extreme tape manipulation of cassettes and reel to reel

Cassette Tape Destruction
aka Extreme tape manipulation!

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extreme close up of tape threaded through the paper clip

Make sure the tape stays within the shell at all times. You want it firm, but not so tight that it breaks.

cassette leader loop

The tape can easily flip, which is bad, and will be very hard to repair (see side bar to the left because it is probably still useable). Work slowly and stay focused.

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Tape Destruction

Make it your new friend. The amazing audio cassette. Symbol of the '80s. Simple, portable, recordable, fun. It's a dead format now (just about anyway), replaced by the CD-R and mp3, but that doesn't mean we can't still put it to good use.

Before we begin, this is an audio example of extreme tape destruction at it's finest tapedest03.mp3

Here's what went into making the above recording:
- record audio onto the cassette (in this case a 4 track recorder was used); audio used was ambience from a store and circuit bent instruments.
- use 6 complete passes of tape destruction (see below for how to do this)
- erase all 4 tracks on the tape
- 2 more passes of tape destruction
- enjoy the results :-)

You should now be hearing a garbled mess. Tiny amounts of the original recording remain, but with a twist. This is because the tape has been stretched, particles have been lost, it's crinkled which causes parts of the tape to lose contact with the heads, while others drag across too much. Wow and flutter is greatly exaggerated. All of this happens as the tape is played - which may cause premature aging to your cassette player (see disclaimer below).

Disclaimer: Tape destruction is easy and fun. However, it does take a bit of skill, patience and practice to make it work correctly. Playing damaged cassettes may cause premature wear and tear on your tape machines. Oh, and you'll render your cassettes unusable for normal things afterward. So, be prepared to break things. If you have questions or comments, please email me: mike@regurgitron.com
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A Quick Primer. Cassette tapes make great effects. Prone to distortion, dropouts, and hiss, and offering a limited bandwidth, they can really mess up a good signal all by themselves. But what happens when you record something to a perfectly good tape and then damage that very tape? Well, the "messed up" signal gets way more "messed up".

A Unique Combination of Effects: Damaging and destroying your cassettes will greatly increase all of the wonderful characteristics that tape already offers such as: wow and flutter (a kind of garbling sound from speed changes from the stretched and wrinkled tape), distortion, dropouts (big time - and oh, so unpredictable) from the magnetized particles loosened, loss of frequency (variable - depending on the amount of damage) mostly in the high end, loss of volume (related to dropouts except that it lasts for much longer), a lovely 'crunch', and more freaky stuff! Because of the unpredictable and random nature of damaging a physical medium (tape) it's probably impossible to accurately "model" these effects using digital means (DSP).

Audio examples of tape destruction in action:
Here is a dry recording of a Roland TR-606 drum machine direct to cassette to give you a basic idea.

the original recording to cassette without processing

same recording with a single 'pass' of damage

recording with second 'pass' of damage, plus reduction of low end frequencies to compensate for high end loss.

Let's get started destroying some tape! You'll need a few things: one cassette tape - shorter lengths work better (more on why in a minute), a medium sized paper clip, a pair of tweezers or something to use to shuttle the tape. Note below how the paper clip is slightly bent. This makes it easier to run the tape through it. If you can't swipe a pair of tweezers from your wife (like I did), then use a pencil or something similar that will fit in the sprokets of the tape and that you can comfortably use to wind the tape and keep tension.

tools for our tape destruction

Shorter length cassettes work much better. If you can grab 5 - 10 minute cassettes, that's your best bet. I've done it with 60 minute tapes (and I love TDK D-60s), but by only using a minute or so near the beginning. Why? Here's why: as the tape is damaged it becomes crinkled and won't lay flat when you wind it back. A few minutes worth of crinkled tape will stack and can jam within the cassette shell rendering your new project useless.

You've got your tools and now you're ready to record. Using a standard cassette deck or 4 track, record something (music, drum loops, vocals, guitars, synths, entire mixes, whatever). DO NOT USE NOISE REDUCTION we want all the high end that we can keep. When you're done recording, rewind the tape to the beginning and take it out of the recorder.

Pull a small section of the tape leader out, make sure it does not flip. Thread the paper clip around the loop until the tape is inside of the clip (that's why the paper clip in the picture above has been slightly bent to offset itself).

Advanced Tape Destruction.

So, you've screwed up your tape - broke it, trashed the shell, whatever.... Don't worry! All it takes is a reel to reel machine. One that you can get at the tape path pretty easily. You don't even need the reels and the tape machine doesn't even have to work well. You can pick one up on ebay or a flea market for next to nothing. Just make sure the machine powers up and that the capstan (the thin round metal "rod" that turns is turning).

Even loose tape will work. Feed the tape through the tape path of the machine making sure that it contacts the heads. Hit PLAY, the capstan and pinch roller should "grab" your tape and begin to pull it. If the tape is in contact with the play head, you'll know because you'll hear it. I've done this with cassette tape (even battered and torn up tape) micro cassette, and 1/4" tape all on the same machine. I'll put up audio samples and pictures soon.

Why I like 4 track recorders for tape destruction.

Standard cassette recorders work great for tape destruction. But why stop with stereo when we can have 4 tracks. If you don't have access to a cassette 4 track recorder, grab one from a friend or surf eBay for a deal.

I was able to get a Tascam Porta Two on eBay for $75 that works great.

4 tracks mean that you can add more layers of audio or play the tape backwards. Since the tape is damaged, it may not properly align with the tracks it was originally recorded to. You'll get some bleed that may not be reproduced by a stereo cassette player.

Be careful with old tape.

So you've scored a nice collection of cassettes that date back to the early '80s. They look like they've had hundreds of abusive plays and spent many a day in a scorching hot car. Great. But be careful. All of that 'natural aging' will make the tapes brittle and very delicate - so be very gentle when you 'process' your old cassettes.

Experiment, have fun, and enjoy.
Once the tape is properly threaded through the paper clip, use your tweezers to slowly wind the tape forward past the leader. Press with your thumb and fingers against to tape where it meets with the paper clip. Be careful, too much pressure will break the tape. A little pressure goes a long way. Now pull the tape using the paper clip. Allow the tape to travel through the clip, but with some resistance from your fingers and thumb. You will feel it crinkle and stretch. Wind the crinkled slack into the reel within the shell. Work slowly and keep the tape from flipping. If your tape breaks, you can splice it back with common household sticky tape, but be careful not to flip the tape and trim any excess sticky tape from your splice.

Once you've damaged all of your musical selection, rewind the tape and play it back. If that's not enough destruction for your tastes, then try the process again from the beginning. You'll have to be even more careful at this point because the tape is even weaker and more prone to flipping or breaking.

cassette tape with leader loop ready for analog destruction

You can use prerecorded tapes (they're great to practice with), but remeber that copyright laws are still in effect and you could be liable if you decide to use someone elses samples.

cassette loop being pulled with paper clip
That's pretty much it. As I've said before, tape destruction takes patience and practice. Once you develop some proficiency with it, you'll be able to create a whole wealth of effects for your music. In a short time, you'll be digging through old attic boxes, flea market piles, and dumpsters in search of your next cassette to destroy. Have fun and email me with your feedback.

What inspired me to damage perfectly good cassette tapes?

Just about everybody has had this happen to them: you pop in your favorite cassette and hit "play". Everything's fine for a while and then suddenly, your music comes to a grinding halt. The player stops and you can't get it to start again. Let's say that you're lucky and you can get your cassette out of the machine without breaking the tape. A quick look shows that just an inch or so of the tape seems to be damaged - crinkled and stretched a little. OK, you put the tape into another machine and it plays, but when that one little damaged part runs over the play head, you get a quick garbled mess sandwiched between the normal program material.

Of course, this has also happened to me. But, for some reason, I had an idea which was "what if the whole tape sounded like that garbled mess part?". Since I'm into circuit bending, noise, and other experimental music, this idea wasn't too out of my ordinary. But, how do I get a tape machine to "eat" an entire tape and still be able to play back the "eaten" tape so that I can use the processed sounds?

The process that I describe above is the result of my inspiration and experiments on "how to make the whole tape sound like that garbled mess part".

Any questions or comments? Email me: mike@regurgitron.com

Michael Oster
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Update: 10/21/2010

I've made a processor in Reaktor that sounds a lot like tape destruction. It takes whatever audio goes in and disintegrates it. You can hear the example in the podcast below DLC-142.
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podcast icon "Difficult Listening Channel - 142 - A Beautiful Disintegration or: How I Destroyed Your Prized Cassettes and Became Huge in Japan." Another one of my Reaktor creations. This time its and audio processor meant to disintegrate whatever goes in. Sounds kind of like a ruined tape with a little extra.

show release date 10-21-2010

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