Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thin Music: Part II: Fidelity Fades Away

Written 24 May, 2011

Thin Music

Part II

Fidelity Fades Away

Back in the days of vinyl there was a better medium, one that produced full clear sound without the pops and clicks that plagued even the best record pressings: tape.

The technology of recording tape was primitive, but reel-to-reel recorders moved a wide-enough tape fast enough past the heads to ensure a high-quality sound. Audiophiles loved them. I have one myself, unused these days, but still displayed in my bedroom.

1964 saw the introduction of the 8-track tape cartridge.

In the South 8-track tapes are still sold at flea markets
Here's how this tricky little gadget works.

With a wide tape and a fairly fast speed, the sound was acceptable, although the click at the end of the loop as the tape changed tracks was disconcerting. So, too, was the recording of songs to allow the shortest possible tape length. Still, the 8-track made it possible for people to listen to their own music in their cars. Previously, the only such option was a problematic under-the-dash record player made by RCA and sold by car dealers and mail-order automotive company J.C. Whitney. J.C. Whitney was best known for their cheesy accessories. "Yes, I'd like a pair of fuzzy dice and a steering wheel spinning and a pair of Yosemite Sam mud flaps, and, oh, yes, one of those 45 rpm car record players." Needless to say, the auto record player never quite caught on.

The 8-track's history was brief: in just a few years it had been replaced by the compact audio cassette.

Introduced in 1962, more than ten years before the 8-track, the compact cassette had a lot of advantages: It was small, rugged, convenient, portable, and inexpensive to produce. The tape was cleverly hidden, and so protected from damage. And the cassette could hold up to 90 minutes of recorded sound.

The only problem was it sounded like crap.

Developed to record sound in the early 70s, the narrow tape width and slow 1 7/8" ips speed was unsuitable for music. There just weren't enough magnetic particles moving past the heads to make for a pleasurable music listening experience. It was a matter of physics.

And so, since getting better sound would have required an expensive redesign, they changed physics.

Not really. What tape and tape deck manufacturers did was create a new tape coating with smaller particles. And they changed the material itself, adding chromium dioxide, which increased fidelty. And they introduced Dolby noise reduction. The result was much improved sound.

Introduced in 1971, these innovations doomed the 8-track player, and audio cassettes prevailed until they in turn were doomed by introduction of the compact disk. (Now, of course, the CD is itself in decline, challenged by downloaded digital files.

While the audio cassette was far from the perfect medium, it worked well for automobiles and in the newfangled Sony Walkman.

No comments: