Taking Care of Your Magnetics

Red Red Wine by UB40

The compact cassette tape is a very sturdy medium for music playback and for audio recording. While not impervious to the effects of severe abuse, a compact cassette can, like vinyl, last decades when taken care of properly. So how does one take care of a compact cassette tape? Is taking care of it the same as taking care of vinyl records? On this article, I’ll share my personal care methods that I hope you find useful.

Let us take out the obvious question first: is taking care of a compact cassette tape same as taking care of vinyl records? The answer is a flat no. Two distinct medium, two distinct formats, different methods used. For one, we can’t obviously use whatever cleaning fluid we use on our vinyl records to clean the magnetic media of a compact cassette tape. You can try but at your own risk.

For me, the first step or probably the key to taking care of a compact cassette tape is storage. How to store them and where to store them is important. The best position of storage for cassette tape is in the vertical position and while there is no real rule how to store compact cassette tapes, it would be best to store them wherein the state of the media is not half-played. In short, it is either fully played until the end or fully rewound. Unless you just have 1 to 5 tapes that you play often, the tendency of collectors like me would be to leave a compact cassette tape in storage up until the time that I either remember that I have a particular tape or up until the time I want to play a particular tape. This often happens. The reason why a tape should be fully played or fully rewound prior to storage is this: slack.

If you’re like me, you will have the tendency to just pull the cassette out of the jewel case, slap it in the player then hit play. If there is any slack on the cassette tape, it may cause a jam on the pinch roller. Not only will you ruin the media of your cassette, it will also result in frustrating hours of you tinkering with your deck just to undo the jam. While some say that fully rewinding the tape prior to storage is unnecessary, it is better to err on caution rather than to be sorry.

Where you store your cassette tapes also plays a key role on preserving the integrity of your collection. It is best to store your collection at an area where the tapes are far from a magnetic field as, if stored near a strong magnetic field, parts of your tape might get erased. This is similar to when you accidentally hover a head demagnetiser over a cassette tape. Temperature is also important. Always store your cassettes in a dry place, away from direct sunlight or any source of chemicals that may do damage to your prized cassette tape.

Tapes degrade. Proper storage delays degradation. Let me go into degradation a bit.

Magnetic media has quite a finite life. On average, the maximum life span of a cassette tape is 30 years. If often played and abused, the average life span is 10 years or less. High quality tapes last much longer than low quality tapes.

The first sign of degradation is the dropout. This, termed loosely, is the loss of sound or the decrease in the quality of the audio that a tape produces. This is caused by a myriad of factors – anything from tape stretching (due to unwound tapes) or improper storage. The good thing about tapes, though, that it is very rare that there will be a total loss of audio or signal, unlike CDs wherein a scratch or damage to the media may cause an abrupt total loss in audio.

Magnetic media has different layers. Three, to be exact. The back coat, the middle coat and the top coat. It is in the top coat, also called the binder, where audio is recorded. It is also the first of the three coats that degrade. The middle coat is the thickest. It is the base film. For the back coating, not all tapes have this – only high-quality tapes. The more inexpensive tapes do not have back coating. According to experts, the back coating provides smoother winds and provide better grip for better tape movement.

When you hear the loss of audio or notice a degradation of audio quality from your tapes, it is because the binder has stopped to be cohesive. This is when magnetic particles fall off. This is why you notice “dirt” on your cassette player heads and pinch rollers. There is nothing to prevent this. One can delay, though, with proper storage.

The frequency of play also plays a factor. The longer you do not play it, the more advancement of degradation will occur. This is why 3M recommends that we play our precious cassette tapes once every six months so that the stains and adhesions due to the tape not being unwound are released. It makes sense.

It is also crucial that you store your cassette tapes inside their jewel boxes, preferably with the hubs intact. Having intact hubs will prevent tape slack. It will also prevent dust and minute particles from getting stuck into your cassette tapes. Even the smallest of particles can result in a dropout if the debris gets between the head and the tape, not to mention cause damage to the tape head.

The last but equally crucial part of taking care of your cassette tape collection is your player. Always keep it in tip top shape. How to take care of a cassette tape player shall be the subject of the next blog.

Our tapes provide us something valuable other than music. It provides us time travel – back to times that were memorable for us. The music recorded on our tapes also provides is a lift, enlivening our day or hour after a dreary or forgettable event. Lastly, those tapes contain the music of our mostly analog lives, music that defines part of who we are today.

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