Steve Stepp knew audiotapes were going to come back before you did, and not just because he’s a man whose family company put its faith behind the machinery 50 years ago. Also because Pearl Jam called. It was 2008 or 2009, and the 20th anniversary of the album Ten was coming up. They wanted to release a collector’s edition that would include a CD, a cassette, a vinyl record, and a scrapbook.
“They were going to do 15 or 20 thousand sets and see how it would go over with their fans,” says Stepp, president of the family-owned National Audio Company—one of the seven or so remaining audio-cassette makers in the United States, and the only one making the actual magnetic tape. “They came and contracted with us, and we made the tapes and shipped them to their warehouse where they were all going to be assembled.” By the time the tapes got there, the entire inventory had sold in presale.
Stepp secured a contract for a similar project with the Smashing Pumpkins (“Bodies” is an underrated gem and I will fight anyone who says otherwise). Around the same time, major record labels began contacting NAC about releasing the music of young independent artists on tapes for cheap. Then Disney called. Could Stepp’s company create cassette soundtracks for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies?
In 2017, according to an annual report from music-industry research company Buzzangle, cassette sales in the U.S. rose 136 percent, even more than vinyl, which was the only other format in the beleaguered music industry that was still growing (digital was down 23 percent). But while vinyl has been hailed as a high-fidelity format for serious audiophiles, cassette tapes are, well, hissy-brown spaghetti packed in a plastic card. They’re the 1980s. Shoulder pads. They’re goofy.
Cassette tapes are remarkably similar to another historic cultural artifact that dates back way further than the 1980s: Wooly Willy. In the game, you moved a magnetic stylus around to attract and align thin metal filings around a cartoon face. In cassettes, the tape deck passes an electric current over a tape’s thin metal coating, aligning the needle-shaped particles into magnetic patterns that can be read as sound. “Nothing physically moves,” says Stepp. “You’re just changing the magnetic fields within the tape.” To rerecord on the same piece of tape, you just scramble the oxide particles and realign them to a different song.
This process has its downsides that have to be addressed if you want to eek out the format’s maximum potential. For one thing: Metallic particles that haven’t been arranged into pattern with the song, extras that are just sitting around, can create a surface noise called tape hiss. The louder you record on a tape, the less likely this effect is to happen. Certain types of tape reproduce high frequencies poorly. And God help you if your tape deck “eats” it.
To combat the sound-quality issues, if not unspooling mishaps, cassette makers developed a number of different flavors of magnetic tape, differentiated by the magnetic material coating the polyester base film—Type I, Type II, and, briefly, Type IV. (“I never did know about Type III,” says Stepp. “It died on the drawing board or something.” He’s basically correct.) Type I, the most common and least true to sound, was covered with ferric oxide, which made it red or brown. Type II, which was black, used chromium dioxide or cobalt ferric oxide to create a higher output, and therefore increased signal-to-noise ratio, called headroom. Type IV was more experimental—a very high-performance metal tape that created fantastic sound but would grind little grooves across the playback equipment after enough use.
The tapes of the resurgence, at least for now, are of the first variety. National Audio Co.’s equipment, including a bunch of machines that had previously been producing strips for credit cards, make Type I tape. But within the next couple of weeks, it will be a new, improved 2018 version. “We took two years to create a process to mill the particles (used in reel-to-reel studio masters) down to a miniature size,” he says. “The new tape will be a Type I, but it will have the performance and headroom of the Type II tapes. In fact, it’s a little bit hotter.”
But a little hissing has nothing on analog nostalgia. A Spotify playlist might work for a party, you can’t put one in a big boom box and play it straight through on the beach. And some words on a screen just aren’t as romantic as a handwritten mixtape set list in the back of a physical case. And then also: “Your ears are analog. The natural world is analog,” says Stepp. “The reason people like cassette tapes and vinyl is that they reproduce actual, analog sound, with all the harmonics and frequencies your ears are built to listen to.”
Despite his current good fortune, Stepp clearly remains a little shell-shocked by the CD era. “Incidentally, the Recording Institute Association of America had an article a while back that said the CD had dropped 90 percent in retail music sales since its peak in the year 2000. We have seen the coming and the going of the CD,” he says at one point, as if he’s still actively plotting revenge on the entire medium. Not that he’d have to lift a finger for his vengeance. He’s already getting it.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics