Cassette Tapes

Compact cassettes dominated the music scene during the 80s. They also helped thousands of people mark their identity with mix tapes that were a mash-up of driving jams, situation music for romance and more. While the cassette was the perfect medium for music at the time, it had a few siblings that served another important role – the mini-cassette, microcassette, and pico cassette.

The Microcassette

The microcassette was as it sounds; significantly smaller than the standard cassette tape. It wasn’t as widely used as the larger standard cassette by most people despite its introduction by Olympus in 1969; likely because the microcassette was far less effective when it came to the recording and playback of music. It did, however, find wide acceptance in its niche.

The primary purpose of microcassettes was dictation or recording voice. Their most common use was in small portable recording devices used for dictation and in answering machines. Unlike many standard cassette players, microcassette recording devices offered variable speeds in both recording and playback. The faster a tape moved across the recording head, the better the quality was. The disadvantage to recording at higher speeds, however, was less time for recording.

While it may seem as though a smaller reel of tape in a microcassette would offer less recording time than a standard cassette, the tape is much thinner and runs at the half to one-quarter the usual speed which allows the microcassette a similar length of recording time. The microcassette tape itself is the same width as the tape in a standard compact cassette. However, the standard cassette player moves the tape from left to right while the microcassette tape travels in the opposite direction.

Those attempting to use it for music or other situations where the quality sound was important found that it was less than desirable. However, the device was widely accepted by professionals that required a reliable medium for dictation. Because of its small size, law enforcement and intelligence agencies often used them for secret recording. In fact, they are still sometimes used by police departments. Digital is taking over, but sometimes law enforcement agencies will worry about the admissibility of some digital recordings in court. Just like digital photography, it is relatively easy to alter digital audio recordings. The authentication processes used by forensic audio examiners for digital audio is still in its infancy so an altered recording may go undetected.

Mini and Picocassettes

In 1967 about two years before the microcassette was launched, the mini-cassette was introduced to the public. It too was meant to be used for dictation. It was just a touch larger than the microcassette and did not use the traditional capstan drive system but instead moved the tape past the tape head using the reels. Due to this, there was inconsistency in the speed causing a bit of wow and flutter (pitch variation/wobbling sound). This feature made it unsuitable for anything other than dictation – but for dictation, it wasn’t a concern. In fact, the design of the mini-cassette is quite suited for use by transcriptionists. They hold up better than microcassettes to the constant starting, stopping, and short rewinds.

Fast forward almost two decades to find JVC and Dictaphone with their ill-fated attempt to launch an even smaller tape format than the microcassette in 1985. While the intent was to be a highly portable dictation device, the pico cassette recorder cost several hundred dollars. Tapes were $6 each. The device lasted approximately six months on the market before being discontinued. It was a marketing disaster.

Both the mini-cassette and microcassette remain in use for those who prefer to work in analog format though they continue to be replaced in many circuits by digital recorders. Microcassettes did, however, see a small rise in popularity with their use in the modern “Saw” horror movies where microcassette players were used with “play me” messages scrawled across the cassette. Despite that popularity increase, analog technology continues to decline in use as digital technology grows more prominent with each passing year.


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Lillie Mills

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