Lou Ottens and the Cassette Tape

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In March 2021, Dutch engineer Lou Ottens passed away at the age of 94. Who’s that? Well…Ottens is credited for leading the team that invented the compact cassette tape – which of course allowed music to go mobile. Here’s the story…

The reel-to-reel recorder/player, using magnetic tape technology, first was marketed in 1935, and over the years, improvements were made to enhance sound quality and portability of the players. However, very little pre-recorded music was marketed to consumers. Rather, original recordings were made on magnetic tape, and then transferred to vinyl records.

In 1960, Ottens was appointed head of product development for the Dutch firm Royal Phillips, working at their facility in Belgium. Within a couple of years, his team had developed the first portable reel-to-reel recorder, and over one million units were sold. The company then challenged Ottens to develop a design for a magnetic tape cartridge that used thinner and narrower tape. They originally planned to work on a prototype that RCA had developed, but the dimensions and tape speed did not meet the criteria they wanted. Ottens started his design by cutting a block of wood that would fit into his pocket. 

By the summer of 1963, the finished design was presented at the Berlin Radio trade show, and within a year, the tradename “Compact Cassette” was given to the product. Needing the support of lower cost Japanese electronics manufacturers, Phillips and Sony came to an agreement that allowed Sony access to the technology at no cost. This breakthrough led to the Phillips design to become dominant over competitive designs that were developed by other tech companies.

The initial market for cassettes was for dictation machines, not for music. The usage of cassettes for pre-recorded music did not reach the market until late 1965 in Europe and mid 1966 in the U.S. The initial offering of music was a library of 49 titles. At that time, pre-recorded 8-track tapes were available, and some automobile companies were installing 8-track players in their high end cars. By the late 60s, 8-track tape players were common in cars, and home players were gaining popularity. They were preferred over cassettes because the sound quality was better.

That changed in 1971 when tape innovation and Dolby noise-reduction technology was combined to enhance the sound quality. This, along with the convenience and portability of cassettes, started the demise of the 8-track. The peak of sales for 8-track tapes was in 1978 – by 1982, retail outlets were discontinuing sales of them.

By the late 70s and early 80s, innovation made cassettes a cultural phenomenon – specifically, the Boom Box and the Sony Walkman. This made it cool to listen to cassette tapes in public. With the approach of the 90s, pre-recorded music on cassettes had overtaken vinyl records in sales.

Alas, another innovation would soon make the cassette obsolete – the Compact Disc, using digital data. The first commercial CD player was introduced by Sony in 1982. By the mid-90s, electronic skip protection was used on the players, and this was the game changer. In 1990, 442 million pre-recorded music cassettes were sold in the U.S. In 2007, the number had dropped to 274,000. Most music companies stopped offering cassettes by 2003.

As the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers got older and more nostalgic, there was some renewed interest in cassettes in the mid 10s. Pop culture helped, with the popularity of the film franchise Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured songs on cassette from the late 60s and 70s. Indie artists began to offer cassettes for sale. In 2018, 219,000 pre-recorded music tapes were sold, up 35% from the previous year. The largest tape manufacturer in the U.S. is National Audio Company. Here’s a short video from 2015 on NAC and their manufacturing process. There also is some discussion about how analog cassette tapes are making a comeback. And, if you want to here a little music, I’ve included a music video by the EDM duo Cazzette – their 2013 single Beam Me Up, which features lots of cassettes in the video. Yes…the DJs at the end are wearing cassette head gear. Check it out! And…RIP Mr. Ottens!

 

 

 

 

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