How getting into cassettes made me a more skillful man

Posted 2021-10-12.

Leer en espaƱol...

I've always enjoyed physical media, knowingly or not. As a child, I used to bring floppies to school to download images off the net, because I didn't have a connection at home. After copying their contents into my home computer, I spent the rest of my time playing games on CD-ROMs and watching movies on VHS. You know, actual plastic boxes and discs that (as if by some sort of magic) the mystery machines could read and entertain me for days. I didn't think too hard about it, I just accepted it.

But then we all grew up and the world decided that physical media was no longer necessary. I kept most of my now unused CD-ROMs (at least the ones my irresponsible child hands didn't destroy), but we threw away our VHS collection and my mom got rid of her cassettes. She kept watching her DVDs for a while, but now we have piles of them in a shed outside; do you wonder why?

My cassette deck

Getting into hobbies on a whim has been a constant in my life. I started making music because I randomly watched a FL Studio tutorial on Youtube and one thing lead to another. Many years later, not even two months ago, the idea that I liked physical media suddenly reappeared in my mind and I connected it with my love of music. And, completely on a whim, I bought a late-80s cassette deck.

Oh, how fun it was to play tapes and record them! At least, for a while. The play button didn't even last two days being able to be pushed in easily. That was disappointing, but I had to discover why, so I opened the machine up... and I couldn't do much more than identifying the problem, so I closed it up and kept listening to my new tapes, pressing the button a bit harder.

As I played with the deck, I discovered tape loops. I tried making a couple (with my hands!) and recorded stuff onto them. Success! I could now make short looping tapes of sustained notes, or chords, or whatever I want looping in a tape. Let's admit it: Covering the erase head to make seamless loops was what probably broke the play button! That's what I tell myself, though I think it was just bad luck.

The recorder

Later on, I got myself this handheld cassette recorder, a Sony TCM-20DV, again completely on a whim, to play the tape loops better:

Image of a Sony TCM-20DV tape recorder.

It was great! It has a pitch control wheel, so I could play the recorder like an instrument as long as I fed it an appropriate loop. I can also take voice notes, which is what I find myself doing with it most of the time.

However, bad luck struck again. After a couple days of operation, the recorder started making a loud whirring noise. Hell, another machine of mine not working well? This time I wouldn't have it though, I would repair it! I would use the same two hands that made the tape loops and make it work properly again. I dowloaded the service manual. To take it apart and diagnose the problem, I would need to desolder some connections, it said. I'd never used a soldering iron before! But that was no excuse. I wanted to fix it ASAP, so I bought all the tools I needed, but they would take a while to be shipped.

In the meantime, I got a portable cassette player (let's just call it walkman) from my neighbor, because I wanted to take the music I was recording with me on the train. Of course, the tape mechanism was not operational, though the radio did if you wiggled the batteries a bit. Another thing to repair. I eventually got another one that was working and I enjoy it a lot to this day. I also got a second deck from a relative that was, of course, broken as well. This one seemed like spiders were living inside it at some point, and everything was rusty. I didn't have much hope for it, but I put it alongside the other broken junk.

Repairs

When my soldering kit and other tools arrived, I went looking around the house for broken machines to desolder apart. I found a cheap keyboard and mouse and painstakingly began practicing with the soldering iron. I had burned some contacts, but after a while I thought I was ready to fix my machines.

A week later I decided I would fix my relative's rusty deck. It took me the entire day, but I took it all apart, cleaned it as well as I could, replaced the belts, cleaned it again, and voila! I couldn't believe it, but it was running! It actually was playing my cassettes, even though the heads were in such an awful state. Tired and sweaty, but very happy, I was now fully confident that I could fix the recorder and my neighbor's walkman.

The next day, it was the broken walkman's turn. Inside it was messy, almost if meant to be unserviceable. I desoldered whatever I needed to get to the motor, struggling not to break anything. I changed the belts and resoldered the broken battery contacts, so I wouldn't have to force them in to get power into the circuit. When it was back together, it played my cassettes, albeit a bit slow and only on one channel, unless I wiggled the stereo plug. I figured out that the headphone jack had loose contacts as well so I fixed them, and it seemed to work. To fix the slowness of the tape, I had to try different belts and turn the speed knobs on the board. But this is when disaster happened: none of the knobs were labelled, and as I turned them, they snapped off. The machine was truly unserviceable then, at least with the resources I had. But I thought it was a good attempt and kept whatever remained for parts to use with my recorder's servicing.

There was no time to be disappointed. I had to fix my recorder immediately, so I opened it up right away. As I mentioned before, I had the service manual, so it was very easy to know what was what on the board and how to get to the part that I figured out was faulty: the motor. I disconnected everything from the board and soldered it back together part by part until the whirring noise started again. Of course it was all fine until I connected the motor. Good luck then that I had the other machine for parts, because this meant I could swap their motors! I did it, and it worked, albeit the tapes ran a bit slow. Turning the speed knobs on the board to their best positions, I now had a working recorder. Success! The other machine's sacrifice's was not in vain, and its remaining parts will for sure be used in other projects.

What's next? Fixing the play button on my first deck, of course!

Lessons learned

I only got into cassettes for the pleasure of holding a magnetic box with my favourite music in my hands. But the unreliability of the second-hand vintage equipment required to play and record them forced me to learn about electronics and repairing stuff in general. So even though I've wasted more money than I'm willing to admit on tapes and related equipment (although any money spent on tools is money well spent), now I can have my favorite music on analogue media that I recorded myself and the knowledge and confidence that I can now service almost anything (in particular old stuff) that doesn't deserve to be in the trash. After all, if it can work, why should it be in a landfill?

Would I recommend you to get into tapes? I'm not sure, but I do enjoy them a lot, if that matters. Here's a button you can put in your site if you enjoy them too. Anyway, enough rambling.

A cassette deck

Comments? Tell me what you think in the guestbook.