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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Resurrection of the Audio Cassette????

By Stef 

Most albums reviewed on this now famous blog are produced in hundreds of copies only, some can even be counted in dozens. So it is truly music for a small crowd of passionate fans, who happen to buy a lot. So even if it is already difficult to reach these fans, there is now a new tendency to release new material not on CD, but again on audio cassette? For the young ones who have no idea what I am talking about, please find below a picture of it, and NO, you cannot play this with a CD player, you need an Audio Cassette player to listen to the music. The sound quality is bad, the tape risks to get blocked, torn or completely tangled into the cassette player, etc.

So, now for our audio cassette series, here are a few albums that are now available in this format. The cassettes reviewed here share nothing in common, except for the fact that they are released to be played on this specific archaic sound device. So go to your attics, and get the dust of those cassette players, or go the second hand shop and buy a great occasion, unless you still have the Fisher Price toy player lying around somewhere.

Sheldon Siegel - Midden (Skylantern, 2014)

The first one is by Sheldon Siegel, not the American author, but the Belgian band who stole his name, and who conist of Erik Heestermans on drums and percussion, Gerard Herman on saxophones, and Gino Coomans on cello. Their musical approach is quite radical, inspired by the AACM vision, with noise, dissonance and repetitive sounds as key ingredients for some harsh improvisations on a variety of instruments and related tools. 

The cassette lasts about fourty minutes and the music is also available from Bandcamp.

Tobias Brügge & Matthew Grigg (Unknown Tongue, 2013)

The second tape is by Tobias Brügge on tenor and our own Matthew Grigg on guitar and amplifier. Both are explorers of timbre and sound possibilities, engaging in a common journey. The first side brings one improvisation, called "Peace & Fire (For Mats Gustafsson)", a carefully balanced piece with intimate dialogues constructed with small and low volume extended techniques, or moments of heavy agitation and excitedness. On the second side the music evolves carefully on the first track, "An Airless Field  (For Bill Nace)"  then explodes with the second, called "Arch Duo (For Derek & Evan)" in heavy bursts of violent interaction. Grigg's guitar screeches with feedback and Brügge's raw sound is reacting in the same spirit, yet things calm down after a while. We're not used to this anymore, but the length of the cassette is twenty-three minutes. To the duo's credit, they only release the music on audio cassette. No digital version available.

The music can be ordered from

Travis Laplante, Trevor Dunn & Ches Smith - Ancestral Instrument (NNA Tapes, 2014)

Next in line is this wonderful trio album with Travis Laplante on sax, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Ches Smith on percussion. It will be reviewed later on in more detail. 

NNA Tapes, the label, has already released dozens of audio cassettes, which are luckily also available digitally from eMusic and other providers. 

No Know (Sound Band) - Sound Songs (Self, 2014)

When I was in New York some months ago, I witnessed a fantastic performance of conduction by Sean Francis Conway of the Kenney Wolleson & Horns ensemble at The Stone. On this cassette, Sean Francis Conway plays accordion, violin and he sings, while Andrew Bracken plays percussion. 

The duo's approach is beyond any conceivable concept of music, unless their very own. It has some shamanistic aspects with Conway's singing, or even folksy elements with the accordion. The percussion is only emphasising, disrupting or doing different things. 

Their vision is quite clear : "unknowing sound band approach is well known: walk thin lines, reject ideas that thinking thoughts think, proceed to create a sound sound", or is this not clear? It's so unusual that it's worth checking out. 
Available from Bandcamp.

Marco Serrato - Taaru (Knockturne, 2013)

We already presented Marco Serrato's solo bass album "Seis Canciones Para Cuervo" on a recent solo bass album overview. Last year, he also released this solo album, Taaru, on audio cassette, released on the Spanish label, specialised in experimental and ambient music.

The cassette can be ordered via Knockturne.

So what is the reason of producing audio cassettes? I can only conclude that it's a gimmick, just to have something tangible to buy, and together with the download version, you listen to it digitally anyway. Or not?


Tommy said...

The Laplante/Dunn/Smith show is really good!

But cassettes? Seriously??

Wish there was another way to listen to the Brügge/Grigg recording, sounds interesting.

Philippe said...

Time to dust off the White Sony Walkman - 28years old and still functional!

But seriously, audio-cassette? Luckily I see most are also available as digital download… That will cut down on the time needed to make a backup of those damn tapes.

Colin Green said...

I have to say, releasing material on cassette just seems a bit perverse, appealing to those for whom scarcity – and the corresponding feeling of uniqueness – is sufficient reason to purchase. This kind of thinking already exists in the vinyl market. Given the relative ease of providing a digital download, there seems to be no other reason to release music on cassette, and unlike vinyl you can’t even argue that it provides superior sound quality. They should just go the whole hog, and release it on 8-track tape!

Mark said...

For those that value the physical object, the humble cassette tape offers the only medium in which one can produce releases limited quantities ('pressed' cd quantities start in the 100's) which have a life span of over 5/10 years (the typical time it takes for a cd-r to degrade). A good type II or chrome cassette can give a virtually identical frequency response to a cd-r, and is better than mp3, albeit with tape hiss in lieu of digital artefacts.

In recent years, cassette has become one of the main formats for experimental & noise musics, and is often valued over cd-r. The effort required to produce each tape becomes a prized facet of the item, imbuing it with more "worth" than something easily/mass produced. Within these communities it serves as an analogue to the value of the artistic process, something which is negated by the instant access download culture.

What is really important here though is the music, not the medium.

Tommy - a quick search revealed an excerpt from the Brügge/Grigg release is available here:

Mulot said...

I would add to that recension the last album of Steven Lugerner, "Gravitations Vol. 1" (Primary Records, 2013). Length is 14:31.

Colin Green said...

Some interesting points Mark, on which I have a few observations.

You clearly have a much better understanding of the technical aspects than I, but I’m not entirely sure about some of your points. First, I’ve always understood that there’s a difference between “pressed” CDs and CD-Rs. Some labels produce a batch from a CD pressing plant (although 100 to 300 sounds like a limited quantity to me) and other labels burn their own CD-R’s on a computer, as demand requires. It’s not been my experience that CD-Rs have a life span of 5/10 years – many I burnt and play often are older than that – and I know that CD degradation is a hotly debated topic. Some say it will happen at some point to any optical disc, others that it is very much dependent on the quality of the pressing/original disc. I’ve occasionally experienced problems with pressed CDs, but on the whole, those I bought 30 years ago “appear” to be in good working order.

Second, the cassette medium, as a magnetic tape, is itself subject to degradation, by the stretching of tape and magnetic fields attenuating the signal (they become muffled). Much depends on how often the tape is played, the quality of the deck, and whether it is regularly cleaned and maintained, though in my (limited) experience few people regularly undertake these tasks.

Third, I’m a little worried by the association you mention between the time and trouble taken to produce a cassette and the quality of the music: that in some people’s minds, one reflects the worth of the other. Surely this is misplaced. There’s no necessary corollary between the two: just because effort and expertise has been taken in transferring music to a particular music carrier doesn’t mean that the music is the result of a valuable artistic process, and as you say, what’s important is the music not the medium. If I were to say that music provided on a cassette is associated in my mind with Barry Manilow tapes stuffed into the glove box of my father’s car, you’d say (rightly) that such an association is not one on which to form a proper judgement. I can see that for some, “instant access downloads” might be associated with the iTunes culture, but again this would be muddled thinking in forming a proper view as to the musical worth of a particular album. In any event, MP3s from iTunes is only one, admittedly large, portion of the market. There’s plenty of good quality material in high resolution formats also available, though again high resolution audio doesn’t mean high quality music. In short: an association between A and B in one’s mind does not mean that A and B share certain qualities. Whether they do goes beyond mere mental association.

I do understand the preference for possessing a physical object, but nevertheless there seems to be something rather fetish-like about all of this. I can understand it with a Faberge egg, but a cassette?

Fred Allen said...

Cassettes have to be the worst medium (or do I mean format) of all time. Trying to cue to an individual track is time-consuming and frustrating and if the tape breaks, you've lost the whole thing. And who has a cassette player any more?

In my opinion, artists who use this format are wasting their time.

Mark said...

In principle Colin, I concur with thrust of all the points you make, however...

Firstly, I'm not professing great technical knowledge in regards to this matter, but the degradation of CD-rs is sadly a fact. I have frustrating lost several pieces of irreplaceable music as a consequence of this, and brand quality is no assurance of longevity as manufacture is often outsourced. I also have many in excess of 10 years which still hold up, although I've made copies of those with great importance. I too have experienced issues with pressed CDs, and whilst I'm aware of the school of thought concerning degradation of all optical media, the quality of pressed discs seems universally superior to the extremely variable CD-r.

Concerning pressing quantities, 200 units (the minimum pressing I've found available in the EU) is still likely to incur costs of at least €500 to produce, even with concessions regarding packaging/mastering costs etc. Add to this the costs already incurred by recording/mixing/mastering, it becomes prohibitively expensive for musicians playing original music to bare, whilst still having to make rent etc. Given the relatively small market for people purchasing this music, 200 units might be impossible to sell through.

I completely concur with regards to the degradation of tape. However, as most 'new' music released on the medium is experimental in nature, I'd postulate that its unlikely to be played that often. I, as a listener, aim to give 'difficult' music my complete attention and subsequently play these recordings less often but with much higher levels of concentration. Its not background sound on a constant loop, and subsequently unlikely that the tape will stretch that far. Vinyl also wears from repeated use, however CD-rs degrade regardless of the frequency with which they're played.

Finally, I'm not asserting that any object that takes longer to produce has intrinsically higher artistic value. Simply that, as the listener will have almost certainly had to work harder to; be aware of the music, purchase it, and invest time understanding/absorbing it, a greater degree of significance might be placed of the physical object itself. How much nicer is a digipak CD to a jewel case, 180 gsm LP to standard, silkscreened sleeve to laser printed? It is entirely fetishistic, and I'm not suggesting that musical worth of the content is linked with how labour intensive/DIY the packaging, but its about added value to an object, the very antithesis of a download which has no value other than the binary approximation of the sound that was originally captured.

Oh, and Fred, in that case many of the artists championed on this site are wasting their time. Recently cassettes have been released by the likes of John Butcher, Lasse Marhaug, Derek Bailey, Thurston Moore, Tiger Hatchery, Wally Shoup…

Colin Green said...

Yes Mark, I think we’re largely singing from the same sheet. Your figures speak for themselves, although it’s interesting to know that there’s music that sells in even smaller quantities than most of the stuff reviewed on this blog.

Some additional thoughts. As I said, I can understand the value attached to having a particular object for one’s money, rather than a somewhat nebulous digital file. As physical objects, I prefer LPs to the horrible jewel cases and digi-packs for CDs. Nothing like an LP will seem to do for those classic Blue Notes with their wonderful photographs and typography: a true design classic. And I still buy quite a lot of music on vinyl, but usually only where a CD or download is unavailable. For example: I recently splashed out on wonderful New York Art Quartet’s “Call it Art”, which comes in a wooden box with a beautifully printed book, full of some truly fascinating discussions about the music and musicians. Most importantly, the music is simply glorious, endlessly provocative, and an offshoot of the New York free jazz scene of the early 1960s that has largely been overlooked and was only taken up (quite coincidentally) by John Stevens and others in Britain later in the decade. Photos here:

Having paid an arm and a leg for this set, I’m rather proud of it, resting against shelving containing utterly faceless CDs. But should I feel like this, and would I have paid substantially less for a digital download of CD quality or higher, had that option been available? I’d like to think the answer is “yes”. Although it’s entirely natural to have sentimental attractions to objects, the rational part of me thinks that I ought not to feel that way about something that is entirely coincidental to the value of what really counts, which is the music, and that I should listen as carefully to an album I’ve downloaded as a limited edition, artfully packaged LP. In other words: I should focus on musical objects, not material objects. And if that makes me sound like a rather precious, high-minded aesthete, you’ve probably got a point.

My thinking on this subject has also been changed by the recent acquisition of Sony’s HAP-Z1ES HDD player, with an internal hard disk, which by default upsamples digital files to DSD quality (the format developed by Sony for SACD). This produces some spectaular results, particularly with CD quality files, and it has involved me in ripping my CDs to my PC, which are then transferred over my home network to the Sony unit, which forms part of my hi-fi (Ripping CDs has also given new meaning to the word “tedious”.) This also has the advantage of being able to stack away in storage my wobbly piles of CDs. I can now use my iPad to search for music on a free application, which if you have a reasonably sized collection is a huge benefit. (There are other options for good quality playback of digital files: a laptop with DAC plugged into your music system – the “mac and dac” approach – or streaming to a music server using a UPnP server.)

I’ve purchased a few albums of late, and where possible have opted to download rather than purchase a CD. It’s slightly cheaper, and I’ve had to force myself to accept that the days of a music carrier you can hold in your hand are coming to an end. It will be interesting to see how this affects the music reviewed on this site, but in the popular music field, CD sales are definitely declining.

The result has been that I spent part of last weekend listening to some great music: digital files of good rips of long OOP vinyl (admittedly free) and the three most recent NoBusiness LPs, which have been playing in heavy rotation, hopefully to be reviewed on this blog.

AGM said...

Since you guys are the "Blog of Record" ;-), I thought I'd point out that it is Ches Smith not Chess Smith, as shown in heading for "Travis Laplante, Trevor Dunn & Chess Smith - Ancestral Instrument (NNA Tapes, 2014)."

Stephane said...

Hi Stef,
Be prepared. Our next releases will come on tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinders.
Not that you really matter, but... :)

Tommy said...

Bought a digital version (wav files) of the Laplante/Dunn/Smith recording and it's one of my favorite records of the year. Would never have found it if it wasn't for this blog. Much appreciated!


Fred Allen said...

Mark makes a kind of appeal to authority (or maybe hipness) with his comments on the artists who have used the cassette format. I like some of these artists. And reading this blog means I like this music. But using the cassette format means this obscure music is even less likely to be heard. I note in some cases this is just the physical form of what is actually download material. My fetishism for a physical object doesn't go that far. What next, reel-to-reel?

Fred Allen said...

Mark makes a kind of appeal to authority (or possibly hipness) with his list of artists who have used the cassette format. How dare I say these great artists sure wasting their time?

Now I like most of the artists mentioned. And I read this blog because I like this music. But using the cassette format just means this sadly obscure music is even less likely to be heard, for the reasons I mentioned. That's what I mean by wasting their time.

I realize in many cases the cassette is just the physical format for download material. I prefer physical formats myself, but I'm afraid my fetishism doesn't go that far.

We should all await the return of 8-track and reel-to-reel, however.

Fred Allen said...

I apologize for the double posts. I didn't think the first went through.

Mark said...

Fred, its neither "appeal to authority" nor "hipness", simply statement of fact. Even the most cursory of searches on Discogs will show the tens of thousands of predominately experimental & noise cassettes available. This has become the currency of these 'genres'. The use of format is almost certainly a deliberate ploy to demonstrate a stance opposed to mass production/mainstream media, or even a meta commentary about obsolescence.

Regardless, for those seriously interested in the below radar newness of an already underground music, dismissing recordings on the grounds of format prejudice seems counter intuitive. There is a really interesting crop of post-noise/experimental/improvising musicians using cassette to release music, it would be a shame to never hear them due to a aversion to a format.

Also, a large amount of recordings from any limited quantity format are often re-issued on CD/LP/DL if demand exists, or someone with the funds is interested. That foundation has to be established somewhere. As I outlined previously, there are financial considerations in play. Given that a market exists for cassettes within the community who are actively involved in creating/supporting this music, it would be errant to produce something that won't sell.

The 8-track/wax cylinder/reel-to-reel quips are all well and good, but like I said, what is really important here is the music, not the medium.

Primo Bruce said...

It's crazy how people generally think that the cassette tape, as a medium, sounds bad.
I'm listening right now to a well recorded ( pre-recorded ) tape right now and let me tell you that it sounds really good !
It all depends on the quality of your tape deck( with clean heads also ) and the medium itself. It's like vinyl , you can't compare an OG deep groove 60's Blue Note in NM condition to a " MP3- like " crappy pressing from a Walmart-like shop...

Some high grade type II cassettes ( Maxell XLII for example... ) sound amazing when recorded well !
I've recorded quite a few myself , I'd rather listen to an album in cassette than in digital.

The medium itself is full of charisma , adds "warmth" to a recording , the objet can be sexy , brings back nostalgia and is analogue .

Primo Bruce said...

It's crazy how people generally think that the cassette tape, as a medium, sounds bad.
I'm listening right now to a well recorded ( pre-recorded ) tape right now and let me tell you that it sounds really good !
It all depends on the quality of your tape deck( with clean heads also ) and the medium itself. It's like vinyl , you can't compare an OG deep groove 60's Blue Note in NM condition to a " MP3- like " crappy pressing from a Walmart-like shop...

Some high grade type II cassettes ( Maxell XLII for example... ) sound amazing when recorded well !
I've recorded quite a few myself , I'd rather listen to an album in cassette than in digital.

The medium itself is full of charisma , adds "warmth" to a recording , the objet can be sexy , brings back nostalgia and is analogue .