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My Brother Likes Tapes: The Case for Loving a Physical Format

charmed by the sound cassette tapes

Siblings often end up very different from one another, despite their similar upbringings. I’m sure there’s loads of research I could cite here about birth order and the differing amounts of attention each child gets. I don’t know, that’s really not my arena. What I’m interested in, particularly as it relates to music, is how those differences actually serve to highlight the similarities.

To wit: My brother loves music. Not in the way that I do, certainly. There was definitely a time when, as a young elitist douchebag, I’d have even said that my brother liked bad music. Time marches on, we learn and grow, etc. I now appreciate my brother’s appreciation for music for what it is: a deep, enduring love of his favorite things — which is just as I relate to music.

Andy’s favorite band is Barenaked Ladies. Stemming from that, he prefers lighter fare with some vaguely comedic upside. He likes late 70s rock, but with Jim Croce and Doobie Brothers where AC/DC and Led Zeppelin would otherwise be. Major keys over minor. Nerdcore rap, video game-inspired tracks, parodies and, I think, things that inspire in him a sense of true nostalgia in the anemoia/fernweh/sehnsucht sense of it. He has an affinity for “vintage” feelings, as well as storytelling. He’s not big on heavy metaphor and abstract impressionism; he wants to understand what’s being said.

That vintage feeling thing is something to which I can relate. I watch a lot of YouTube videos on retro tech, even though I have no use for it now and had limited experience with it in my youth. It fills me with that similar longing for times before I had a well-developed consciousness that could be brought to bear on my experiences. I didn’t have any context for the technology I grew up around and consequently, took it for granted. I still do; gadgetry fails me, by and large. I don’t always appreciate what I’m seeing.

That brings us neatly on to the point: My brother likes cassette tapes. It speaks to his age to some degree and the fact that he had a collection of pre-recorded, major-release tapes during his youth where I primarily had mixtapes created from CDs. Some of our mutual fondest memories are based on a kind of live performance band lipsync game we used to play. We played that game a lot over the course of a number of years.

Unlike me, I don’t think Andy ever had a highish-end stereo, preferring a series of boomboxes and maybe one of those shelf stereos at one point. But now, in the year of our lord 20 and 18, he has a relatively late-model car with a cassette deck that has inspired him to reinvest in a tape collection in earnest. I am only so happy to encourage this obsession.

As I said before, I’m a vinyl guy. It’s my physical media of choice because it exists at the intersection of sounding good, being readily available and offering a really nice tangible experience. I’m not going to go into any crazy audiophile nonsense and explain all the ways vinyl is better than streaming or CDs or MP3s, except to say that the primary difference is that, assuming a good master and pressing, vinyl is full-frequency and anything rendered at CD quality is not by design. There’s information on a record not present in any of these forms, but who cares. (Cue a million comments about modern mastering techniques and compression destroying the sound of everything, anyway. Like I said, who cares.) If you can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter. And don’t even get me started on hot stamping. Everything’s a compromise; stop chasing the dragon.

As for tapes, in case you didn’t know, there’s a nascent tape revival ongoing in the shadow of the vinyl renaissance. At first, I was indifferent to it, since I can’t imagine ever owning a tape deck again. I didn’t ever get really into tapes except for making mixes, so for me, the whole thing is an intellectual exercise. (Although, I had a GE 3-5476b portable tape player for years, which I dearly loved, so maybe I’m wrong.) I fully condone and support any obsession with physical media (except for you nutcases spending 450 Euros on new reel-to-reel releases, come on, man), but tapes just aren’t my jam. But my brother likes them and so, as a dedicated enabler of music loving, I am buying them again, promptly shoving them in a box and sending them to him.

Bandcamp’s Discover function (about 3/4 down the page) has a filter for cassette tapes, so that’s extremely handy for finding new releases. Vintage stores and flea markets usually offer tapes for a couple of bucks, which makes tracking down older stuff a pretty simple endeavor. For the most part, except in extreme cases, collecting tapes has none of the drawbacks that trying to find original pressing vinyl has. While tapes are definitely on the rise, they aren’t getting re-released at nearly the clip that records are. It keeps the price down, too.

Here, let the always-excellent VWestlife explain:

Tapes are cheap, equipment is (relatively) cheap, they’re easy to use and store, super portable, and, man, they’re just cool, really. I get it. The J-cards approximate a record cover as well as anything. The whole tactile experience of a tape is maybe even a little better than vinyl. It’s a substantial thing and for the most part, you don’t have to hold it any kind of way. The tape cases are far, far superior at protecting the media therein, too.

The sound quality is…well:

Maybe not up to my semi-picky standards, but not nearly as bad as you’d think. If you’re not a sound engineer and/or you’ve been listening to MP3s for 20 years and/or you just don’t really care about that stuff, tapes are great!

Thus, in my quest to make everyone as excited and obsessed with re-centering music in their lives as I am, I vowed to build my brother a small tape stereo.

As you read previously, my turntable setup is as simple as it gets. I have an Audio-Technica LP3 turntable hooked up to a Fluance Fi50. I’m using the internal phono preamp for now and that’s probably the area that I will look to upgrade eventually. A nice phono preamp (and possibly an needle upgrade) will give me a significant boost without having to invest in any other expensive gear or expand the footprint of my setup. Andy is looking for something similar. Or, well, he wasn’t, really, but because of my enthusiasm decided to give me some constraints.

His requirements, once I cajoled him into caring about this exercise, are as follows:

  • Must play tapes
  • Should be relatively small and/or not difficult to lug around
  • Bluetooth enabled
  • It should look kind of cool…?
  • Keep the fussy maintenance to a minimum
  • Try not to include components he doesn’t understand or care about
  • A remote, maybe?

There are so many options for this. At the very most basic, you could buy a cheap faux-Walkman and plug it into any old Bluetooth speaker. As a matter of fact, I sent him one of those cheap players at Christmas last year along with a haul of tapes, just to encourage him to play them other places than just the car. That’s okay. It’ll work.

One thing to know about currently-produced tape players of any kind is that every last one of them uses the exact same mechanism, made by the last Chinese company who can be bothered to assemble them. They’re merely fine, but they aren’t anything like what tape decks used to be. Again, my brother probably doesn’t care about that, but I kind of do, and since I’m buying this, I want something a little better.

That said, it seems a waste to spend a great deal on this for someone who a. Isn’t going to abuse it and b. Doesn’t at all care about the vintage hi-fi wars. It should be in good working order, preferably a substantial unit from a brand known for producing quality pieces, probably from closer to the end of tape’s heyday. So that’s the framework I used when I went out for a casual look at Tacoma’s thrift store locations.

I found something first try. At the closest Value Village to my house, there it was: a Yamaha K-903 Natural Sound Cassette Deck. The price on it was $6.99. It was super clean and the doors opened freely. It was, if such a thing exists, fate. It was also the only stereo component on the electronics shelf at the time, as though it had been conspicuously placed there just for me.

Honestly, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this. Yamaha makes/made good stuff, so I feel good about that. It has Dolby C noise reduction, so that’s nice. It was a mid-range unit at the time it was sold new, and it looks pretty fresh now. Bearing all that in mind, my impression is that it has relatively low miles. I didn’t think I would find anything horribly concerning about this unit, and even if I did, there’s very clearly room in the budget for a professional to give it a once-over and still not spend $100 on it. Good value, I’d say.

I plugged it into my Fluance and found that it’s basically new. Everything works, there are no weird squeaking sounds and as far as I could tell, the belts aren’t even worn. It’s really a fine piece of equipment despite its late entry, humble beginnings and lack of audiophile cachet. It plays tapes well and looks fine doing it.

Now for the speaker part. Again, so many options. Bluetooth speakers are a dime a dozen these days. Any of these with an AUX in would do. But I looked for something, say, $100 or less that looks good with a 90s black stereo component.

I own one of those cheap Bluetooth speakers and it sounds pretty good. It wouldn’t hold up to direct comparison or in a dedicated listening room or to your pal who prattles on about bitrates and resolution. Or anyone who swears by tube amps. Still, right off the bat, I ruled out anything that’s meant to be recharged. Like I said, they’re a dime a dozen, so he can pick one of those up anywhere if he wants to use the portable player I sent him. This will be plugged in to the wall, so the rechargeable battery pack would be ruined in no time.

Though I found the component tape deck, I decided against a traditional receiver amplifier, since he told me he wanted his television/video game setup to be entirely separate from his tape stereo. Better for directed listening, anyway. I dig it. I also ruled out those plasticky shelf systems we all had as teenagers. They look a mess. That left me with two primary options: a modern, compact all-in-one unit or a mini shelf system with separate speakers.

My brother is an apartment dweller for now, so tons of power isn’t required. Enough for clear sound and accurate reproduction, but not enough to get evicted. My Fluance is 40 watts, which is probably the upper range of his needs. I have a standalone house and play guitar, so I can play things as loud as I like.

Initially, I was aiming for a Sound Freaq Sound Platform, preferably version two. I chased a few around eBay, but since they’re out of production, they weren’t always good value, really. A Fluance would work, but it didn’t quite seem my brother’s style. Then, just as with the tape deck itself, a solution found me, this time at the local Fred Meyer as I casually strolled by their electronics department.

The thing I found was the iLive Portable Wireless Speaker System, which is notable for being neither particularly portable nor wireless. And that’s perfect. I did not want anything rechargeable, so the portability doesn’t matter. It’s “wireless” in the sense that it has Bluetooth, but otherwise is kind of interesting in that the audio input is RCA cables, not a 3.5mm jack. Perfect for hooking up a component piece. The subwoofer, while unnecessary, was a nice touch. I think it provides that modern sense of “richness”, which is to say, makes it a bit bass heavy. And for the purposes of listening to largely older cassettes, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Here’s what it looked like before I packed it up and sent it along:

Stellar photography, I know. Thank you, thank you.

Slightly contrasting finishes, but I don’t think they look a million miles apart. It takes up a similar footprint when compared to my turntable setup and sounded surprisingly good when I got it all plugged in for testing. It’s not quite as loud as I imagined it would be, but that’s just as well. My brother has neighbors and roommates on all sides, so best not to have something super loud.

Anyway, he got it and set it up right away. He was thrilled. I think he started this whole endeavor just sort of going with the flow, letting me be excited about this silly project but not being too invested. But once he received it, the excitement was pretty clear. Here’s what it looks like set up at his place:

Pictured: The anguish of 1,000 audiophiles and the total delight of my brother.

Of course, I had to include some tapes in the package, too.

Only the weird stuff.

At the end of the day, if you rely on streaming to stand in for a music collection, you’re essentially one software update away from your access to music disappearing into the aether. Apps are designed to update relentlessly, spurring you on to your next computer or phone purchase. For the most part, players of physical media can be maintained long after they’ve been discontinued, as evidenced by the market for 70s audio components. Sure, the media itself can wear out, but it’s ultimately pretty unlikely, as VWestlife’s 50 year old cassette and cheap record player videos suggest.

I’m just as guilty as anyone; I have tracks I bought from iTunes as my only copy of a particular record. iTunes is already pretty horrific, growing ever worse with each passing year. Though they’ve denied the rumors that they’re killing downloads in the near future, it can’t be that far off. Only so much of a concern as long as Bandcamp and CASH Music remain alive and well, I suppose.

All this rambling to say: Don’t let your entire music collection be an ephemeral transmission played from someone else’s computer. If you love music, or art in general, endeavour to own it in some form. I’m (clearly) fine with possessing digital files, but you should strongly consider owning physical media. Those pieces you can hold in your hand represent something lasting and properly respect the time and money and talent the artist put into them. Own your music one way or another, preferably in a format not so proprietary as to rely on a single piece of software.

Maintaining a physical media collection is a good hobby to have. I’ll even help you set up your stereo.

Let’s Re-Evaluate

I’m embarking on a project.

The increasingly intangible nature of our music collections seems to have resulted in a lesser focus on music in general. Sure, some people utilize streaming services as massive, free libraries and rack up hundreds of streams without all that business of having to buy and maintain a music collection. That sounds awesome, but it has a deleterious effect on our relationship to music as a medium.

Notwithstanding the obvious issues of not paying for music, the problem is that whether it’s Spotify or iTunes or really any other screen-based music platform, the program itself flattens the total experience. It isn’t a discrete unit of music anymore; it’s a bottomless portal with a flat, unchanging visual experience.

I’m oversimplifying to make a point here, but you get the idea. By contrast, having to interact with physical media to initiate a listening session creates a more specific experience. It’s less immediately convenient (among other concerns), but it’s also more directed.

My observations about this are informed by my own experience and choices. I’m more or less a modern person, so my listening habits have kept pace with the general consensus of each era. Over the course of my life, I’ve transitioned from a Walkman to a Discman to a MiniDisc player and then to a used 3rd Gen iPod. (I later had a Classic, which is the best iPod ever made.)

I had a boombox with a top-loading CD player and two tape decks (which I used to make countless mixtapes) that gave way to a three-disc changing shelf system. After that, I built up a component system that included a mid-level receiver, five-disc CD changer and a record player only to dismantle them to sell or give away — twice. Being a minimalist who moves around a lot is at odds with having a physical media collection, unfortunately for me.

My music consumption habits of late more or less lapsed into the following:
On both my computer and my iPhone, I use Spotify Premium. Spotify has become my terrestrial radio replacement, in particular because dreadful mainstream radio stations played a leading role in murdering music for everyone by being so awful. (But I digress.)

When I find something I love, I buy a digital copy, preferably from Bandcamp. Then I circle back and listen to that album on Spotify to drive a little long-tail revenue to artists I love, however slight that might be. For reference, my iTunes (/Rhythmbox, now that my primary computer is a Linux machine) library weighs in around 40GB and would play for just over 18 days straight from end to end.

Of course, now I am fully in vinyl buying mode, which to be completely transparent began anew thanks to Evan indicating it as an activity we should do together. For the most part, we’re beginning with backfilling music I already have on my computer. I have lately begun to think that it’s very important to preserve music in a physical, high-fidelity format, lest an EMP (or something, I don’t know) renders my devices expensive paperweights. I’m also just beginning to think it’s important regardless of what the future holds.

In terms of hardware, I currently use:

  1. iPhone 6S. My entire iTunes library fits on my phone, augmented by the Bandcamp and Spotify apps.
  2. HP Compaq 6200 Pro with UbuntuStudio Xenial Xerus. I’ve transferred my music library across four computers now, often culling unloved items as I go. Normally used with headphones or a first generation Soundfreaq Sound Platform. I also have a Mid-2011 Apple iMac 21.5-inch, which is my music production machine, as well as an Acer Chromebook 14, though any listening is accomplished with Spotify or Bandcamp on that.
  3. Bose OE2 and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones. Both are very good headphones (without being excessive), which I see as being non-negotiable. I don’t really believe in the audiophile arms race, so I’ll probably not stray too far from this level anytime soon. The Bose are for playback and the Sennheisers for recording monitoring.
  4. Audio-Technica LP3 turntable hooked up to a Fluance Fi50. This is our main “hi-fi” stereo, I guess you could say. I think it sounds great, but I’m aware of its limitations. I’m considering buying an external phono preamp to sweeten things up a bit.
  5. TaoTronics TT-SK11 omnidirectional speaker, which is perfectly adequate for most things. I use it in the kitchen and the backyard.

Regarding Bluetooth, I usually use it in the car, even though I’m kind of sensitive to the volume drops and ever-so-slight speed and pitch changes that happen occasionally. I vastly prefer things to be hardwired when possible. Besides, nothing kills a device battery faster than running the Bluetooth radio.

This is a pretty good system. It’s reasonably modern, but certainly not bleeding edge. In my mind, a bleeding edge system might be to possess no music at all in any form and stream Amazon, Pandora, or Spotify through a multi-room Sonos system or equivalent. Which is totally valid. Conversely, you could also consider a five-to-six digit, high-end audiophile component system that uses only pristine physical copies bleeding edge, as well.

I’m no audiophile, but I’m definitely pickier than the average person, so I prefer larger files with a little more detail. I don’t always go for lossless files when I buy from Bandcamp, though that’s mostly a consideration for the dwindling free space on my phone. I’ve also sampled things like headphone DACs and largely don’t think they’re worth the money, at least within the ecosystem I’ve outlined.

I relay all this primarily as a starting point for this project. I love music and it’s still a major focus of my life. I’m not one of those people who could probably get by without it, or whose only remaining experience with it is the radio at work. I’m also not one of those with an extensive collection of low bitrate MP3s from the golden age of file sharing who can listen through anything remotely resembling a speaker and be happy. (For example, I fucking hate earbuds.) Music is important to me, and I want it to sound good, within a reasonable definition and cost.

That said, it’s time to take stock. I feel music, and more specifically the experience of just listening to music as an activity, growing more remote by the day. These interfaces, as I said, have flattened the experience for me significantly. New albums have an anonymous quality to them unless I get hooked enough to obsess over ancillary materials, which usually have to be sought out via web search. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but as a musician, I want to invest in the listening of music as much as the artists I love invest in the creation of it.

By virtue of our consumption habits, music has been pushed to a supporting role, a present but distant second to the visual in cinema, video games, television, and web channels. Imagery and video specifically is the dominant form of entertainment. Our ubiquitous smartphones are capable of delivering an endless stream of high-definition visuals, so rarely are we satisfied with audio-only experiences. I hate this, yet clearly, my adoption of newer technologies is just as responsible for damaging my engagement with music.

I also suspect, but obviously cannot by any stretch prove, that the general abandonment of directed music appreciation might have some correlation to the state of our culture as a whole. I mean, look at the discourse. This place is a mess and I fully believe some small element of that is related to the fact that the general populace doesn’t love music anymore. It’s just radios playing classic rock or country in the background while we work or get oil changes. The same can probably be said for books. Obviously I know that a great many people still love these things, but I’m not sure we value those experiences as a culture anymore.

At the very least, music is among the top five great coping mechanisms. As I write this, many of us are merely managing that: coping. If you feel absolutely terrible, wracked with anxiety and stress, but you haven’t put on an album you love for the sole purpose of listening to it and doing nothing else, try it. See if it doesn’t help a little.

To that end, I conceived of this project. Part of this blog will be a record of my slower, more deliberate listening habits. I want to re-center music in my life, and this will be my primary way of doing that. There will be four major themes, accented here and there by other as-yet-undetermined content.

  • First, I’m going to buy my top 25 favorite albums of all time on vinyl. Much has been discussed about the vinyl revolution, so this is not new territory. I’m choosing to rebuild my record collection (for the third time) strictly because it’s such an intentional experience to play a record. There’s the maintenance of all the components, but also the large format packaging, the need to be attentive so you can flip the record, and the distinct nature of each play session. As I write this, I don’t even know if all of these albums are available on vinyl, but a future post will outline the list and answer that question.
  • Impulse buy album highlights. I hesitate to call them reviews. Some will approach review territory, but mostly I’ll just give you the details about some random album I bought just because I was interested in it.
  • A re-evaluation of my digital music library in total, going from A to Z by artist. I came of age in the download generation, so there’s a kind of fragmented, almost incidental relationship to much of the music I own digitally. I’ll talk about how I acquired the files that make up each single and album I have by each artist, if I can remember. Some of it, shamefully, may never have been paid for at all. Taking stock will help me identify the areas I need to shore up, the files I can safely delete, and just what you get for 40+ GB of music.
  • Nurturing the love of music in others. This will take many forms; the very existence of this blog is one of them. Gifts I give will shift to centering music, especially physical media. Exploring minimalist, modern audio playback setups that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Literally sending people things to make and listen to music. Whatever helps people obsess over music again.

I’ll also talk about music production from time to time. Maybe just show off my guitar rig. Who knows on that front.

I’m putting this in blog format not only to hold myself accountable, but to really dig into this material. Maybe seeing this will inspire others to reconsider their music consumption habits, and to glorify the work that goes into creating it. In decades past, fanzines and solid music journalism helped create a reciprocal culture that supported the wider ecosystem. This is just a very small version of that.

Music is good. Listen to more of it, okay?

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