Sunday, November 29, 2015

Commonly Available Test Cassette Tapes, Anyone?

Even though Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ Geo Tape is the one often mentioned, are there more widely available test cassette tapes out there?

By: Ringo Bones 

Believe it or not, even well into the 1990s – and probably even until this day – there’s still no agreed for the level at which the 0VU peak record level is set on high fidelity cassette tape decks. During the 1990s, the 200nWb (nano Weber) Dolby flux was most commonly used for quality budget decks, but lower down the price scale on budget designs with inferior tape heads that would overload at a much lower level, 0VU is set -3dB below Dolby. Some top line models, like Nakamichi, have their 0VU set high up at IEC 0dB flux of 250nWb which many audiophiles and engineers, then and now, think is most sensible. But is there a reliable way to “calibrate” the cassette tape decks you currently own regardless of quality even if you don’t have access to a sophisticated signal generator and an oscilloscope? 

The British made Harrison Test Cassette available from Canford Audio which retailed for around £20 back in the mid 1990s is one of the most widely available and often turns up in garage sales and weekend swap meets. This has Dolby level plus other tests that are useful in aligning cassette tape decks. While the “Cadillac” of test cassette tapes are those BASF IEC test tapes, especially those that are IEC Primary Reference Standard which back in the mid 1990s costs £69.20 each. But it is a very reliable way to establish IEC 0dB using the “Level Control 315Hz Code-XB” track and given that it is a premium quality cassette test tape, it can establish IEC reference level to a degree of certainty manufacturers cannot question. 

After having reliably establish IEC 0dB, you can now record to around +4dB above it on musical peaks on metal tape and around +2dB on ferrics and chromes. And don’t forget to add 2dB to these figures if you set the 0dB of your cassette tape deck at 200nWb Dolby flux. But the most effective test you can perform after aligning your cassette tape deck is on how effectively it can record music tracks. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nakamichi: An Audiophile Prerecorded Cassette Tape Manufacturer?

Famed as the maker of the world’s finest cassette tape decks during its heyday – but did you also know that Nakamichi also entered the audiophile prerecorded cassette tape manufacturing during the mid-1980s? 

By: Ringo Bones

Even though it was a sad day when they closed up shop back in the late 1990s because making the world’s finest cassette tape decks is no longer economically viable most audiophiles under-50 probably don’t know that during the mid 1980s, Nakamichi entered the world of audiophile prerecorded cassette tape deck manufacturing. Understandable, since – in my own experience at least – audiophile prerecorded cassette tapes are probably one of the rarest hi-fi related items one could find in a typical garage sale or flea market. 

In an October 14, 1984 issue of The New York Times, there was an article about Nakamichi going into the cassette recording business and has just issued the first two-dozen tapes in what was then the company’s new undertaking. Calling its new tapes the Reference Recording Series, Nakamichi has licensed recordings from some major audiophile disk manufacturers and duplicated them on TDK metal tape, with each tape recorded while in its final shell, rather than doing what was then a common industry practice of recording bulk tape first and then wound them into plastic shells. 

At the time, Nakamichi says its audiophile prerecorded music cassette tapes have a flat frequency response of 20-Hz to 20,000-Hz and a dynamic range or signal-to-noise ratio of over 90-dB. Quite impressive since most commercially produced mass-market prerecorded music cassette tapes at the time can barely crawl past 16,000-Hz and can achieve a signal-to-noise ratio of 70-dB only if the “wind is blowing in the right direction”. Each Nakamichi manufactured cassette is available either with Dolby B noise reduction – which was standard on most cassette tape decks at the time – or Dolby C, a newer and improved system at the time. Further and of special interest to those with automatic-reverse decks, the tapes are designed so that there is little or no blank space at the end of either side. The tapes will be sold through Nakamichi’s equipment retailers. According to those fortunate enough to experience the heyday of the audiophile cassette tape firsthand during the early 1980s, it was the increasing sophistication of car stereo systems at the time that became the raison d’ĂȘtre of the “audiophile prerecorded music cassette tape industry“. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² With Big Bottom: Cassette Tape Bass Enhancer?

With its ability to boost bass levels without saturating tape, is the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² With Big Bottom the ideal cassette tape bass enhancer? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Is it just me or is anyone’s primary or initial motivating factor of becoming an audiophile was having the ability to playback those deep gorgeous low frequencies often denied on lesser gear. And with the humble cassette tape, more or less, becoming the egalitarian hi-fi medium of choice from the late 1970s till the end of the first decade of the year 2000, should it be able to reproduce those low frequencies with aplomb at beer-budget prices? 

After seeing it advertized in most “musician oriented” magazines back in the early 1990s – i.e. Keyboard, Guitar Player, Bass Player and Guitar World magazines – I’ve always coveted the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² With Big Bottom so that I will be able to record those gorgeous low frequencies onto cassette tape without the resulting muddy sound that results when you put to much low frequencies into cassette tape during recording. As promised by its advert, the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² With Big Bottom allows you to do just that – record ridiculous levels of bass onto cassette without the resulting muddy result. And as an added bonus, when used as a preamplifier between your cassette tape deck and your main power amplifier, the unit has the ability to make your 8-inch woofer sounds as if it is a 15-inch woofer! But does it work as promised? 

Back in 2011, I had the good fortune of finding an Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² With Big Bottom on sale at our local pawn shop for around 79 US dollars so I snapped it up immediately for testing. As a cassette tape recording preamplifier, the resulting recorded low frequency sounds reminded me of those Luxman tape decks with a 12AX7 vacuum tube based buffer preamp – a gentle compression of the very low frequencies and adding a sense of warmth to upper bass and lower midrange frequencies – it is as if you are recording sounds onto cassette using single-ended triode vacuum tube circuits. As a playback preamplifier, it made the “solid-state sounding” solid-state power amplifier you are currently using sound as if it is a vacuum tube amplifier – at least in the bass frequencies. As for the actuality of the advertised claim of the unit’s ability of making your 8-inch woofer sounds as if it is a 15-inch woofer? Not quite but the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² With Big Bottom did manage to lower the “listening fatigue effects of listening to budget solid-state gear on prolonged periods of time. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Cassette Tapes: Less Than Ideal High Fidelity Audio Medium?

Despite the 21st Century romanticism on how better cassette tapes are in comparison to CDs, MP3s and other digital mass music media, are cassette tapes just “too fragile” to be a hi-fi audio medium? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Romanticism and a rose-tinted view of the heyday of the cassette tape had been on the up-rise on every social media network since the first decade of the 21st Century that sometimes I wonder if these people were actually there first hand – as working musicians and amateur musicians – with only expensive and fragile cassette tape recordings to fall back into when rehearsing for their respective cover-song. Maybe I’ll just ramble yet again on my “bad experiences” of the cassette tape during the 1980s up to the early 1990s. 

Unlike those CD transports found in cheap boom-boxes and table-top AM/FM cassette recorders of the 1990s, tape transports found in these devices tend to eat cassette tapes. Although cleaning with 90-percent isopropyl alcohol on top-flight cassette tape decks, especially the capstan and rubber pinch-rollers on a regular basis means that cassette tapes being eaten on reasonable quality hi-fi decks are an extreme rarity, cheap boom-box CD transports are not known to damage CDs with their “overactive” ultraviolet lasers. 

 Another cassette tape – in fact every magnetic recording tape as well - weakness is that when they are exposed to a sufficiently powerful magnetic field, they tend to go dull that is they loose their high-frequency response. This problem is often experienced by electric guitar and electric bass players where a cassette tape copy of the song they are supposed to rehearse is tossed in the electric guitar case or bass guitar case causing the recording to become dull and some parts to drop-off or be erased completely upon exposure to the powerful magnets of electric guitar pickups or bass guitar pickups. Open-reel tapes – as in master tapes of bands whose budgets allow them to work on one - in transit often avoid this problem by being stored in a mild-steel case that acts as a magnetic shield to prevent dulling and erasure of high frequency signals – i.e. cymbals and lead guitar parts – but when was the last time you’ve seen a cassette tape housed in a magnetically shielded mild-steel housing and case? 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Whatever Happened To Audiophile Cassette Tape Recordings?

It may seem like oxymoron back in 1995 until today, but was there ever a time where “audiophile cassette tape music recordings” were commercially marketed? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in 1995, the phrase “audiophile cassette tape music recordings” may seem oxymoronic and nonsensical to most audiophiles who are bought and sold by the budget CD player wonder called “Marantz CD 63 SE KI Edition”, but there was indeed a point in time where premium audiophile cassette tape music recordings are commercially marketed and can be bought from your nearest music store. Back in 1980, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab president Herb Belkin after introducing Original Master Recording LPs back in 1977 tried to introduce the cassette tape version of his “Mo-Fi” LPs called the Original Master Recording Cassette that were recorded in real time – not via high-speed dubbing – that made available audiophile quality contemporary popular music, hard rock heavy metal and Jazz to almost everyone, including 1980s era budding audiophiles. Later in 1980, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab later released Geo-Tape, an audio cassette tape deck alignment device for consumer use. 

Unbeknown to Mo-Fi president Herb Belkin, cassette tape playing devices on the lower end of the food chain have the propensity to “eat tape” – i.e. their capstans literally pull the tape out of the shell and crumpling the tape forever ruining what audio signal recorded on it. Unlike the advent of cheap boom-box CD playing devices of the 1990s, these don’t have ultraviolet lasers that burn the recorded pits of music CDs. I think the last “audiophile” cassette tape music album sold commercially was back in 1991 when the cassette tape format of Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind album where the tape used was of the cobalt-doped Avilyn type and it even said on the cover “recorded on premium cobalt Avilyn tape. But was it because of the excessive high-frequencies recorded on the master tape of the Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind open reel studio master tape that resulted in too much – and messy – treble? At least you can now listen to the album to freely judge for yourself.