My earliest recollection of using a cassette tape was when I was just about four or five years old in the early 1970s. My parents had purchased a portable shoebox cassette player which allowed you to record your own voice.
It was just a simple mono recorder and playback unit, and you had to attach an external microphone in order to make a recording. But what an amazement it was at the time!
The tape recorder was a huge hit with us four children and I remember my eldest sister hogging the device forever, holed up in her room (apparently for better acoustics) pretending to be Joan Baez singing Donna, Donna, and then listening to the recording over and over.
The little plastic rectangle with two miniature spools, between which the magnetically coated, plastic tape was wound is but a fond memory today, quaintly included in movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy for the Boomers and Gen-Xers to reminisce over. But in its heyday, it was the best thing since sliced bread, despite its numerous handicaps.
I remember having to manually wind the tape with a pencil each time it got “stuck” in the player, and there were many such moments when my heart would sink because I thought I’d lost a precious cassette or recording forever.
Worse yet when the tape would get caught in the car player and you’d have to grasp it ever so gently with a pair of needle-nosed pliers or tweezers so that it wouldn’t snap.
From the shoebox player, we upgraded to one of those super large metallic double-deck mini compos, which we used for almost a decade, the sort with detachable speakers and an inbuilt microphone.
My entire teenage life was spent sitting around one of those things. When I went away to college overseas, I had a Walkman and portable boombox to keep me company – they were some of the “essentials” that my mother actually agreed to buy for me!
I amassed a huge collection of audio cassettes, even up till the 1990s – some authentic albums, many fake versions from the pasar malam (Best Of Bread Vol 2 and The Police’s Synchronicity are two I distinctly remember having in the early 80s) and a bunch of mixtapes that I treasured.
One of my older cousins who studied in PJ then would faithfully make compilations of our favourite tunes for all us younger cousins at a store in Asia Jaya which offered dubbing services.
Back then it was easy to get blank cassettes and make compilations or backups for special albums which you could then play as frequently as you liked (and not have to worry about snapping tape mishaps) or even record whole radio shows – Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 or something cool from the BBC.
Home taping became a trend and the music industry felt threatened that no one would go out and buy music anymore.
According to Wikipedia, the compact cassette technology was originally designed for dictation machines, but improvements in fidelity led it to supplant the stereo 8-track cartridge and reel-to-reel tape recording. Its uses ranged from portable audio to home recording to data storage for early microcomputers.
The first cassette player (then mono) designed for use in car dashboards was introduced in 1968, the year in which I was born! I don’t remember having a player in the family car until the late 1980s though (instead we would sing like the VonTrapp family every time we went on a road trip... true story!).
I do, however, remember one of my uncles having an 8-track tape car stereo. That family had all the coolest gadgets before anyone else, including a VHS player and breadmaker. I was always so envious.
During the 1970s and 80s my family also owned a record player, which dad mostly listened to. He had a stack of favourite LPs, and we grew up amidst the melodies and harmonies of Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, ABBA, the Ray Conniff Singers, Boney M, Cliff Richard, Agnes Chan and soundtracks to A Star Is Born, The Sound Of Music and South Pacific.
It’s amazing that when I think of the albums now, memories come rushing back. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday, but I can remember almost every song on those albums, sometimes in order! I can visualise the anatomy of the turntable, and can imagine placing the stylus gently on the vinyl record.
My dad was a stickler for order and neatness, and so we had to be really careful about how we handled the records and how we cleaned them with the carbon fibre brush. When my dad passed away, my mother gave away his record player and all the vinyl along with it, much to my chagrin!
My mother, you see, was more of a radio fan, from AM to FM, and would tune in every morning to her favourite shows, often in English, sometimes featuring Tamil and Hindi music.
Later when the Compact Disc (CD) came into the picture, after I had children and and a family of my own, I still hung onto my cassette tapes for a long while.
Even though I had then traded my cassette player for a Sony hi-fi system with a CD tray, and my Walkman for a Discman, it was so difficult to give the cassettes up... but I eventually did in the mid 1990s.
Today I still have a cupboard full of CDs which I refuse to part ways with even though I do all my music listening on the Spotify app, although I do occasionally opt for radio while I am in my car.
I am no audiophile and so when I listen to music, the melodies and lyrics get my attention more than anything else.
But to a large extent, I do think the tech that enabled me to appreciate and enjoy such wonderful sounds from my childhood up until now, has shaped the kind of person I am.
Saving up to buy my favourite albums (whether they were cassettes or CDs), using them with so much love and care so I could preserve them for as long as possible, poring over the album notes and sleeves, all of this instilled important values in me.
I also love the fact that I was able to listen with my family and friends (we’d even make song requests for each other on the radio), and I do miss that communal aspect of listening to music today as we get more insular, plugged in to our own devices listening to playlists we create for ourselves.
I am, no doubt, grateful that at a touch, I can get any song I feel like hearing, wherever I am, whenever I want, and as frequently as I like.
But that convenience has come at a price. When I get into my car with my kids these days, everyone automatically opts for their own music on their own device, and I do miss the days when we would all listen to and sing all our favourite numbers together.
Today, that’s just a thing of the past – so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu!
If your natural reaction to this article wasn’t “OK Boomer”, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what gadgets you used when you listened to music back in the day and the devices from yesteryear that you miss.
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