Book Review: High Bias (The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape)

High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape

Marc Masters’ expansive exploration of the birth and continued surprising life of cassette tapes for music, for sharing, for documenting a scene or a life, for remix and more, is a fascinating exploration of a media format that was once ubiquitous (mostly, thanks to the Sony Walkman) but is now finding space in creative corners of the collecting world.

High Bias (The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape) covers a lot of ground, from the invention of the pocket-sized recording/listening objects to the world of mix-tapes, and the book is loaded with lots of interviews with the world of tape cassette collectors.

Masters gives the tape format its due, celebrating the ways that the tape cassette freed listeners to make their own albums of recorded materials, allowed them to share their passions with others, provided independent musicians a chance to record on the cheap (thanks in part to the emergence of inexpensive four-track cassette recorders), and brought World Music and musical oddities to the ears of listeners that would have otherwise been out of earshot, because the large music companies would have ignored the music and sounds.

As I was reading the book, my mind kept heading towards my basement and bedroom closet, where I still have boxes of tapes of my own song recorders from decades ago, and I even have a four-track recorder in the house and at a tag sale, I picked up a little cassette player that works (I never use it but I have it). My tapes are probably degraded at this point in time, but I can’t seem to toss them out — the tapes, even in physical format, represent a part of me, an emotional element of a time in my life when recording on cassette tape was central to my sense of self.

This emotional response to cassette tapes is something Masters explores in his book, and tapes are so unlike CDs and digital files and streaming. The physical aspect — the pocket-sized object — is an emotional anchor to many. Add in the element of making and receiving mix-tapes from others (which seems so different from digital playlists), and you have a resonance that continues to this day, in some circles.

That’s a good thing, in my opinion, even if the world of cassette tapes is now small, just like the object it celebrates.

Peace (recording it),

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