Why make cassettes in 2023

Published on 2023-08-15

When I left my hometown for university about two or three years ago, my high school friends and I decided to give each other going-away gifts.

Part of what I did was a mix tape. And a really, really long one at that. My friends and I were all (and still are to varying degrees) music nerds who had very strong opinions on whether music should be listened to in playlists or as complete units in their album. I'm still very album-orientated, although I'm a lot more aware of how irrelevant the question is, but I discovered, while working on that project, how much a well-crafted playlist can add to the individual songs, even outside the context of their album.

But, even more than just listening to it, actually taking the time to work out what songs sound good together, what order to play them in, and how they can be remastered to better fit the overall aesthetic of the playlist, is actually quite fun.

Even if your someone like me, who's never seriously invested themself in music composition, there's a lot of love that can be expressed merely in the act of arranging music. And since then, constructing mix tapes has been a cornerstone of how I've learned to express how much I value the relationships I have with my friends.

Using cassettes feels like a natural extension of this idea. At least to me, it's always felt nice to be able to give people gifts that are physical. I could geek over how much I love the viscerality of magnetic tape, but in practice, it's just this neat, retro thing that demands a high level of engagement from recipients--particularly those who don't actually own a cassette player.

So, then, how often do you take the time to express love for yourself?

It seems kind of silly, but when I sat down to think about it, I noticed that it was quite rare that I'd ever do anything nice for myself. Sure, I'd do things I'd enjoy, but never with the intention of "doing something nice for me," like I'd do something nice for a friend.

Of course, you can do the exact sort of things you'd do for your friends that you'd do for yourself. So, I stopped just making mix tapes for my friends, and I started making time to make some for myself as well.

Making playlists on Spotify is kind of like this, if you're doing it with the right intention, but making cassette tapes takes quite a bit of work. My process looks something like this:

  • Select a cassette and figure out how much audio you can record on it. Usually, I just play it with a stop watch running on my phone.
  • Pick out a bunch of songs and put them into a playlist in Clementine
  • Delete your least favourite songs until it fits in the length of the tape
  • Split the playlist in two, one for the A side and one for the B side
  • Watch a movie I like, or a video, or something I can extract samples from
  • Combine the tracks in Audacity with the samples to make sure they flow together well
  • Burn both playlists to two separate blank CDs. Audio CD software on Linux is extremely poor, so I usually boot up my ancient Mac and burn them in iTunes.
  • Play the CDs in a CD/Cassette player and record the CD to the cassette

Effectively, travelling back in time three generations of audio software. This whole process often takes at least three hours when I have a really good idea of what I want to do.

But the result is really awesome. Even if the audio quality is absolute trash compared to what we get with digital audio, the experience of playing back your creation on a medium that barely exists anymore is really something else. It's extremely deliberate, it's fun, and for your labour, you get the privilege of being the most obnoxious hipster on campus.

It's a nice thing to do for yourself.

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