National Audio Company is the largest manufacturer in the world for this retro sound
If you’re nostalgic for Walkmans and boom boxes, or dream about the good old days of making mix tapes, now is your time. Cassette tapes are back, baby.
Sales of the retro recordings have skyrocketed over the past few years. Since 2017, the number of cassette tapes sold in the U.S. has been increasing by double-digit percentages every year (33 percent from 2019 to 2020). In the UK, sales increased 103 percent in just the first half of 2020, according to the Official Charts Company, which called the cassette “the unlikely comeback kid of music formats.”
The rise in cassette popularity is partially fueled by the pandemic. Artists were forced to cancel gigs, but still needed a way to get new music out—cassettes were a cheap way to do it. Another contributing factor is the sound the format produces.Cassette tapes entered the music scene in 1963, invented by Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, who was the head of new product development at Philips at the time. He wanted to figure out a way to shrink reel-to-reel tapes (about 5 to 10 inches in diameter) to a size more accessible for everyday consumers. His invention was first released in Europe at the Berlin Radio Show and then came to the United States in 1964. The tapes work by running magnetically charged cellophane strips under an electromagnetic head, which sends electromagnetic sound waves to speakers. Because tapes pick up everything in the room during the recording process, the sound can have a bit of a hiss. And due to limitations in tape recording, high treble and low bass can be a little fuzzy. For some listeners, that distinctively muddy or distorted sound inspires novelty or nostalgia.
Steve Stepp, the president of National Audio Company in Springfield, Missouri—the only producer of magnetic tape for cassettes in the United States, and the largest manufacturer of the format in the world—notes that by and large, the biggest consumer group of audio cassettes right now is those under 35.
“Your ears are analog,” Stepp says. “The world around you is analog. When you hear music and it’s an actual artist, band or orchestra playing, you’re hearing all levels of frequencies at each millisecond. Your ears are built to listen to that. It’s called harmonics. But in a digital recording, there are no harmonics. You’re listening to the dominant frequency at each millisecond.”
These new cassette buyers are part of the digital music generation, Stepp explains. But the problem is that digital music has an inferior sound, because the files are so compressed. Plus, earbuds aren’t the best speakers.
Producers of digital recordings continue to strive for the harmonics cassettes can capture.
“The higher the sampling rate [the speed at which samples, or measurements throughout audio tracks, are taken] of a digital recording, the better it sounds,” Stepp adds. “As the sampling rate gets high enough, the recording begins to approximate an analog recording. It is a digital picture of an analog recording.”
The History of National Audio Company
Stepp and his father, Warren Williams Stepp, opened National Audio Company in 1969, distributing reel-to-reel magnetic recording tape to recording studios and radio and television stations. The two chose Springfield for their business because they both grew up there, and because the city’s central location made it ideal for nationwide shipping. Audio cassettes were rapidly increasing in popularity at the time, so National Audio began to sell them, buying blank plastic cassette shells and recording tape from smaller companies around the country to make them. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, they were selling 10 to 15 million blank tapes per year, sitting at the top of the industry.
Well before music cassettes peaked in the late 1990s, though, a new technology was brewing. American physicist James Russell invented compact discs in 1979, and by 1980, Sony and Philips had collaborated to create a functional version for music. CDs launched in Japan in 1982, released by Sony, who then brought the discs to the United States the following year. As they gained popularity, companies gradually began to stop manufacturing the magnetic tape needed for cassettes. But the Stepps had seen music fads come and go, and then come back again. They continued making blank cassette tapes, maintaining steady annual sales, using the magnetic tape supply they’d obtained over the past years. By 2016, two years after a final supplier in South Korea that they used for tape closed, their supply was drying up and the world was facing a tape shortage. National Audio, instead of caving to the decline, purchased a piece of equipment from the 1980s, refurbished it, and began producing their own magnetic tape in 2018. Today, the company is making 25 to 30 million cassettes for record labels annually—making them the largest manufacturer in the world, and the only manufacturer of magnetic audio tape in the United States.
A Spike in Sales During the Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many artists to cancel their gigs, and in turn, they needed a way to release new music cheaply. For those not signed to a major label, that meant cassette tapes. Cassettes can be produced in small quantities—sometimes as low as 50 tapes in a run—and cost about $2.50 per tape. CDs require a high minimum run, and vinyl is prohibitively expensive for many smaller artists. Plus, musicians would be able to hand out the cassettes, instead of fighting major artists for digital air time when they couldn’t have shows. Bigger-name artists soon took notice of the trend, and since the pandemic began, musicians like Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift have had their music released on cassettes. Now, even major motion picture soundtracks are hitting the shelves as cassette tapes. National Audio’s sales are through the roof, reaching the biggest highs since the company began with no signs of slowing down.
“We’re making ten million feet of cassette tape per day now, and every inch of it is sold before it comes off the coding line,” Stepp says. “When you download music, there is nothing in your hand. It goes out of the ethersphere into your phone, or whatever you’re playing it on. You may pay some money for it, but you don’t feel like you really own anything. You can’t lay it on a table or trade it with your friends, or anything like that. The audio cassette gives you something tangible. It is something that you can hold in your hand and say, ‘I bought this, I own it, if I want to give it to somebody or trade it, I can do that.’”
It follows an overall consumer trend during the pandemic—everything collectible has taken off. Sales spiked in things like baseball cards, Pez dispensers, comic books and antique toys, as collectors found comfort in expanding their collections. It only makes sense that cassette tapes would follow suit.
“The graph looks like a hockey stick,” says Jeffrey Smith, director of growth marketing at Discogs, a crowdsourced online database and marketplace for music. “Like all collectibles, especially physical music, when the pandemic hit, sales went through the roof. There’s an aspect of boredom we can’t look past. If there’s something that resonates with you…what else is there to do?”
Smith notes that there was a mass shedding of physical music media when streaming hit, and now the opposite is happening—people want it back.
“There’s the nostalgic side of it and then there’s the meaning side of it,” he says. “It feels like you can’t truly appreciate the music you really love unless you have some connection with it, and streaming as a whole doesn’t allow you to connect in the physical way you need.”
National Audio Company is still going strong (and growing!), and expects demand to only increase. In fact, the company recently released a brand new tape that has a wider dynamic range; there’s already a strong demand for the product.
Touring the Factory
If you’re interested in seeing how the tape gets made, National Audio Company runs free tours of its 135,000-square-foot facility upon request.
Every two weeks, guides lead groups of 10 to 20 people through what seems like Willy Wonka’s factory tour of analog music. The tour winds from the main office, which includes the graphics department and employees that take orders for tapes, to the mastering department, where team members transfer all the audio they’ve received from the original format—be it .wav or AIFF files, CDs, reel-to-reel master tapes or vinyl records—onto 10.5-inch master tapes, called pancakes.
National Audio transfers the audio using machines that look like old studio recording machines. They run incredibly fast—80 times the normal speed tapes typically run—in order to get the best quality transfer. Then all the tracks are perfected, balancing left and right sounds, setting the number of seconds between each song or track, maintaining the proper volume across the entire tape, removing any unnecessary background noise, and encoding Dolby Audio if necessary.
Next, the tour heads to the manufacturing area. The first stop on this second floor department is the mill room, where the material for the magnetic tape is made. It’s a combination of ferric oxide, lubricants and surfactants, all mixed together in giant 50-gallon vats.
“We are making, basically, audio soup,” Stepp says. “It’s kind of the consistency of tomato soup.”
All the particles in the soup are milled down to a microscopic size, and then a crosslinker, or chemical that helps all the particles bond to the mylar base that makes up the tape itself, is mixed in. From there, tour participants will see the soup coated onto the tape base. The coated tape runs through natural magnets to line up all the magnetic particles in the coating (this allows for recording later), and then it goes through 48 feet of ovens in only 8.4 seconds to dry it completely. Then, the finished tape is compressed and polished under high heat.
“You know how diamonds are chunks of coal that went through pressure and heat treatment?” Stepp says. “Recording tape is chunks of iron that went through pressure and heat to become magnetic tape. It’s the same process.”
From there, participants go to the slitting room, where the tape is cut into about 40 strands of cassette-sized tape and rolled onto plastic wheels. In the packaging room, all the tape is degaussed to rid it of any extraneous noise it picked up during the manufacturing process. If the tape was purchased blank, it’s packaged and shipped out.
Tour groups continue to the company’s third floor. Here, the tapes meet the master recordings made on the first floor. The tape goes through duplication units (National Audio has 20 of them about the size of a washing machine each), transferring the sound from the masters onto each individual tape strand. Then everything goes into a loading machine, where the tapes are spliced and loaded into the cassette housing. It only takes seven seconds to create a 90-minute cassette tape using these machines.
Next, the cassettes go back to the packaging room, where they’re put into cases with the informational inserts (called J-cards) that come with every tape. Finally—and this is one of Stepp’s favorite parts—they’re wrapped in cellophane using a repurposed 1938 cigar wrapping machine.
“It has motors bigger around than a person,” he says. “It runs on chain drives, and we got them all enclosed so nobody gets their pants caught in the chains.”
The cellophane is heat-sealed, and voila: a finished tape.
“We tell people, take a good look, you will never see this again,” Stepp says. “And that’s probably true. If you are an audio enthusiast, then this is Valhalla. You’ve died and gone there.”