Why did tapes always cost more?

Back in the 70’s/80’s cassettes and 8 track tapes always cost 1 or 2 dollars more than the vinyl albums.

Why? I can’t believe it really cost that much more to produce/distribute the same product on tape. Or did it?

I’d credit the price increase to demand, except in the 70’s my observation is more people were buying records than tapes.

Not always: in Spain they were the same price. Also, some things did not get released in album format, only in tape (the kind of stuff you only found at gas stations).

So apparently it was a matter of the market in some locations supporting a higher price for tapes.

Tapes take longer to produce, per unit, than vinyl discs, because the information on a tape has to be recorded serially (albeit probably at a higher speed than normal playback), whereas vinyl is pressed as a whole disc at once - it’s like making waffles.

The tape recording process can be bulked up to adjust for this difference, but that means more equipment, which is more cost.

Manufacturing cost isn’t always a big component of retail price, however, so it’s likely that other forces, such as scale of demand, were affecting the prices you observed.

The endless loop 8 track cartridge was actually a fairly involved mechanism compared to pressing a slab of plastic and the rate of industrial reproduction was much. much slower. I can easily see it costing 1-2 dollars more

Manufacturing tapes is a more complex and slower process than vinyl. Records are pressed from a master - a single stamping operation. Making cassettes is a multistage operation - copying tracks onto source reels, spooling and cutting to insert reels with leaders, assembly into shells.

Plus, as noted, price elasticity.

Damn: ninja’d by Mangetout


To add to the above, tapes went though a few iterations of manufacture. All to get the price down. An album equivalent cassette tape was 20 minutes per side. Clearly the first optimisation is to record the tape in one pass, so one side is recorded forwards, the other backwards. So 20 minutes to make a tape. Then the next step is to record them faster. Double speed. However tape is an unhappy medium, the frequency response is affected by this, as is the dynamic range, and the result isn’t quite as good. So much so that some labels did produce high quality cassette tapes that were recorded at normal speed on higher quality equipment, but a very significant premium. I don’t think anybody actually bought them.

The last phase was pretty impressive. If you make a master on a very high coercivity tape, you can simply place the master in contact with the new tape, and pass the pair through a high frequency field. The field is chosen so that the duplicate tape is driven through its magnetisation curve, whilst the master tape isn’t. The end result is that the duplicate tape takes on the magnetic patterns of the master, and the master remains unscathed. You can do this very quickly. But in the end you have a lot more fiddling about than simply squeezing a lump of hot vinyl between two metal plates. Stamping out an LP is an impressively quick task.

On the other hand, stamping out a CD is even easier than an LP, but they were introduced at a significant premium in price. A large amount is what the market will bear.

Where on Earth did you get your information? Have you ever been involved in commercial tape duplication? Most of what you say is not true.

Cassettes are not 20 minutes as a standard length, and the 4 track process was invented long before commercial album releases were anticipated. Any length of tape can be custom wound into a cassette, and if you need more time, the tape is thinner. And commercial duplication records all four tracks in the same direction at once, at very high speed, from a multi-track, wide, endless loop master feeding multiple cassettes, not necessarily all getting the same data feed. It takes only a few minutes to mass duplicate a mess of cassettes simultaneously.

I’ve never seen a commercial process that pressed the end product tape against a master to transfer the magnetic data. I’m not even sure that would work in a practical sense. The resulting signal would be too weak to be usable.

Reread what I wrote. An album length cassette is going to be the same length as an LP side. Roughly 20 minutes. Perhaps I was not writing clearly enough, yes, the tape is duplicated all at once in the same direction (which means that the obverse side is recorded backwards - which is what I wrote.) Then you look to increase the tape speed, but reduces the quality. And was typically done. So far there is nothing I wrote that contradicts what you said.

The high speed mechanism I wrote about exists. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t high quality, and it does work. You can even duplicate video tape this way. Which is interesting to say the least.

I understood that this was a valid process as well using a thermal process. They may not have been as widespread as in-cassette duplication, but they were used.

From here


An album is one hunk of plastic, made in one manufacturing step. A tape cassette has two shell pieces held together by screws. Inside are two plastic reels slip sheets, a felt pressure pad and steel leaf spring, and most expensive of all, a thin Mylar ribbon with an oxide layer that is polished so it doesn’t distroy the recording head. Consider the cost of a blank cassette vs a beach ball.

Nobody has mentioned convenience so far (someone mentioned “what the market will bear”, which does have something to do with convenience). You were paying a price for portability (I never saw a record player inside am automobile in the 70s, for example).

8 tracks were pretty sophisticated. Fitting 4 pair of stereo on that one strip of tape was really pushing technology in the 70’s. I repaired 8 track players in my shop years ago. At the end of the tape was a simple piece of metal foil. It energized the switch in the player and the head moved up and down to play the next pair of audio tracks. The tape played in an endless loop.

I always preferred 8 track because of the faster access. Push of a button and you were on another track. Cassette was a serial technology that required fast forward and it required manually flipping the tape over. (some cassette players did have a auto play feature for side 2)

You actually preferred having the tape cut out in the middle of a track* and going CLICK to turning a tape over (and some decks played “backwards” anyway)?

*song track, not tape track

In terms of access, you could jump around within an album faster on 8 track. I forget how many songs were on a track. Maybe 3 or 4? Let’s use 4 as an example. So going to track 2 instantly brought you too song 5. Push button again and you were on song 9. The label on the 8 track indicated which songs were on each track.

Try finding song 9 on a cassette. It takes awhile. Especially if you fast forward too far and have to reverse.

I had 8 track in my car for years and then had cassette in my car in the late 80’s. Both players had their stengths/weaknesses. Cassette was nice because I recorded many of my records to play in the car.

Transferring the signal from a master tape onto a slave tape was widely used in videotape duplication, I used to work at a factory that did so. Originally the signal was burned in using the heat of a laser, these “TMD” machines required 480 volt power, chilled water, and compressed air. Later machines use a magnetice field to do the transfer, which only required compressed air and 240 volt power.

Basically the process was

  1. Play back the Betacam, 1" type C, 3/4 U-matic, whatever source and record it onto a “mirror master”, special 1/2" tape that came in reels. Enough for a 2 hour master cost about $400. At the end of the show, push a button to record a control signal (just a square wave).
  1. Load the tape into the TMD machine, the machine would splice it into a continous loop
  2. The slave tape came in “pancakes”, one pancacke would hold about 20 2 hours shows.
    4.) The master tape moves continously, the slave tape moves from the supply side to the takeups side.
    5.) It took about 20 minutes to record a pancake. Take the recorded pancacke and load it into empty shells. The loading machines would know where to cut it because aof the control signa . This could be seen on a tape recorded this way by fast forwarding it through the static after the show to the very end of the tape

No we didn’t do pornos, but I did see some stuff…

Imagine audio tape could be recorded the same way.

I doubt this was the case anywhere but here (Norway being a haven for taxes on everything), but there was a special tax on blank tapes (and later cd-rs and dvd-rs) to compensate the artists for the widespread copying of copyrighted works, which would also add cost to media compared to vinyl, were you wouldn’t be able to use it to copy other records.

Usually that’s called “reverse” direction, not backwards. It also involves changing the head selection (from tracks 1 & 3 to 2 & 4) or shifting the head mechanism by one track.

Try rewinding an 8 track sometime (can’t be done), and fast forward is much slower than a cassette, due to the endless loop. I guess we have different thrills, but I was glad when 8 tracks gave way to cassettes.

Spain had it too, but that was on blanks; we legally had the right to make copies so long as we didn’t sell them; we now have a similar fee on pretty much any electronic media. Yep: you buy a thumb drive to transfer the files you wrote between two computers, you pay a fee that goes directly to SGAE. One of the current problems with data duplication is that SGAE (the Spanish Society of Authors and Editors) considers duplication for personal use as piracy; since it didn’t use to be considered so, people get a mite irritated.

Many people bought the vinyl and used it as a master to make tapes for the car/boombox. A copy from a vinyl which was rarely played was considered better than one from tape to tape (which was likely to include hissing).

How are those numbered? Are 1 and 2 in the middle, with 3 and 4 at the tape edges, or are the forward and reverse tracks interleaved for some reason?

Open reel (1/4 inch) tapes, 4 track stereo (interleaved): Starting at one edge (I forget which), tracks are 1,2,3,4. 1 & 3 play in one direction, 2 & 4, the opposite. One reason for this is to allow for easier manufacturing of the heads, as micro-engineering was in its infancy when this was first developed. Later, putting 4 separate inline heads was easier, which opened the door to true 4-track (same direction, multi-track recording) or just switching electrically from one pair to the other, accompanied by a motor direction reversal.

Cassettes, (side-by-side): The original cassette was a 2-track (half-track mono) concept, intended for voice dictation, and not with great fidelity. Improvements in many areas made music more practical, but compatibility was considered, and tracks numbered 1,2,3,4 from one edge are played by a mono head as 1 & 2 together, then after flipping the cassette, 4 & 3 will become 1 & 2 (in the opposite direction). If the head is stereo, 1 & 2 are treated separately. No such compatibility existed in open-reel.