April 24, 2017 - John HadfieldRigid Cassette Tape and the "Squeak"
An unexpected problem with aging cassette tapes.
When was the last time you used Scotch tape? Remember how it felt? A brand new piece of Scotch tape feels pliable and relatively strong. But have have you seen a piece of Scotch tape that's 20+ years old? It feels rigid and brittle. All of the properties that made it feel like Scotch tape decades earlier are gone.
Well, audio tape goes through a similar transformation. As tape ages it tends to get rigid and even brittle (kinda like humans!). Often times it will even warp. If you look at the photo above you will see an example of a 30+ year old cassette tape that has lost its pliability and has developed a warp. This deterioration tends to make it play poorly.
Sadly, this is the eventual destination of all cassette tapes. Over time they will deteriorate and will eventually become unplayable either through breakage, shedding or the dreaded "squeak."
We have found over the years that tapes that have this rigid quality sometimes make a terrible squeaking noise. For some reason, as the tape passes between the play head and the pressure pad, it starts to squeak and whistle. Sadly, this noise transfers into the playback and the digital capture. The squeak is not only audible in the recording itself, you can hear the noise emanating from the machine! It resembles the soundtrack of a horror movie - not fun if you're here in the studio working late :) .
Sadly, there is little or nothing that can be done with the tape itself to remedy this situation. However, we have found that sometimes simply using a different machine will remedy the problem temporarily. For that very reason we have a number of different brands and models of tape decks on hand here in the studio. It's hard to believe, but sometimes a cheap consumer-grade Sony cassette deck will handle these problem tapes better than one of our professional Tascam players.
But no matter what, if you wait too long, nothing will work. So it's a good idea to digitize your tapes before they age anymore.