Maxell

#519: Mistakes I Made Fixing Broken Tapes

GETTING MORE TALE #519: Mistakes I Made Fixing Broken Tapes

I used to play cassette tapes almost exclusively. Even when I had started growing a CD collection, my cassettes dominated. Why? They were portable. I could record a CD or LP on them, put them in my Walkman, or play them in the car. I didn’t have a good way of doing that with CDs. Plus, you could record a CD to a good quality blank tape, and make a better copy than if you bought it on a pre-recorded manufactured release.

But tapes break. They wear. They get old. There were ways of fixing them, which I sometimes screwed up gloriously. What mistakes did I make?

MISTAKE #1: Dirty hands

You shouldn’t even try to fix a tape with dirty hands. Any time I opened one up to splice or carefully wind the tape on the spools, I was touching them with my unclean, ungloved hands. This deposited dirt and oil on the tape, deteriorating the sound and then transferring that dirt and oil to my tape heads.

MISTAKE #2: Magnetized screwdriver

Here’s another no-brainer that I missed. I had a cool little screwdriver that was magnetized. It was hard to lose those little screws with one of those, since they stuck to the screwdriver. Brilliant way to keep all those little screws from disappearing, but not good for tapes!

I wondered why a lot of my tapes had drop-outs in the sound. Many could have been caused by my favourite screwdriver while trying to fix them. This is common sense but I didn’t think my little screwdriver could possibly do any harm!

MISTAKE #3: Incorrect reassembly

Putting the tape back together is sometimes harder than it looks. Small parts pop out and sometimes it’s tricky to get them back in correctly. The slip sheet – a little piece of plastic inside the tape shell – helps reduce friction and squeal, but only if you put it back in with the slippery side facing the tape spool. When hastily reassembling tapes, I sometimes put the sheet in the wrong way causing slowdowns and noise.

Another critical part is the pressure pad. This applies light pressure on the tape to keep it against the player’s tape head. These pieces were tiny and sometimes popped out of place. There were some tapes I put back together with this piece improperly inserted. The lack of pressure on the tape reduced the sound quality greatly.

push-pad

MISTAKE #4: Splicing with Scotch tape

I spliced successfully with Scotch tape…but only in the short term. As the Scotch tape ages, the stickiness reduces and becomes slimy. This means in time and with a few plays, a careful splice would break. You don’t want to get any of that stinky gunk in your tape deck, so use proper splicing tape. They used to sell it commonly at places like Radio Shack, but I came from a cheap family that used whatever was available. Hence my tapes were spliced with Scotch.

MISTAKE #5: Butter fingers

It’s tricky getting all the tape wound around the right spools and ready to screw back together. Sometimes – quite often actually – I would struggle with this and inevitably crunch the tape between parts of the shell. Once you crunch or crease the magnetic tape, you’re going to hear an audio problem.

I didn’t wreck every tape that I tried to fix, but I did make these mistakes periodically. No wonder my tapes sounded like crap.

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#423: The Tyranny of Cassette in the ’80s

RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#423: The Tyranny of Cassette in the ’80s

Anyone who grew up in the mid to late 1980s probably enjoyed their music on the most popular format at the time:  cassette.  Vinyl LPs were still around, and still popular, but not nearly as much as cassettes.  CDs were new and only a few of us had CD players yet.  Cassette tapes had the portability factor going for them.  Everybody had a Walkman, and those who didn’t probably had one on their Christmas list in 1985.

Vinyl was a dying breed in our highschool halls.  There were still some older kids who boasted of the superior sound quality, but none of my friends had equipment good enough to enjoy that sound quality.  I certainly didn’t.  All I had was a turntable hooked directly into a Sanyo cassette deck for amplification.  The sound was harsh and tinny.  The scratches inherent with the format were also more distracting than the tape hiss of cassette.

So, it was all about cassette!  Buy ‘em, trade ‘em, swap ‘em and re-record over them when you decide you don’t like the music anymore.  I have a cassette copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that had long ago been erased and taped over with other stuff.  When you couldn’t find a fresh blank tape to record on, you could just erase something else.  Everybody did it.  My friend Bob had a cassette of In Through the Out Door that he recorded over with us talking and goofing around!

For teenage highschool kids, cassettes were enough for our musical fixes.  A decent quality name brand tape could hold up to 110 minutes without stretching.   We used them to tape anything and everything.  (I have a tape with the sound of a friend’s dad taking a massive shit — no, I did not record it, they did!)  Since cassettes were re-recordable, that meant that every kid could even record their own music and become a rock star in his or her own basement.  You couldn’t do that with your fancy schmancy LPs, we all thought!  Don’t like your song?  Just rewind and record it again!  Those who didn’t play music could have their own fun, DJ’ing and and writing skits.  And let’s not forget about taping your friends’ albums.  Recording tape to tape would always result in excessive tape hiss, but kids didn’t seem to mind in the 1980’s.  We ignored the hiss.  It was something we considered part of the music, because we really never heard any music without hiss!

Although the flaws of cassettes are patently obvious today, in the 80’s we were just discovering these troubling issues for ourselves.  We overlooked the tape hiss, but it was harder to ignore speed issues.  The biggest problem that I had with cassettes was inconsistent speed.  Some tapes, especially those made by Polygram and EMI in Canada, seemed to have a lot of internal friction.   Grab a small screwdriver and open up an old cassette tape some time.  Inside you will find rollers, spindles, and bits and pieces all designed for the cassette tape to roll smoothly.  Whether they worked right always seemed to be a matter of random luck.  When friction inside caused the tape to run slow, it was immediately obvious.  The pitch would be noticeably lower, and often the tape would warble as your player tried to play it at normal speed, but fought against the friction.

On the other hand, sometimes the problems came down to your player.  Your tape deck had even more spindles and doo-dads to turn that tape around and around.  Those got dirty and worn out, too.  Sure, you could buy tape head cleaners and demagnetizers, but did they ever really have a noticeable effect on your listening experience?  Probably not.  I used to diligently clean the insides of my tape decks with lint-free cloths and isopropyl alcohol.  Although I could see black filth coming off the rollers when I cleaned them, the sound and speed never really improved.  It was always very frustrating when a tape would play fine on a friend’s deck, but went slow as molasses on your own.  My Sanyo went in for service and professional cleaning more than once, but that didn’t help either.

Although cassettes sounded like shit, and only got worse the longer you kept them, they did have a big advantage over CD for me, and that was portability.  I preferred cassettes in the car, up until fairly recently.  The reason for this was, working in the used CD store, I saw so many CDs that were just utterly destroyed by car CD players.  You don’t get that problem so much anymore, but in the 90’s and 2000’s, there were a lot of discs just annihilated by a lot of car decks. It didn’t seem to matter if the car player was a high-end stereo or a piece of crap.  People would bring their used CDs in to me, and ask me how they looked.  I’d usually ask, “Did you play this in a car deck?”  I could always tell.  Customers would ask me, “How did you know?”  Because the CD would be completely scratched, but always in perfect circles.  Some dirt clearly got into the car deck, and scratched up the discs as they were spinning.  Or, the disc was just scraping up against the internal workings of the car player as it spun.  Either way, the result was usually a CD that looks like a kid’s Spirograph drawing.

At least when playing a cassette in the car, those things could take a beating.  I only ever had one or two that were “eaten” by the player.  Compare that to the thousands of CDs that I saw destroyed by car decks over the years.

If life is a musical journey, then cassettes were my travelling companions for over a decade.  We had a necessary parting of ways, and now I am happy to stick to CD and flash drives when on the road!

Part 173: Gene Simmons’ Asylum Demos

RECORD STORE TALES Part 173:  Gene Simmons’ Asylum Demos

Back in 1994-95, when I was working at our original store, I would always proudly fly the Kiss flag.  This was before the mega reunion, and on the heels of the Revenge album, which I was really into.

I had a small online presence back then, I had created our very first online ads in 1994.  I was talking about music on every single BBS (Bulletin Board System) in the area, and on one board, called Wanderer’s Rest, I had a forum for my reviews.  I was going by the online name “Geddy” (hah!) back then, and I was extremely prolific.  Very little has changed since!

One guy, name long forgotten, messaged me.  “Hey, I’m a customer at your store.  I have some rare Kiss demos.  Do you want to do a tape swap?”  Of course I did.  For him, I made a copy of the March 25 1974 show in Washington at the Bayou club.  It was a cool show because they played an unreleased song called “You’re Much Too Young”.

For me, he made a tape of Gene’s Asylum demos, on one of our Maxell UR60’s that we sold in our store.  Gene is a very prolific songwriter.  Not everything he comes up with is gold (clearly!) but he usually submitted a dozen tunes or more for consideration on each album.  Judging by this cassette, Asylum was no exception, even though he was very distracted by Hollywood at that time.

The tape, which unfortunately did not survive the years very well at all, contains 13 of Gene’s demos, 3 being instrumental ideas, and a bonus track.  A couple songs made the final album.  I tried to listen to the tape, to see if I recognized any ideas.  Unfortunately, this tape now sounds terrible and is unlistenable.  I ripped only one song, which was “Russian Roulette”, to see if it resembled the version that later ended up on 2009’s Sonic Boom album.  From what I can tell, only the title survived to Sonic Boom.

Musically however, the song was recycled on the Monster album, as “Eat Your Heart Out”!  It’s the same riff.  Although you can’t make out the lyrics on the demo version at all, you can tell they are completely different.

See the pictures below for the tape made for me by the Mystery Kiss Fan back in ’94-95.   If you know any of these Gene songs, please comment below!  We can hope that good quality versions will come out on Gene’s “Monster” box set, if it ever comes out!