Updated: Oct 25, 2018
Recent music new says that tapes - or the use of it - is in the upswing. Well, like vinyl, cassettes tapes really didn’t go away. Tapes just went into…hibernation. With the “return” of tapes, music lovers and audio hobbyists are returning to the format. Additionally, hipsters and millennials, who were not born yet during the heyday of the cassette tape, are starting to discover the beauty of the format.
This article is for the latter - or for any of you PTH folk who would care to read this.
I may be wrong here but I don’t think audio hardware companies are manufacturing new tape decks en masse. There newer cassette decks available to enthusiasts but mostly what will be available for us enthusiasts are used or vintage tape decks. On this article, we attempt to answer FAQs related to tapes and tape players, particularly the most popular format, which is the 16-track tape and player.
DISCLAIMER: The author of this FAQ article is no audiophile or no expert in tapes and tape players. Information shared comes from his experience as an old fart who likes to get his hands dirty.
Are vintage cassette decks better than newer cassette decks?
This is subjective question, as “vintage” and “new” could mean different things. I’d say newer cassette decks were made in the late 90’s and one may argue that those are made of inferior materials. Technically, vintage cassette decks - especially those made from the late 60s to the early 80s - are mechanical decks. This means their are few electronic parts to worry about as those decks are mostly mechanical.
Sound quality of new vs vintage is subjective but in terms of ease-of-maintenance, vintage decks are easier to maintain. However, parts for these decks might be harder to source compared to “newer decks”. Newer cassette decks have more bells and whistles compared to mechanical decks. The more bells and whistles, the more complicated things may become. Also, more of those means more things can go wrong. For most users, sound quality is more important than the bells and whistles.
There’s this used cassette deck that I’m thinking of purchasing. What should I check for?
Look for the obvious things first e.g. working controls, condition of the casing. Missing knobs, cracks on the body and grime on the body are clear indications that the deck was not properly taken care of. The rule of thumb is this: if a deck looks poorly on the outside, it means the previous owner never took the time to take care of the inside (electronics).
Next, scrutinise the head, the pinch rollers and capstan. If any of the these three are not in the best of shape, you can be assured that the sound the deck produces are not either. These parts wear out over time, true, but a well kept deck will have these items in very good shape.
If you can or if the seller allows, open the top cover. Look at the inside. Things to check for? The motor, the belts, the electronics (most especially the capacitors) and wiring. See if there are signs of burnt parts, badly replaced parts (you can see this by checking the quality of the soldering). For the capacitors, check if any of the capacitors have tops that are bulging. A bulge on a cap means that the cap needs to be replaced ASAP. Check the gears. Look for missing teeth or cracks. Look if there are pieces of tape stuck some where. Check the printed circuit board (is it dirty? dos it have cracks? does it show soldering burns/damage?). Check for dirt/grime. If the inside is dirty and grimy, it’s a sign that the unit lacked true TLC from the previous owner.
Should I test?
You need to. If the seller doesn’t want you to, step away immediately, as it is sign that the seller is hiding something.
How do I test? What do I need to bring?
Let’s tackle first what you need to bring. Bring:
1. A cassette that has a recording of something you are real familiar with in terms of beat, rhythm and timing of the music.
2. A blank tape or any tape you can basically record over.
3. A pair of headphones (working ones, of course)
4. A small flash light, preferably a bright one
5. Cotton buds and a small bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
With the top still open, shine you flashlight on the inside. Look for traces of what was described at the previous section. Open the cassette well. Do a visual check.
Next, ask the seller to power on the unit then press have the seller press play. Check for audible noises - most especially on the motor. Do a visual check if the belt is slipping. Go back to the cassette well. Open it and check the pinch roller and the gear that turns the cassette forward. If the pinch roller and/or that gear is not rolling, the could very well be problematic.
Next, do a play test using your cassette. First thing to do? Ask the owner to play audio on his system the radio or any other source except for the deck. Check the left and right balance. Make sure the left and right channels are playing okay. Check using your headphone. Next, clean the heads, pinch roller and capstan with your cotton bud soaked in alcohol. It goes without saying that you need to let it dry first before proceeding.
After that, set the selector to tape. Put in the blank tape then press play. Check if the pinch roller or any of the mechanism is causing the deck to…”eat” the tape “film”. If this happens, stop play immediately. Since you already cleaned what needs to be cleaned, this (technically) should not have happened. Causes? Anything from a damaged pinch roller, the hub (gear) that moves the tape is slow to bent capstans to poor tape guide alignment to stick (hardened) idler wheels.
Now, assuming the tape doesn’t get eaten, get your recorded cassette ready. Play the cassette. If the left and right channel signals are not balanced or if either the left or right channel has no sound at all, the head is probably damaged. Assuming there left and left channels are fine, check if the audio us fluttering or wobbling. If it does, either the belt needs to be replaced or there is an issue with the motor. If the sound us muffled, there could probably head damage.
Next, check the speed/tempo of the recorded audio. If it is faster than what it should be, then the belt, the pitch control of the motor or even the pinch roller has a problem. Same if the speed/tempo if the music is slower than what it should be.
Next, let’s assume that the left and right channels are okay and that the tempo/pitch/speed of deck is okay. Check the recording function. Insert your tape for recording then record a full song. If the deck as a left and right input control, put those both at 5. After that, play the recorded song. If the there’s no sound or if the recorded audio is either muffled or has flutter or either the left channel or right channel has no audio, there is a problem with the record part of the head.
Okay. I checked the innards then the play and record function. What else?
Check the levers/buttons. On/off (power), pause, forward, reverse, play and eject. If any of these gets stuck on a mechanical deck, repair should be easy. If the deck has a logic board, repair might not be easy. Worse case, repair might not be possible at all. Don’t forget to check the condition of the power cord.
The above are just some of the things to check for or to test. Rule of thumb? If the deck ain’t functioning the way it should and it ain’t sounding the way it should, it maybe best to thank the seller for his/her time then walk away.