The End Of The Electromechanical Era

When viewed from the far future, the early years of the 21st century will probably be seen as the end of a short era in human technological development. In the beginning of the 20th century, most everything was mechanical. There were certainly some electric devices, but consumer products like gramophone players and “movie” cameras were purely mechanical affairs. You cranked them up, and they ran on springs. Nowadays, almost every bit of consumer gear you buy will be entirely electronic. In between, there was a roughly 50 year period that I’m going to call the Electromechanical Era.

Jenny List’s teardown this week of an old Fuji film movie camera from 1972 captures the middle of this era perfectly. There’s a small PCB and an electric motor, but most of the heavy lifting in the controls was actually put on the shoulders of levers, bearings, and ridiculously clever mechanisms. The electrical and mechanical systems were loosely coupled, with the electrical controlled by the mechanical.

I’m willing to argue the specifics, but I’d preliminarily date the peak of the Electromechanical Era somewhere around 1990. Last year, I had to replace all of the rotted rubber drive belts in a Sony Walkman WM-D6C, a professional portable tape player and recorder produced from 1984-2002.

It’s not a simple tape recorder — the motors are electronically regulated to keep ridiculously constant speed for such a small device, and mine has Dolby B and C noise reduction circuitry packed inside along with some decent mic preamps. But still, when you press the fast-forward button, it physically shoves rubber-coated drive wheels out of the way, and sliding pieces of metal make it change modes of operation by making and breaking electrical contacts. Its precision lies as much in the mechanical assemblies and motors as in the electronics. It’s truly half electronic and half mechanical.

But that era is long over. The coming of the CD player signaled the end, although we didn’t see it at the time. Sure, there is a motor, but all the buttons are electronic, and all the “mechanism” is implemented almost entirely in silicon. The digital camera was possibly the last nail in the Electromechanical Era’s coffin: with no need to handle physical film, the last demand for anything mechanical evaporated. Open up a GoPro if you don’t know what I mean.

While I’ll be happy to never have to replace the drive rubber in a cassette recorder again, it’s with a little sadness that I think on the early iPods with their spinning metal hard drives, and how they gave way to the entirely silicon Zoom H5 recorder that I use now. It has a S/N ratio and quiet pre-amps, no wow or flutter, and a quality that would have been literally unbelievable when I bought the WM-D6C.

Still, if you find yourself in the thrift store, and you’ve never done so before, buy and take apart one of these marvels from a bygone era. A cassette recorder, even a cheap one, hides a wealth of electromechanical design.

There’s Not A Cassingle Thing Missing From This Cassette Deck Masterclass

For [ke4mcl], this whole cassette craze of late is not a new discovery so much as it is a personal nostalgia machine. Since [ke4mcl] sees a lot of basic questions go unanswered, they made an incredible beginner’s guide to all things cassette deck. This concise wealth of information covers everything from terminology to operation, basic maintenance like repairing the belt and lubricating the motor, and appropriate cleaning methods for the various parts. Yep, we’re pretty sure this covers everything but the pencil winding technique, which you probably already knew about.

You don’t need a lot of tools and supplies to maintain a cassette deck or twelve (apparently they’re addictive) — mostly just head cleaning fluid, isopropyl, window cleaner, and a bunch of cotton swabs. And given this guide, you’ll enter the enclosure confidently, armed with knowledge about everything from the belts to the capstan to the head. This is valuable information, the kind of stuff your older brother wouldn’t take the time to explain to you in the 80s. But maybe he didn’t know reverse bias from the holes in the top of the tape.

Don’t care for the quality of audio cassettes? Tapes are good for lots of stuff, like data storage and decoration.

Modern Tape Echo Made Easy

Modern popular music increasingly relies on more and more complicated and intricate equipment and algorithms to generate catchy tunes, but even decades ago this was still the case. The only difference between then and now was that most of the equipment in the past was analog instead of digital. For example, the humble tape echo was originally made by running a loop of magnetic tape over a recording head and then immediately playing it back. Old analog machines from that era are getting harder and harder to find, so [Adam Paul] decided to make his own.

At first, [Adam] planned to use standard cassette tapes in various configurations in order to achieve the desired effect, but this proved to be too cumbersome and he eventually switched his design to using the cassette internals in a custom tape deck. The final design includes a small loop of tape inside of the enclosure with a motor driving a spindle. The tape is passed over a record head, then a read head, and then an erase head in order to achieve the echo sound. All of this is done from inside of the device itself, with 1/4″ jacks provided so that the musician can plug in their instrument of choice just like a standard effects pedal would be configured.

The entire build is designed to be buildable and repairable using readily-available parts as well, which solves the problem of maintaining (or even finding) parts from dedicated tape echo machines from decades ago. We like the sound from the analog device, as well as the fact that it’s still an analog device in a world of otherwise digital substitutes. Much like this magnetic tape-based synthesizer we featured about a year ago.

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Audio Cassette Tape Data Retrospective

It has been a long time since we stored software and computer data on audiotape. But it used to be the de facto standard for hobby computers and [Noel] has a great video about the Amstrad’s system (embedded below) which was pretty typical and how the process could be sped up since today, you have perfect audio reproduction, especially compared to consumer-grade audiotape.

The cassette tapes suffered from several problems. The tape had an inherently low bandwidth, there was quite a bit of noise present from the analog circuitry and heads, and the transport speed wasn’t necessarily constant. However, you can easily digitally synthesize relatively noise-free sound at high fidelity and rock-solid frequency. So basically a microcontroller, like an Arduino, can look like an extremely high-quality tape drive.

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TrueTape64 Is A PC Interface For Your C64 Datasette

Back in the distant past of the 1980s, software was distributed on audio tape. Ones and zeroes were encoded as tones of different frequencies, and tapes were decoded by specialised hardware which could then spit out raw digital data to an attached computer. While software methods now exist to simply record audio from old tapes and turn them into data, [Francesco] wanted to do it the hardware way, and built a PC interface for his Commodore 64 Datasette.

The TrueTape64, as it has been named, is built around an Atmel ATTiny2313 microcontroller. This interfaces with the original Datasette hardware which takes care of reading the analog tape output and turning it into digital data. From there, the microcontroller communicates with an FTDI232 serial-to-USB adapter to get the data into a modern PC, where it’s compiled into a TAP image file via some Python magic.

It’s a barebones build, which goes so far as to run the Datasette’s motor off the USB power supply via a boost converter; those facing issues with the tape mechanism might do well to look there first. However, it does work, and a done job is a good job at the end of the day. We’ve seen similar hacks before, too – it’s great to see the community keeping cassette software alive!

Cassette Lamp Is A Throwback To The Pencil-Winding Glory Days

The audio cassette was the first music format that truly championed portability. It was robust, compact, and let people take music on the go to soundtrack their very lives. It was later supplanted by the higher-quality CD and then further digital technologies, but the format remains a nostalgic highlight for many. It also inspired this excellent lamp build from [Fab].

The lamp consists of 8 clear cassettes assembled into a rough cube-like shape on a 3D printed frame. The cassettes are edge-lit from below by a set of WS2812B LEDs, letting them glow in full-color splendour. The real magic of the lamp is the interface, however. A pencil can be inserted to turn the tape reels, just like rewinding a real cassette. However, in this case, they’re attached to a pair of rotary encoders, which are used to vary the color of the LEDs. As a bonus, the entire lamp runs off a Wemos D1, making it possible to update the lamp remotely over the Internet.

It’s a stylish build that would make an excellent conversation piece in any hip maker’s loungeroom. It’s a great nod to the creator of the compact cassette, [Lou Ottens], who passed away earlier this month. Video after the break.

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RIP Lou Ottens, Developer Of The Compact Cassette And More

It’s with sadness that we note the passing at the age of 94 of the long-time Phillips engineer Lou Ottens, who is best known as the originator of the Compact Cassette audio tape format that was so ubiquitous through the later decades of the 20th century. Whether you remember cassettes as the format for 8-bit software, for teenage mixtapes on a Walkman, they began life at his hands in the early 1960s at the Phillips factory in Hasselt, Belgium.

Through a long career with the Dutch electronics company, he was responsible either directly or in part for a string of consumer electronic devices that we would see as ubiquitous over the latter half of the century. Before the cassette he had developed the company’s first portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, and in the 1970s while technical director of their audio division he led the team that would develop the CD. He was reported as saying that his great regret was not beating Sony to the development of the miniature cassette player that would be sold as the Walkman, but we’d suggest that the Walkman would not have been possible without the cassette in the first place.

So next time you handle a cassette tape, spare a thought for Lou, an audio engineer whose work permeated so much of the last half-century.

Thanks [Carl] for the tip.

Images: Lou Ottens by Jordi Huisman CC BY-SA 4.0 and “An early Phillips cassette recorder” by mib18 CC BY-SA 3.0