Getting it down on tape – John Fleming on cassettes

An Irishman’s Diary

The brand was Steiger – not one of the titans of audio technology but the turquoise livery tempted

The brand was Steiger – not one of the titans of audio technology but the turquoise livery tempted

 

There was always a hiss of audiophiles perusing What Hi-Fi? magazine in Eason’s. Standing around and blocking your way. They were in silent ecstasy over tech specs, tape bias and Dolby details. You had to elbow through them to get to the rough piles of music papers. These were flung down at lower-shelf foot level, often bearing a muddy boot print.

I blamed the delirious audiophiles whose sonic lust made them surge forward and trample the pop rags. Glaring at these non-purchasing leeches, I took my place among them to thumb through the mediocre Melody Maker and the witless Sounds. Having sampled such wares, I always bought the NME.

The shopfloor staffer scolded: “No reading allowed. Please make your purchase.”

But the audiophiles stayed put, driving needles into the red.

A few doors down from Eason’s on O’Connell Street was a shop that sold three cassettes for one pound. That’s 33.3333 pence each. Thirty-three and a third: the exact speed of a revolving long player.

The brand was Steiger – not one of the titans of audio technology but the turquoise livery tempted. If you had extra shillings there was always Memorex, Sony, JVC, Maxell, Basf or TDK. But everything changed the day I discovered Steiger tapes.

The square deal was available in two versions: three C60s or two C90s. Three hours of recording for one pound. A bargain. The casual teenage economist in those early wretched 1980s could make plans with cost factors like these. The contents of the ether had been liberated: one could record all those NME bands without limits. I purchased the C60s for late-night radio transmissions by Pat James and John Peel. And the C90s? Perfect for LPs.

The transistor radio was already a triumph of valve miniaturisation, the cogless digital watch a serious flag for flattened aesthetics. But could anything get more compact than the cassette?

The last word in analogue technology, it was a shrinking of studio reel-to-reel or the war reporter’s Uher weaponry. It was a nimble mockery of the eight-track cartridge.

Even the box was an Everest of engineering: the dearer brands came with easy-peel cellophane. Smooth, flip-action, hinge-opening permitted swivelled access to the blank oyster within. A shiny track-by-track index card to fill out and reverse fold, along with a set of stickers (spine and facia), made of you an instant archivist.

But with Steiger you got what you paid for: rough cellophane corner folds that suggested Christmas wrapping by drunk uncles. Best rip these off with your teeth. Inside: cost-cutting in the plastic extrusion process meant the opening action of the cassette box was as rough as old rope. Has one of the hinges fallen off straight away? No matter! There’s music to record.

Blank tapes and vinyl were best friends. They existed in complementary demand. Total running time of most LPs was about 36 minutes – a C90 easily housed two albums. Example one, side A: The Fall’s Grotesque; side B: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Example two, side A: The Blue Orchids’ The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain); side B: Gang of Four’s Entertainment.

Run-out grooves on records are leftovers; scratchy, silent, spiral wastelands which lure the record arm toward the spindle where mechanics kick in and return the little crane to its rest. It’s like having a robot in your room.

The equivalent for cassettes is the strange pulse of unrecorded tape as it winds on until its final tautness shuts the mechanism down. These extra nine minutes were dead handy for a few more tunes.

Let’s rewind. A bass guitar rumbled through a house. A broken tremelo arm on a poxy piece of guitar-shaped plastic pointed to distortion pedals. A black box was a drum machine. A puny device had 16 keys primed for primitive sound effects. A microphone was plugged in to channel your omniscient narrator’s vocal stylings. A hardback notebook was full of words written in yellow-stemmed, eagle-beaked Bic ballpoint biro. A Hofner was removed from a rigid case and connected to a portable Vox amp. Its owner tuned up, a plectrum between his teeth.

Garage band history is sadly denied what happened next. An improvised wall of sound created a tune called Carpet Layers with a line “ruffian on the stairs” fuelled by some misplaced notion of Joe Orton and the idea bad grammar could kill people.

A Steiger cassette caught this diamond in the rough in its “run-out grooves”.

The laziness of the era led to that tape never being labelled. Lost forever, it lives in recorded memory. Like Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette, who died in March.

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