes

Another collection was sent to us from Brian Pimm-Smith. Brian enthusiastically documented his life and work activities using a Uher open reel portable tape recorder which he acquired in 1963.  The box included many ¼ inch tapes that could record up to 10 minutes at 3 and ¾ inches per second. These tapes could also record up to 4 mono tracks at 10 minutes each, allowing for storage of up to forty minutes at a time. The main bulk of the collection is a series of spoken letters sent to and from Pimm-Smith and his parents, who between them lived in Britain, Pakistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Japan and Saudi-Arabia, but it also includes recordings of when Brian worked taking weather measurements for the British Antarctic Survey.

Some of the 1/4 inch tapes were marketed by companies such as Scotch and EMI specifically to be used as ‘voice letters’ that ‘links absent friends’. Despite this Pimm-Smith said that making such recordings was pretty rare, something ‘quite out there’ for most people. Brian’s mother nonetheless embraced the activity, as they shared correspondence back and forth between wherever they lived at the time.

Pimm 2

Voice Letters

The 1/4 inch tape boxes in themselves are a colourful record of international postage in the late 1960s. Sent from Pakistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan, the small boxes are plastered with stamps. The boxes were reinforced with sellotape to ensure the contents didn’t fall out (which is still stuck fast to the boxes, by the way, clearly demonstrating the surprising longevity of some forms of sticky tape). Pimm-Smith’s tapes are fascinating objects in themselves that bear the marks of travel through space in the form of postal stamp marks, and time, as they sit on the desk now in the Great Bear Studio.

Perhaps the most exciting and unique recording Brian has kept is the audio diary of his trip through the Sahara desert. For the trip Brian drove an early 70s Range Rover which had a cassette player-recorder, a technological device only available in Africa which used audio cassette tapes. This enabled him to document his impressions as he drove along. Brian describes how he had taken a portable typewriter with the intention of keeping a written diary, but he used the tape recorder because it was more ‘immediate.’ On hearing the digitised tapes Brian was amazed at how clear the recordings sound today, particularly because he was driving at the same time and there was likely to be background noise. You can hear the hum of the car engine in the extract below, but the voice is still clearly very audible.

http://thegreatbear.net/wp-content/uploads/blog-example-cassette-tape-1.mp3

Listen to Brian talk about problems with his tyre as he drove across the Sahara Desert in 1976

The stories Swansea Sound radio and Pimm-Smith’s collection tell are part of wider social histories. They tell us about communities and places, as well as the continuities of style in broadcast radio. They tell us how people used analogue tape recordings to document personal adventures and communicate with families who lived in different countries.

Both tapes are examples of the sheer diversity of personal, magnetic tape based archives that people have been keeping for years, and which we digitise at the Greatbear. Brian Pimm-Smith contacted Greatbear because he wanted to make his tapes accessible, and preserve them for future use. He is hoping one day to write a book from his many adventures and these recordings can now remind him not only of what he did, but how he felt in the moment he made them.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 8 comments

Information Terminals M-300, cassette tape transport alignment gauge

The regular service of analogue machines which will involve the mechanical alignment then electrical alignment / calibration is really important if you’re attempting to get optimum transfers and reduce any risk of damaging the potentially fragile tape.

While some of our machines are serviced by others we like to regularly check them and have gradually brought our regular servicing in house. Of course this needs specialised tools, test tapes and gauges, often totally unavailable new now.

On a lucky eBay day I happened to win one of these beauties, an Information Terminals M-300 gauge. This enables you to accurately set the tape guide height and also the head stroke. It is a universal gauge and can be used across many decks.

information_terminals_m300-boxed copy

Nakamichi tape deck owners have had a hard time doing this part of their servicing as the original Nakamichi gauges are very very rare now as is this.

A member of the naktalk mailing list though recently borrowed our gauge and has had it measured and will soon have a small batch CNC machined and made available. These remanufactured gauges will have a few small modifications to improve the design.

Thanks to Willy at www.willyhermansnervices.com many more tape deck transports will be able to be aligned correctly.

Posted by greatbear in audio tape, 7 comments

Microcassette Transfer to CD helps Crown Court case

www,mowbraywoodwards.co.uk

We’ve recently been happy to be involved, with Mobray Woodwards Solicitors,  in the audio transfer of important evidence in a  local Crown Court case.

Even given the poor quality or the recordings, made on the slowest tape speed of 1.2 cm/s we were able to make transfers to CD which were clear and understandable with CD track markings for easy access to specific sections of the audio.

Microcassettes, until recently, were used regularly for voice recording in small, portable dictaphone type of machines. Their fidelity is not high but when used for voice it is usually acceptable.

Greatbear are able to transfer all formats and speed of microcassette in addition to 1/2 speed standard cassettes that were common for voice recording of interviews and meetings in the police service, inquests, etc.

For more information on high quality audio tape transfer and restoration please visit our transfer pages.

Posted by greatbear in audio tape, 0 comments