The once and future Walkman. Photo: FaceMePLS.

July 1, 1979: it was thirty years ago today that the Sony Walkman went on sale, launching mobile music for the first time.

Wait – rewind (so to speak). That honor really belongs to the portable transistor radio – and, indeed, part of the reason America already knew and loved Sony by the time 1979 rolled around, having embraced their pocketable radios as early as the 1950s. In fact, if you want to blame a device for degrading audio fidelity, you should again look not to MP3s and iPods but back to — you guessed it — the same transistor radio.

But no matter. The Walkman did popularize carrying your own music collection with you. It was not only about mobility, but mobile music collections free of airwaves, mix tapes and the experience of walking around the city or doing a workout with your own personally-assembled soundtrack. It turned everyone into DJs and made the music something that could easily bounce around inside your head rather than around your living room or a music venue. The Walkman and not the iPod might also have to carry the burden of claims that music was made antisocial – but it also made for a uniquely personal experience.

And do we ever love cassettes, with their ability to accommodate our own mixes and recordings and stack in neat cubes.

Why, back in my day, we had real women in our portable music player ads, not these silhouettes like you iPod-owning brats have. Photo (CC) Abbey Hambright.

True, the link that’s making the rounds on the Web parodies the clueless 13-year-old child of the iPod age:
Giving up my iPod for a Walkman [BBC News]

This comes from a different planet than the one on which we live on CDM. In this world, snarky 13-year-olds have no idea what the metal/normal switch does, and the zinger is “Did my dad, Alan, really ever think this was a credible piece of technology?” Okay, you snot-nosed brat, it’s a good thing global warming will revert us all to a primitive Stone Age existence and you won’t have to suffer the fate of technological advancement. PS – your dad says never to call him Alan again. (I kid, kid, really. Just can’t resist.)

Of course, on our planet some 13-year-old is probably assembling his or her own cassette player out of spare parts and turning it into a circuit-bent DJ machine, and knows the entire history of the Sony Walkman by model number, and can tell you which factory assembled your old broken model based on the serial number. In that demented spirit, I invite readers to share your own Walkman memories, and offer up a selection of my favorite cassette-themed posts from CDM (of which, I was surprised to discover, there are quite a lot).

I won’t even try to summarize the history of the Walkman, because I have no idea what it is, and Wikipedia has beaten me to the punch.

CDM on Cassettes

The best story of all time: Eric Beug on how to make a Mellotron sampler entirely out of Walkmans, as seen at an early Handmade Music with CDM, Make Magazine, and Etsy. See MAKE:blog for the full post.

Photo (CC) J E Smith.

The best-ever cassette quote: from experimental DJ Artjom (DIY machines and Max patches below):

Yes, you can contact with me. But, if you would want that I played on your party on cassettes, then I refuse. I do not play on cassettes any more. In general, I don’t want play in the club, because people come there to drink and to search partner for copulate. This is bad.

The best day for cassettes: when we read RIAA numbers that showed that DVD Audio and SACD combined were still matched by cassette sales. Some new formats catch on. Some do not.

Cassette tapes (and other tape media) as a way of making lo-fi samples:

Free Tape-Recorded Samples of Roland TR-606, 808

Cassettes for uses silly and uses practical alike:

Cassette Change Purse; Choosing Cassette Decks with Pitch Control

In other words, cassettes can be entirely useless and about nostalgia only — or they can remain a useful and inspiring musical tool even for digital users, helping you get out of your rut and approach sound in a new way.

Cassette Jockeys at the 2007 Maker Faire

The work of DJ Artyom, who assembled DIY DJ gear using cassette tapes for a unique sound and mixing techniques:

Homemade Cassette Tape DJ Mixers + Max/MSP PC

An international collective shares mix tapes – the physical tapes, yes, even in the Internet age


Andy Warhol
by StErn

Above: Andy Warhol shills for TDK. Video cassette tape, to be sure – but sublime nonetheless. If I had to remember my Japanese lines, I might have to close my eyes, too.


Tape collections:
The brilliant Project C-90
The Obsessive “Tape Jam”

Walkman Sequencer: Tape + Homebrew Sequencer + Nintendo Game Boy

Gijs Gieskes is a master circuit bender, and cassette is a favorite medium. Check out his Tape Seq 02, which varies cassette playback using controllable pots and synchronizes to a Game Boy. It’s an analog result that’s only possible in this way with tape as the playback technology.

Put a cassette deck inside a Windows PC (sadly, this product appears to be discontinued?)

You Tell Us

Nostalgia is one thing. But what to you have the cassette and the Sony Walkman meant for music? And is there anything these youngsters (well, anyone younger than … 20, I guess?) could learn about this technology? Is there a lesson from the Walkman?

Above: You know a technology makes an impact when it has its own graffiti. The cult of the cassette, as captured (CC) hugovk.

  • http://friendfeed.com/dmlandrum Darren Landrum

    At 33 (just turned yesterday, as a matter of fact), I too have fond memories of making many a mix tape for my Walkman, for going out on walks, and for traveling on the bus. I remember the constant getting up, pausing the tape, changing the record, then unpausing the tape again, hoping you timed it right. I remember the constant frustration as a side runs out of tape in the middle of a song, and of searching around for a suitable replacement song that just might fit in that space.

    Fond memories, perhaps, but I can't say I miss it that much. Mix CDs are quicker and easier to make. I haven't had a tape deck in my car for I don't know how many years now. Still, cassettes filled a niche that nothing else could come close to, and it did it well.

  • http://ocp.pt.vu ocp

    I still use cassettes and will keep using them, be it for that analogue tone and hiss (which I like), for convenience (my car has a cassette player and I own a nice cassette deck) or just because I have a bag full of tapes I don't want to throw in the garbage (too precious).

    Another aspect is that the first digital bleeps I heard came out of a Walkman loading games into a ZX Spectrum.

    The process took "ages" and it was a drag when the game didn't load properly and you had to do it all over again.

    Well, to me the cassette is just another format and as long as it works I'm ok with it.

  • Kyran

    I converted my dad's old cassettes to mp3's to put on his ipod when he goes running.

    Most of these casettes contain stuff that never got released on cd (and where we lost or never had the vinyl of), it was like a trip through his life.

  • http://www.myspace.com/fromnoise daniel-door

    these days i'm sliding an electronic guitar with a sony tape recorder. guitar's pickups occasionally catch the tape-recordings played trough the built-in speaker…

    so…cassettes are still basic…tools…and impress girls when filled with great music…

  • http://www.myspace.com/fromnoise daniel-door

    and…by the way…mix cds get fucked up, tapes just wear up…

  • http://mickbordet.blogspot.com MickBordet

    I did enjoy my garish red walkman for just over a year until the jack socket developed a problem that could have been fixed with a 50p replacement I could have soldered myself. I took it to Sony's own repair shop where I was told it would cost more to fix than buy a new one.

    I have never spent money on anything bearing the sony name since that day and I doubt I will ever be in a position where I am so desperate to throw money away that I'll invest in their over-priced, over-hyped product.

  • Glare

    @ mickbordet.

    Wow that must have cut deep.. Whent was that? Like 15 years ago? Rofl.. Uve missed sum great products holmes ;)

  • http://zvukofor.blogspot.com zvukofor

    Happy birthday all of us, who remember cassete culture! ))

    Still use my Sony deck with Dolby-S as a great compact recorder — this things cannot just went away, i think.

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  • Adam

    I made about 70 mixtapes through my high school years all the way through college. I'm 31 now. It was probably one of my first and most formative forays into creativity. Like the whole "High Fidelity" movie: "There's an art to it." I would hit stop and then rewind just a little bit to avoid the the loud pop between songs…

    I would cut out covers and make special tapes for friends. They are currently probably warped sitting in a closet in my parents house in another state. I wonder if they are listenable at all.

  • http://abrightfearlesssunrise.blogspot.com/ Birds Use Stars

    what money that "13 year old" is actually the author just pretending to be his kid?

    Cassette-wise: 16 hour flight, walkman, and the one and only 120 minute cassette mixtape I had remembered to pack in my carry-on. I would have certainly lost my mind and jumped out the emergency exit just for some fresh air without my tape player.

  • http://rekkerd.org ronnie

    I loved my walkman(s) & tapes. For the long car trips to summer holiday destinations when I was a kid, and spending countless hours taping stuff from TV and radio in my early teens so that I could explore new music on my way to school.

    Then when I discovered a local music shop was renting out records at cheap rates (basically encouraging you to tape it instead of buying the album) I started a tape collection that quickly grew bigger than me.

    Tapes were also a way for me and the now mrs. to communicate across continents. We'd send each other tapes and listen to these songs together on the phone. Yeah, we didn't have no fancy webcams or high speed internet back then.

    I still have a walkman, a quality Sony cassette deck and many, many tapes.

    I don't use them much, but I don't think I can get rid of them either… Some of these 20-some year old tapes have my very first musical adventures on them. I'd record a beat on the Casio SA-1, then play that tape while recording me playing guitar over it on another cassette recorder. Memorieeeeees…

  • rhowaldt

    a friend of mine bought a My First Sony (in red, green and yellow and maybe blue too) just because it looks so cool and people will give you strange looks :)

  • derHa

    i owned about 6 different walkman when i was between, say, 10 and 18. i listened to music that they broke soon after one year. but that was no big deal – a new walkman was always a great christmas present! sooner or later the devices got really fancy features, like automatic search for the next song, automatic flip of the tape (which was not flipped at all, but backward played with the playback head moved to the different track on the tape or something)…

    then i switched to cd-r and discman. which was like coming out of the frying pan into the fire: no more warbling sound, but skipping… anyway.

    i rediscovered the walkman for me some years later, when i played at a lo-fi jam. i modified a walkman for pitchable playback, prepared some tapes with drones, pads and television news, hooked it to my metasonix tm2 and a delay pedal and there we go.

    and mixtapes are definitely among the most romantic things you can do for a girl/boy (some months ago i throw away the playlists of some tapes i did for some ex-girlfriends. i usually kept these, to make sure i do not choose the same songs twice of different tapes) and they are among the best presents you can make to a friend or even an stranger. and where would mixtapes be without walkman? (probably – if available – in our cars tapedeck… but you know what i mean, right?) and by the way, i am 26 now, so i'm even younger than the walkman himself! wow!

  • http://the-palm-sound.blogspot.com/ Palm Sounds

    Somewhere I still have an old cassette walkman. I'd love to get hold of one of those Akai 4-track walkmans, they looked so cool.

    Off to eBay to search for one again.

  • Sven

    Back in 1979, in skiing-heaven Hemavan waay up in the north of Sweden, Walkman's could be rented by the hour. It costed like 5 euro/h to experience how this Silver Machine could add new inner dimensions to freestyle, Telemark or whatever your prefered technique was. I listened to Can, I have specially fond memories of their "Vitamin C", kind of a signature in the downhill Walkman society. Really vitalising music. The only downside was the batteries: in -25 C, they ran out faster than you'd get in the groove of Jaki Liebezeit's static drumming. Amazing to think back, 30 years ago it was luxury deluxe. Oh dear. Just think of the laughs when the iPhone nostalgia hit the 2040's…

  • http://www.badmindtime.com SkyRon™

    Well, I'm a slow learner, so it was only 4 years after the birth of the Walkman that I started incorporating them into my music – - I used them as cheap individual click-tracks (later pitch, text, and theatre-tracks) so instrumentalists could each play at different tempi, and so that vocalists (in later pieces) could sing great pitch clusters without much rehearsal. Over the past 25 years, I've created a body of work (vocal, chamber, orchestral, and two operas) based on performers listening to instructions over headphones (now ipods, previously portable CD players), which has sealed my musical obscurity and irrelevance, (need a post-postmodern 'irony' emoticon here) and it all began with the lowly Walkman! Yay!

  • http://www.burntchicken.com/utm/ UTM

    I got a bright red Walkman-like cassette player around 80-81 and rode the railways around England, France and Italy listening to ELP and Missing Persons – apparently the only two tapes I had at the time because that's all I remember hearing. No doubt the intense headphone-experience of those albums influenced my taste…

  • http://mickbordet.blogspot.com MickBordet

    @Glare – more like 25 years ago!

    You know what? I don't feel like I've missed a thing. *cough* ATRAC *cough* rootkit *cough* etc.

    :-)

  • http://www.wiretotheear.com/ Oliver Chesler

    Nice tribute. I have boxes of 1000s of cassettes I recorded off the radio in the 80s. I can't wait to make them all digital and listen again.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    That’s right; the interesting article would have been imagining taking 2009 tech back to 1979. I’m sure they would have been blown away by the magic of the thing — but also had some complaints.

    “You need a computer to get music on it? It costs how much? DRM what?”

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  • salamanderanagram

    man, that article where the kid didn’t even know that cassettes were two sided made me feel old. how strange.

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  • http://dot-ay.com Dot.AY

    There is avideo I made a few years back of me making a cassette tape loop even though I really didn't think it would work

    enjoyed re-watching it now long live the Cassette

  • http://antisound.net stk

    http://c-90.net – a homage to the joy of random op-shop/fleamarket cassette finds.

  • Damon

    I have a family member who puchased the very first walkman, and used it occasionally. I used it all the time, even mowing lawns around the neighbhorhood, dropping it more than I would have liked, and like 4 or so years later (maybe more), the only thing wrong with it was the battery cover was lost. I do not think it ever actually stopped working.

  • cloddo

    A design project of a friend of mine, a cassette-shaped mp3 player:

    http://www.behance.net/Gallery/NVDRS_tape/181524

  • http://www.johnpazdan.com johnp

    As the elder statesman, get offa my lawn person here, I'd like to "share" a thought or 35..

    …in another life, I lasted about 15 minutes as a star au rock, and spent, excuse me, wasted time with various rock denizens, including members of a band from Rockford IL who had recorded a popular lp in Japan, and whose manager also happened to manage the mess I labored in. Upon greeting the Huntz Hall like geetarist on his return from the mysterious East one day in 1979, I happened to notice a set of miniature headphones connected to a shiny little box.."Ricky", I inquired, "wha the heck you got now"? "Walkman, we got em in Tokyo" was the explanation. Of course I was very jealous, and soon had my own lofi awful sounding appliance as well, all the better to listen to Weather Report on.

    I am bringing this up to help illustrate one of those "hizztery b repeating" things..with the recent rightful backlash against blocked out, dynamics-less "music" being made and abetted by the advance of mp3's, I would direct your attention to what was the beginning of the tragedy, the subject of Peter's fine blog..the Sony Walkman. Engineers of the day, FINE engineers with good ears who spent weeks slaving over sonic details were appalled by the noise these devices were making, and by the true damage done to their mixes. YOU kiddies know how good a vinyl mix done properly sounds…but put that same beautiful mix on a cassette…whadda ya gots baby? And as the popularity of these awful trash compactors grew, and the Whirl got used to "the Walkman Sound"..engineers began to mix things so they sounded good on them, to the supreme insult and eq battering of real mixes..and that was the start of the end…which is still slip sliding away into digitally maxxed out mp3 land.

    As a side note, it's interesting that Ronald Reagan became preznint at the same time (1980), thus starting the slide of 'merika into the shitter as well, but that's another blog..

    I like lofi as much as anyone here, maybe more..but I also like real mixes with real dynamics and real range too.

    ok, back to playing with the great grandkids.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @John: Absolutely, history repeats itself. I'm not sure about blaming the distribution medium and the engineers for squashing dynamic range, however. This is interesting, as we had mastering engineer Daniel Wyatt at DubSpot last weekend, and he was inclined to transfer blame to the A&R people, not the engineers.

    There is a certain point at which a compact cassette runs out of dynamic and frequency range – although when those cassettes were new and well-made, they actually did reasonably well. (The same could be said of something like MP3 – just substitute "high bitrate" for "clean.")

    If you really want to compensate for low-fidelity devices, to some extent you're going to try to preserve the range of the recording. A squashed recording is going to sound even worse on the low-fidelity gizmo.

    And anyway, yes, in turn we can go back to transistor radios that had a two decade headstart on the Walkman.

    …and so on and so forth to the dawn of recording and jukeboxes, which did indeed have some hand in killing live music, or to the piano roll and music notation, which helped generate piracy.

  • http://www.johnpazdan.com johnp

    @PK: I realize the transfer/medium history, but the cassette was especially brutal, and as I was trying to say (before coffee this AM..), the Walkman transformed the way people HEARD (fidelity-wise) music, and not for the better.

    But I always look at the other side too ..how it made music much more available to people without funds. A good parallel for these dark times.

  • http://www.myspace.com/liliththekitten lilith

    cassettes were teh isht, such a great form factor and you could make your own mixtapes. CDs are more awkward. dont miss tape hiss.

    I still have an old deck plus an early 80's Walkman which looks totally rad. I grew up with the Aiwa and Panasonic ones, I kept losing or breaking them, still have the Panny. and many tapes.

    I also liked Minidisc.

  • Kyran

    Yeah, minidisc was like the perfect mix between a cassette and a cd: virtually no skipping easy recording of stuff or creating mixtapes and they could take a beating before stopping to function.

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  • Simon

    Cassettes were my first creative foray into music about 25 years ago! I used to make what I called 'pause button remixes' using a 'tape to tape' double deck system. Extending sections of tracks, intricate (probably messy) edits. Sadly I don't have any of those recordings – I'd love to hear them. I was 11 and heavily inspired by the burgeoning use of sampling in pop music and a steady diet of hip hop/electro through the Electro series of compilations.

    I've come full circle as I still use tape now, a Studer A70! Making tape loops, warming up recordings – I love the tactileness of handling and manipulating tha tape.

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  • Lynsey

    I recently found my old bulky walkman intact and thought i would dust off some old cassettes to see if it still worked. Amazingly it did and since then i have been able to listen to some old mix tapes with my walkman in my bag and my white ipod headphones in my ears….it puts a smile on my face every time and i love the fact that my current headphones have brought an 18 year old gadget back to life!

  • NASTY

    im searching for some tape players for mixing, i'd like 2 know if some have pitch and those things or even if tape was used for djs, i just know a few but i dont know how they do it.