Your cassette player ejects Elton John, rejects the Cockney Rejects or spits out the Specials? If you were playing music cassettes in their 1970s–1990s heyday, this scenario will be all too familiar to you. And if you’re part of the current cassette mini-renaissance thanks to contemporary releases from the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Dave, Lana Del Rey and all the rest, you’re bound to encounter it sooner or later.
So if you find your cassette player eating tapes with all the gusto of the contestants at those American burger-eating contests eating burgers, read on to learn how to suppress its appetite and make your tapes less ‘appetising’.
Why tapes get eaten by cassette players
Music cassettes were designed to be convenient and portable, which they were, especially considering the alternatives available at the time they were introduced. (Nobody back then would have been able to imagine that today, we’d be listening to music seemingly ‘plucked out of the air’, and controlled by devices in our pockets.)
But sometimes, the tape gets pulled out of the cassette by the player’s pinch roller and capstan mechanism: it gets ‘eaten’, or ‘chewed up’. In the worst case scenario, the tape also snaps. But why does this happen, and more importantly, what can you do to stop it?
There are a number of reasons. The problem could lie with the cassette itself, with the tape deck, or both. This is especially likely to be the case if you’ve just unearthed your trusty old cassette deck – or obtained a used one – and have dug out your old cassettes for a trip down Memory Lane, perhaps to digitise them.
Try and establish where the problem lies. Does the same tape get eaten in other players, or just in one? If you’ve got a dual cassette deck, try it in the other deck. Better still: try it in a completely different player, if you can. If it still gets chewed up, the problem is likely to lie with the cassette. And if other cassettes get eaten in the same player, the problem is likely to be with the player.
Remember that cassette players and the cassettes themselves are both mechanical objects with moving parts. Plus, the tape’s magnetic layer degrades over time, and bits get stuck to parts of the player. This means there’s scope for parts to wear out and things to go wrong in general.
The type of cassette also plays a role. The longer its playing time, the thinner the tape. This is why many player manufacturers recommended not using C120 blank tapes. But also pre-recorded ‘double play cassettes’ (double albums) tend to cause more problems than normal-length cassettes.
Blank cassettes were commonly available in C60 and C90 variants, with the number indicating the playing time in minutes. C120s were less common. But there must have also been a C30 variant, as otherwise Bow Wow Wow wouldn’t have sung about it in their paean to home taping, C30 C60 C90 Go.
How to make your cassettes less ‘appetising’
Let’s look at some of the things you can do to minimise the chances of your cassette player taking too much of a shine to your cassette’s innards.
1. Proper handling and storage
Even though the tape in a cassette is protected to some extent by the cassette shell, proper handling and storage of your cassettes is also important. I’ve already written about how to take care of cassette tapes, so you can find some handy storage and handling tips there.
2. Check the tape tension
One reason why a cassette player eats tapes could be poor tape tension. The tape in a cassette is wound under a certain amount of tension – enough to keep it moving on a straight path, but not enough to stretch it or add drag to the driving mechanism.
If there is too much tension, the tape’s backing can stretch.
And if there is a lack of tension, the tape simply works loose, partially unwinding inside its shell. The layers of wound tape slip around, meaning the tape is too loose when it enters the player’s capstan mechanism. This can result in it spilling out of its shell, around the take-up roller.
It’s a good idea to tension tapes before playing them, to make sure the tape runs smoothly from one spool to the other and back again. This is an especially good idea if you’ve not played the tape for a long time. Some simply feel ‘tighter’ as you wind them, and in my experience, are often the ones with problems.
As a teenager in the 1980s, for a while I had records, but no record player of my own – just a cassette/radio and a portable cassette player typical of the time. It was then that I bought this gadget, a cassette tape hand winder, designed especially for this purpose. Obviously there’s not much demand for a product like this these days, but you may be able to find a secondhand one on eBay or similar.
Most people use something like one of these, which are more commonly found in the home. They serve the same purpose, even if a bit more practice is required to get the hang of it.
And related to this: after listening to a cassette, wind the tape fully to the end, so that it’s all on one reel. Otherwise, it can work loose and create a jam.
3. Check the tape alignment
Similar to tension problems, sometimes the tape isn’t properly aligned within its shell. Manually winding before playing, as mentioned above, may help. You may need to do this a few times before noticing it runs smoother (ie properly aligned).
If you can see that the tape is too close to one side of the shell, you could try a judicious, well-aimed tap with your fingers to the other side of shell (careful!).
In extreme cases, more adventurous souls may also want to consider transferring the tape to a new shell. This is an option with the blank tapes whose housing can be unscrewed, but most pre-recorded tapes featured an integral design. Only for people who know what they’re doing, and have the proper equipment, not least of which being the correct type of gloves!
How to suppress your cassette player’s appetite
As we’ve seen above, there are a number of reasons why tapes are susceptible to being eaten in the player. There are also a number of reasons why cassette players like eating tapes. Here’s what you need to do to suppress your cassette player’s appetite.
4. Shut the doors
A really easy one, which doesn’t require any kind of equipment: keep the cassette player’s door(s) closed when it’s not in use. This helps prevent dust and dirt entering the machine.
5. Clean the pinch rollers and capstans
Clean the player’s pinch rollers and capstans. It’s a good idea to do this regularly anyway, along with the tape heads, after every 100 hours or so of use, even if your tapes and player aren’t displaying problems. Regular cleaning of these components helps prolong the useful life of your playback equipment and cassettes.
Why’s that? Over time, tape loses its magnetic surface. This oxide sticks to the parts of the cassette player it comes into contact with – the pinch rollers and capstans. In humid conditions, it can then become slightly sticky, meaning the tape in the cassette cannot be pulled smoothly from one reel to the other. This is less of a problem with quality tape (metal/chrome), but a lot of pre-recorded tapes used basic, lower-quality ferric tape.
A good indication of a dirty pinch roller is if the tape doesn’t get chewed immediately after pressing play, and especially if the sound flutters or drops out before the problem occurs.
Cleaning the capstans and tape heads
Although commercially available cassette tape cleaning fluid is available, this is only isopropyl alcohol. Any suitable isopropyl cleaning alcohol (90% concentration or above) will therefore do the job – it doesn’t have to be branded as for cleaning cassette players! Packs also are available which also contain a cassette tape head cleaning cassette.
Cleaning the tape heads only helps sound quality during playback, not specifically our chewing problem here, but if you’re going to clean the capstans and pinch rollers, you may as well clean the heads as well!
First of all, disconnect the machine from the mains (or remove the batteries). Then pour a few drops of the cleaning fluid onto the end of a cotton bud (called Q-tips or cotton swabs in some countries) and thoroughly clean the tape heads and capstans. Try and use a good quality cotton bud, as the cotton detaches from some of the cheaper ones. We’re trying to keep fluff out of the cassette player, not add more!
You’ll probably see that the cotton buds are visibly soiled afterwards. All that brown on them is bits of the cassettes you’ve played since the last time the parts were cleaned! Ugh!
Cleaning the pinch rollers
You now know how to clean the capstans and tape heads, but what should you use for cleaning the pinch rollers? This is where opinions differ.
Some experts recommend you only use the rubber restorer that used to be commonly used for repairing cassette players and video players. This may still be available from some electronics shops. They also say you absolutely should not use isopropyl alcohol for cleaning the pinch rollers, as it dries out the rubber, making them brittle, causing more problems.
But other experts say they’ve been cleaning pinch rollers with isopropyl alcohol since they were knee-high to a grasshopper, and have never had any problems. They say that the alcohol is for removing built-up residue, not for treating the underlying rubber.
Recently faced with this dilemma myself, I decided to risk using isopropyl alcohol. I’d already come to the conclusion that my cassette decks, more than 30 years old, not used for nearly 10 years and not regularly used for more than 20 years, would need some parts repairing or replacing. I felt I had nothing much to lose by using alcohol. As it happened, it didn’t remove the residue, and so I will need to have the parts replaced.
You may prefer to play it safe and try and source some rubber cleaner first.
6. Check the capstans aren’t bent
The capstans can also become bent. While I suppose you could theoretically ‘bend them back’, in all likelihood, this is likely to create more problems than it solves, unless you know what you’re doing. They will most likely need to be repaired/replaced.
7. Check the take-up roller moves smoothly
Sometimes the cause of tapes becoming chewed is that the take-up roller does not move properly. As a result, the correct tension is not maintained on the moving tape.
If a tape chews (or the mechanism stops the tape before this happens) straight after pressing play or shortly after, the roller is either not moving at all or there isn’t enough torque. But as the tape is still being pulled forwards by the capstan and pinch roller, that’s where it accumulates. In other words, the tape escapes from its housing.
If the roller’s (lack of) movement is what’s causing your problem, it will need repairing/replacing.
8. Check the pinch rollers and/or drive belt have not perished
Rubber components, such as the pinch rollers, can also become sticky over time (twenty years or so), due to the polymer breaking down. If this is the case, they will need replacing.
Similarly, the drive belts can also become misshapen and/or brittle over time, which leads to winding being uneven.
Some electronics shops may still sell the rubber restorer that used to be commonly used for repairing cassette players and video players. Otherwise, you will need to have the parts replaced.
Your cassette player eating tapes – conclusion
So there you have it: some common causes of cassette players eating tapes, and some suggested solutions. While regular maintenance helps, even when things are running OK, cleaning the capstans and drive rollers can remove magnetic residue that has built up on them. And cleaning the tape heads is good practice anyway.
If cleaning these doesn’t solve your problem, you may have no alternative other than to replace certain parts. What you decide to do also depends on your objectives. If you’re a true cassette fan, and hope to be listening to them for a long time to come, repair may be necessary – either by yourself (careful!) or a professional. But if you only need a working cassette player for a limited time, for example to digitise your cassettes, it may be more economical and less hassle to obtain a used cassette deck, either online or directly in your neighbourhood.
But hopefully these tips will bring you trouble-free spooling und uninterrupted background hiss for a long time to come!
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