The heyday of cassette tape as a format for commercial releases has ended, but cassettes remain popular in the independent music scene. Their affordability makes them an attractive option for cash-strapped artists who want to offer their fans a physical release to take home from shows.
Cassettes are also a powerful tool for imparting lo-fi analog character to sounds that originated in a digital production environment. By recording sounds to cassette, then bringing them back into your DAW, you gain access to recognizable band-limiting, saturation, wow, and flutter effects while retaining the flexibility and nonlinear editing capabilities of modern production software.
While cheap tapes are still available in some convenience stores and pharmacies, your best bet is to purchase “new old stock” from lot sellers on sites like eBay and Craigslist.
It's important to use quality cassettes. Cheap cassettes can damage your deck by leaking material onto the tape heads or by unspooling and getting stuck in the machine. Many low-quality cassettes were only ever intended for data storage and dictation use, and their abysmal audio quality renders them largely unfit for music applications.
Look for cassettes with robust shells, and avoid ones that feel rickety or chintzy. The tape itself should be dark in color and shiny. Lighter color or a dull surface can indicate lower quality. As a rule, avoid cassettes manufactured by companies that don’t normally make audio products.
There are four main cassette types. They use different tape formulations that give them distinct sonic characteristics. Choosing the right cassette type for your material is an important; we'll explain their characteristics so you can make an informed decision when you go looking to buy.
Type I cassettes use tape formulated from iron oxide. They’re also known as “ferrite” or “ferric” tape. Type I cassettes have historically been the most popular, and remain readily available today. They have a warm, dark character, tending to 'smooth things out' by de-emphasizing treble and thickening up the low-mids. In my experience, this is ideal for rock, hip-hop, pop, and many styles of electronic music. They respond well to hot recording levels, because their limited treble response can mitigate the subjective harshness of the distortion that is produced. This makes them useful when you want to impart a saturated, lo-fi sound to your material.
Type II cassettes introduce varying ratios of chrome and cobalt into Type I’s iron-based tape formulation, in an attempt to improve treble response. They’re also known as “chrome” tapes. Chrome tapes succeed in preserving more treble detail than Type I tapes, but at the expense of reduced bass response. As such, they tend to work better for more delicate material like indie rock, folk, jazz, and classical - genres that don’t depend as much on thumping low-end elements in their arrangements.
Type III cassettes are based on the chrome formulation of Type II, and incorporate an additional layer of ferric (Type I) tape in the shell. In this way, they’re meant to combine the best aspects of both types. However, they didn’t work as well in practice as they did on paper. They never really took off, and we won’t concern ourselves with them here. If you desire higher fidelity than Types I and II can offer, I recommend the superior Type IV design.
Inspired by the possibilities that Type III offered and failed to deliver on, manufacturers went back to the drawing board and formulated a totally new kind of tape. The result, Type IV, is often referred to as “metal” tape and was introduced in the late 1970s. With the solid bass of Type I and the detailed treble of Type II, metal cassettes succeeded in achieving extended frequency response, improved signal-to-noise ratio, and the ability to handle higher recording levels. On a professional cassette deck, a quality Type IV cassette can achieve fidelity approaching that of CD. Metal cassettes also tended to be manufactured more durably, making them less susceptible to wow, flutter, and degradation over time.
Different cassette types require different bias and EQ settings. Cassette decks generally have a simple switch that sets the proper bias and EQ for the type of tape you’re using. Most consumer decks can handle Type I and Type II. Later models may also include a setting for Type IV, though this feature tended to be limited to higher-quality decks that were marketed towards professional users and audiophiles.
It’s important to use the proper setting for the tape in question. While mismatched settings won’t necessarily damage the deck or the cassette, you’ll end up with altered frequency response and output level on playback. Be sure to use the proper bias setting for recording and playback to optimize audio quality.
If you want to bounce a finished mix to cassette, Type IV cassettes will give you an analog vibe while retaining the most dynamics and overall fidelity. Type I and II cassettes will transform your mix more drastically, and give it a recognizably lo-fi sound. Type I tapes tend to ‘warm things up’ more, while Type II tapes preserve more detail, and can make your low-end a bit leaner.
Because of their more overt lo-fi character, Type I and II cassettes are also well-suited to processing individual sounds, such as beat patterns, synth parts, or vocal samples. Experiment with hotter recording levels to generate saturation effects.