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The Ground Work

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It's funny how we have a habit of taking technology for granted. Once we've got used to having something, we rarely consider what life was like without it. Personally I can't even remember the last time I used a pay phone, since mobile phones have become so ubiquitous that I'd struggle to remember a time when I didn't have one in my pocket. Another aspect of mobile technology that we take for granted is the personal music player. Most of us will rarely get on a train, a plane, or even go for a walk without some kind of music player on our person, and the ability to carry a large library of music around with us at all times is simply a given. But for those of us who are old enough to remember, things weren't always like this.

Although the name Apple is now synonymous with personal music players, so much so that term iPod has become an almost generic moniker for such devices, it was Sony that first developed and dominated this market. In fact it's almost impossible to believe that Sony managed to lose its stranglehold on this market, so dominant was the Walkman brand.

It was way back in 1979 that the way we listen to music changed forever. But it's important to remember that Sony was only able to take this giant leap because of technology that was developed years earlier by European electronics giant Philips. We have to rewind (no pun intended) all the way to 1963 for the beginning of this story, which is even before my time! 1963 was when Philips launched the Compact Cassette - an audio format that was set to enjoy a scarily long lifetime, despite many challenges from rival mediums. A major factor that ensured the success of the Compact Cassette was that Philips licensed the technology freely, allowing rival companies to develop hardware. Another major bonus was the ability to record - something that was previously only possible with far larger and more expensive reel to reel based tape systems.
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The Compact Cassette brought the functionality of an open reel system, but the convenience of a cartridge.

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Throughout the 60s and 70s cassette players and recorders became standard household items for most consumers, while the small dimensions of the format made it ideal for in-car entertainment too. There was of course a strong rival to the Compact Cassette in the form of the 8 Track or Stereo 8 cartridge system, but the latter was far larger than the cassette and its continuous loop system meant that a rewind feature was simply impossible.

Initially the audio quality offered by the Compact Cassette was poor in comparison to the earlier open reel systems and the rival cartridge based formats. However, Philips' decision to freely license the technology meant that companies were keen to develop the format and improve the sound quality. Anyone who grew up listening to, and recording to Compact Cassettes will probably remember that there were several types of tape to choose from, depending on your budget. The most common cassette type, and the cheapest used a ferric oxide coating, while the Chromium Dioxide coating was pioneered by BASF and became the most popular "high-quality" cassette. But for those with seriously deep pockets, there were cassettes that used pure metal coatings - the TDK MA-XG may have cost more than the album you recorded to it, but it simply oozed quality.
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TDK's MA-XG Metal cassettes provided superb sound quality, as long as your hardware was up to scratch.

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The development of the Compact Cassette didn't just improve its audio quality though, it also made the format more user friendly. Auto reverse systems made cassette based players even more convenient, thus negating the need to eject the tape and flip it over when the end of a side was reached, and theoretically mimicking the endless loop feature offered by 8 Track cartridges. However, reversing the motor in a tape deck generally resulted in poorer playback quality, so it wasn't favoured by serious audiophile users. This problem was addressed using a couple of methods - the first was to employ two completely independent motors, and switching between them depending on the direction of playback. But by far the most impressive solution was Nakamichi's legendary "unidirectional auto-reverse" system, which physically ejected the tape from the player and spun it around 180 degrees, before reseating it on the heads and resuming playback.
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Nakamichi's unidirectional autoreverse system ensured consistent sound quality, while also looking incredibly cool.

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Without a doubt, Philips' Compact Cassette format was what made personal audio, as we know it today, a reality. But as I mentioned earlier, it wasn't Philips that made the breakthrough and put music in everyone's pocket…

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