Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Back in the 1990s - and before that - everybody loved mix tapes. Despite ‘clever’ business people claiming otherwise they failed to kill the music ‘industry’. They did, however, spread a lot of joy. Somehow even the choice of blank tape was already an important decision back in those days.

There were BASF tapes, TDK tapes, Sony tapes and many other kinds as well. While the BASF tapes were easily accessible at the local Aldi I always thought their design looked a bit clumsy and preferred the TDK tapes for that reason. But even within the same brand there were different classes of tape. If I’m not mistaken the ‘D’ series was the cheapest. So cheap that even my poor teenage self didn’t get them. I think those tapes actually sounded bad.

Then came the ‘SA’ and ‘SA-X’ (Type Ⅱ) series which were still quite affordable and had to be ‘good enough’. I amassed many of those tapes over the years. Only at the very end I got my hands on some ‘MA’ (Type Ⅳ) series metal tapes. And while I am not sure that I could actually hear a big difference between ‘SA’ and ‘MA’ series tapes back then, I can certainly tell the difference between them when playing the tapes today.

Needless to say that all the recordings I am still interested in today and which I copied over from tape to iTunes recently were on the ‘SA’ quality tapes.

TDK tape closeup

There’s plenty of embarrassing and cool stuff to be found on those old tapes. My friend used to make great tapes for me which represented a lot of German music of the late 1990s. A wonderful and relatively obscure track listing could be found on the the A side of one of the tapes:

  1. Klausner Klang Kommando: Frühstückt
  2. Concord: Verlaß meine Lieder
  3. Goethes Erben: Gleiten
  4. Flowerpornoes: Respekt
  5. Station 17: Ich Denk
  6. Bruno Ferrari: Sie ging in den Untergrund
  7. Arne Zank: Du fragst nach Geschichten
  8. ?: Ein viel zu Guter Mann für mich
  9. Stereo Total: Schön von Hinten
  10. Electrocord: Ich liebe das Geräusch von Dingen, die verbrennen
  11. Stella: Sie Sagt
  12. Fettes Brot: Die Einsamkeit der Klofrau
  13. Tocotronic: In Der Überzahl
  14. ?

Yay, great stuff! The B-side was filled with the - ahem - ‘unlikely’ combination of Andreas Dorau and Ton Steine Scherben…

Bonus link: compact cassette photos.

August 20, 2008, 0:16

Tagged as arne zank, compilation, flowerpornoes, german music, goethes erben, klausner klang kommando, music, stella, stereo total, tape, tocotronic.


Comment by d.w.: User icon

Wow, takes me back. I have literally hundreds of old tapes (mostly TDK) in a milk crate in storage somewhere. IIRC, I used SA90s (and the later SA100s, when albums started getting longer) as my “workhorse” tapes. I’d spring for SA-Xs when they went on sale. My recollection is that the difference between the two was that the oxide layer was thicker/denser on the SA-Xs, which meant that you could record them louder without “blowing out” (i.e. oversaturating) the tape. I “learned” the art of the mixtape from an old college roommate (who had a pretty nice stereo) and he was obsessive about recording levels, minimizing the gaps between songs, trying to fill as much of the tape as possible without cutting off songs at the end, etc.)

When I think back on that period (roughly my undergrad years) when I was obsessively making mixtapes, I’m a bit nostalgic. It was a craft, and a physical one — matching levels from disparate sources (vinyl, tape, CD), even getting the “needle drop” on a record precisely right. Also, experimenting with different record cleaning brushes/cloths to minimize pops and clicks. Slinging a bunch of MP3s over the net at someone is nowhere near as tactile or involving.

August 20, 2008, 15:10

Comment by ssp: User icon

That SA-X theory is interesting. My impression was that at some stage the tapes which used to be SA started being SA-X. Perhaps I just came to the game a bit later.

Getting the levels on a compilation CD right remains a challenge even today. My impression is that, if anything, it became harder because the information you get out of applications like iTunes just isn’t as direct as old fashioned level meters and settings were.

Another aspect that always made mix tapes challenging was the length of the tape. While you could compute a perfect 45 minute side of a tape, that didn’t help at all as the sides frequently had an extra 30 or 60 seconds which you needed to fill to give perfect playback on an auto-reverse player. Ah, challenges!

August 20, 2008, 15:33

Comment by d.w.: User icon

Getting the levels on a compilation CD right remains a challenge even today. My impression is that, if anything, it became harder because the information you get out of applications like iTunes just isn’t as direct as old fashioned level meters and settings were.

Indeed — the two main decks I used over those years has analog and led level meters respectively. Whenever I tried a new brand of tape I’d do some test recordings to see how far in the red I could safely go without blowing out the tape. Another fun thing to to was to play the loudest part of the song I was recording and adjusting the recording level on the tape deck to suit it.

These days when most new recordings are compressed all to shit I’m not sure it matters. :(

August 20, 2008, 16:11

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