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An older cassette recorder, for 2024?

Professional level Compact Cassette Deck

Can I finally digitise old analog cassette tapes?

Cassette tapes are a lost art. I haven't had a cassette player connected to my home audio system for decades. But I remember vividly the playlists on my mixtapes, and still today expect certain songs to appear after other songs when I hear them. Mixtapes also provide a snapshot of the music at the time, unlike our digital media services today.

Vintage cassette players and recorders, are expensive and full of compromises on eBay but seem to have a devoted following among collectors, vinyl enthusiasts, and music lovers. Analog audio has the hiss of tape. Remember the special grades of Tape? Like mighty TDK SA 90 which was the king of the blank audio cassette for years. TDK also made C-120s but they were prone to failure and best avoided. Everybody it seemed, made Cassette media, but it was always TDK for me if I could stretch to them.

In my other article on New Cassette recorders in 2024, I look at the only two, almost identical brand new decks you can buy (from Teac and TASCAM). Both have the exact same mechanism, and remote, with a few styling differences, notably – rack mount capability and one additional playback function on the TASCAM. In the end I decide to try a second hand deck to determine how much quality I can get out of it, and really whether I care enough to invest in this old but originally groundbreaking media. I'm still a sucker for TASCAM, the professional division of Teac, so I looked for a TASCAM 302 - one of the finest professional, rack mountable, dual cassette decks ever made.

TASCAM 302

Tascam 302 Dual Well Cassette Deck
TASCAM 302 Dual Well Cassette Deck

TL:DR — If you have the means theres still a TASCAM Pro Audio and a Teac consumer cassette deck available in new condition with USB out from. But can you get similar quality out of a second hand TASCAM cassette deck?

A used cassette deck checklist for 2024

What do I need from a used Cassette Player in 2024

  • Comprehensive tape support for all the different types of compact Cassette tape.
  • USB out so I can play the tapes and capture the output digitally on a PC or Mac USB wasnt invented when these were produced so although its on my checklist for a new deck it isn't relevant here.
  • Line in and Line out. 
  • Headphone Connector for monitoring.
  • Dolby B and C Noise supression. Remember tape hiss?
  • Metal tape support
  • Tape to tape. Not sure I really need this but nice to have retro functionality.

What don't I need from a Cassette Player in 2024

  • Gap based search forward or back seeking for four second gaps in recording between tracks, Sharp called it Advance Program Search System (APSS). TASCAM called it Computomatic Program Search (CPS)
  • Auto Reverse - it just made the device less reliable.
  • CD drive, just not needed

Buying a TASCAM 302 Double Auto Reverse Cassette Deck

These TASCAM cassette decks have a long heritage but were discontinued some twenty years ago, choose wisely

The TASCAM 302 and its successor the 302 MKII are the direct predecessor of the 202 model, which in its mkVii edition gets direct USB out. The 302 is almost identical to the mk2, save for Dolby HX Pro support. The archive pictures of them from the TASCAM site seem to be identical, but don't seem to be correct, missing the 302MKII model id and the text 'Optically Triggered Quick Auto Reverse' text above deck 2. The controls are identical though.

The TASCAM 302, and the 302MKII are double auto reverse cassette decks primarily designed for continuous playback of background music or tape dubbing.

A maximum of ten 302MKIIs can be hooked up to form a sequential play loop or to synchronize them, with one serving as the master/source machine and the others serving as the slave/target machines, for simultaneous tape dubbing.

Optional accessories at the time
  • RC302 (for the 302) or RC-322A (for the 302 MKII) Remote Control Unit,
  • WR-7000 synchro cable (for interconnecting two or more 302 or 302MkIIs,
  • TZ-261 cleaning kit (except for U.S.A.),
  • HC-1 head cleaner & RC-1 rubber cleaner (U.S.A. only),
  • Head demagnetizer
Rack Mount

The 302 and the 302MKII have rack mount ears and can be installed in a standard 19" rack. The 302 and the 302MKII are 3U in height.

TASCAM 302MKII

Tascam 302 Dual Well Cassette Deck
TASCAM 302 MKii Dual Well Cassette Deck

Using eBay to find a Tascam 302 can be a mixed blessing

TASCAM 302 decks aren't particularly rare. There are always a few on eBay, but you do need to exercise care. Lots of broken 'parts only' or otherwise hard lived units with scrapes, dings and missing buttons are not what I was looking for. I set up a search and left it. No need to rush for a twenty year old Cassette Deck after all. Finally one attracted my interest. Stated as being in "Generally good condition" this was being offered in a padded rack mount case. This sounded promising. If it had spent its life in a case it would likely be in decent cosmetic shape. It was being sold on behalf of a police force. It was being sold as tested and without a remote. This looked like the right level of history and quality for me. So I won it. Very satisfactorily for £1 more than the previous highest bidder. A bargain I think at £151 in January 2024, the Rack case worth at least that on its own. It arrived a couple of days later and on opeing it, it was exactly as described and didn't seem to have seen much use. Worth the wait.

Tascam 302 in padded rack case
Tascam 302 in padded rack case
Tascam 302 deck
Tascam 302 deck
Tascam 302 display
Tascam 302 display
Padded rack case
Padded rack case

Cleaning the heads

I resisted the temptation to put a tape in right away and ordered cleaning fluid and cleaning swabs

Turns out this is just Isopropanol Alcohol IPA 99.99% which you can get in bulk for peanuts or you can buy in little expensive bottles with 'Tape Cleaning Fluid' written on it. I ordered some Poke Precision Cleaning Swabs for Cleaning Electrical Equipment - Printers, Computer, Phone & Optical Equipment (60 Pack) and set about cleaning the tape heads (erase and record), the pinch rollers, and the capstan, using a new swab for each deck and starting with the heads. Quite a bit of grime came off. This is probably the first time they have been cleaned in twenty years. After waiting very patiently for the heads to dry, I placed a tape, the latest cassette Ihave ever bought - The Sun The Start and the Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen, in Deck A. Put my Sennheiser Momentum headphones on and pressed play. The sound quality takes you back to 1980. not in a bad way, but its Cassette. There's some hiss and the tone is very very definitely not digital. But its how I remember music and its sensational. If anything, Deck B has a slightly brighter sound but theres only a tiny difference. This is a really lovely piece of hardware, working perfectly, after all this time.

Scoring a remote control for a TASCAM 302, again on eBay

Thanks to another saved search I've found a brand new RC-302 wired remote control. The seller has a few in case this of any use to someone reading this its item 256419120334. I've ordered it. I'll report back when it arrives.

TASCAM RC-302 remote control
TASCAM RC-302 remote control

References

See also: