Q: I love vinyl and want to capture that ‘analog sound’ — will I get that if I record my synthesizer to a cassette recorder?

A: The characteristic ‘sound’ (complex of deviations from accurate signal, aka, distortion) imposed by the cassette format is very different from that created by vinyl transcription.

While a good grooved disc can do a pretty good job with regard to fidelity (accuracy), at least within certain parameters — and, no doubt there are those who seek out those characteristics, preferring them over objectively less distorted, higher fidelity transcriptions — the state of the art vinyl record’s main divergences from fidelity are: random noise in the form of surface noise, scratches, dust, etc, as well as the basic, always-running sound of stylus-in-groove (drop the needle in a ‘blank groove’ with the volume at an ‘active listening’ level and see what you hear), as well as various forms of intermodulation distortion produced by both record wear and mechanical imperfections or design flaws in pickups, motor noise and or bass feedback rumble (the stereo becomes a resonant system with bass frequencies being transmitted from speakers through floors and cabinetry back to the pickup, which is why high end turntables put so much effort into anti-vibration/shock mounting), and finally, while the fidelity at the outside of the groove can be high and frequencies quite extended, by the time you get to end of a record side, the stylus-in-groove speed is much slower, higher frequency response has diminished greatly and because the diameter of the inner groove is so much tighter, dynamic levels must be watched carefully or various forms of distortion will become problematic. Oh, and don’t forget lack of stereo separation, with separation between channels typically between 25 to 40 dB. And, in lesser turntables, throw in fast and slow speed variations: wow and flutter.

While the grooved record was the best mainstream delivery medium of the analog era, pre-recorded reel tapes offered some arguable advantages but were fraught with tradeoffs: they were expensive and consumers balked at threading tape machines (??? — but they did!), and good decks were plenty expensive. (Add to that good tape was far from cheap.) And they were far from immune to their own pernicious form of noise: hiss. Still, with wide enough tracks and high enough speed, they could carry a decent signal. (Tape/capstan flutter was still an issue, but record scratches weren’t. Unfortunately, record scratches were ‘replaced’ by the tendency of magnetic tape to shed the ‘active’ oxide layer — where the magnetic signal is stored — from the backing, letting your signal flake off slowly — and sometimes not so slowly.)

The cassette was introduced first as a portable format — voice and tape letters were the big selling point. Through the 60s, different attempts to get tape into cars had supplanted the goofy lover’s lane phonographs that some folks mounted under their dashes. (You couldn’t drive with them running. The needle would skip to hell and back.) ‘Endless’ tape carts like those used in broadcasting were employed, leading to commercial car decks like the 4 and 8 track models that dominated the end of the 60s. Around that time, a move was made to bring ‘high fidelity’ to the cassette. Sony was one of the first makers to bring out a ‘hi fi’ cassette deck. It cost $600 back in ’69 (equivalent to around $3800 today). And it sounded AWFUL. The flutter made it sound like it was running through a cheap guitar chorus pedal just about. There was almost no high frequency response.

Cassettes definitely got much, much better, but they were always limited in their frequency response and accuracy (at both ends of the frequency spectrum), slathered in hiss, and beset by lingering speed issues in the form of flutter, which was particularly bad because of the low speed of the tape and the tiny circumference of the capstans — meaning that even micro-tiny imperfections in the mechanism could be ‘magnified’ into relatively noticeable speed problems.

Now, of course, we know that many ‘lo fi’ enthusiasts like cassettes for many of those perceived negatives: they’re looking for ways of ‘mangling’ the sound and imparting a distant-in-time-or-space sort of vibe. And that’s fine, particularly for those aware of the issues. They grew up with clean, relatively high accuracy signals and they’re bored with them. I get it. Just as, hopefully, they get it that I grew up trying to squeeze accurate signal out of analog media like vinyl records and tape and, so, have been delighted to finally have that fidelity delivered by modern recording systems and media.

Now… as someone who recorded a lot of analog synths to a lot of analog tape in the 1980s, I have to say that I, personally, prefer to get — as a baseline — more or less the sound that came out of the synth. That really didn’t happen until I got my first DAT machine around 1990. Me, I did not like the sound of the synths I was working on to get mangled by the recording medium. But, that’s me. Not you. Not anyone else. Everyone must ultimately find their own way.