Tapes, Film, and Vinyl May Never Be Mainstream Again

We’ve forgotten how to make them

Key Takeaways

  • We’ve lost the know-how to make high-end parts.
  • When big record labels got back into vinyl, the system collapsed. 
  • Tascam has announced a new line of tapes for its Portastudios.
shallow focus photography of a black vinyl player

Jace & Afsoon / Unsplash

Old media like cassette tapes, vinyl, and photographic film are more popular than they’ve been in years. But a full resurgence is impossible because we’ve lost the skills to mass-produce them all. 

Tascam just announced it will start making cassettes again, for use in its iconic Portastudios. These were small recording and mixing desks for home musicians, recording up to four tracks onto a standard cassette. This led to some speculation that Tascam might also make a new line of cassette-based Portastudios. They would probably sell as well as any other niche music device, but getting the parts would be hard, or maybe even impossible.

"In the process of making [our] film, we used working reel-to-reel tape recorders we found on eBay, in addition to researching extensively the timelines of both 8-track and cassette tapes," veteran indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish told Lifewire via email. 

"But as we're finding out with our upcoming soundtrack release, there's far more demand for vinyl than the production capacity can serve. Between the scarcity of vinyl printing plants, and the overall supply chain issues hitting the economy, estimates are that even small-batch vinyl runs can take six months to a year of lead time."

Supply Chain

To understand the problem, imagine trying to build a computer from scratch. When Apple or Dell wants some RAM for their latest laptop, they order it from a RAM manufacturer. These manufacturers in turn are constantly improving their tech, making RAM that’s faster, smaller, and more reliable. This is the same in any tech market. A complex series of interlocking parts needs to come together to make anything. 

Tascam cassette tapes on a black background

Tascam

Now, with cassette players, the important part is the recording/playback head. They’re still produced—you can buy a cheap tape deck today on Amazon—but the innovation ended years ago. The available units are all low-end models. For Tascam to build a Portastudio, it’d have to kickstart an entire industry sector, for a product that will sell only to deep-pocketed enthusiasts.

And even Tascam’s new tapes resort to 3D printing for some of the components. 

The Vinyl Paradox

Even when the technology is still available, old media relies on consumables. Record players are still being made, with new, high-end models appearing regularly enough. The problem here is making the records, the vinyl itself. Only a few factories around the world can make them, whereas it used to be just another supply industry. When a fire destroyed the Apollo/Transco factory, which manufactured the lacquer discs required to make vinyl records, it left behind one other supplier, MDC, based in Japan.

"... estimates are that even small-batch vinyl runs can take six months to a year of lead time."

At the same time, we have global supply chains being disrupted. We’ve all heard about the chip shortage that meant no Nintendo Switches under the Christmas tree last year, but it’s impact can be felt everywhere. Kodak and other photographic material manufacturers have increased prices of film several times in the last couple of years.

"It’s not commonly known that the transition [from film] to digital cameras was greatly hastened by the level-9 tsunami that struck Japan in 2011," Tristan Olson, of video production company Venture, told Lifewire via email. "Prior to this event most of the High-Definition tapes produced by Sony were based in Fukushima, Japan. Left without any supply, Hollywood was forced to transition to digital cameras such as the RED and Arri Alexa cameras nearly overnight."

The Danger of Success

Even this level of precarity can work. The buyers of vinyl, cassettes, and camera film are almost all enthusiasts. We’re not in it for the low prices or the convenience. A raise in cost or a drought is acceptable, if annoying. 

But there’s another danger, as illustrated by the paradox of vinyl. 

It might seem like pressing a record is the simplest thing. It’s just a plastic disk, after all. But the expertise required to make them, as well as the raw material, like the lacquer disks that perished in the Apollo/Transco fire, are rare.

All was fine when it was only indies making vinyl releases, but then the big labels got in on the act. When Warner, Universal, and Sony all took their business to the US-based Direct Shot Distributing, a sorting and shipping company for CDs and vinyl, it collapsed. There are tales of packages arriving packed with carwash and cough syrup, instead of CDs and records. 

Hope

There’s some hope, however. Although not explicitly stated, if you follow the world of film photography, it seems clear that both Fujifilm and Kodak are committed to manufacturing photo materials; Germany’s ORWO, for example, just announced a new B&W film; French company RecordingTheMasters makes an excellent cassette tape. 

In many ways, it’s better that such retro media remains a strong niche, rather than going mainstream.

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