Letter from Home: July '23
On the simple pleasures of magnetic tape
People, I bought a tapedeck.
It’s a Sony K700 from 1987. I picked it up last week from Echo Audio, an ace new-and-used HiFi shop in Portland. It was a work day for me — Carson and I have been splitting days of the week during the summer — and I convinced myself that a drive to into town to pick up a tape deck would be a great opportunity to let some ideas percolate, away from the infernal notebook and word processor. It was not procrastination.
Why the sudden need for a tape deck, something I haven’t owned since 1999? Very good question. I think in another moment of internet-meandering (not procrastinating), I saw someone post about making a mixtape in the very-not-mixtape-friendly year of our lord 2023. I suddenly had a hankering to make a mixtape — and, while I was at it, revisit some of the mixtapes that were sitting moldering in a cardboard box in our basement. I saw Echo had one; I drove to darkest Southwest Portland and snagged it.
It took some doing, setting it up. I have been a resident of the Sonos universe since 2008, a deal with the devil if ever there was one, and my setup is not super friendly to introducing anachronistic tech into the chain. RCA cables were required; an RCA switcher too. By the late afternoon, however, I was up and running, listening to a mix I’d made in 1993, the year I graduated high school. Magnapop’s cover of “Thirteen” by Big Star blared through the speakers; I was quite in heaven.
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It’s an interesting thing, to dive into a cardboard box that perfectly encapsulates your listening habits from a certain set of years. There’s the first cassette I ever bought with my own money: Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85. I loved that tape so much. I remember the J-card had a distinct chemical smell to it that was unavoidable every time you opened it up. It’s long gone, now; I gave it a whiff. There’s all the Christmas mixes my uncle sent my sister and I: “The Year In Music”s from as early as 1986 all the way to 1994, when we were both in college and the tradition morphed into mix CDs instead of tapes. There are mixes I made for other people but never sent because I liked them too much. Mixes for skiing to; mixes for sleeping to. Mixes made for me by old girlfriends and old friends. There’s an odd, unlabeled tape with a mix that ends abruptly midway through side A. Based on the music, I date it to around 1998 — was that my last cassette mix, abandoned midstream as the digital revolution completed its putsch?
I’m no physical media ascetic — I have records, sure, but I do my fair share of streaming. I like the convenience of streaming, I like the vast catalogue at one’s fingertips. But I had a few revelations after spending an afternoon listening to these old tapes:
They sound really good! I was prepared to hear warbly tones, vanished audio and tape hiss. I was honestly surprised at how good the sound quality actually was. The early tapes in the box are all dubbed from vinyl and cassette sources; the later ones from CD. Even the CD dubs have a nice kind of richness to them — when I switched over to a CD (I set up my CD player, too, for the first time in many years) I was a bit jarred by the brashness after having subjected my ears to all that magnetic tape velveteen. I know I sound like an audiophile here, but I am truly not. That whole “analog is more warm” has always felt a little elusive to me. I notice it here, on these old tapes.
“Man, I miss making mixtapes,” shouted the aging Gen Xer, himself in a sea of like voices, all shouting the same refrain. But I do. It was such a lovely ritual; a weekend afternoon or a schoolnight evening, stacking tapes and CDs on the floor of your room, deciding which song should kick things off, what sort of theme should be the connective tissue, what were the hits and which were the deep cuts. And then having to listen to each song all the way through before adding the next one to the list, always gauging the size of tape on each spool of the cassette, trying to use up every centimeter of tape without — sin of all sins — cutting something off at the end. It’s a kind of dreamstate that digital mix and playlist-making has never equaled.
Turns out that having virtually every recorded song available to find and play at a moment’s notice from a computer you carry in your pocket is not necessarily that great of a thing. If you’d told me in 1992 that something like streaming would eventually be the way we’d listen to music, I would’ve shaved my undercut ponytail in amazed anticipation. However: I find I’m drawn to listen to an ever-smaller range of music because of the major streaming services’ interfaces. There’s too much there, the depths too deep, and the surface is cluttered with Colin’s Chill Mix and Colin’s Workout Mix and Colin’s Hot New Indie Mix, all collated and curated for me by a cheery, corporate AI. Here’s a mixtape from 1989, though, and the titles are written out in teeny penmanship on the label, filled with songs I truly loved. That’s all you really require, isn’t it?
A lot of this music, now thirty-something years removed from me, is still the music I love today. What that says about me and the state of music is up for debate. Was music just intrinsically *better* in the eighties and nineties? Probably not. Am I stuck in my ways? Yes, most certainly. Is the music you love when you are seventeen forever imprinted on your developing brain? I’m no neuroscientist, but I suspect there’s something to that.
Admittedly, there’s a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in all this. Music is music. The playlist I made for you all a few weeks ago is as close an approximation to a mixtape as you can come. And besides, it’s not the medium, it’s the message, to carelessly mangle a phrase. The music is the thing, right? No matter how pristine or shitty it is, whatever package it comes in, if it’s melodic and it moves you, then who cares how it arrived in your ears? I’ve just now finished listening to another mix from 1992, a TDK-90 with a theme of four-letter, one-word titles: Suck. Dare. Dive. You get it. A lot of these songs I love still, but a lot of them I could do without; I’ve moved on. Another day or so and I’ll likely be over my 90s self. Take those eight-hole Doc Martens and Guatemala-patterned jacket and shove ‘em, Meloy.
I’m glad I got a tape deck. I’m glad that these relics of a former life, these pieces of plastic and magnetic tape, are back cluttering my living room floor. I don’t know how long they’ll be there. Store-bought tape storage appears to be inordinately expensive. These things have been hiding in a cardboard box for twenty five years, they’re probably perfectly habituated to that sort of living. Eventually, I suspect, they’ll go back in the closet and thence to the basement. But we’ll let them breathe the air of aboveground for a little while longer. In the meantime, I bought a five pack of blank tapes. Time to make a mixtape.