Cassette tapes and players/recorders

The faithful cassette tape, with its infamous quality but solid construction.

The cassette has been around for more than half a century, and is now starting to increase in popularity again, very strongly in fact!

Below information about the tape itself, how players and recorders work, a bit about sound quality, making recordings and of course how to keep the equipment in optimal condition.


  1. How does the cassette work?
  2. Types of tape and quality
  3. Cassette players/recorder.
  4. Make your own recordings
  5. Maintenance and fine adjustment
  6. Walkmans
  7. Buy new Cassette tapes
  8. Make your own insert cards

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1. How does the cassette work?

A cassette obviously works with tape, but how do you get music from that tape?

Tape itself consists of a plastic ribbon with an oxide coating on it. The oxide layer has the ability to be magnetized. Magnetism allows you to arrange the polarity of the particles in a pattern that can be read, so you can store information in them like music. Tapes were also used in this way for a short time as a storage medium for computers, but were soon rejected by the Floppy diskette, which itself also consists of a plastic disk with an oxide coating...

On top are holes with a plastic plate over it, this is your over-write protection. The machine can detect these holes and determine whether you can record on them or not. You can break out the plates after your recording to protect the tape against re-recording. If you want to re-record something, just paste something over it.

There are often other already open holes on top of the cassette. These indicate what type of cassette it is. You have no less than 4 different qualities (or called formulations). (a good picture of this will follow)

2. Tape types and quality

Cassette tapes come in all kinds of qualities, lengths, colors and scents.

The following types are known:

  • Type I = Ferrous or Iron Oxide
  • Type II = Cr02 or Chrome
  • Type III = FeCr or Ferro-Chromium (this type has flopped and are hard to get)
  • Type IV = Metal (these are expensive cassettes with a superior sound quality)

These come in different lengths:

  • C46 (23 minutes per side)
  • C60 (30 minutes per side)
  • C75 (37.5 minutes per side)
  • C90 (45 minutes per side)
  • C100 (50 minutes per side)
  • C120 (60 minutes per side)
  • C150 (75 minutes per side)
  • C180 (90 minutes per side)

Although many are mentioned, the C60 & C90 have been the most popular. You can sometimes come across a C100 or C120 but the tape on this is thinner than usual, although 100 minutes is close to the limit you have to be more careful with tapes of 120 minutes or more, also not all devices can play these tapes well, the chance that so the tape gets tangled or breaks is great.

In some other cases you will come across tapes with only a few minutes of playing time, for example I have a C15 with only 7:30 minutes of playing time per side, these were often made for more specific purposes.

Tapes pre-recorded (pre-recorded cassettes) of studio albums were usually made to the length of the album. There would even have been vending machines where you could compile your own personal mixtapes and then buy the tape. Unfortunately I can no longer find the source of the latter, so I have to doubt it as well.

Pre-recorded tapes from the early '60s, '70s and early '80s are often mediocre or simply bad in quality. A ferrous coating and cheap housings. Better tapes eventually became available, but companies that produced music on tape went almost always for cheap.It

was only when other media came on the rise that producers tried to get the best out of the tape, but by then the interest in the tape had long disappeared...

I also have a number of albums at home, we take a closer look here.

We take a closer look at Paul Simon's tape. It is a copy from the later years.

When I compare this cassette with the others in the collection, it strikes me how much better not only is the sound quality, but also how much extra effort has gone into the finish!

The booklet contains all the lyrics of the album, the quality of the paper is also better (laminated) and the print quality is higher.

The tape itself has also been optically improved, the text is printed on the cassette, so no paper stickers.

The recording is made on high quality chrome tape with Dolby HX Pro noise reduction.
Just a little different from the cassettes you saw before.

By the way, it sounds very clean, I compare the quality with my own recordings (which I personally don't think is bad).

But now comes the other side of the story, most pre-recorded tapes (which are often much older). Can I call it 'acceptable' at best, someone else would probably find it horrible because my threshold is quite low ;)

When I compare the quality, it is clear that the music I have recorded sounds better.

The music on these tapes often sounds dull, there is also a lot of noise, even if a tape is recorded in chrome with dolby noise reduction, they usually don't sound like old times. Not to mention dropouts!

The poor sound quality can be explained by several factors:

  • The recording used to be often a copy of a copy of a copy of the original, sometimes even worse.
  • The recordings were made on cheap ferrous tape, or chrome tape from the early years.
  • Casing quality also plays a role in keeping the tape stable during playback.
  • Although not the cassette's fault, the equipment also plays a role, a bad or cheap deck will certainly not do the quality any good.
  • Finally, time also plays a major role.

The tape on the tapes is not always in good condition after 30+ years, they sometimes also release a lot of their oxide layer during use, which makes the quality even worse, your heads also get dirty very quickly...

To put commercial tapes in brighter perspective.
If you adjust your fixed equipment a little bit, the quality can still be quite good. Listening with the headphones is personally not recommended. Otherwise they still have a certain collectible value, enthusiasts sometimes pay a lot for specific albums, even if the condition is sometimes a bit worse.

I used to avoid the prerecorded tapes, but nowadays I have gotten to like them. The trick is to find the right cassettes on which the quality is still worthy. You can really only find out by testing them before purchasing. So when I go on a tape hunt I take the best Walkman from home to test them in it, of course I first ask permission from the seller. Finally, I always look closely at the price, I don't go higher than a few euros unless it concerns a specific copy, even then my threshold is a maximum of € 10.

Don't forget to remove the price tags, that looks so nice...

We leave the pre-recorded tapes for what it is and take a look at unused tapes.

I myself have a preference for tapes from the mid 80s or newer, both Chrome and Ferrous

I also have a single cassette of Type III (Ferro-Chrome) and Type IV (Metal), these are also black in color.

While chrome would be better than ferrous metal, and metal better than chrome, each type of tape has advantages that another does not.

Ferrous tape is often claimed to have a better bass range. Better than chrome or metal! Provided it is a good quality tape. Good ferrous tapes can therefore sound better with the right music than on chrome. Classical or simply Pop music would do well on this. As long as you avoid songs with a lot of high notes.

The disadvantage is that ferrous contains a lot of noise due to its properties. The dynamic range is also less than with other types.

Chrome cannot compete with Ferro in terms of Bass, but in turn it is better with low tones (treble) and the general range is also greater. Chrome is also less affected by noise, the threshold in which you hear noise is lower than with ferrous.
Interesting with the so-called Chrome 'Type II' tapes, is that there are 2 sub-variants of them...

You have the pure chrome tapes, common in the 80s and the later variants with Cobalt as coating. Although the properties of chrome and cobalt are almost the same, cobalt is slightly better in the dynamic range.

Music with high tones such as Electro, Rock, Jazz and Vocals should do well here.

As far as I know chrome/cobalt has no real drawbacks, except that you should avoid music with heavy bass if you have good ferrous tapes.

Ferro-chrome was once marketed as a combination of the two previously mentioned, so in theory it should have the best of both (bass and treble). In practice, this was a bit different, it took a while before decks came on the market that could play this type. Moreover, they were never produced in large numbers, perhaps because there were complaints that the chrome layer would not stay on the tape, with all the consequences that entails.

Then there's Metal, which again has the best of both first types of tapes. Good bass and a solid treble. The dynamic range is also at least greater than that of ferrous metal. In addition, this type is made to last, because they are very wear-resistant. Of course noise is something that hardly exists here, the threshold is at least around that of chrome or lower.

The disadvantage of metal tapes is that not all devices can play them, but it is still not always possible to get the most out of them.
Not to mention recording just yet...

You need a strong signal to be able to record something on the tape, not all decks can provide this, and questions are often asked when erasing these tapes. Finally, the most well-known disadvantage is the price, the tapes are only made in small numbers and are still very expensive in the world of analog sound. Prices from €50 are no more than normal.

Furthermore, you often see texts on cassettes such as 'normal' or 'high' position, 'standard quality' or 'Low noise High output'.

High position or High output refers to the dynamic range of the tape. A chrome cassette with a high position would theoretically sound just as good as a ferrous cassette, but with the sound quality of chrome.

Low noise means that there would be less noise than with a standard quality tape. Something you would otherwise avoid with noise reduction.

Ultimately, not one type of tape is perfect. One has characteristics that the other does not have, the quality of your deck is also very important. Whether it has the right options, and is set up properly are all conditions that determine the quality.

And then there's age, which also plays an important part in quality...

Take, for example, these two fairly good quality cassettes, probably produced sometime in the 1990s. They are both exactly the same. Yet one of the two is unusable.

The right cassette has problems. You can't see this, but you can hear it. The sound fades with a fixed rhythm (drop-outs) and for a moment you hear the B-side overlap. Since I only hear it at the beginning of the A side and not the B side it makes me suspect that there is something wrong with the left reel, as this is a cassette without screws I can only open it by opening it demolish.

In short, you can use the best cassettes and players, have the perfect settings and use the best sound sources, there is still the chance that your tape has simply become unusable. In this case, age/bad handling is usually the culprit.

There is much more to tell about the different types of tapes and their advantages and disadvantages. Enough to write another blog about this. For now I refer you to the following sources, here the material is discussed in much more detail. For the blog, I will refer to these resources again to give more details about the differences.

3. Cassette players/recorders

Now that we have the (basic) information of the tape, we can start on the devices that make it possible to play and record it.

They come in all shapes and sizes, with a very wide range of options.
Let's take a look at the features a cassette deck has to offer.

Here the control panel of the transport, for those who are not familiar with it from left to right the following:

Stop - Eject, self-explanatory, press once to stop playing, press twice to open the door, this combined function is applied to almost all decks.

Rec or 'Record' is used to record audio, in most cases you can only press this button if you do this at the same time as the Play button. The latter is to prevent you from accidentally pressing the record button.

Rew 'Rewind' Rewind the tape.

Play, play...

FF 'Fast Forward' Fast forward the tape

Pause, pauses the transport during playback, the motors in the deck usually keep running but the transmission is disconnected from the tape, press this button again to resume playback.

Next, let's take a look at the heads in different decks, because there is a big difference in the placement of, and the number of heads that you find in a deck.

There are three different heads:
The Erase Head (recognizable by its black surface)

The Write (and often also read combination)
The Separate Read Head (if not combined with the Write head)

The Erase and Write head can only be seen if the device has recording functions otherwise you don't need it.
The write and read head are often combined, although this makes no difference for playback, you prefer to have them separated from each other when recording.

The difference between a separate or combined write-read head only becomes important when you start recording. With a separate setup, you can listen directly to the tape while recording and check whether the audio you just recorded has also come across properly on the tape. This is not possible with a combined setup, you can then only listen to the source and not to the tape during recording. This is only possible when you have stopped recording, rewound the tape and start playing it.

You also have two different types of erasing heads, the so-called 'permanent magnet' and the electrically operated erasing head. The difference in these two heads is that the first variant is nothing more than a small magnet that magnetically flips a recording upside down. The electrically operated variant works with a high-frequency sound that we cannot perceive. You can actually think of the latter as a pre-recording head that masks your old recording with an inaudible sound.

Both the separate write-read heads and the electric erase head are almost only found on better decks.

It is also interesting to mention that most portable recorders are often equipped with the combined heads as permanent magnets, this is not for the sake of quality but has to do with keeping a recorder compact. 

As explained before, you have different types of cassettes. A decent cassette deck has the ability to switch to the type of tape you are going to play.

It is perhaps striking that this deck does not have an option for Type IV 'metal' tapes, on the other hand it does have the option for the less successful Type III 'FeCr' tapes. This is purely due to the age of the device, 'metal' simply did not exist then.

As mentioned, FeCr tapes were not a great success, which is why you will no longer find this option on decks that were produced later. 

The older (and/or cheaper) your tape deck, the fewer options you have for choosing the Tape Type.

Some better decks even have a built-in function for detecting the type of tape, so manual selection is no longer necessary, but this option is often still included.

You can also see that this deck has two separate switches, Bias and EQ (Equalizer).
Cheaper decks often have these switches combined, so it is not often that you should put both in a different position.

On the far right is the switch for enabling noise cancellation.
Dolby had pretty much monopoly on noise reduction, which is why you see it on almost every cassette deck. You filter out noise that can otherwise be heard through your music, Dolby noise reduction comes in many different variants, the newer your deck the 'better' the Dolby noise reduction usually is (expressed in letters A, B, C, SR, S and HX/HX-Pro). The most common is Dolby B, and is therefore often expressed as Dolby NR. The letters NR therefore stand for Noise Reduction.

I won't go into more detail about Dolby, let's just say that this function manipulates your sound so that you are less bothered by noise that can be heard on your tapes by default.
(click herefor the noise reduction blog).

The MPX filter is something else, you only use this function if you are going to record from the radio. This allows you to filter specific frequencies that are sent along with radio broadcasts. This filterable signal is used to control the radio signal, something you don't need for your recording.

You therefore only use this function when recording from the radio and not when playing back recorded radio broadcasts. It is also not recommended to use this function when recording from other sources. I don't record from the radio myself, so I never use this function.

Finally, the MPX filter is an automatic system in modern models, the manual function is often omitted.

If your deck is built reasonably well, there is a built-in display panel, these can be analog VU meters but also digital LCD panels, there are more options but these are the most common.

This panel is for reading the volume in decibels, and percentage of noise reduction. This feature is most important when you're recording, checking that your volume isn't too soft or too loud.

If the sound is recorded too loudly (or too softly), there is a high chance of noise or disturbance during playback, which is something you obviously want to avoid...

Finally, you use this function to determine the stereo sound, so almost all meters are performed in duplicate. The ideal is if the meters move almost equal to each other, unless, for example, a song intentionally sends sound through one channel (as you can see in the photo).

VU meters have a big disadvantage compared to their digital counterpart, they are often slower to respond, so they may lag slightly behind the sound you hear, in some cases it may even be that one meter does respond in time, but the others too late! In the latter case, your meters need to be calibrated (re-adjusted) or there is something inside that no longer works...

With luxury models you sometimes have the option to adjust your meters from the outside, but in most cases you have to for this purpose inside the appliance.

You use the aforementioned meters together with the large rotary knob shown above, this knob is responsible for the incoming sound that you are going to record.

What you don't see is that this is a two-piece knob, with which you can adjust both your left and right channels. I will come back to this button in the next chapter.

On the left is a knob that you don't often see on cassette decks, you can actually see this knob as your volume knob, with which you can control the outgoing sound before it is sent to your amplifier / speakers. Handy for when your deck is directly connected to your speakers or when you use headphones.

On the right is a toggle switch for determining from which connection your sound comes in. on this model I have three options for incoming sound. The microphone, a DIN connection or the old-fashioned RCA plugs (which is called Line).

Furthermore, I can block the sound by holding down the switch (it jumps back when you release it).

On the far right you have connections for the headphones as well as a stereo microphone.
These are (as on almost every HiFi device) 6.3mm Jack connections. So it often happens that you need an adapter from 6.3mm to the well-known 3.5mm Jack.

We now take another cassette deck (Pioneer CT-F1000), this is a 'High End' model and therefore also has a lot of extra functions that many other decks do not have.

Here we look at the 'tick counter' a function that you often see on all kinds of tape related devices, the interesting thing here is that the counter has been expanded with a memory from which you can choose from which point your tape should stop or start playing. . This function is often associated with a timer unit. This way you can set from what time of day your tape deck should record something. Handy if you want to make a recording of the radio when you are not at home.

The usual tap counter counts in IPS, which is in full: Inch Per Second, or the distance your tape travels in inches per second. Not the ideal way to read if you ask me, but better than nothing. There are exceptional cases where a tick counter counts in time. If you have a digital (LCD or 7-segment display) tick counter, you can often switch between IPS or Time display.

A very handy (and quite rare) option on this deck is the Pitch Control. This allows you to fine-tune the speed of your tape to be played. The manual of the device also says that this option is there to play tapes recorded on another device, because it can happen that one deck plays a little faster than the other. This speed control is limited to a few percent (-3% to +3%).

The last option we look at is one that you can actually quickly forget...

This deck has the option of making a test signal of 400Hz.
If you record this signal with a tape, you can listen back to any differences in tones during playback. Not every deck runs perfectly, if you use a tape that plays one specific tone you will hear these differences. This way you can determine via, via whether a deck needs to be adjusted or not. The difference in tone is also called Wow and Flutter.

The reason I indicate that you can forget this function is because this is a very luxurious option,
After all, you can also buy test cassettes that already have this signal on them. Furthermore, you may use this function once when setting up your deck and then never touch it again.

Finally, this deck must really work optimally if you want to be able to use this function properly, if this deck already does not run well, the test signal will never be recorded properly, so you still do not know afterwards whether the difference in pitch is due to a malfunction of the another deck or the deck you recorded the signal on...

Many other cassette decks have functions that I have not mentioned here. A main rule that applies is, the more expensive and newer your deck, the more features there are.

Most inexpensive decks limit themselves to tape control with sometimes an option for volume control if you're using a portable device.