Whenever you have disposable cash in this day and age, you’ll likely find yourself browsing online stores on your phone at 2AM out of boredom. You’re looking for something that can momentarily spark your soul and give you something to look forward to in the meantime. When the package arrives, you get excited and unbox the thing; maybe you even record it on video for posterity. Perhaps you end up being disappointed because it didn’t live up to your expectations. But sometimes, your impulsive purchase ends up opening a whole new door in your life. The latter was what happened to me when I bought a cassette tape player on a whim.
I do listen to music, but I rarely talk about it due to lack of musical acumen and now spending more time listening to spoken word content in adulthood. You can take a look at my old Last.fm profile and see that the vast majority of my music listening was during the late 2000s, alongside the standup comedy albums of Bill Hicks. Nowadays, whenever I do listen to music, it’s usually lofi hiphop through YouTube or 2010s synthwave I got hooked on from playing the Hotline Miami series. The last band that got me hooked was Clutch.
Before that, I was a 20-something listening to a lot of Alice in Chains and Metallica, with Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan in between. I also had a classical phase, especially with Mozart’s Requiem. I’m sure if I had an office job, I’d have a Spotify or YouTube Premium subscription. I don’t because I’ve always worked at home, where I’m almost never bored out of my skull. But even on long commutes, I tend to listen to podcasts and documentaries instead. It’s only now in 2023 when I’m starting to rediscover music in the last place I ever dared to look.
It wasn’t with a lossless digital audio player, which I thought would blow my mind. It was with a China-made cassette tape player I ordered from Shopee. It’s not vinyl, but I’m starting to understand those hipsters who swear by listening to music through analog means.
What I’ve Learned with This Cassette Tape Player
It’s not an old Sony Walkman, which would be great if I can find one that still works. However, this tape player has a mini-USB port for audio capture. Plugging it into a computer turns it into an audio source that can then be recorded by a program like Audacity. In my case, I use Voicemeeter Potato, which is for advanced users who want full control of their audio devices.
While I can plug it into my computer and listen to tapes through my desktop speakers, that’s not the point. The player is best listened to with earphones, but I wasn’t going to use the included ones in the box. I happen to have a humble collection of Chi-fi in-ear monitors. Chinese hi-fi is a segment of the audiophile market that — as the name suggests — consists of IEMs made in China that are actually pretty good, but are sold at more budget-friendly prices.
While it’s anachronistic to use newer peripherals for older tech, I see that as a plus. I get more of the audio quality from the cassette itself. It’s similar to how vinyl hipsters hook up their turntables to high-end amplifiers and those tall hi-fi speakers that are worth more than the furniture the whole system resides in. It’s all about the “texture” of the music.
Aside from the differences in audio quality, there’s also how manipulating the physical media affects the listening experience, especially with the analog nature of magnetic tape. Aside from the sentimentality that comes with being able to hold it in your hand, look at the packaging, and insert it into the player with a satisfying click, there’s also what it does to the sound itself.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get into vinyl in the future, but I certainly caught the bug with cassettes. When I first pressed the play button to press the head onto the tape, it didn’t just start playing the music. It didn’t just “turn it on,” but it sounded and felt like it was brought to life.
Be Kind, Rewind
The one feature of cassette tapes that make its analog nature the most obvious is the need to rewind or fast forward if you want to skip to the previous or next song. I posit the notion that this is a feature, not a bug; an advantage, not a disadvantage.
If you’re jaded by music and have been unable to enjoy it like you used to, going back to an analog format like cassette or vinyl can help you rekindle your love for listening to music. By adding resistance to skipping or repeating tracks in an album, it makes you want to listen to the whole thing more like watching a movie at the theater.
This is what really did it for me. I have a bunch of cassettes left by my brother, who purchased them in the 90s when he didn’t yet know what to do with his money. He was purchasing stereos and music players to fill the void, which is how I learned how to use audio equipment.
By the way, that would somehow lead me to becoming Manila Wrestling Federation’s defacto sound guy. You never know how far even just a little bit of knowledge can take you.
The cassette I chose for my new tape player was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. It was perhaps one of the best music-listening experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I went through the A-side, and then the B-side. The player has a button that lets me play the other side without having to flip the cassette manually, which is convenient.
It got to Where Did You Sleep Last Night, the last track of the B-side, which is widely considered one of the band’s greatest ever live performances, and blew me away. I truly believe that if I listened to it digitally, I would’ve kept replaying All Apologies, one of my favorite Nirvana songs, and that last track wouldn’t have blown me away as much.
My Experience with Other Physical Media
Interestingly, I find it to be the opposite with books. A physical or digital book lets you look up the table of contents and skip through pages to glance at whatever chapter piques your interest. Meanwhile, even if it has a chapter feature, that’s more troublesome with an audiobook.
That resistance can make you have to go through the whole thing instead. Perhaps that’s no trouble if you’re listening to it on a commute or while walking the treadmill like a wannabe CEO. However, if you’re like me, a recluse surrounded by distractions in his own home, then it’s more of a commitment, much like listening to music on cassette tape.
Meanwhile, comparing between a physical book and a digital book, I still prefer the tangibility of paper pages. While the digital book format has features like hyperlinks, bookmarks, search, and so on, being able to sift through a book in your own hands is still pretty nice. I’d first get a digital copy, blast through it the first time, then consider buying a hard copy if I really like it.
If I’m reading for information, I’d have an audiobook or dictation narrating at 2x speed while I’m reading the text. It’s a method I picked up from one of those productivity channels on YouTube, which has been useful for trudging through tedious but informative text. I don’t need to employ that method if I’m reading for enjoyment. I’d even turn off the narration whenever I realize I’m actually enjoying the book, which has happened for me a couple of times.
Perhaps I’ll write more about my book-reading habits in a future blog post. I just thought it was interesting that the way I interface with music is somewhat the opposite of how I interface with books. It’s beneficial to experience both physical and digital formats of whatever medium you’re into; limiting yourself to one without significantly experiencing the other is foolhardy.
If I can be bothered, I’ll also write about my experience with digital audio players and lossless formats. The thing is I haven’t really listened to music over the past few years, which is sad because there are more methods and channels for music consumption than ever. While physical media has become more niche, they’re still out there.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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