Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Humble Philips Compact Cassette Tape: Past Prologue?

This “reluctant” music recording medium’s demise might have been a tad exaggerated, is the humble Philips’ compact cassette still alive and kicking? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though it seems to have vanished overnight in some parts of the world back in 2009, the internet is still abuzz with testimonials that the humble compact cassette is still used by revolutionary firebrands to spread their radial political messages in parts of the world yet to enjoy the benefits of Web 2.0. Not to mention independent record labels of the punk rock, death metal, black metal  genre who don't have their own vinyl pressing plants for making 7-inch 45-rpm singles. Given the reluctant music medium’s illustrious 50-year history, will Philips’ compact cassette ever “retire in dignity”? But first, an illustrious look back to the reluctant music recording medium that could. 

Back in 1963, the European arm of Philips launched the compact cassette. It was primarily introduced as a dictation medium for use in Philips office voice / dictation recording machines that were then licensed to be manufactured by Norelco. And there were very blatant signs that Philips never engineered the compact cassette to be a high fidelity music recording medium because of the inherent narrow track width and the slow tape speed of 1 and 7/8 inch per second (4.76 centimeters per second) making it prone to tape saturation. William Lear’s 8-Track tapes that runs twice as fast and has twice the track width easily bettered the cassette as a convenient consumer-based music recording medium and quarter-track open-reel tapes at the time offered even higher performance when run at seven and a half inches per second. 

But around 1967, there were some visionary high fidelity enthusiasts who placed it among themselves to make Philips’ humble compact cassette into a viable true high fidelity music recording medium. During that year, hi-fi manufacturing visionary Henry Kloss heard about Ray Dolby’s noise reduction system initially intended for professional – as in recording studio – applications. It was Kloss who pushed for a consumer version of the Dolby noise reduction system, which Kloss originally saw as a boon to open-reel tape users. Some months later, Henry Kloss linked the Philips compact cassette system with a previously unsuccessful DuPont product – chromium dioxide tape. Thanks to the magical midwifery at which Henry Kloss excels, these seemingly disparate inventions helped make the Philips compact cassette – originally introduced for office dictation recording purposes – into a high fidelity music storage medium that eventually went on to surpass the vinyl LP and even CD sales in 1989. 

Famous and established musicians from the 1960s also did their part in pushing the Philips compact cassette into a high fidelity music playback and storage medium. Near the end of 1967, The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards used an early Philips Norelco cassette recorder originally marketed as an office dictation recording machine to record the now distinctive guitar parts of their iconic song Street Fighting Man. Thirty years later, the late Ted Hawkins’ 16 tracks from the McCabe’s show were originally recorded on standard cassette – and while they’ve been improved on the 1997 The Final Tour album via 1990s era HDCD processing, these tracks still exhibit limited dynamic range. 

And before us mere civilians were taught by Tim Berners-Lee on how to master the then US DoD’s DARPANET – now known as the internet – if a revolutionary firebrand wants his or her messages to go “viral”, recording your speeches on scores on cassette tapes was the only way to go. That is if the despotic government you intend to overthrow keep jamming your CB radio transmissions. The Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini used the cassette tape route to make his Islamic Revolution a runaway success while toppling the Shah of Iran back in 1980. And did you know 50 years before thumb drives / USB drives became de rigueur mass data storage devices, the lowly Philips compact cassette was once used to store chunks of computer data – even its operating system as was once shown in that James Bond movie called Diamonds Are Forever? 

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