Confessions of a Cassette Head: Redubbing The Unheard Tapes
A few months ago, a friend had the audacity to send us a cassette.1 We chuckled, found the tracks on Bandcamp + tossed the tape to the far recess of our desk. Every so often we'd pick it up + admire the visual + tactile qualities of this unlistenable object. Even its smell gave us pause (||), triggered associations. Rewind (<<) to those monkeys fingering the monolith in 2001 (1968)—the cassette tape as totem, an object to behold itself, aside from the content it contained. Like most folk that came of age in the '80s, a whiff or glimpse of even a blank tape touches off a flood of flashbacks. Even its faults are laced w/ nostalgic longing—the warbling + muffled hiss, the warped casings left on dashboards, having to fast-forward (>>) thru lame songs, that stubby #2 pencil u kept on hand to manually [<<] or [>>], or the cassettes that got flat-out eaten, maybe even taking down your car stereo in the process, leaving u w/ a yarny rat nest of spooled out magnetic ribbon to untangle + splice back together. But we weren’t just end-using consumers. As an aspiring young artist the cassette became our weapon of choice, to record (●) + replicate, til death do us part. The cassette was the singular most defining object of our coming of age in the '80s.
[<<] a decade to the '70s… like most kids then, we also had an 8-track + a record player, perhaps before our 1st portable Panasonic tape player. But neither 8-track nor vinyl had the appeal of cassette. Tapes were portable + more importantly they were the 1st read/write-able medium2… if u didn’t like the sound of it, u could plug a spitwad into that corner hole + [●] over it. Not only did the buttons on our portable Panasonic player become hot-wired into our genetic make-up (+ also skeuomorphed still in the latest digital music players/recorders), but so did that certain panicked anxiety/rush of accidentally pressing the [●] button (u had to hold down [●] + [▶︎] at the same time on our model, show above). There was no “undo” button back then!
[>>] back to the early '80s…. that our older brother got a Walkman before us didn’t bother us as we were holding out for the recording Walkman (WM-D6, our weapon of mass documentation). Sure, we wanted to [▶︎] music, but moreso we aspired to [●]. Not just music, but we obsessively taped everything in our surrounding environs (S.F. bay area). We played guitar in various punk bands at the time, but we had no aspirations to [▶︎] live or [●] on vinyl. To [●] on tape was all we wanted to do, the end-all, full stop (◼). We also used our WM-D to [●] bootlegs of live shows + the bands we jammed with.3[>>] a few years to '84-85 (our senior year in high school), when we graduated to a Tascam Portastudio 244, the mother of all technological devices, our Red Rider BB gun. Now we had the ability to overdub + layer up to 4 tracks, or more if u consolidated tracks by “bouncing” 3 to 1. What’s more, the Portastudio used regular cassette tapes for recording.4 This Tascam 4-track became our master control center, by far the most important object in our life. It was the altaring centerpiece in the camper we moved into after high school, in front of which we spent entire days non-[◼], not even to eat or sleep. Sure, computers existed by then, but they were something regular folk only had access to in college computer labs. We dabbled a bit making music on computers, but there were no apps or software to do this stuff (that we knew about), u had to code from scratch.5
Tascam Portastudio 244
[>>] back to the present. A quick look on Amazon revealed 1 can get a USB Walkman for $20 that will [▶︎] + [●] your old cassettes. [||]. [<<] to the '90s, as the short-lived CD era was winding down6… before selling off our last tape-player, we hastily ripped some of our cassettes to MP3 before throwing them out. But we still held on to a few dozen tapes of our own music as a backup, whose contents we’d all but forgotten about. [>>] back to the present, we transcoded some tracks on our cheap USB Walkman before realizing the quality was as sub-par as our initial attempts at ripping them in the '90s. A quick Google search revealed there were professionals that could do this for cheap. In fact, some places could even handle 4-track tapes recorded on Tascam Portastudios, isolating the tracks so u could then remix them digitally. But in revisiting these cassettes, we realized we had thrown out all our master 4-track tapes when we pawned our Portastudio, thinking we'd never be able to [▶︎] them again. This included a lot of works that we never bothered mastering onto regular cassettes. But we did mix down a few mixtapes for friends + family + towards the waning days of our home-recording years in the late '80s we officially released 3 cassettes on our own homegrown label (Tapestry Tapes)—The Ethereal Aether (1988), Whorl (1989) + Starfisheye (1989):
[||]. OK, now we had digital versions of these long-lost cassettes, so what? Does a tree fall in the forest if no 1 hears it (besides the 1 that pressed [●])? We grapple w/ this issue now as a small press publisher w/ boxes + shelves stacked w/ overstocked books. But the beauty of books is that they don't require technology to read them, they never become obsolete. Tapes are inherently tethered to tape players to [▶︎] + re:[▶︎]. These songs still didn’t exist as far as the rest of the world was concerned, except the scarce few that pressed [▶︎] in the day. We could throw the MP3s up on our blog, but scarce few would find them since Google has long since shit-listed us for not conforming to up-to-date standards (namely, our site code ain't "mobile-friendly"). We'd also been reading some about a cassette revival... when we 1st read about this circa 2013,7 we laughed, brushing it off as a kitschy post-millennial phase, or short-lived nostalgic flashback for older folk. But [>>] 4 years later... seems this cassette revival is more than just a faddy flash in the pan.8 So we figured why not jump the bandwagon + release a cassette? Or re-release.
We hadn't touched a guitar or pressed a [●] button in these 3 intervening decades, so it was a bit of a shock to discover what 1 can do in this day + age. Plug your guitar straight into your Mac + w/ Garage Band u can pick whatever amp or effect... u can generate distortion or feedback from vast menus (our favorite—"big hair harmonics"), whereas in analog days feedback was a hard-to-control art form + u had to mic your guitar amp + thus all the other unpredictable ambient noise, for better or worse. Now w/ the click of a button u can put your off-key voice in tune, get rid of unwanted tape hiss, "fix" detected blips + farts, etc. We ain't gonna lie, we were tempted. We messed around some w/ such enhancements before realizing it was best to keep everything as is/was, w/ all its faults... tho, ok, we did clip + combine a few songs—amazing how easy it is to splice digitally! W/ cassettes u had to get scissors + scotch tape out + cue things up just right w/ a dose of luck + then once u made that snip there was no going back... again, no undo button. But oh so much more exhilarating when u got it right. It's a bit like writing on a computer versus on a typewriter, which we've taken to in recent years.9 It forces 1 to create linearly, in real-time.
At the risk of sounding like a Jurassic luddite, we don't think kids these days can grasp what these modern conveniences do to your brain, to your creative processes, because the current virtual world is all they know. They've come to expect instant gratification + everything at your fingertips. W/ all the widgets, spell-checkers, quick-fixers, automated processes + smart phones, nobody commits earhorrors, er, errors no more (or if they do, they get auto-corrected, or they try to do-so intentionally to give it a more organic feel)10... even the "human touch" can be calculated these days, to a T. A lot gets thrown out the window w/ these nifty labor-saving devices. We say all this not to lament the good ole days but to consider process + what this has done for music + art. Let's face it, music since the late '80s has for the most part sucked.
The other thing we dig about cassettes is they force u to [▶︎] an album in the intended sequential order. Since the '90s the concept of an album has been lost, the last great album (that u listened to all the way thru, in order) being Radiohead's OK Computer (1997). Tapes forced a linearity that mimed the medium itself. As Marshall McLuhan realized back in the '60s: "the medium is the message." Massaged now in the messy mass age of computers. Magnetic tape is also analog + impermanent, suffers degradation in time, for better or worse. So when—30 years after the fact—we had these tapes digitized, we feared they might be degraded or decomposed beyond legibility... + perhaps they were denatured some, we have no way of knowing, nothing to compare them with except our lo-biased memory. This nagging potential for distortion + loss is part of the appeal, exploited to greatest effect by William Basinski in The Disintegration Loops (2002). The sacrifices we've made in going digital—for convenience, portability, usability, file size, etc.—come at the expense of hi-fidelity (funny how that word implies a faithful truthiness). And we'd rather have our tape warble, hiss or even get gobbled, then to have it clip or buffer, or just plain lock up when u try to [▶︎] it. The other thing we've discovered in remastering these old tapes is that since the '90s everyone has been pushing accepted [●] levels higher + higher, at the expense of sound quality. If u don't peg the VU meters into the red, the volume will be comparatively lower + get lost in the shuffle w/ all the other new-fangled tracks screaming to be heard.
[>>] to late 2017... so we had our tapes digitized + decided to re-release them for prosperity sake, for "the record". Of course it made sense to re-issue them in the format they were born in, on cassette. A quick google search + we found a place that would do it fast + cheap. Kids nowadays throw around words like "DIY" if they google to find a app or program to do something for u. But it wasn't as simple as pressing [●] or [▶︎] back then, u had to figure out all aspects of production + distribution on your own—from duping the tapes, to photo-copying the inserts (J-cards) at Kinkos, to sending out the final product for review in photocopied + hand-stapled fanzines. Millennials think "grass roots" means using kickstarter or whatever crowd-sourced ap, or that "guerilla marketing" means Facebook, Twitter, etc. But Gen Xers had to figure all that stuff out from scratch, word of mouth, pick up the phone + call a friend to see if they had a friend or a friend of a friend that knew how or had heard of such a thing. As a teenager that cut his teeth w/ tapes (no, not as dental floss), a lot of what we learned carried over 2 decades later when we started a small press, the cephalopodic vehicle we would now use to re-launch our cassette.
newly minted after 30 years gathering dust in the wine cellar
"Unknown artist" was the name automatically assigned by iTunes when we initially went to [▶︎] the tracks we converted, appropriate enough that it stuck. Maybe we're shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of search engine optimization by using such a name, but we've long since lopped off any foothold we had to Internet. The title the unheard tapes we took from the opening lyric of the opening song:
i heard the unheard silence
drifting from the sea
sweeping through the void
pressing down, down upon me
This "unheard" attribute felt apropos for the tape itself, compiled from music that had lain dormant for 3 decades. We decided to arrange the tracks in chronological order, as a historical record of our short-lived home-taping days. While a lot of the earlier noise experiments + sound collages were lost to prosperity, we did post some survivors on our blog (in the context of archiving journals, etc. from the '80s) that weren't included on the cassette. Here's a demo of an early recording too rough + raw to make the cut:
By the time we officially put out the original 3 tapes, we'd moved on from our industrial/punk ways + actually wrote "songs" (+ also figured out how to use a guitar, in our own self-taught way). The main challenge when u [●] alone, is laying down the 1st track, typically the drums. On the 1st tape (The Ethereal Aether) we mostly used a drum machine (as in the above "unheard silence" track)—a Korg DDD-1, which enabled us to sample our own instruments + noises + incorporate them into the rhythms. Much as we didn't dig the unnatural sound of drum machines, living in the back of a camper made it difficult to do otherwise. When u [▶︎] by yourself, u also don't know how the other instruments will sound until u dub over those tracks, part of the thrill... like painting where you're allowed 4 colors, 1 at a time, each all at once. On the next tape (Whorl) we renounced drums altogether, even included a few acoustic ballads. Or we ran a drum machine thru the guitar amp as we played, intentionally distorting + mashing it to make it all sound like 1 instrument, as in "ice age" + "storm":
The 3rd tape (Starfisheye) we took a different approach. We wrote all the songs 1st + then went to [●] them all in 1 session at our ex-girlfriend's house over the course of a week when her family was on vacation. She lived up in hills above Palo Alto not far from Neil Young's ranch + they had a chicken coop where we kept some of our drums, so all the instruments we could [●] live, as in "boojum tree":
They even had a grand piano in their living room which we used on a few songs, like "the empty drawer":
As maybe u can tell, our ex had a little parrot that we probably could of silenced by putting in a cage w/ a blanket over it, but we invited the background chirping. They also had 2 dogs that liked to howl + bark when we played guitar (they seemed to especially like songs in E minor), so we let them, sometimes on lead.
the "unknown artist" in the chicken coop (w/ a trash can/drum over our head (photo taken + manipulated by our brother))
We made maybe 50 or 100 copies of these original 3 tapes + gave them to friends + family + traded w/ other home-taping enthusiasts + mail artists. Shortly after making the last tape, we graduated from college + pawned all our instruments... got rid of all our possessions actually, down-sized from living in the back of a camper to living out of a backpack. The 1 advantage, we'll admit, of the digital age is that u can fit all your archived art—tapes, photos, journals, etc.—onto a back-up drive the size of 1 cassette, or even in the cloud, w/ multiple redundancy to assure all is retrievable. Then again, perhaps the best art is left unrecorded, lost to prosperity, never to be seen or heard.
1 Actually, a book that came w/ an accompanying tape—Dan Mahoney’s Sunblind Almost Motorcrash (2015), a book of fictitious music reviews w/ tracks created after the fact by various bands/friends of Mahoney's to fit the reviews.
2 U could [●] on reel-to-reels, which we also had at some point, but they weren’t as portable. Tho they were great for longer mixes, for example, how else could u listen to Laurie Anderson’s 4+ hour opus United States Live (1984) without having to flip/change a disc or tape?
3 Some of these early noise experiments + live recordings of bands we played in we've archived here on our blog, including photos of us + the chicken coop we mention later. For example, "Back to the Mud" (1985), where we collaged neighboring train-yard noises w/ clips taken from various movies:
Back to the Mud
4 A standard cassette has 2-tracks (right + left) per side. The Portastudio used all 4 tracks + would [●] at ½-speed for better quality. So a standard 60 minute cassette (30 minutes per side), would give u 15 minutes of recording time, in 1 direction only (if u flipped the tape over, it would [▶︎]/[●] backwards, which could be used to interesting effect).
6 We embraced CDs, but they became quickly dated by the late '90s. [<<] further to the '70s + '80s... we also had our fair share of vinyl (3 peach crates worth) that we sold in the late '80s (still kicking ourself). Then [>>] to early 2000s, when we worked at Napster + converted or reacquired all our music as MP3. No looking back from there.
10 Or if errors do occur, they are not so interesting in the digital world, usually involving an interrupting pop-up, glitchy pixelation, waiting for something to buffer or a sudden crash w/ results unsaved.