cool tapes i find and cassette related equipment.

Monday, August 12, 2013

how to buy a cassette deck

there are two principle reasons you'll want to own a cassette deck.
number one, there's a lot of great new music coming out on tape. tons of cool punk rock, bedroom lo-fi, noise, and just weirdo music in general is coming out on tape [and has been for many years depending on how you calculate]. examine burger records, and cassette gods for starters, and you'll see what i mean.
the second reason is, if you are a music fan of a certain age, you probably have a giant box of great tapes you made and bought that you aren't enjoying anymore. well, let's fix that. 

there are limited numbers of new units available online. that's going to be your safest bet of course. amazon has a double deck teac for 180 bucks. home unit. that one probably is fine. 

for your car, pioneer makes a cassette deck that costs about 120 bucks. brand new.

okay problem solved.

or, check this out. folks constantly give/send me decks that they aren't using. for some reason, cassette decks are like old instruments, cars, sailboats, motorcycles, shotguns and all kinds of stuff. if you are looking for one, chances are there's one laying around either in perfect working order, or in need of a very slight amount of care, for free! if you start looking, the universe will provide you with one. it's weird. i'd say, start by asking your music freak friends if they have a deck. you stand pretty good odds of someone just giving you one. other cool places to check are churches, masonic lodges, and radio stations. sometimes you can get really high-end tape decks for nothing because someone is "cleaning out the garage" or something.

another way of going about it, is to take the initiative to pick up a used one. advantages are greater selection, and lower price. disadvantage is that any machine over time is going to need some help [even if they sit unused], and that can get tricky. 

how to shop for a used one:

primarily these are the issues with used decks: 
a) drive belt. belts are made of rubber which, over time, sublimates and becomes brittle and/or breaks. it's most likely that any non-functioning deck has this problem. belts also will stretch and thus playback at a slower than normal speed 
b) dirty potentiometers and switches. this can cause a lot of bizarre output problems. 
c) pieces of tape or other effluvia stuck in the mechanism somewhere
d) dirty heads or heads in need of demagnetization  
e) bad motor. 
those are in order of rough probability. 

so if we are to go shopping for a used deck one of the main tools you can have is a nice cassette tape you are very familiar with, that you know the speed/tuning of the music. like a favorite record or something. that way you can instantly tell if something is wrong. it's pretty simple. if it won't play right, pass on that deck. if it plays back slow, you might can use it until you get it fixed or can do it yourself, if it sounds great, get it! [if you are really badass, record a tape on a super stable deck of a 440 hz tone for a minute or so. play this tape back in the used machine and use a guitar tuner to check the speed.]

a really simple evaluation procedure is to put your test tape in the used deck. make sure it's connected cleanly to an otherwise working amp and set of speakers. check that the deck forwards and reverses smoothly. check that sound comes out of left and right side. the little bay door opens nice and smooth. [i always hit the stop button in-between any transport change. easy on the machinery.] test the record function. the speeds should all be good.
if all that works, it's probably a safe buy. in a sense, that's all you need to know or do. if you want to get a little more adventurous, read on.

other fixable problems you may encounter are: 
-sound only coming out of one side [left or right only]. this is pretty common. see if it will play out of the headphone jack correctly. here is a quick test to perhaps fix. take a can of de-oxit with you. the non-conductive kind, in the old days it was called "tv tuner cleaner." spray a short blast into the headphone jack, if there is one. work a headphone plug in and out of there about 100 times. count them. this will usually fix it. [dust will build up through the plug opening and short it out in the receptacle, which can cut or degrade the signal to the main output, either totally or only on one side]. 
another thing you can try is to squirt some of the cleaner spray into the switches. sometimes they can cut things out or make things crackly or dead. sometimes you can take the little knobs off really easy and squirt the spray down into the pot as best you can. then work the switch or knob back and forth a bunch of times to distribute the chemical cleaner. obviously disassembling the unit is best, you can really get to all the cleaning spots better.
other causes can be a bad amp chip, or wiring stuff, which is best to stay away from. if the cleaner thing doesn't work, and you don't want to get into repairs and soldering and manuals, go find another one. 

-muffled sound. sometimes this can be caused by dirty heads. you can clean them with some cotton swabs and alcohol. be sure to swab in the direction of the tape travel and let it dry very well before playing a test tape. there's lots of videos and articles on how to do this simple procedure. also worn out heads can cause this, best pass on a deck with worn out heads. [the belt will wear long before the heads]. one way of determining this is just look at them. if the tape travel has worn giant tape shaped grooves in the headstack, keep moving and go look at another unit. 

-no power up. might be a bad power cable or fuse. 

all the stuff on this "other problems" list may take a little more effort and time to deal with and that may or may not fit into your trip. 

here's a list of things to take with you on a tape deck shopping trip:
a test tape of something you are really familiar with
a blank tape to test recording function
a pair of headphones to check that output
a can of deoxit 
tweezers in case there is a piece of tape stuck in the transport
magnifying glass or strong reader glasses to examine heads
small flashlight 

a little word about ebay. i've bought lots of units off there. and the deal is, it's a real crap shoot and the odds aren't so good in your favor. be prepared to work on the unit if you go this route, which i do not recommend for a casual user. you might get lucky and find something, but again it's dicey. sellers like to say on there, "i don't know if it works" which is seller lingo for, "this unit does not work." on one of the cassette forums i spend time on, we all got a good laugh about an ebay seller that said "i don't know if this works, i don't have a tape to test." but in the picture THERE WAS A TAPE IN THE WELL!!! hahaha. that said, there are some good buys on there but i'd research pretty hard and ask a lot of questions. stuff shows up on etsy too. of course craigslist. the nice things about shopping at pawn shops and goodwill, is that they have stuff you can hook the deck up to in order to test it. make sure the playback amp and speakers work though. isolate any problems. 

you know that scene in glengarry glen ross about always be closing? well always be looking for a good working tape deck. they don't really make them anymore so always be on the lookout. also always be on the lookout for a good stereo repair place. most guys won't even touch cassette decks. but sometimes you get lucky and find an old guy or someone that's cool that is interested and will work with you. most of the shops will either be rude to you, or keep your deck for an epoch [i've had repair guys keep things for more than a year]. to find someone nice and workable is a true blessing and they deserve your support. if you find someone good, be really good to them.