The End of an Era
While God may still be alive and well, according to the New York Times the factory-installed tape deck is not:
"According to experts who monitor the automotive market, the last new car to be factory-equipped with a cassette deck in the dashboard was a 2010 Lexus. While it is possible that a little-known exception lurks deep within some automaker’s order forms, a survey of major automakers and a search of new-car shopping Web sites indicates that the tape deck is as passé as tailfins on a Caddy."
That doesn't mean that car stereos with cassette decks are out of production altogether, but you will have to buy and install them yourself, even if "installing them yourself" means paying a stereo installation shop to do it for you.
This makes me a bit sad in a way. I'm old enough to have been around when car audio really took off in the early 1970s, although I was too young to notice at the very beginning. On the other hand, I was in my late teens and twenties when tape decks were the big things to have in your car and I remember how truly revolutionary it was to be able to listen to something besides the radio in your car. Lest you believe me a Luddite, let me be clear that I'm not exactly bemoaning the passing of the technology; even though my car is a 1978 I haven't had a tape deck in it for years. Matter of fact, I just got a new system that I can plug my iPod Touch into. But I still think that the humble cassette player is worth raising a virtual glass to in honor of its passing on to the Great Options List in the sky.
Like any other endeavor, enthusiasts could also modify home components, like reel-to-reel tape players, and put them in the car, along with added speakers and whatever else they could think of. The main problem continued to be the size and awkwardness of both the equipment and the media: vacuum tubes still ruled the day which took up a lot of space (and juice) and the media were difficult to maneuver. Just try to imagine changing a record or threading a reel of tape while barreling down the highway and you'll wonder why anybody's making a fuss about 'driving while talking.'
Before I continue, I should mention that I used to be something of a stereo geek. I never quite ascended the heights to reach "audiophile" (i.e. freak) status, but I did spend many an hour reading every word of Stereo Review magazine and debating with friends the plusses and minuses of turning on the "Loudness" button. I'll try not to go too far off into the weeds.
The game changer came in the 1950s with the introduction of--whether bequeathed to us by aliens or invented (more or less) by Bell Labs--the transistor, which allowed electronic components to be both smaller and use a lot less electricity. Then in the mid-'60s Philips came out with their compact "cassette" (of French origin, meaning 'small case') and William Lear (yes, that Lear) invented the much-maligned 8-track. The tapes were pre-threaded in their own case, so no messing with bulky reels and the tape itself was protected in a hard-shell case so you didn't have to worry much about it unraveling all over the place.
RCA had produced its own version of a cassette in 1958, but it was fairly large and the pre-recorded music offerings were few and it failed to make much of a splash. The cassette itself was originally designed as a simple voice recorder so the sound quality wasn't great. 8-track had an advantage in that respect because the tape moved past the read-heads faster, and the design was simpler. Thus, 8-track caught on earlier and by 1965 most manufacturers were including 8-track players as an option on several models. But it had its drawbacks. The tape was a continuous loop so you couldn't rewind it and start over whenever you wanted, and it had a tendency to get stuck because the tape was always rolling over itself and required lubrication which eventually got dirty and wore off. Plus, the cartridges were pretty bulky--especially compared to cassettes.
Probably the worst offense was that often songs had to be chopped in half to fit on the tape. This happened because, as the tape wound around, the heads physically moved to a new track and started playing there; you could only fiddle with the song order and tape length so much to fit an album on a single tape. I never had an 8-track in my life because the first time I heard one it faded out a song and then started it again on the next track. That, I thought, was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard and could never figure out why it became popular in the first place.
Cassettes started to take over when sound quality improved, largely due to the development of the Dolby system for noise reduction (a consequence of low tape speed) and chromium dioxide tape. The Dolby system worked by boosting the high frequencies during recording and then suppressing them during playback; the 'hissing" from tapes is mostly in the higher frequencies, so when you reduce those frequencies at playback you get rid of the hiss, but the previously-boosted music portions are brought back down to their original level. It worked pretty neat, but most of us, I think, didn't even turn the Dolby on because it sounded better without it. We have a tendency to like high frequencies in our music--it sounds brighter--so theory be damned, I guess.
At any rate, cassettes finally caught up to 8-track on sound quality and its other advantages--being able to rewind and fast forward, smaller size, greater length, and NOT HAVING TO SPLIT THE STUPID SONGS BETWEEN TRACKS--won the day. Eventually, 8-tracks went the way of the dodo and left the field to the cassette player, both at home and in the car.
Now, lest you young folks think you invented the idea of pirating music, listen up: we were there first. One of the big controversies in the 1970s and '80s was whether blank home-recordable tapes were legal or not because, let's face it, most people used them to record their friends' albums ('LPs' or 'records' to you young'uns). Everybody knew that's what they were being bought and used for, by and large, but the tape manufacturers argued (successfully in legal terms) that owners of LPs had the right to make additional copies of the albums they owned, albeit only for personal use.
Truthfully, a lot of people used them for that purpose, in a way. Many if not most of us made up "mix tapes" by copying favorite album tracks to tape, thus becoming their own DJs of a sort. I guarantee I am not the only one with a couple of tapes marked "Road Tunes" for playing while cruising the highway. For a while I was in the habit of buying an LP, listening to it a couple of times, and then putting the tracks onto a tape in an order I found pleasing. You may roll your eyes now, I don't care.
It's a little difficult nowadays to recall how revolutionary this idea of playing whatever you wanted in your car really was. Before, you only had commercial radio to listen to. Not only did they only play what they wanted to play, but you had to deal with commercials, static, dropout (damn power lines), relatively poor sound quality, and when driving long distances--especially well out of urban areas -- having few or no decent stations within reach. But with 8-tracks you could at least listen to an entire favorite album, and with a cassette you could have two albums on a single tape! Or you could make up a mix of your own songs to play depending on your mood! No more having to hear only the "hits" on the local pop station; you could listen to your entire Genesis album, complete with 11-minute songs! In your car!
As an aside, I didn't get my first cassette deck in a car until about 1983 or so when I was in college. I used to hate the drive between Madison and Fond du Lac (WI), about 70 minutes, because in the middle of the drive I'd fall out of the Madison radio stations and be not quite in range of the Fox Valley stations. It was maddening. When I finally installed a tape deck, it was heaven. My mother was worried that it would distract from my driving, but in reality the opposite was the case: no more getting frustrated with the radio, I could pop in a tape and listen to that the whole way. It was actually quite calming. As a conservative estimate, I would say I listened to Ammonia Avenue (Alan Parsons Project) and Can't Slow Down (Lionel Richie) approximately three million times.
But alas, both time and technology march on. When the CD was introduced in the 1980s it signaled the death knell of the cassette deck--not for several years perhaps, but the fix was in. CDs had way better quality, were much less bulky, and had much longer playing times (eventually). Plus, instead of having to rewind or fast-forward, you could hit a button and skip around anywhere on the disk. And perhaps of a bit less immediate importance, they also lasted longer as the surface never came into contact with the playback mechanism. Tape manufacturers initially fought back with the introduction of digital recording tape, but recordable CDs ended that little foray quick enough. And so, the tape deck began its eventual decline and fall into obsolescence.
Yeah, I still have a few cassettes laying around (see photo), sitting in one of those ubiquitous faux-leather carrying cases. Despite my doubts about manufacturer's claims that they would eventually wear out due to simple degradation, most of them have now become virtually un-listenable. I now have only a single machine capable of playing them, a 10-year old Sony boom box. I still have an old Hitachi tape deck sitting in a box somewhere, but it's been inoperable for years as well. Both of those will probably hit the Goodwill (or the trash) in the near future. One of these days I plan on playing whatever is left of my mix tapes and then recreating them as playlists on iTunes/iPod and getting nostalgic about my youthful musical tastes every now and then.
I wonder how long even OED manufacturers will build them. I did a quick search on the Interwebs for cassette car stereos and only found about five manufacturers that still make them. And they have adapters for MP3 players so you can technically keep the one in your car for a while and use your iPod or whatever. Eventually I guess they'll just be quaint devices that are only really kept in old vehicles that owners want to keep totally stock.
I finally put a new stereo in the old Mustang that accepts a USB input (for my iPod), but it still has a CD player in it, so at least that format is carrying on for a while yet. I'm guessing CDs will be passé in a few years, to be replaced by ... who knows? Digital devices will probably become scarce pretty quickly as our music collections begin to reside on distant servers and are only accessed through the Ethersphere. Plus, streaming music of our own devising--the article mentions Pandora, but I use Rhapsody at home--is becoming more common so even radio, whether HD or satellite, may have its days numbered.
-Anthony J. Cagle
Credits: The 8-track interior shot is from Wikipedia and the in-dash 8-track is from StationWagonForums.com. The Hi-Way Hi Fi is from the Imperials Club. The anti-recording graphic is from The Straight Dope. I got the brochure at the top via the Mustang II forum, and it's hosted on Hans Tore Tangerud's web site. The smattering of old tapes is from my own collection, including that rare unopened tape. Also thanks to Fiona for pointing the article out to me in the first place. FWIW, these are a few of the songs on my "Early '80s Fashion Bands" mix tape:
-- Take On Me (Ah-ha)
-- Love Plus One (Haircut 100)
-- Heartbreak Beat (Psychedelic Furs)
-- Don't you want me (Human League)
I also have one that begins, bizarrely, with the theme from Mission:Impossible and Swingin' (John Anderson). Yes, I was probably drunk a lot. (Okay, not 'probably', I was definitely drunk a lot)