The other day, I had to entertain my friend’s 4-year-old daughter. We were singing songs from “The Little Mermaid,” but we forgot some of the lyrics.
Then I remembered — I had the cassette tape of the soundtrack!
And, even more shocking — I have a boom box with a tape player.
The little girl was appeased as we sang “Part of Your World” the right way. But she was clearly confounded by the cassette, something that was not a CD and not an iPod.
Memories and mix tapes
As a child, I had records, cassettes and even the occasional 8-track. (My uncle had a player in his VW van.)
I made mix tapes in high school. I still have them. In addition to taping songs off cassettes I’d bought, I also recorded songs right off the radio and made angst-y and of-the-era playlists specially tailored to each friend. Each tape has a very specific set of memories attached to it.
It’s like that for many of us, with such tapes representing a piece of our lives that we can hold in our hands. But tape players are harder to come by, and unless you’re a DJ, a turntable isn’t a family standard anymore, either.
And both are subject to natural wear and tear over the years, or worse, susceptible to destruction when disaster strikes. As a reporter, I covered the aftermath of one tornado and felt the heartbreak of families who lost precious collections — irreplaceable memories — in the blink of an eye.
Converting to digital
Companies like Reclaim Media, based in Seattle, specialize in converting cassettes and records into digital media. Most of their business is done nationally.
“We get thank you notes regularly, mostly with the orders but sometimes afterward as well, from people who thought they would never be able to hear their recordings again,” said Anna K. Anderson, who handles marketing and production for the company.
Among the material they convert: “Voices of people no longer living, family histories and local histories, ’70s garage punk — stuff that was never widely distributed,” she said.
The original media can be kept. Keepsakes and family heirlooms, after all, have their place. But backing it up this way gives people a way to preserve those memories for future generations.
“Sure, if you have a massive collection, storing it doesn't make sense,” Anderson said. “But the 12-inch, 45 RPM vinyl on metal disk that granddad recorded while in the U.K. during World War II and sent home so the kids could hear his voice is not the kind of thing someone gets rid of just because they don't have the means to play the recording directly off of it. It still holds that piece of history.
“So does the cassette that was recorded in a friend's basement and labeled with hand-typed labels to distribute at shows in other people’s living rooms. We send the original media back to our customers, and it is up to them to determine if the object holds value or just the recording that we extracted from it.”
Prices range from $9.65 to $12.95 to convert one to three 45s or other records and cassettes to MP3s and CDs. The cost gets cheaper in bulk conversions. (The company handles orders in the thousands, sometimes.)
Devices like the plusdeck2c ($149 listed price but we found some as low as $107) by BTO, which stands for “Beyond The Ordinary,” convert cassette tapes into MP3s or WAV files, while ION Audio’s USB Turntable converts LPs similarly.
Some in the business have been around long enough to see all those formats firsthand, and then some.
When Drew Alan Kaplan founded DAK 1 in 1964, he was “the ultimate audio tweak with nine tape decks (long before the audiocassette),” he writes on his Web site. He also says there that in 1985, he introduced a 300-baud modem phone for use with electronic bulletin boards.
A year later, he introduced and explained one of the first 8088, 128K PC clones. He also came out with an electronic bread maker.
That’s what the DAK catalog was about — gizmos and gadgets galore, with step-by-step instructions. He’s now carried that concept over to the online age with DAK Industries 2000.com.
“Digital conversion is fast and automated with our system,” Kaplan said in an interview. Customers are even given “timers so they don't have to baby-sit the process. If they have a desktop computer and a turntable and cassette deck, our system is $69.90. If they have a desktop computer and NEED our turntable and system, the price is $219,” with $149 for the “professional disk jockey” turntable.
Kaplan knows what drives his customers: the desire to hold onto treasured memories. And he has memories of some of them.
One woman’s husband was a singer who died. She wanted to copy his records “so the family could hear him on the one-year anniversary of his death,” Kaplan said.
“Another customer had been in a musical in high school and had a record of the performance. He copied it and has been playing it for everyone who would listen.”
Now I finally know what do with all those cassettes that are gathering dust in my closet. Music from bands like Aztec Camera, Heaven 17 and Book of Love, and yes, even songs from “The Little Mermaid” — all will now get new life. Sorry, iTunes.