cassettes, and how to avoid going around in circles
hear no evil, speak no evil, C-no60... which cassette?
What about the cassettes we use in 4-track recorder-mixers? Is it safe just to bung in any old cassette that's lying around, or is it worth shopping about a bit? What will you pay, and what advantages are there to the different lengths? Curious, aren't you?
Before we answer this lot and make some recommendations, just what's in a cassette? Tape, of course. Good. It's a plastic backing on to which is coated metal oxide particles. A magnetically-charged signal, known as the recording, is, if you like, "imprinted" on to this coating by rearranging the alignment of these minute particles.
To improve the quality of the recording, bias and equalisation are added with the signal. Bias is a very high frequency signal added at the recording stage to help record accurately the sound on to tape, especially the lowest and highest levels. Equalisation is added both at record and replay stages to get a flat response, ie equal at all frequencies. The equalisation "curve" is defined by a time constant, either 70μs or 120μs.
The earliest cassettes, introduced by Philips in 1964 and soon widely copied, were called Ferric Oxide types thanks to the particular content of the tape's coating, and they're still around today and referred to as Normal or Group I cassettes. Then in the early 1970s Chromium Dioxide tapes were brought out and their 70μs filter network was introduced as an alternative to Ferric's 120μs. The improved high frequency response of these original Chromium tapes was offset by poor lower frequency reproduction, and so they were discontinued.
Then came so-called "pseudo-chrome", or at greater length "gamma-ferric oxide" cassettes, now generally referred to as Chrome or Group II cassettes, and the type that all the 4-track cassette recorders are set up to work with.
Metal tapes were introduced in the late 1970s and require yet higher bias currents — they're also called Group IV cassettes. Group III no longer exists, as these Ferrichrome cassettes, originally designed for bias settings between Ferric and Chrome, were gradually phased out as the three existing groups established themselves.
Not only are most 4-track recorders set up for Chrome cassettes, but most makers go as far as to recommend TDK SA or Maxell XLII types. These two are indeed good Japanese-made cassettes, and are very close in their bias requirements. TDK SA needs slightly higher bias than Maxell XLII, and so if recording heads are at all worn the TDK can give marginally less good results as tape/head contact is decreased. To generalise some more, XLII gives a brighter, and more instantly pleasing sound thanks to its lower bias, while SA seems to lose slightly less detail in multiple bounces.
But these two firm favourites have not been without problems. Maxell apparently had some difficulties with case quality some years ago, now resolved. A more recent affliction struck some TDK SAs — or at least, TDK was the name on the label.
Several suppliers of home recording gear had a problem with some batches of TDK SAs earlier in 1984 (involving one retail/hire operation's batch of 600 SAs, for example). The main complaint was low-level playback on edge tracks (1 or 4), suggesting unevenly cut tape or poor mechanisms. Some of the batch would run well for maybe ten minutes, and then come through with no oxide on the tape.
Such a widespread problem in these batches led some of the suppliers to suspect that the tapes may have been pirated, far-east "grey" imports, as they'd rarely encountered any quality problems with TDK in the past. But it's made some of them distinctly wary and often more inclined to recommend Maxell.
Other shops will offer you TDK because, simply, they get a better deal. One home recording shop referred to TDK as "flavour of the month" and reckoned it's just as likely to be, say, BASF, next year. But TDK in the UK have a much greater flair for PR than any of their rivals and, for instance, regularly hold press launches. Some other companies, in our experience, seem surprised to find out that they even make cassettes. It's been suggested, too, that Fostex and TASCAM recommend TDK and Maxell because these two aren't tape recorder makers and therefore aren't perceived as Competition. Isn't business fun?
TDK SA and Maxell XLII are available in "better" versions, SA-X and XLIIS respectively. They're identically biased to SA and XLII, but will give you higher replay levels for an equivalent input signal level. In other words, a slim advantage. TDK also have a new Group II tape just out, their HXS. One supplier wasn't impressed with early samples, calling it merely a "marketing exercise". We found our sample giving a touch more top-end than SA on a Fostex 250, but nothing to get excited about. Maxell also have a new Group II tape coming in 1985 called UDII, but other than that they're not saying anything about it.
Other brands seem largely untouched by home recordist suppliers, though Sony got a few mentions, particularly the new HFX, which Sony themselves seem unaware of. And the new TEAC tapes, made by a Japanese company called Taiyo Yuden and also put out with "That's" on the label instead of "TEAC", were liked by some, even if the principal attraction seemed to be the whacky see-through cases and the black, gold or silver colour options. Ah yes, image. Mustn't forget that.
To close, a couple of general tips. DO NOT use any other than Group II "Chrome" cassettes — some people do try Ferries and so on and get grumpy at the poor results, it seems. Nor should you use C120 lengths, which are too thin for safety. Better are the C90s, even over C60s, as the slightly thinner tape "wraps" tighter around the head as it goes by, ensuring a better tape/head contact. And don't just use one cassette over and over, because you might get one with a hard spot on the pressure pad which will eventually lead to uneven wear on your precious recording head.
And if, as a result of these investigations, we had to recommend just one cassette to use on your 4-track cassette recorder? You're worse than curious, you know. Oh, OK then, a Maxell XLIIS C90. Now go away and get on with your recording.
Bedroom Bouncedown - Home Recording
Feature by Tony Bacon
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