Making Do: When you’re not rich, you have to

This is pure nostalgia, not anything productive.

A few items ago, I mentioned working as a security guard during college back in the 1990s.  That almost always meant working nights unless working a concert, a beer garden or some other evening event.  FM radio and a walkman were accessories and necessities when bored out of your mind at 4AM and trying not to sleep on the job.  Late night radio is usually when you find interesting things that you don’t hear elsewhere, local DJs or the CBC playing stuff that would never pass in the daytime.

In the 1980s to early 2000s, CBC had two popular late night programs: Brave New Waves with Brent Bambury from Sunday to Thursday, and Nightlines with David Wisdom on Friday and Saturday.  They were “anything goes” programs, featuring the strange and the eclectic, introducing me to Nirvana and They Might Be Giants years before commercial success, John Zorn, Negativland, and a slough of others.  Here’s a 26 minute sample of Nightlines from 1989.  Brave New Waves ran from midnight until 4AM, Nightlines from 12AM until 5AM.  If you’re working security, you get to hear it on the air, but what if you hear and want to record something that will probably never be broadcast again because it’s too weird for commercial radio?

More below the fold….

In the early to mid 1990s, hard disk drives were still only in the 100MB to 200MB range, and 1.44MB floppies were still the usual backup and transfer medium.  And that’s assuming you had a 386 or better PC, with a 16 bit sound card to record it.  I had neither, my college computer was an 8088 Frankenstein of parts.  (A story for another time.)

So how could I record the radio?  My “audio system” was another Frankenstein.  I had an Optimus STA 20 tuner from Radio Shack (C$100 at the time, or US$60), a dual cassette tape machine, old turntable, and modest pair of five watt speakers.  I could only record up to two hours on a double sided tape (with autoreverse), and you needed to be there to hit the start button, timers were out of my price range.  I was hitting record at 11:40, then racing to my workplaces.  I needed another, better solution.

I had a VCR.  It was only a two head machine, but VCRs record at a much higher frequency (Megahertz) than audio cassette (Kilohertz), so I experimented.  Using RCA cables, I connected the tuner’s audio out to the VCR’s audio in and tested it.  It worked the first time, whether from the radio, vinyl, tape, or later from a CD walkman.  They all sounded good on the TV.  (These two videos, part 1 and part 2 explain why video tape produces such high quality sound.)

I was now able to program the VCR to record from the radio on a timer, no more need to be there, no more interesting music going unrecorded.  The following day I would listen to the playback on the TV or on the tuner (after reversing the VCR’s output).  Anything interesting could then be copied back onto cassette.  A quick search through many tech and audiophile pages, forums, and blogs shows that I wasn’t the only one to do this.

Cheap laptops, cheap mass storage and 32 bit sound chips of today render this moot.  But the high quality of VHS audio has kept it relevant in other ways.  The resurgence of and nostalgia for vinyl appealed to independent artists who couldn’t afford vinyl.  Artists began using VHS as a means of distributing albums.  The sound quality is good, the technology still exists, and it’s far less fragile.

How VHS belatedly re-entered music’s format war

With garage rock star Ty Segall posting videotapes of his latest album to critics, it seems the black plastic bricks of static are well and truly back. But is it worth exploring this particular avenue of old-school analogue?

Tshepo Mokoena, Fri 13 Nov 2015

Snow-like static. Warped, wobbling visuals. Wildly uneven sound. Looking back, it’s incredible that we put up with videotapes for as long as we did. Now that Sony has ended future production of its Betamax cassette tapes – the ones you probably never used because you stuck to JVC’s VHS – it would seem as good a time as any to quietly close the door on the videotape chapter of human existence.

Try telling that to the prolific garage rock musician Ty Segall, who sent VHS copies of his 11-song album, Emotional Mugger, to music critics at Pitchfork on Monday. Segall’s earliest releases were on cassette and he’s no stranger to 7in vinyl singles, but this dalliance with VHS is his first.

In a year that’s seen both sales and prices of vinyl soar in the UK, it’s no secret that there’s a market for physical formats. But VHS albums? Really? Remember the sight of a video’s black tape, tangled and regurgitated from within the cassette, destined never to play again? Now imagine putting up with that in 2015, when technology has given us so many other options. It’s a hard sell.

It may be a hard sell, but it’s an affordable option to independent artists.

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VCRs turned out to be much more flexible than just radio recording.  Three years ago, Lazy Game Reviews (youtube) covered the Danmere Backer, an ISA card and software from 1995 that allowed backups and data storage on VHS tapes.  His experiment showed that the system worked well, and a single tape could hold anywhere from 750MB to 3GB, a huge amount of storage compared to hundreds of megabytes on CD-ROMs of the time.  Sure, tape storage existed at the time, but it was far too expensive for home users (US$2000 or more).  The Danmere (jokingly called “damn near” by some) cost US$60.

As it turns out, the Danmere wasn’t the first VHS mass storage solution.  The first was the ArVid in 1990, from (of all places) the Soviet Union.  Heck, I didn’t even know the USSR had VCRs in the 1980s, but for the few who had Soviet personal computers or stolen and cloned VAXen and IBM mainframes, it probably made sense.

Do I miss VCRs and audio cassettes?  I miss the immediacy, but not the bulk or the low quality.  An electronic device may be high quality, but unless you’re expecting to record something, it will take five to ten seconds to start recording.  With a blank VHS tape or audio cassette at the ready, a VCR and a walkman can begin recording in one second, far less likely to miss anything.



  1. Jazzlet says

    I have a friend who used to work as a dentist employed by the NHS, this is uncommon, most dentists in the UK are self-employed, and not well enough funded to provide any frills. In order to provide relaxing music for his patients he recorded it on VHS tapes and used a VCR that no longer had visual output (why he was getting a new one) for playback. He could get a whole morning or afternoon’s worth of music on one tape with no repititions and no need for his staff to get to grips with the (to them) ancient technology. And as you say high quality output.