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.