Lost wisdom from an analogue world

In no particular order:

Cassette-related wisdom

  • Whilst more capacity is generally better in the digital world, recording and playing back anything with more playing time than a C90 cassette tape ran the risk of the tape snapping in the cassette player / recorder and should be avoided if at all possible. This is the reason why the cassette version of New Order’s Substance album was bad news. I am still mentally scarred by the experience of unpicking tape one of Substance out of a Blaupunkt car stereo a bit at a time
  • Not all tapes were created equal, with the right recorder which had different bias settings a tape with a chrome dioxide or ‘metal’ tape formulation could turn out a much better quality recording than your normal ferric oxide tape
  • You break tabs off the end of cassettes if you don’t want anyone else to record over them. As you look at the cassette front with the exposed tape facing downwards, you break off the tab on the left-hand side top of the cassette to prevent it being overwritten. You can circumvent this by putting some Scotch magic tape over the whole
  • Cassette box inserts never have enough room to right your play lists on them
  • Use a cassette cleaner (a cassette that is played that has no sound, but removes stuff from the tape heads which read and or record to the magnetic tape) every few months to ensure that you get a good sound
  • Tape heads on video recorders, reel-to-reel recorders and cassette recorders could also be cleaned with a cotton bud dipped in iso-propyl alcohol
  • Recording on cassette or reel-to-reel machines; you want the average recording level to be about 0dB on the level meter with occasional peaks up to 3dB to get an undistorted recording
  • Video tape could be spliced (cut and then stuck back together) in the same way as reel-to-reel analogue tape, however given the fragile nature of cassette tape it could also break and go horribly wrong very easily
  • The cassette deck to have was the Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck which were legendary for their quality, cost and rarity. Though many hi-fi buffs think that the Dragon was the cassette deck; Dragon signified a high-end range of equipment including a turntable, cassette deck and multi-disc CD player

Vinyl record related wisdom

  • The quality of vinyl records depends on the weight of the platter (record) and the spacing of the grooves. Warner Music was particularly bad at producing lightweight records with tightly packed grooves
  • Zippo lighter fluid is great for removing dust and cleaning a record up a treat
  • Scratching records like on a hip-hop video is generally a bad idea unless you have needles that are designed for the job on the record player like Stanton 500ALs
  • Don’t ask an audiophile about vinyl versus CD unless you want a cure of insomnia

LaserDisc

  • An esoteric form of video playback, most people only ever saw one when the karaoke craze swept British bars and pubs. They were 12 inches in diameter and generally came in sleeves that resembled vinyl albums but were of heavier construction.
  • The highest quality original version of Star Wars Episode 4 was available on laser disc. DVD rips of this change hands on the Star Wars black market for real fans
  • LaserDiscs were a format nightmare, unless you have a late model high-end play by the likes of Pioneer you would have to worry about if the disc had digital or analogue audio or which of three different video playback measures it was encoded in
  • Like vinyl records the disc were double-sided. Depending on the video playback technique and audio each side could be anywhere between 55 and 60 minutes in length. If you had a single-sided player, you had to get up a lot
  • There were the rental format of choice during the late 1980s and early 1990s in Hong Kong. Lovers of Hong Kong cinema from that time and Japanese collectors are still passionate about the LaserDisc format
  • Generally the Japanese discs were the best made and the highest quality
  • The LaserDisc machine to have is the Pioneer Elite DVL-91. It was made in the late 1990s, plays a wide range of disc formats and handles double-sided LaserDiscs. It has more outputs than your average hi-fi could handle. I found one on eBay in the US with a starting price of 900 USD

Video tape-related wisdom

When you say video tape to people they tend to think of VHS cassettes, however there were a plethora of other technically superior formats that didn’t do well and eventually died out in consumer use

  • Beta (technically Betamax) was a product of Sony at its engineering best. They came up with a video format that was superior to the baby steps that had been taken in making a consumer-orientated video format. Beta provided a higher quality image by recording more horizontal lines of a video image and reducing ‘crosstalk’  interference. Unfortunately they were also made to a Sony premium price and the cassettes didn’t hold as much video content as their VHS peers. Sony didn’t allow adult entertainment on video recorders and eventually you started to see smaller and smaller sections for Beta format films available at video rental stores and the rest is history. They continued to be popular in Japan were they had more support and consumers were prepared to pay for the higher quality machine. People who had Beta machines used point out the superior quality and the fact that broadcast used Beta machines. In reality they were similar but different, the professional system and its descendants were called Betacam
  • Video8. Sony did manage to get into the consumer video camcorder market with a small high quality system called Video8. 8 because the tape was 8mm wide. This evolved into the Hi8 standard and eventually the Digital8 video standard. Sony shook up the market for home video, originally video cameras needed a lot of heft to carry. Video8 was also used as a personal video player format on airplanes rather like a personal DVD player. All magnetic tapes are sensitive to damage by exposing them to too much heat or direct sunlight and Video8 cassettes, particularly so
  • VHS – Like Microsoft Windows, not the best product but the one that one out. In the UK much the success of this was due to the fact that Ferguson was partly-owned by JVC and Thorn EMI. Thorn EMI owned many of the TV rental companies including Rumbelows and D|E|R – so they basically made the market for VHS. If you want to know why DVD sold so well, check out how poor a quality a video you get with VHS. Night time scenes usually have a blue haze rather than darkness, I watched Near Dark on DVD after having seen it on VHS and didn’t realise it was the same movie.
  • A lesser known use of VHS was as a high quality consumer audio recording format which was broadly comparable to CDs, I knew of people who used this instead of DAT tapes to get vinyl records pressed and a couple of others who used it to copy CDs. The problem was that unlike an audio cassette or a CD they often wouldn’t play in another machine. Sony had pioneered hi-fi audio on the Betamax system, but their system required a separate outboard hi-fi processor. Combine this with the fact that Beta was by this time hard to get hold of and it became even more obscure than the VHS version
  • Video2000 was a standard developed by Philips and Grundig. Philips needs no introduction, but Grundig was a German consumer electronics company that alongside a number of peers like Telefunken, Braun and Blaupunkt. Grundig was particularly well known for high-quality radios. From the early 1970s Philips exercised more and more control over the company
  • Video 2000 was much more sophisticated than either Beta or VHS. The tapes were double-sided, they played for up to four hours each side and the video was of a superior quality. The cassettes were carefully designed to fully protect the video tape. My Dad bought a Grundig 2×4 Super and that was the video machine we had at home until the mid-1990s
  • Why did Video 2000 fail? Scale: they were only sold in Europe. Distribution in the UK – they were hard to find, my Dad eventually found our machine in Beatties department store. Less films were made for them – I remember there was only one shop I knew that rented Video 2000 tapes – and it only had about three dozen films to choose from in total. The machines were more expensive, partly because they were more complex in terms of their mechanism and partly because they had a lot more discrete electronics components in them than a comparable VHS or Beta machine
  • They were a pig to programme in order to get a recording done, whilst you could programme them up to a year in advance everything was done through a numeric keyboard. We used to have a flow chart above the machine to help with programming as they weren’t particularly intuitive – this is was around about the time that households were only just starting to get to grips with home computing

Compact Disc-related wisdom

  • Contrary to the marketing messages put out by the likes of Sony and Phillips when they first came out CDs (Compact Discs) are not indestructible
  • CD clear ‘jewel’ cases are so fragile they break around the connection between the door and the main case if you look at them slyly out of the corner of your eye
  • The artwork and sleeve notes on CDs is generally disappointing once you have been used to vinyl records. The more informative the booklet the poorer quality the paper it was printed on. Chinese pirated CDs were often differentiated by their superior quality packaging
  • Laptops, car multi-CD changers and home CD jukeboxes scratch the surface of a CD to make it unplayable
  • Somehow everyone ended up with a copy of Dire Straits Brothers in Arms or a Phil Collins Face Value album because Dixons gave them away for free
  • There was an urban myth about a CD plant in Germany just making copies of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. I am not too sure if this was true, but it used to sell 8-9,000 copies a week, unlikely enough to keep a factory going on its own
  • A mini CD single is 3 inches in diameter and held 21 minutes of music and you had to be careful what player you put it in as many of them where only made for full-size CDs. Mini CDs worked because CDs played from the inside out, rather than outside in on most vinyl records (Japanese techno artist cut a 10 inch clear vinyl record that played from the inside out, but this was an exception)
  • CD rot – thankfully design flaws in the CD standard leaving reflective layers exposed to react with the acid content of the paper in the booklets and dodgy chemicals used in the manufacture of some CDs meant that many discs became unplayable over time. Discs could go bronze, milky, develop pin-holes or blotches that would render them unplayable. Alongside AOL CDs they can be given a second life as a coffee coaster or turned into a mobile hung from apple trees that scare away birds from the fruit
  • Gold CDs – designed to fleece audio snobs and those paranoid about CD rot, gold was used to replace the aluminum reflective layer usual in CDs. It was wasted on some godawful albums and money-sucking re-releases of albums like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon. If you know anyone that has some of these in their collection, they are work stealing for the ‘lock lift’ box that came with them
  • Black CDs – came out around about the time as the original PlayStation some enterprising record labels in Japan released CDs with black layers that were transparent to the CD laser. They were rare and immensely collectable
  • Japanese record labels generally had the best CD packaging