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A Global Shortage of Magnetic Tape Leaves Cassette Fans Reeling (wsj.com) 276

A reader shares a report: Steve Stepp and his team of septuagenarian engineers are using a bag of rust, a kitchen mixer larger than a man and a 62-foot-long contraption that used to make magnetic strips for credit cards to avert a disaster that no one saw coming in the digital-music era. The world is running out of cassette tape (Editor's note: the link could be paywalled; alternative source). National Audio Co., where Mr. Stepp is president and co-owner, has been hoarding a stockpile of music-quality, an-eighth of an inch-wide magnetic tape from suppliers that shut down in the past 15 years after music lovers ditched cassettes. National Audio held on. Now, many musicians are clamoring for cassettes as a way to physically distribute their music. The company says it has less than a year's supply of tape left. So it is building the first manufacturing line for high-grade ferric oxide cassette tape in the U.S. in decades. If all goes well, the machine will churn out nearly 4 miles of tape a minute by January. And not just any tape. "The best tape ever made," boasts Mr. Stepp, 69 years old. "People will hear a whole new product."

A Global Shortage of Magnetic Tape Leaves Cassette Fans Reeling

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  • I still use them (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 06, 2017 @09:46AM (#55498757)

    I bought a new car in 2001 that had a cassette player in it. I still use cassettes for mix tapes. Over 300K miles of road trips have been driven to the sounds of the 80s and 90s in all of their Maxell XLII-S glory.

    Now take your newfanlged CDs and MP3 players and get off my lawn.

    • I don't have it anymore, but I used to have a car with a tape deck. It had a single tape in it all the time, because I patched in a line-level audio jack for my mp3 player that only worked when the deck was "playing".

      I have a love-hate memory of tapes. Subjectively, I have fond memories of them. Objectively, they were horrendous and only used because LPs were not portable and portable CD players were bulky, prone to skip, and were too expensive until late in the game. The hoops that had to be jumped through

      • I still own an 8 track RECORDER. Sigh.
        • by hawk ( 1151 )

          Hey,,, you can recored some Conway Twitty for my '72 Caddie convertible :)

          I pick up rednecky 8-tracks for it when I stumble across them in thrift shops (which I hit to buy the vinyl I couldn't afford when it was new . . .)

          Then again, I still keep a wire recorder, and even have a spare but broken cassette (weight eased in pounds) for it. I have delusions of getting it running someday,

          hawk

      • I did something similar to my 2000 Honda's tape deck.

        Except I soldered the contacts shut n the micro switch closed when a tape was inserted so it thinks there's a tape in there all the time.

        Works like a champ. The amp in the OEM deck isn't very powerful, but it's actually a pretty nice quality unit.

        • Yeah, I didn't think my mod through. I thought I had it set up to "trick" the tape deck into being the input whenever I plugged in an external jack, but this only worked when the external player was on the same ground and unless I plugged it in, it was on battery and floating. Plugging it in caused a ground loop. So rather than fix my shitty work, I just inserted a tape and moved on :)

    • by DontBeAMoran ( 4843879 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @10:19AM (#55499041)

      I buy music from iTunes, burn it to CD, rip it to MP3, press a vinyl, scan the vinyl at 1200dpi, fax the scan to myself, save it in JPEG at 20% quality, use software to reconstruct the audio and record the end result to cassette tape.

      Sometimes I don't even notice if it's the cassette tape playing or if I'm just listening to an empty AM/FM channel.

    • Woo hoo! I knew if I held onto the Escort long enough, its accessories would become useful again!

      I’m obviously an audiophile!

  • Recently moved and carried a full box of tapes to me new house. Wondered what to do with it. Send me your offers now!

  • All my tape handling gear included rubber drive belts at some point in the chain (floppy disks, VCR, cassette, etc.) Those belts rarely work for more than 15 years. I suppose there may be some direct drive cassette players, but I'm not aware of any.

    Who sells good quality, new, cassette recorder/players?

    • Just replace the drive belt. Why throw a perfectly good piece of equipment away that can be fixed with a $1 part?

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Sarten-X ( 1102295 )

        Because it's a $1 part, but it takes 3 hours of my time to prep, execute, and clean up the project. The benefit is that I get an old cassette deck back. However, since the vast majority of media I would use with that deck is already available to me on digital media, that isn't much of a benefit. Even once the machine is repaired, it's only going to work until the next piece fails, all of which already have 20 years of time on them since they were last known to meet quality standards. I could do a full rebui

        • Re:Drive belts die (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Hodr ( 219920 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @12:13PM (#55499891) Homepage

          3 hours? What the hell. I used to overhaul broken VHS and Betamax players from the flea market and 90+ percent of the time the procedure was pull the top, replace the belt(s) (usually cheap O-ring drive belts you can buy by the bag in various sizes), hit the inside with compressed air, then swab the head with alcohol. Whole procedure took 5 minutes. Then I would go back and sell my $10 treasure for $100 the next weekend.

          • Experience, proper tools, and suitable workspace. Makes all the difference.

            • A few screwdrivers and a tabletop is all you need for replacing a belt. Not like you're doing an engine out Ferrari belt change here. What kind of nerd wouldn't be interested in learning how something works by taking it apart and fixing it?

              • Screwdrivers, compressed air, alcohol. Maybe also some torx or hex. And of course, the assorted bag of cheap O-ring drive belts.

                What kind of nerd wouldn't be interested in learning how something works by taking it apart and fixing it?

                Not every nerd is interested in all things.

              • by DewDude ( 537374 )
                It did take me almost 45 minutes to change the belt on my Onkyo Integra TA-207 cassette deck. About 3 minutes to remove the cassette mechanism from the chassis, 40 minutes of dealing with a seized, already stripped out screw while trying not to actually brake anything, a minute to change the belt and another minute to locate a replacement screw.

                But it was the first time I'd torn in to that unit and that seized screw put up a fight.
      • Replace a $1 part every 15 years? Are you insane? That's almost seven cents per year! We're not all made of money!

  • Why cassettes? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Whatsmynickname ( 557867 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @09:53AM (#55498827)
    I grew up with them and I thought they sucked. Had to use compression otherwise the hiss would make dynamic range pretty small. Frequency response was weak at the upper end at best. Could not skip songs too well. Hope the tape didn't come out of the cassette or break... I was longing for a reel to reel when portable CDs first came out, and I never looked back. So why cassettes? I don't get it.
    • I think it is for selling a physical object at shows for novelty. Cars don't come with CD players anymore either, so I'm less sure the playability is strictly the foremost issue compared to a physical token that nominally is functional. Then again if this guy is making the best stuff ever as he says then maybe it is undergoing a renaissance like vinyl..?
    • It's basically the same reason as vinyl records: you make more money by selling things that wear out over time and cannot be copied exactly. Of course, you need to market it properly as the new hipster fad. I guess the next stage in this retro cycle is DCC or Minidisc, with their warm and fuzzy lossy encodings.
      • by mark-t ( 151149 )
        The most significant advantage that cassettes ever had over vinyl records was increased amount of portability. It is completely obsoleted by portable media players today. There are those who would suggest that vinyl has not been similarly obsoleted because they would suggest that it offers a superior sound quality to digital sound reproduction by virtue of it being analog, and not having to digitally reconstruct what is only a (high frequency) approximation of the original sound, and it is alleged that t
    • Sound (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JBMcB ( 73720 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @10:12AM (#55498977)

      Regular tapes did suck. If you used Dolby and CrO2 tapes, and set the recording level and tape bias properly, you could get pretty good sound out of them.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

      • I knew before I clicked that would be Techmoan, his videos are an amazing history of virtually every media format that has ever existed.

      • I bought some Metal Bias type IV tapes back in the day. They were about $5 each which was a lot of money back then when cheap tapes were 3 for $1 and normal tapes about 75 cents. They did sound significantly better than regular tapes but not something I'd qualify as even "pretty good".
        • by DewDude ( 537374 )
          The thing about Metal is if you weren't using a super high-end tape deck; then you didn't really get the advantage. You did to a point with a low-end deck...but higher end decks with good bias calibration were a must to really take advantage of it. I still have some Type IV's in my collection that I paid close to $10 each for.
      • 100% on the money (Score:4, Informative)

        by bjdevil66 ( 583941 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @11:59AM (#55499793)
        For those of you under 40: If you dubbed songs over from their original copies (LPs, other cassettes) or from radio broadcasts onto CrO2 tapes, it was always a sharper, brighter sound with more contrast. The CrO2 physical media was also a darker, grayer, and slightly bluer color than the standard wood-colored tape.
        • by DewDude ( 537374 )
          Disclaimer: I am under 40

          By far what hindered the pre-recorded cassette industry were three things: Dolby B, head alignment, and bin duplication.

          Dolby B was pretty much a joke for the pre-recorded market. The system could work very well; when the playback deck was properly aligned and calibrated against the deck that made the recording. 99% of the consumer crap on the market at the time wasn't...and the real killer was the head alignment.

          Bin duplication was solved...but almost way too late in to the cas
      • by DewDude ( 537374 )
        etting the bias is a HUGE part. People have no clue that tape is such a finicky creature that the amount of bais level required for a cassette varied not only brand to brand, but sometimes batch to batch. Add to this that only high-end decks had a bias adustment; most of the low end stuff people used had a very specific fixed bias level. Depending on the brand of tape, it could be too much bias or too little bias.

        Too much bias, your tape sounds muddy. Too little, it's very bright. I'm not talking about
    • Re:Why cassettes? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @10:14AM (#55498997) Journal
      Back in the day, cassette tapes were pretty useful: portable, affordable, easy to use, and it didn't take a lot of fiddling or expensive equipment to get a decent recording quality (unless you're an audiophile of course). Tape to tape copies did suck unless the master was really, really good (and that did require some fiddling to get a decent sounding copy). Auto-skip to the next song worked pretty reliably for me on an inexpensive Akai deck or more expensive walkman or car stereo, as long as I added a second-long pause between songs. Issues with the tape sticking, breaking or getting stuck in the machine were extremely rare. Back then, I never thought that tape sucked.

      I agree though: why are people still bothering with them?
      • On the 'hipster' end of things, it's to record their vinyl records to, so they don't wear out the vinyl. That's the way it used to be done, and I have no reason to believe that it's any different now. Of course if it were I, and I was still buying vinyl records, which I'm not, I'd be digitizing the vinyl at a high sampling rate and greater than 16b per channel, and using that as a master for creating cassette tapes, and storing the vinyl in such a way that they'd be preserved as long as humanly possible.
    • One word: Hipsters.
      • The summary says that musicians are clamoring for it to distribute their music though for cheap multi-track recorders would make more sense but the digital multi-tracks are as cheap as the tapes now.

    • It's actually not CDs which have killed the tape for all sensible people, it's MP3s. Tape decks were still useful until fairly recently if you were driving on bumpy roads, especially off-road (or on dirt roads.) In that case, even very expensive CD players often skip. Buffers mitigate this problem, but do not solve it outright. MP3s, on the other hand, only skip when your player is crap, or you have a problem with bluetooth audio.

      • Buffers mitigate this problem, but do not solve it outright

        Well, today's RAM chips are big enough to buffer an entire CD, so you could argue it's solved.

        • Well, today's RAM chips are big enough to buffer an entire CD, so you could argue it's solved.

          But you have to actually do that, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody actually is. Anyway, there is a preferred method for buffering an entire CD, and that is to rip it to MP3 (or whatever) and then play it back at your leisure. There are actually automotive head units that will do this for you.

        • Today's chips are big enough to losslessly buffer most people's entire music collection. So yeah, it's beyond solved.

    • Re:Why cassettes? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Schnapple ( 262314 ) <tomkiddNO@SPAMviatexas.com> on Monday November 06, 2017 @10:25AM (#55499097) Homepage

      The real reason is hipsters. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way, but once the CD took over and things like vinyl records and cassette tapes left stores, hipsters who wanted to be different kept buying vinyl whenever and however they could. There's arguments to be made about sound quality and at the very least an album can sound different on vinyl under the right (read: expensive) circumstances but for the most part the novelty was in the fact that they had their music in some non-mainstream format.

      And then Record Store Day came along and was actually successful in the long run. Sure, the Independent Record Store is still an endangered species but the long term effect was that people started wanting to buy records again in mainstream numbers. Now you can buy vinyl records everywhere from Best Buy to Target. We had a story just like this one a while back about how the last vinyl record presses were made back in the 80's and how we were just now seeing enough demand to create new technology to replicate something for old technology.

      To some extent the vinyl record is the Mexicoke of the music industry - the utility and benefits are arguable, but the consumers are willing to spend more on it (a new CD costs like $11.99, the same album on vinyl can go for over $35 or more) so they keep getting made.

      And to some extent if you buy an album on CD you're buying something you can make yourself or you have to turn into the version you want (digital) yourself. If you're going to spend money might as well buy something you can't make yourself, plus as a bonus they tend to come with download codes for the format you really want. Today if you buy physical music to some extent you're buying a souvenir.

      But if you're a hipster, the vinyl record becoming mainstream is a problem for you since the whole point is to not be mainstream. So, the next frontier in differentness is cassettes. The pioneer of this for the most part was Urban Outfitters, they've wound up being the exclusive retailer of a number of albums on cassette, like the Run The Jewels album or the Hamilton Mixtape.

      So naturally we're now seeing the same problem the vinyl industry faced.

      But the sort version to your question is: it's the latest way to be hip and different.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Portable CD players are making a comeback as retro items now. Apparently WAV/FLAC isn't good enough, it's got to be a spinning disc.

        For hipsters the idea of even owning music must seem old fashioned these days.

      • But if you're a hipster, the vinyl record becoming mainstream is a problem for you since the whole point is to not be mainstream.

        Either that or the hipsters have realized that vinyl sucks in a host of ways and are looking to move to a less fragile and more manageable medium, so they're more or less just following the same path history took, for the same reasons.

        At least it appears they've been smart enough to skip 8 track.

        • No, I'm afraid 8-track has had a bit of a comeback too. There are actually articles online praising its "warmer tape sound" and such silliness. Enthusiasts have sites that show how to change the now-disintegrated foam pads in your "classic" 8-track cartridges and such things. I think somebody even released a new album on 8-track at some point in the last few years.

          It's insanity. I mean, I get playing with old tech sometimes just for the fun of it or for historic preservation, but pretending cassette or

      • To some extent the vinyl record is the Mexicoke of the music industry - the utility and benefits are arguable, but the consumers are willing to spend more on it

        This is true in most cases, and Mexican Coke is definitely more expensive (50-100% more). With that said, there IS a difference - and sugarcane-based Coke from south of the border is better. It's a sharper, slightly more bitter flavor - vs. the more dulled yet more sugary sweet NFCS-sweetened stuff coming out of American plants.

      • There's arguments to be made about sound quality

        There really aren't. I grew up with vinyl and it was better than shellac, but that's as far as it goes. Leaving aside the mechanical noise from the groove walls and dust and scratches, mastering a vinyl record is a delicate balance between dynamic range and playing time which means the engineer doing it has his hand on the compression knob to stop one groove opening up into another. If you look at the type of devices that people are playing vinyl on, they'd have been considered cheap and shoddy when vinyl w

      • The real reason is hipsters. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way, but once the CD took over and things like vinyl records and cassette tapes left stores, hipsters who wanted to be different kept buying vinyl whenever and however they could. There's arguments to be made about sound quality and at the very least an album can sound different on vinyl under the right (read: expensive) circumstances but for the most part the novelty was in the fact that they had their music in some non-mainstream format.

        I

        • That's not a problem with CDs, that's a problem with idiot producers.

          You can make just as much of a compression mess engineering a record as you can with a CD, and you'll get all the downsides of records to go along with it.

      • Personally I have no interest in vinyl, but it makes sense to me as a more physical experience. You have a large object to hold, you place it, you set a needle, and you can watch it working. That's a different experience from simply listening even if the sound is worse, and I can see how it'd make some people feel more connected to the music and thus increase enjoyment.

        Audio tapes have a little of that, but don't do it as well as vinyl because they're smaller and more machine-mediated (you can see them turn

    • Re:Why cassettes? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @11:11AM (#55499441)

      Those are low-quality tapes or low-quality players. High-quality recordings to quality tape played by a good player can have very high audio fidelity -- heck; magnetic tape is a medium recording studios have used predominantly, before the advent of hard drives.

      • by DewDude ( 537374 )
        Early digital audio was recorded on to video tape or some kind of reel-to-reel system. Sony's DAT used a cassette factor storing digital uncompressed audio. ADAT used SVHS cassettes for 8-track digital recording.

        They made PCM adaptors for Betamax.
    • by havana9 ( 101033 )
      I still have a couple of tape decks in working order.
      One it's use to make cassette tapes to use with a Commodore 64. when i feel that I have to relax playing a small platform game of my youth makes me feel more relaxed than the las Xbox games, and you can find a lot of oldies in the .tap files.
      I have also some old original cassettes and airchecks and a prosumer 3-head Teac deck that has a decent audio quality, and I use it als to record my piano practice and listen to me. The user interface is perfect. I
    • Re:Why cassettes? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @11:51AM (#55499717) Journal
      Among other things, it's totally DRM-free; you can't copy protect a baseband audio cassette. Aside from that, the technology is mature and dirt cheap, and actually durable in many ways similar to a printed paper book. If an audio CD gets damaged, it may become totally unplayable; if an audio cassette gets damaged, it may still be playable, and may be repairable to the point of being 100% again. If the shells they're using are held together with screws then it's easy to change shells if they get damaged. If the tape itself gets a damaged section, that section can be cut out and the tape spliced, leaving >99.9% of the original content intact. Damaged tapes, if they can be made playable at least one more time, can be copied, yielding a lower quality end product, but one that is usable. Note that none of this is music to the ears of so-called 'audiophiles' who expect everything to sound like they're hearing it live. There's also the fact that making a 'mix tape' is relatively simple, needing only a playback deck and a record deck; no computer or software required, just time and patience. You can even record things off broadcast radio relatively simply, and 0.125" audio cassette tape has more than enough bandwidth for FM broadcast. Sure, it's not CD quality, not by a longshot, but if all you care about is hearing the music and being entertained by it, and not continually critiquing the quality of the recording, then it's not bad at all.
      • Among other things, it's totally DRM-free;

        If you don't mind using a low quality analog route, the DRM of other media can be circumvented as well.

        • I understand that, but the subject we're discussing is not methods of bypassing audio DRM.
          • You brought it up.

            And in a way, an analog cassette is already somewhat copy protected, the copy is always going to sound crappier than the original, and it's going to get worse with every analog copy generation.

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @10:01AM (#55498887)

    "Now, many musicians are clamoring for cassettes as a way to physically distribute their music."

    Don't you idiots know anything? Vinyl is where it's at in 2017. GTFO with this new-old cassette bullshit.

    Fuckin' Millennials. Can't even do pointless hipster retro right.

  • Nobody else is commenting on the pun in the headline?

  • How to use new technology to reproduce old, obsolete technology. It's interesting in an engineering, logistical, historical and technical sense while at the same time it's the sort of thing that's going to drive a lot of the people on Slashdot fucking insane because it's a ton of effort to solve a problem that the forward thinking engineer believes should not exist.

    I guess in a way it's the same way I feel every time there's some new JavaScript framework designed to help further pretend that you're making a

  • There was a 1969 photo tape player on Youtube. The owner had a piece of the original photo tape and actually got it to work. Modern time version: By taking black ink and putting varying lines on a plastic reel to reel combo, you can achieve high quality digital or analog music. All is not lost to the innovator!! The sky is the limit :) Look on the sunny side of science.
  • I would buy high end cassettes.

    I have a collector plated car with a fairly high end (for its time) cassette deck. Where I live, you get cheap insurance with collector plates, but the laws here don't allow you to change the deck out for a cd player or whatever.

    The tape adapters don't quite cut it, so I keep a collection of tapes on board, just for driving music. Classic rock, jazz, soul sound just fine on an old cassette. Got a perfectly fine tape deck at a garage sale for 10 bucks for recording.

    Thing is,

    • I still use a cassette tape player because I cannot be bothered to digitize the hundreds of tapes I made back in the day. The quality is good enough as the tapes are the best you could buy recorded on good machines. I agree though I am unlikely to record any new ones. It is quite fun to play back things like New Years Eve 1999 - 2000 occasionally or way back in the shrouds of history - the BRMB rock 100, Or the John Peel Christmas countdowns.

      • that's nice but tapes stretch, get worn spots, get eaten.....good riddance to that medium, was okay in its day but I still remember what a PITA it was at times too

    • by hawk ( 1151 )

      >I have a collector plated car with a fairly high end (for its time) cassette deck. Where I live, you get cheap
      >insurance with collector plates, but the laws here don't allow you to change the deck out for a cd player
      >or whatever.

      There are shops that not only refurbish radios for classics, but add bluetooth input. I plan on doing this to the radio/8-track in my classic.

      hawk

    • That's actually an interesting point. I've got an '02 sports car with a nice after market stereo in it - has a nice graphic equalizer display with animating levels, etc;
      Still, I'd like to get a newer (but just as nice) after market stereo with bluetooth and USB but they don't seem to exist anymore. I can get something with a basic LED screen but nothing as fancy as before OR I can get one with a flip out video screen (meh) or something like a double DIN (which requires getting a custom center console pl
  • by boudie2 ( 1134233 ) on Monday November 06, 2017 @10:41AM (#55499233)
    I'm holding out, waiting for them to bring back elcaset.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
  • I was happy when cassettes died. Why bring back the pain?
    • by Hodr ( 219920 )

      But don't you miss occasionally seeing an unspooled tape tumbleweed on the side of the highway?

  • I'm kind of a fan of preserving a lot of older tech, and often believe the new stuff is just reinventing wheels that were just fine to begin with. But cassette tape was NOT one of the technologies I'd want to bring back to the forefront.

    I mean, sure ... as long as there are vintage tape players out there that people would still like to use, it makes sense that SOMEBODY still manufactures cassette tape media for them. But hipsters wanting to buy their new music on cassette when they already have superior o

  • It's April 1st already?

    Who in their right mind would use tapes anymore, especially cassette tapes?

  • Edison wax cylinder recording media is damned near impossible to find these days!

    Using tape for audio these days is nothing but a hipster affectation.

    -jcr

  • Maybe they'll have to switch to a format or media that actually has proper, accurate fidelity!
  • Sure, Lois. All the sorority girls are clamoring for the plantain section. Stop with this!

  • I mean, for my money, Michael Bolton on a 78 is the epitome of music.
    • by DewDude ( 537374 )
      You make a joke of it, but the process of making a 78 isn't that different than making a modern LP. You'd need to change your head to a mono lateral-cut with a larger groove; but once you have the master disc made....you can press them out of modern materials on modern equipment.

      The last batch I know of was made sometime in the mid 90s. They were reissues of oldies for classic jukeboxes.
  • ...but what about thumb drives as a distribution media? They're dirt cheap and widely supported.

  • Isn't the material recyclable? Sounds like a good justification to just go dig all the tapes that went directly to the trash and reuse it's component parts...

  • When I was in college back in the early 90's, my floor would host an annual party for the dorm. Someone had a HiFi Stereo VHS deck, so we would pre-record the playlist to that (reel-to-reel and cassette would've been the only other options at the time; the former was prohibitively expensive and the latter had inferior audio qualify).

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