Good Listening: How To Make Cassette Recordings For Holiday Parties (Glamour, December 1979)
Image from a 1980 ad for Technics.
Being that it's New Year's Eve and all, what kind of party would there be without a good mixtape? Nowadays, we stream it on Spotify or iTunes, and it's all in the cloud, but back in the day, we bought blank tapes. Here's an article transcribed from the December 1979 issue of Glamour to guide you in the right direction. After all, cassettes were fairly a new technology nearly 40 years ago.
How To Make Cassette Recordings For Holiday Parties
Good food , good friends and good music all seem to come together during the holiday season, and ideally you'll be able to relax and enjoy them all without having to decide "What record should I play next?" every fifteen minutes. One ver convenient way to take care of the music ahead of time is to make a few ninety-minute cassette tapes early in December. Then when friends drop in unexpectedly, or you have a dozen people over for wine, cheese and a roaring fire in the fireplace, you'll pop your cassettes into your cassette player and sit back for forty-five minutes of nonstop music. All you'll do while your guests are there is turn the cassette over to play the other side, or snap in a new cassette. And if your car is equipped with a cassette player, you can listen to your own custom sounds while you drive.
The easiest way to make a cassette recording is to transfer music from records to tape. What you'll need is a record player, a cassette recorder that's hooked into your sound system, a supply of blank tape, and a selection of records that you want to record.
What you should know about blank tape
When you buy your blank tape you should keep a few things in mind:
1. Tape generally comes in forty-five sixty- and ninety-minute lengths. You record half of your program material on one side and half on the other side. That means you get twenty-two and a half minutes per side on the ninety-minute tape.
2. You should avoid the three for $1 "bargain" tapes, and look for name-brand products by such manufacturers as TDK, Maxell, Scotch, Fuji, BASF and Sony. You want to be able to rely on your cassette to operate without a hitch time and time again. No snags, no snarls, no breaks - especially not in the middle of your fireside party! You can count on the quality of the brands we mention - the reliability of the 59¢ no-name tapes is open to question, at best!
3. You'll find a wide variety of available brand-name tapes, and the tape that's right for you depends a lot on the needs and capabilities of your tape machine. Just as some cars are engineered to be fed regular gas, while others require premium gas, tape machines are engineered for particular types of tape. Consult the owner's manual that came with your tape machine and talk with your favorite dealer to get some recommendations about tapes.
The mechanics of recording
Once you've decided what you want to put on tape, and in which order you want to record your selections, you're ready to set up the cassette machine.
1. Turn the cassette machine power switch on.
2. Set the Dolby noise reduction switch on.
3. Set the tape selector switch to the position that corresponds with the type of tape you'd selected to use. You'll find that most tapes are marked to indicate which chemical formulation of magnetic materials was used to make the tape, and that your tape selector switch is also keyed to two or three tape formula options. Once you've chosen a tape that will work well with your machine (Normal/LH, FeCr, CrO₂ are common types), the tape selector switch (on some machines you'll find bias and EQ switches that perform the same function as the single tape selector switch) allows you to find-tune the machines performance with the specific type tape you're using.
4. Set the mode selector on your receiver to phono.
5. Depress the record button, the play button and the pause button simultaneously.
6. Things over your program selections and use the loudest segment as a "test pattern" to set the proper recording level. To do this, you play the "test pattern" segment of the record on the record player just as you usually do when playing a record. As you do so, watch the needles of the two level meters (or the glowing red indicators called L.E.D.'s that come on some of the newer machines). One will monitor the level of the right channel, the other will indicate what's happening on the left channel level control knobs (sometimes separate, sometimes concentric) to adjust the recording level so that the needles get as close as possible to the level that's indicated as "O-VU" without going above it into the overload zone marked with red numerals, +3, +10, etc.
The idea is to record at as high a level as possible without overloading the tape during the loudest passages. At the overload level, the tape is unable to store and reproduce your music accurately. (instead, it produces distorted music.) If you record at too low a recording level during the quiet passages, you'll hear that annoying "shhhhhh" sound known as tape hiss. Once you've found the ideal middle-of-the-road level (using the loud passages as testing material), you can basically leave the level adjustments alone for the rest of your recording session and now you're ready to record the tunes you have selected for your cassette.
7. Insert your blank cassette into your recorder. Lower your tone arm at the begging of the selection you want to record, and release the pause button just after the stylus finds the record groove. This order of events ensures that you won't record the brief "clunk" sound that you hear as the stylus meets the surface of the disc.
As the stylus reaches the end of the selection you're recording, get ready to press the pause button to stop the recording process. Once you've pressed the pause button, lift the tone arm off the record. Record a few seconds of silence by releasing the pause button for a few seconds. Then get set with the next disc you plan to record, and repeat the recording process.
Naturally, it's easiest to record an entire side to a record at a time - but you can also create a mood by mixing up songs from different records and arranging them in the order that pleases you, acting as your own "program director." That's where the mechanical part of recording fades into the background and the art of recording begins. Smooth transitions from song to song that build on each other and then gradually fade are achieved through savvy, imagination and just a bit of luck.
Have fun during your afternoon of recording - and then sit back and enjoy the results of your efforts the next time friends drop by.