For the longest time I didn’t understand the point of vinyl in the 21st century. With an iPod that I could hook up to some speakers in my cinderblock room at college, vinyl just didn’t make sense for me on a functional level. Then, one day, I went to Hot Topic (judgement encouraged) with my then-girlfriend and, trying to impress her, I bought my first record (The Gaslight Anthem’s “Handwritten”) without even owning a player. No longer trying to impress her or anyone else, I now have six shelves devoted to vinyl and an Audio Technica to play them.
Wrong. With a 74 percent increase in 2016 assisted by a shopping holiday devoted to their releases, cassettes are making a comeback. After dismissing vinyl years ago but ultimately culminating into a fan of the medium, I was perplexed at this callback to what is (clearly?) a lesser audio format. Instead of holding an audiophile’s nose skyward, I bought a few cassettes to see what all the hullabaloo was about.
First comes Brand New’s “Leaked Demos 2006,” a mastered release of scrapped songs for a record that was superseded by “The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me.” The songs sounded just fine, with an emanating warmth that wasn’t there in the original leaked tracks, but I wasn’t convinced. Was the tape giving the music the comforting tone or was it the mastering? Either way, I cannot resist declaring eight dollars a great price for the relic and a digital download of, er, officially released and mastered leaked demos.
“Some music does appear to sound better (or rather “lend itself”) to tape, but that, like much else, will come down to personal taste and the discretion of the listener.”
Next is Shelly’s recent debut full-length, “What A Wonderful Place the Earth Must Be.” The indie/emo/punk album was co-released by Pete Judge Records, Table Three Media, and Superjazz Tapes, a boutique label dedicated to tapes. I listened to the album immediately upon receiving the cassette, and the highs of tremolo picked guitars were beautifully ambient and filling the air whereas the lows were gritty on heavy chords. When BTRtoday asked Mike and Nick of Superjazz Tapes why they specifically focus on tapes, they were quick to respond that they loved the idea of having an affordable product to support bands.
“It’s like having an action figure of bands you like,” Mike, a self-declared vinyl collector turned tape aficionado, says. “Besides, muddy tones and twinkly emo can really lend itself to the tape sound.”
Nick, on the other hand, just likes the sound. “I would drop 40 dollars on that last Carly Rae Jepsen release,” he says. “Sure, we look for music that we love and will sound great on cassette. But fuck if pop music doesn’t sound amazing on tape.”
Last on the tapedeck is King Pizza Records’ post-punk eponymous debut from The Royal They. Unlike the majority of the DIY label’s releases, “The Royal They” is fuzzy only in parts rather than as a whole. Digitally, the album sounds too clean and overproduced, as though you should put cotton in your ears to muffle the sound a bit. But once you put the tape in the player, the album takes on a new personality that reveals layered depths in the sound. As King Pizza Records’ founder Greg Hanson, an admitted tape convert himself, said in our interview a few weeks ago, echoing the sentiment from Mike at Superjazz Tapes, “We…thought [a cassette tape] lends itself to the sound [of the music].”
There is clearly a market for tapes outside of a “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack, as Mike, Nick, Greg, and other labels and stores have poignantly noticed. While at first confused by the sacrifice of fidelity for a cheaper product, I’m fully onboard the cassette train—when appropriate. Some music does appear to sound better (or rather “lend itself”) to tape, but that, like much else, will come down to personal taste and the discretion of the listener.