First it was vinyl, but now it appears that analogue audio cassettes are set for an unlikely return as demand from the business and consumer market continues to surge.
Originally invented by Philips back 54 years ago (1964), the magnetic tape recording technology had all but disappeared, having been replaced by CD’s and digital technology.
However, according to figures, demand for the retro technology is now growing at pace (faster than vinyl) – particularly amongst music fans and the music industry.
In 2017, sales of cassette albums in the UK increased by 112 per cent year-on-year (20,000 sales), with around 80 artists, including the likes of Jack White, Taylor Swift, Embrace, Jay Z, Royal Blood, and Lana Del Rey choosing to release new music on the retro format.
Normandy based firm ‘RecordingTheMasters’ is a global leader in reel-to-reel tape manufacturing– a technology, which still remains a go-to choice for many recording artists, radio stations, the military and even NASA.
In 2015, the firm acquired magnetic strip and cassette manufacturing specialist Pyral – a company that has been in business for more than 30-years and a familiar consumer brand.
Jean-Luc Renou, who is the CEO of RecordingTheMasters' parent company Mulann SA, told AVTE there is a renewed affection towards cassette tapes from the public and the wider audio industry. However, whilst the demand is rising, access to tapes remains extremely limited, with him suggesting many being sold today have been sat on shelves for more than a decade.
“Many cassettes being sold out there today are at least 15-years old," said Jean-Luc. "But that stock is depleting and within three years, it will be all over. There will be no more stock left."
Seeing the opportunity, Jean-Luc revealed that RecordingTheMasters has now manufactured a new range of blank analog cassette tapes, which will be available to the market under the brand name 'FOX C-60' later this year.
Tapes have been created using the same "chemical formula" used for its HD quality reel-to-reel business, which is used by leading artist albums such as Jimmy Hendrix, Daft Punk and Jack White amongst others. Cassettes will provide up to an hour of recording time and “superior” levels of quality to traditional cassettes.
“It’s a niche market, a small market, but it’s growing," Jean-Luc explained. ”When I acquired Pyral, it was at a time when Vinyl was coming back and I felt there was something that could be done with audio cassette tapes. We felt there would be a comeback and we're really seeing that now. The audio cassette market is resurgent.
He continued: “Of course, no one knows how long the market will remain this way, but we know for sure, that for more than a year now, we have been seeing growing demand from the professionals to bring back the cassette tape.
"In the last trimester of this year, we plan to launch our blank cassette, which you will be able to buy in stores and make your own recordings. You can still find cassettes on eBay and other sites, but it's all old stock. Ours will be brand new and to a higher quality."
The right note
According to Jean-Luc, reaction to its cassettes from customers - which includes National Audio Company that works with record labels to produce audio tapes – the quality of its product has been hailed as the best ever made.
But is it better than a CD or an MP3? According to Jean-Luc, it’s not a debate worth having, stating both have their pro's and con's. Ultimately, it's about providing customers and the market with a choice.
“Today, analogue has a place in that world," said Jean-Luc. "It’s about the music experience. No, it’s not as perfect as digital or CD, but it is a warm sound. In many things, digital can do the job more efficiently, but when it comes to a music experience, people recognise vinyl produces a warmer sound, and cassette is part of it.
“Our tape today is at the level of the best ever made in the last 50-years. That’s why we wanted to bring it back as a new product, and it will not be a cassette from the old stock. It will be a brand new product.
“We just want to provide another choice. Some people find CD quality better, some find reel-to-reel better."
He added: “It’s like a fireplace and a heater. A fireplace is more complicated as you need to collect wood, put it together and light it. Why do people like it? Because it's warm and provides a different experience. Alternatively, you could have a simple to use heating system. You have the choice.”
Just how big the market will reach is not something currently being forecast – at least publicly.
It should also be noted there would need to be a dramatic shift in the wider industry to help facilitate the market in terms of actually providing a way of actually using them, with most tape deck equipped products only found in elderly folk homes or your local dump.
However, there are some optimistic signs from the market, with Toshiba, Tascam and Teac all announcing new audio products compete with a cassette deck this year.
"The growth over the past three years has been higher than vinyl, so it's growing space," said Jean-Luc.
As for price? Details are set to be announced in September or October, but Jean-Luc insists they will not reflect the higher costs associated with vinyl albums (when compared to CD's) sold today.
"We are finalising details on pricing," said Jean-Luc, wrapping up our discussion. "They will be much less than recorded vinyl, for sure. We are looking at and studying the market to make sure it's a good position."