Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Some further thoughts on the discreet charm of the humble cassette from Gutter and Man Like Derek.

They've got a bunch of things going for them (the analogue sound; the surprising durability if treated well--I've got tapes from 26 years ago that still sound fine) but I suppose the big downside with cassettes is storage. The LP is just the perfect shape and size for shelving, and you can just about read the spines most of the time; a row of LPs just looks nice, and even wear-and-tear on cardboard sleeves has a shabby attractiveness (like yellowing,scuffed-spined, dog-eared-from-rereading books) compared with the cracked plastic hard-shells of cassettes and compact discs.

Cassettes, though--what were you supposed to do with them? You could stow them in special cases that could be rolled under beds or shoved inside drawers in a chest. And some people used to buy or get specially made teensy shelving. But the results--an irregular tesselation effect from all the different colored and font-ed spines--looked crap. (CDs aren't that much less irritating to stack, or ugly to look at en masse, but are significantly better in that respect to tapes). So my tapes, and there's a vast amount of them, are either in cardboard boxes stashed away, or they're in teetering vertical stacks that are then tightly crammed together into the compartments of this distressed gray-painted metal locker we found that looks like it might have once belonged to a police department. Of course, inevitably, the thing I'm looking for is right at the back which entails taking every wobbly tower of tapes out, one hand on the bottom and the other shakily squeezing the top to stop it collapsing in a clattering splintery heap on the floor (which they frequently do), and then replacing each stack one by one. Still, that brings up another virtue of the cassette, they are quite robust--not the cases, but the thing itself, which often has a surprising quality of density and heft in the hand; all that sound tautly rolled up on the spindles, perhaps.

Which also reminds me: I do not honestly understand how tape recording works (I know how it is supposed to work, technically, but I don't really get it), deep down I find it almost as miraculous as vinyl recordings, which I really don't understand, all that detail and spatiality extracted by the scraping of a needle in a groove (and how on Earth does it get put in there in the first place?). Whereas the encoding of sound digitally in zeroes and ones, which ought to be just as marvellous to consider really, seems quite logical and straightforward to me, is utterly stripped of mystery and mystique.