Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Melodies - Part 1 : Taped delights

If you are of the same generation that I am, then I am sure you will know what this rectangular looking thing with two teethy holes in between is – it is an audio cassette or more commonly, just ‘tape’!

Tapes stored audio and could be played on cassette players and walkmans. Some magnetic thing in the tape stored information about what sound to play and a cassette head would read it and reproduce the sound on speakers. The sound quality was great, but it always depended on the quality of the head which was reading the magnetic tape. There would also be special cassettes called ‘head cleaners’ which would have a special coating on them to automatically clean the player’s head when they were being read. If Mohd Rafi’s voice sounded a little too low pitched and sober, you could use some alcohol with cotton to clean the dust and it would go back to being his golden voice again.

The information about the playback singers, the composers and the lyricists could not be fit inside the magnetic tape and hence, all commercial music cassettes came with something called an ‘inlay card’. The design of these cards were such that, you could stack up the cassette cases on each other and still get the album names of all the cassettes, just like books in a library! If you visited homes of music lovers, there would be a shelf in the living room next to the TV and hifi cassette players with 2-4 big speakers where they would proudly show off their collections! Hailing from the middle class homes which could not afford to buy all album titles, some of us would take ‘khaali’ cassette to their houses, ask them to record (atleast the top hits) on our blank cassettes and get back home to play it on our economy two-in-one players and enjoy it for hours together! Sometimes the haughty rich guy would refuse to record all songs of the cassette citing trivial reasons and the receiver had to be content with whatever was given.

The biggest drawback of these cassettes was that of reuse. If you kept the cassette write enabled, there could be a chance of some moron taking your cassette to get it copied and wiping it off “by mistake”. And if you made it write-protected, you could not reuse it in times of urgent need. And making a copy from a copy would decrease sound quality so badly that you would start hating the very song which you so keenly copied in the first place. If you ever participated in a group dance competition while at school in the 90s, then I am sure you would have made copy cassette for practice and used the main one only during the final performance, sometimes perhaps missing a step on the stage because the copied one did not contain that level of detail as the original :)

Movies like ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ were such superhits, but they always presented a dilemma to audio buyers like us. In a time where buying a cassette would get you songs from two movies, who would want to buy a cassette with over 15 songs from the same movie? There were too many songs and some were skipped in the movie theaters for want of time (and added back later). And if you did decide to go for only select songs, there was a chance you missed the best song from the other movie on side B, thus leaving you some difficult choices to make. When A R Rahman’s super hit tamil movie ‘Kaadhalan’ got released, I remember having visited so many cassette shops around my house to see if a combination was available such that I got all the songs of the movie and an optional second movie. I was overjoyed when I found that ‘Akash Lahari’ (music company like saregama hmv, venus, t-series, tips, etc) had released this combination:

Yes – two of A R Rahman’s biggest hits of that time in just one cassette- Kaadalan and Roja – with all the songs of the movie! This would become our favourite cassette for almost a year and more, we losing count of the number of times we played it. By the time we bought a new speaker set and a cassette player in our house in the late 90s, we had purchased almost all hit albums that A R Rahman had churned out from his Panchathan record inn studios at Madras – Rangeela, Hindustani, Kadal desam, Dil Se, etc and played one after the other almost every day. Even we had some sort of a collection now – with mom having bought many of Mohd. Rafi songs, some old and new Kannada songs from reputed singers and hit movies, Kishore Kumar’s collections and many more. We had started to buy music without looking for deals but instead focusing on the quality of songs, even if it was only a single movie album. I still consider ‘Taal – a beat of passion’ coming from the house of TIPS music house, one of my best buys of all times. A R Rahman’s passionate music with voices as diverse as Asha Bhonsle, Hariharan, Sukhwinder Singh, Alka Yagnik, etc and a very big 8-fold inlay card with lyrics of the songs was total treat to the music lovers. Add it to Aishwarya Rai's pictures on all pages for visual appeal - that was Rs. 55/ well spent on audio!

Although there were improvements to the quality of recording on cassettes with digital technology, it still largely depended on the tape recorders head to reproduce the exact quality of the recording. And then there was this bigger problem of cassettes - even with people not looking for multiple movies in an album, the chances of buying an entire album just with one hit song in the movie was totally useless like in the case of this movie:

one hit song movie
The movie ‘One two ka four’ for example – only hit song in this movie was the ‘khamoshiyan ghungunane lagi’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Sonu Nigam. I went and actually bought this movie cassette paying Rs 60/ - a huge amount those days, only because of the Rahman factor and just hoped that I would like the other songs of the movie just by listening to it over and over again! And even to this day, I do not :) Atleast I should have combined it with some other movie songs of those days like ‘Virasat’ or ‘Sapnay’ (both of which have some nice songs). And then, there was English pop/movie music too, which came at a huge premium - the Vengaboyz album was priced at Rs. 100/ - totally on a different scale as compared to the Rs. 30/ cassettes of Kannada movies. All said, the audio world of the 80s 90s was totally dominated by these tapes, with lots of scope for improvements on all fronts....

Continued in Part 2.... To read, please click here

Images courtesy: Google images and Wiki images. All images are copyrights of their respective owners, used here purely for illustrative purposes


Anonymous said...

You truly did rewind and replay 90's :)
First thing I did after reading was to search the carton box which was unopened for years and checkout the "big 8-fold inlay card" of Taal!

Shashia said...


Thanks for the comment and I am sure you liked going back to 'Taal' ... keep watching this space to know more on the 'melodies' story :)

Would be great if you can leave your name :)