- Are all cassettes equal?
- No, they aren’t at all. They are different because of their design, but mainly because of their chemical composition and, thus, their magnetic and sonic performance. There are four types of tape regarding their composition: I (normal or ferric), II (chrome), III (ferrichrome) and IV (metal). You can see many different models at Vintagecassettes.com.
- What are those holes in the top side of the cassette?
- Those holes are meant to let the deck automatically identify the tape type and the ability to be recorded.
- What are type I (ferric) tapes?
- Type I are the most basic tape type. Made of ferric oxide particles, they are the most common tape out there. They have decent performance and very low price, but relatively high background hiss. Most well-known models are: TDK D, SONY EF & HF, Maxell UR & UD or BASF Ferro Extra.
- What are type II (chrome) tapes?
- Type II are the most popular high quality cassette. Made of chromium dioxide (true chrome) or ferric particles doped with cobalt ions (pseudo-chrome), they offer better performance than standard type I, with better maximum output level (MOL), higher treble saturation limits (SOL) and lower background hiss. They usually were more expensive than type I. Most well-known models are: TDK CDIngII, SONY UX, CDIt II, Maxell UDII or BASF Chrome Extra, Chrome Super.
- What are type III (ferrichrome) tapes?
- Type III was a commercially failed experiment, based on mixing type I and type II. They thought they will get the best performance of both tape types, but also they had their weaknesses. They were in the market for very few years and then disappeared.
- What are type IV (metal) tapes?
- Type IV are the most advanced and have the best audio performance over them all. Made of not oxidized ferric particles, they offer higher maximum output level (MOL) and the highest treble saturation limits (SOL), as well as low (but not as low as best type II) hiss. Most well-known models are: TDK MA, SONY Metal SR & XR, Maxell MX or BASF Metal.
- Which cassettes are the best?
- To find the best cassettes of each type, you may look for high MOL and SOL, low noise and flat frequency response with your deck, both in record and play. TDK AR, SA, MA, Sony HF-S, UX-S, MetalXR, Maxell XLI, XLII-S and MX are good examples of excellent tapes, but there are many others, as well as many variants over the years.
- Do they degrade over time?
- Although tapes do age with time, as every other thing, they keep their condition pretty good over the years. It’s normal that a cassette is in excellent condition after 40 years. Hot and humidity has high importance in that.
- Are there newly manufactured blank cassettes?
- Is it recommended to rewind a tape after storing it?
- Yes, it is. Looks that if cassettes are stored not completely rewinded to the end of any of the sides, the tape segment which is exposed can be affected and the mechanical integrity of the whole tape may suffer a bit.
- Why do I have to use the tape selector when recording?
- That’s because of the correct bias setting. Bias is a polarization current needed to optimize the recording process. Different types do need different amount of bias current during recording, to show lower distortion and to get a sufficiently flat frequency response from the lowest bass sound to the highest treble. Each position of the selector sets a different amount of bias current, which increases when we switch from type I (normal bias) to type II (high bias) and even more to type IV (metal bias).
- Why do I have to use the tape selector when playing?
- That’s because of the playback equalization setting, indicated with a couple different time constants. For type I a 120µs (microsecond) setting is required, which sets a particular EQ curve that is appropriate for this type. For tape II and IV, 70µs is required, which sets a different curve with some treble attenuation.
- Of course, the playback EQ of choice is intended to be the same setting which was used also during the recording, so we may still have some freedom of choice if our deck permits separate bias and EQ settings, otherwise the most “proper” EQ is automatically set together with the bias on those decks with “tape type” selectors or with automatic tape type identification.
- Setting the wrong type or, better, a different one between playback and recording, will cause incorrect EQ. Many people use 120 µs for chrome tapes because they either compensate the lack of highs because of a not-so-good recording or simply wish to boost the high frequencies a bit.
- How can I record a cassette from my computer?
- There some tutorials out there. You can simply connect your soundcard’s output to the Line IN of your deck, set the appropriate recording level and you’re ready to go. For a detailed, step-by-step tutorial, please read my Guide to make good recordings.
- Can I record from my phone/MP3?
- Yes: you can connect your phone/MP3 output to the line input of your deck/boombox using a cable with a 3.5mm jack for the phone and the required connector in the other side (RCA, jack...).
- Can I record over a prerecorded cassette?
- It’s not an usual thing because the magnetic tape is the same usually found in a blank cassette (usually a cheap type I) but, yes, you can record over it. You must cover the holes on top side of the shell with some adhesive tape or your deck won't let you record.
- Are old blank cassettes any good?
- Yes! Indeed they are. In fact, if they are not cheap ones and not very old (more than 40 years), they can actually be much better than modern ones, especially if they are some good old-school type II and IV.
- How much time can I record in?
- It depends on the length of the tape. Most common cassette tape lengths are 46, 60 and 90 minutes , but there are also a few different lengths like 30, 50, 54, 64, 70, 74, 80, 100, 110, 120 minutes and also some rare and crazily long 150 and 180 minutes cassettes (but these two latter ones are filled with such a thin tape that it's not really wise to actually use it, because the risk to find that very thin tape jammed into your deck's transport/mechanism is very high).
The nominal length is always referred to both sides of the cassette together, so you should divide it by two to actually know how much recording time you have on each of the cassette sides.
So, make sure that your songs' lists (each list for any of the two cassette sides) will nicely fit on your cassette tape's sides.
But, of course, you are still free to record some shorter song's selection and then leaving some blank tape at the end of the side.
- What is Dolby and what it does?
- Dolby NR is the most well-known noise reduction system. It effectively reduces the background hiss without degrading the sound. To play a tape with it (Dolby decoding) you must do the recording with Dolby active too (dolby-encoded recording) or you will end up with a strong treble cut. And it’s very important to choose the same Dolby NR type while playing (decoding) as the one which was originally used during the recording (encoding), so it’s wise to also take note on the cassette if it was recorded with some Dolby NR and, eventually, which type of Dolby NR. Be aware that although many walkmans and boomboxes features Dolby, it’s only for playback, which means that they cannot encode the recording, only decode it.
- What is the difference between Dolby B, C and S?
- These are different Dolby noise reduction systems. Dolby B is the earliest one, the most widely available of them all, also called Dolby NR or simply Dolby. Dolby C and S were released years later and offer better reduction but they can be found only in high quality (or simply more recent) machines.
- Can I record metal tapes in my boombox/walkman?
- Yes, you can. But don’t expect the same good performance of a good deck, because of the need of high (also adjustable) bias that good decks can apply to the recording that boomboxes usually cannot supply, even if they state “metal tape compatible”. But if they don’t even have a “metal position” setting, then the tape would be recorded in a heavily underbiased situation which means a recording with lower and not consistent level (especially on the lower frequencies), with high distortion and with way too much treble to be considered acceptable.
- What is MOL?
- It’s the acronym of Maximum Output Level. It refers to the maximum output level that a magnetic tape can handle with good audio quality. That means it doesn’t show more than 3% of third harmonic distortion , typically at mid-low frequencies. It can reach a bit higher output level, though, but with higher distortion. The MOL is frequency-dependent and inversely proportional to: the higher the frequencies, the higher the distortion, so the MOL is lower. But the “official” MOL, as you can read on the several tape tests available on the old Hi-Fi magazines, it exactly the level where the tape reaches 3% of third harmonic distortion at 315Hz frequency. You wouldn’t find an “official” MOL at treble frequencies (i.e. 10Khz) because the third harmonic of a 10Khz frequency is 30Khz, which is inaudible, and moreover the tapes tend to saturate much more quickly (read: at a much lower level) on treble frequencies and so, to give an indication about how much treble a tape can take, the official parameter used for treble (typically just 10Khz frequency) is SOL which means Saturated Output Level, which is the maximum level that a certain tape can reach on treble regardless of if you try to give it even more than that on the input side (and trying to record with such treble excess on the input side will simply cause some self-erasure of the whole recorded signal while going onto the tape).