Thoughts About Microcassettes by Hal McGee
Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 8:25am
Back in the 1980s I was one of the people who spearheaded the original wave of interest in cassettes as a legitimate audio art form and format. The Golden Age of Cassette Culture! And this wasn’t just people doing mix tapes. These were fully-realized experimental music audioworks, with a highly personal and idiosyncratic feeling and sound to them, and often with homemade packaging. In the mid-80s I operated with Debbie Jaffe the Cause And Effect Distributon Service and label and in three years we sold and traded 5,000+ cassettes of homemade experimental music from all over Planet Earth. You can see a list of my own early stuff from the 80s plus even download many of those original cassette albums here
I released all of my work on cassette up until about 1998. From about 2000 until roughly 2005-6 I released all of my new experimental music on CDRs and a few CD releases.
From about 2006 onward I stopped releasing my music in physical formats (tapes, discs) and released all of my stuff online on my web site, halmcgee.com. Online music was to me the perfect and logical extension of what we were doing with our homemade cassette releases back in the 80s. Open access democratic anarchy. Anybody with a computer and an internet connection had free access to my music. I have generally in recent years offered all of my music for free. My downloads have always been free.
A couple of years ago I encountered a lot of resistance to and downright hostility toward online music in discussions on the Noise discussion boards. There were endless and highly-detailed complaints about the shitty sound quality of mp3s and about how online music wasn’t genuine enough. Many people still wanted to have a physical object to hold in their hands with printed artwork, something tangible and “real”. People 20-30 years younger than me were resisting what I saw as natural “progress” – online music – and were, in my mind, regressing somewhat by insisting on physical container audio formats. I think that it was natural for me and people of my age group to pass through the stages that I did, because we started making our homemade music at a time that was pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-email, pre-MySpace and pre-Facebook. We handwrote letters, dubbed tapes, went to Kinko’s and printed tape covers, packaged up the tapes, went to the post office and mailed them, etc. For people much younger than me, whose lives have essentially always been mediated by digital culture… I think that they are looking for authenticity, for genuine experiences, and in some ways I think they see online anything as drudgery, as work-related, as something that doesn’t connect them to other people, but as something that is distancing and cold.
I must say, that as much as admire the general spirit of todays’ cassette resurgence, I also take a dim view of it. To me it’s like reaching for something that isn’t really there any more. And much of what I see in today’s cassette labels is a sort of preciousness, a fetishistic clinging to physical objects almost as if they are totemic magical devices. Many of these labels produce their releases in ridiculously limited editions, which just increases the fetishism.
So why did I start a microcassette label? There are many reasons.
You can actually interact with a cassette, change it, erase the original contents, insert your own content. Aside from scratching and altering a vinyl record there’s not a whole lot that you can do with a vinyl record.
There’s an essential difference here.
I know about all of the work that’s been done by turntablists, locked-groove people, Christian Marclay, Milan Knížák, etc., but a vinyl record is basically non-interactive. It’s meant for listening to, being an audience to what someone else has done. The same with CDs and CDRs, which are worse and more boring from an artistic standpoint than vinyl.
Like I said above, a cassette, standard or micro-, offers/invites interaction and open-ended creation. It’s an empty container that awaits you, me, anybody, everybody. It breaks down the false barrier between artist and audience. Everyone can be an artist.
Why did I choose to release microcassettes? Lots of reasons.
Let’s start with a basic one.
I think they sound great. They have a limited frequency response, usually about 400 Hz to 4000 Hz, which by design, matches the range of the human voice. So, they seem very human to me in their sound. The sound is hyper-compressed, and if one doesn’t clutter the tape with too many sounds at once it can have a startling clarity and directness. The sound on a microcassette is very focused. It is what it is, right there, there it is.
Here’s something else. The microcassette was never really intended for musical uses. Aside from a brief time in the early 1980s when some of the microcassette manufacturers tried to market stereo recorders and Metal formulation tape, the microcassette has never really been used very much for music.
It has, for most of its existence been a humble, simple, everyday utilitarian object, used by professionals such as doctors, lawyers, secretaries, and by students to record lectures and notes, and by other people as a kind of portable notebook.
It’s interesting to note that the portable microcassette recorder predated the Cassette Walkman by a decade, and iPods by much more than that. So, in a way, it was like the original portable audio device.
It seems kind of fresh to me for this reason. It isn’t tainted by being an art object, like a standard-sized cassette.
For these reasons the microcassette seems very real because it is a part of normal everyday life. What originally appealed to me about many cassette audio artworks in the 80s and 90s was that the artists often created very personal works/statements which reflected and revealed their experiences, their reality, their lives – either directly or indirectly.
I have always been of the belief that life and art should be as close together as possible.
Sure, even compared to a standard cassette, and certainly to vinyl records and CDs, microcassettes sound like crap… if you want to look at it that way. They run at a much slower tape speed. The tape itself is much thinner, etc.
But the sounds that we hear in daily life, and our perceptions and memories and sensations aren’t all high-definition. In fact, far from it. Most sounds are small or in the distance or muffled or indistinct. The world is filled with grime and rust and decay and pollution and jagged, fuzzy edges. There is great beauty in the natural processes of decay and rot. Every day we try to convince ourselves, and advertisers try to convince us that everything can be shiny and new (with a distinct emphasis on youth) and better and clearer and sharper, and that we can stop getting fatter, and older and saggier, and that we won’t lose our teeth and hair. We know that nothing is further from the truth. We value relics and documents of the past and certain older people, because of their character, because of their richness in experience. When everything new seems thin and inconsequential and transitory, old things can thrill us.
Microcassettes sound like relics of a future past that never existed. In their inherently decayed state they sound like a creature/organism that has lived, that has a history.
Here are some more thoughts.
Dig this. People always complain bitterly about the sound of mp3s. Microcassette recordings transferred to mp3 sound great! There’s something about the two that makes them a natural match. In many ways the mp3-ized microcassette recordings sound better than the original microcassette recordings on which they are based! Seriously!
I would like to share with you what I consider to be my very best recorded work, The Man With The Tape Recorder. It was recorded totally on microcassette – all edits were done in the recorder – with no outside edits. I originally released it on CDR. It now lives totally online:
I will leave you, for now, with two or three more thoughts.
Microcassettes are in a way an inversion of a cassette. The tape runs in the opposite direction from a cassette.
Even though the microcassette shell is much smaller than a standard cassette the tape is the same width!
People who complain about mp3s and online music bemoan the disappearance of the audio object. Cassettes are a step backward. Microcassette is a little tiny cassette fading away into the distance… disappearing bit by bit.
(The project below now closed)
To contribute to the Dictaphonia Microcassette Compilation project send a 5-minute recording on a microcassette to:
1909 SW 42nd Way
More info on Dictaphonia here