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What is a Cassette Tape?

Hand-held cassette players were first introduced by Sony in the 1980s.
A standard audio cassette.
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  • Written By: G. Melanson
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 April 2014
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Also known as an “audio cassette,” “compact cassette,” or “tape,” the cassette tape is a recording format that was most commonly sold during the late 1970s through the early 1990s, often featuring prerecorded music. Its immediate predecessors include the 8-track cartridge or “stereo 8" and the 12-inch vinyl LP or “record.” The compact disc (CD) replaced the cassette as the dominant prerecorded music format in the 1990s, while the MP3 and other types of audio files have taken over as the most popular music formats in the new millennium.

The cassette tape got its name from the French word cassette, which translates to "little box.” Rectangular in shape, this type of tape is made up of two spools of magnetically coated tape at its center. It was first manufactured by Phillips in the 1960s for the purposes of audio recording, and became mass-produced under the name musicassette, or “M.C.,” in Germany by 1964. After undergoing several upgrades to improve its sound quality and functionality during the 1970s, the format soared in popularity during the 1980s with the introduction of hand-held cassette players such as the Walkman® by Sony.

The introduction of the cassette tape into mainstream society was revolutionary in music recording, allowing people to record their own music easily and cheaply at home without the use of reel-to-reel audio recording equipment. Because of this, most pre-recorded music cassettes featured “write-protection” tabs, which protected the tape from being recorded over, and sparked the rise of blank ones sold for commercial use.

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Despite being overtaken in popularity by the CD in the late 1990s, the cassette remains a more durable recording format that is resistant to the same sound interference caused by dust particles that plague the CD. The features of the CD, however, outnumber that of the tape, including the ability to play music at the beginning of a selected track without the need to fast-forward or rewind, higher sound quality, and ease of recording from one prerecorded format to a blank one, referred to as “burning” a CD or “dubbing” a tape.

Prerecorded music cassettes can still be found for sale at certain music retailers, most notably in bargain bins. They are often sold at drastically discounted prices.

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