The last time I made any real use of my tape deck was 1997, and while I played the occasional CD as recently as a decade ago, that was only because I had a player that decoded my MP3 mix CDs. 600 megabytes of MP3s goes a long, long way.

As soon as I had a better option than cassettes I took it; and CDs soon went unused as well. If you’re hanging onto your tapes it’s probably time to recycle them.

By the late nineties lots of music could be downloaded in MP3 format. For most stuff I wanted to hear, an MP3 version was available so I didn’t need to pull out the CD or cassette. Still, the tapes and CDs sat on my shelves along with a high-end cassette deck moving with me from apartment to apartment. I kept them around; after all, I’d put good money into that media. Just imagining disposing of a collection I’d put so much money and time into assembling hurt a little.

Of course not everything that was once valuable stays that way. Perceived value may be due to scarcity. Now that so much is readily streamable or downloadable, why hold onto worthless stuff? Any music I really wanted to hear I could readily get or convert in MP3 format. I’ve been 99% digital since about 1999. Even so I resisted the final step.

Contemplating throwing away my old music and video media reminds me of the feeling I get from the scene in Rainbow’s End where books from a university library get put through a one-way digitization process: Books go in one end of a machine; it shreds the pages; the shreds get blown out and photographed; the books are now nothing but mulch. Software digitally re-assembles the images of the shreds into virtual pages and applies OCR to them, permenantly storing the text. It feels wrong, even though no knoledge has been destroyed. (It was unclear if the original fonts from the texts were preserved, so maybe something is lost.)

Time Running Out

Eventually – way later than I should have – I realized the tapes were just taking up space and I got a analog to digital converter to transfer my tapes to a digital format, because iff I didn’t convert soon the tapes would probably degrade too much for the transfer to be worthwhile, (or so I thought.)

After getting the converter I waited another year to actually get down to business. The product registration page for the product no longer existed. That was fine, but the tech-support (for once) could have been helpful.

This weekend I pulled out all my remaining cassettes and cataloged them and set aside ones I want to preserve digitally and those I want to keep in their physical form.

Playback Quality

Turns out the sound quality on these tapes is still excellent. Surprisingly, some of the oldest tapes from the mid-eighties are in the best condition; these are blank tapes I used to dub albums from friends. The mass-produced tapes from that time are in worse shape as a whole. The issue is that they’ve been sitting so long that the tension on one side is too high for some reason. You can fast-forward both sides and fix the issue in many cases. Tapping the tape on its edge can help too.

From having sampled some of these tapes just a couple of years ago, I can tell they are begginningg to age – they didn’t stick or show other signs of decay then but they do now.

The other problem is that the player deck on my dual cassette deck has been sitting around so long it’s belt has degraded and it can’t play tapes at a constant speed. The mechanical playback of the other deck works great, but it doesn’t have all the noise reduction circuitry of the main deck. At first I thought the playback problems were due to demagnatization on the tapes but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Cleaning the player helps but doesn’t fix the issue. Oh well.

Do You Have Anything Worth Converting?

In my memory, my collection had a good number of rare albums that would be lost to history if I didn’t transfer the audio myself, or at any rate I didn’t believe I could easily replace them digitally.

Wow, was that ever wrong. Most of these tapes are from the mid-eighties to early nineties and over half originated from Columbia House or BMG. That doesn’t make them bad, just common. Even the non-club tapes were mostly purchased from music departments of places like Alco (think Target for Kansas.)

The shallowness of the collection is immediately apparent: A couple of bands from whatever genres I liked (most of them), a few full sets of albums and some odds and ends.

Now maybe my musical tastes weren’t as refined as I used to think, but the other factor there is that back then it was tough for anyone not in a big city to get their hands on obscure music. First off, you didn’t know about it to begin with because of the media environment in most U.S. towns – Top 40 was the main radio format – and second even if you wanted something you simply couldn’t buy it. A lot of stores had no way to order anything not on the shelves. You got a lot of breadth but not much depth in their selection, and my collection reflected that. For the bands I really liked it was a struggle to locate any album more than two years old. For my favorites I found a way, going to actual music stores when on vacation, or ordering through music publisher’s catalogs.

My point is, if that’s true for me it may be for many others. Pull out your collection of tapes and really consider if you have anything all that rare.

Anyway, the end result is that I have a box full of fifteen pounds worth of cassettes which I won’t be converting or keeping. In the keep stack I have ten to twelve tapes, of which most may be discarded once I find a digital alternative. A couple of tapes might be interesting to convert but I determined none were worth my time.

Interesting Finds

A number of my most interesting tapes have long since been traded away or worn out, but here’s what I found:

Grim Reaper – “See You in Hell” Found on a street near my house in 1985. There’s some pentagram symbols on the case, the label is “Ebony Records.” These guys were trying to hit every “evil” mark they could. Never got into it, actually. Don’t think I’ve ever listened to it all the way through. I must have kept it around because it was ridiculously over the top with it’s evilness. Back then kids were seriously warned to watch out for satan worshiping heavy metal bands and here was the “proof” those bands were real.

Breakin’ 2 “Electric Boogaloo” Yes, somehow I have the soundtrack on cassette to this early eighties sensation. In spite of the extra cheap quality of the case it plays perfectly. Seriously have no idea how I came by it. Didn’t buy it.

Metallica “Garage Days Re-Re-Visited” Not that the music is too hard to find but the fold-out notes are interesting. I could have put a dozen alternate titles here: Some of the art and liner notes are just kind of cool.

Aside from those, the interesting stuff is dubbed from 45s or copies of underground tapes. onestly most of the dubbed underground tapes are easy to come by these days so there’s no point keeping the tapes themselves around. It’s kind of depressing to think of all the effort that went into keeping the collection.


Here’s one eco-friendly way to recycle cassettes: Green Discs

If nobody wants my old tapes I may pull out the fold-out notes from any of the interesting ones and keep them. Even then you have to think someone has scanned most of the artwork and liner notes already, so what’s the point?

Maybe I could use all the inserts with the album covers to make art (some are different from the CDs or LP covers.) Someone could arrange them in spectral order and call it “Rainbow’s End.” Or arrange them chronologically. Or shred them up to produce a composite image of something. Or a mass of little squares which viewed close-up allow you to work out what music they were for, but far away viewed as a whole look like random noise. Call it “Dead Channel.”