If you ever made – or listened to – a mixtape, please press the pause button for a few moments to mark the passage of Lou Ottens, the engineer who oversaw the development of the cassette tape.
The one-time head of product development at Philips Electronics, Ottens, 94, passed away in the Netherlands on Saturday, according to the NRC Handelsblad newspaper. He oversaw the creation of the cassette recorder as an alternative to cumbersome reel-to-reel tapes.
The music recording and playback format, which hit its peak in the ’80s, led to ubiquitous portable music listening – it was smaller and more convenient than 8-tracks – and endless sharing of mixtapes among friends and romantic partners, both present and potential.
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The magic of mixtapes
When I moved from the Kansas City area in the late ’80s, the arrival in my mailbox of an alternative rock mixtape from my partner in music geekdom, Tim, was always a welcome treat. His mixtapes introduced me to bands such as The Feelies and Guadalcanal Diary; I submitted Son Volt.
And I remember painstakingly creating 90-minute cassette recordings of my favorite songs for my soon-to-be wife, Julie, to play in her Honda station wagon and on the boombox in her condo.
It was always important to curate the songs properly and give the mix a snappy and thoughtful – or humorous – title, such as “For a Sentimental Lady” or “Wild Night is Calling.”
Evidently, mixtapes maintain a place in many music lovers’ hearts. When I asked some friends on Facebook if they had any mixtapes and would take pictures of them, I was overwhelmed. Looking at them “is like a ’90s time capsule,” one said.
In a nodto the mixtape legacy, today we create them on Spotify or your streaming service of choice and canshare themacross the world in seconds. (Here’s one I created a while ago: Songs About and Played on the Moon.)
Early on in the development process, Ottens carried in his coat pocket a cigarette case-sized block of wood, the form and size he wanted the cassette to embody, Olga Coolen, director of the Philips Museum, told USA TODAY.
Originally designed for voice recording, cassette recorders and players expanded into home and car stereo components, and portable devices including Sony’s Walkman, which was introduced in 1979 and went on to sell 186 million units.
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Music lovers with a cassette deck could work all kinds of magic. Some of my favorite albums of all-time including Pink Floyd’s The Wall, were first heard as I recorded them off an FM radio station. For free! And when I inevitably bought it on vinyl, I immediately recorded it onto a cassette tape to preserve a pristine copy. Of course, I repurchased “The Wall” on CD, and high-res Blu-ray Disc, but that’s another story.
The arrival of dual cassette decks let you record from one to another, easing the ability of copying your mixtapes. That’s one way that bootleg cassettes and live recordings became viral.
Since tapes could often hold an album on each side, you could put, for instance, The Cars’ 1978 debut album on one side and follow-up “Candy-O” on the other – or all of a double album such as Parliament-Funkadelic’s “Live: P Funk Earth Tour” or Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” on one tape.
The real reel on cassettes
Of course, cassettes had their drawbacks. Tape occasionally popped out of the openings, but you could usually use a pencil to rewind it back in. Worse was when it would clog in your cassette player. When you finally freed it, the wrinkled tape was often unplayable.
Remember seeing those cassettes on the side of the road, spitting spaghetti servings of rumpled, ruined music? The frailty of cassettes – and the rarity of the personal mixtape – made them all the more precious.
The success of the cassette, which sold more than 100 billion worldwide, surprised its creator. “We knew it could become big, but could have never imagined it would be a revolution,” Ottens said, according to a quote given from the Philips Museum.
Coolen noted that the cassette recorder helped musicians, too, reminding that Keith Richardsof the Rolling Stoneswoke up one morning to find the essence of the song “Satisfaction” on his tape recorder, along with some snoring.
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Cassettes endure. While the format may not be experiencing the boom that vinyl records have had in the last decade or so, many bands and artists still sell cassettes at live shows – when can we see some live music? – and on their merchandise sites including Bandcamp.
A man of vision, Ottens knew consumers would always need new musical formats. So that’s why he went on to help create the Compact Disc.
Share your favorite mixtape memories with Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.