Shrinking the Cassette Tape

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The original purpose of the standard cassette was to be used for
dictation, although it eventually became more common as a format for prerecorded
music. However, there were two other cassette formats that became the primary
choices for dictation due to their more compact size. They were the
microcassette and the mini-cassette. There was briefly even a third choice know
as the picocassette but failed miserably with consumers.

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 picocassette.

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 own 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 record 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 half to one quarter the standard speed which allows the
microcassette a similar length of recording time. The microcassette tape itself
is actually 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 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 covert 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.

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 really wasn’t a concern. In fact, the design of the mini-cassette
is actually 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 picocassette recorder cost several
hundred dollars.  Tapes were $6
each.  The device lasted approximately 6
months on the market before being discontinued. 
For all intents and purposes 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 increaseFeature Articles, analog
technology continues to decline in use as digital technology grows more
prominent with each passing year. 

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