How does a cassette tape recorder work?

How does a cassette tape recorder work? — TW, Ottawa, Ontario

Like any tape recorder, a cassette recorder uses the magnetization of the tape’s surface to represent sound. The tape is actually a thin plastic film that’s coated with microscopic cigar-shaped permanent magnets. These particles are aligned with the tape’s length and can be magnetized in either of two directions—they can have their north magnetic poles pointing in the direction of tape motion or away from that direction. In a blank tape, the particles are magnetized randomly so that there are as many of them magnetized in one direction as the other. In this balanced arrangement, the tape is effectively non-magnetic. But in a recorded tape, the balance is upset and the tape has patches of strong magnetization. These magnetized patches represent sound.

When you are recording sound on the tape, the microphone measures the air pressure changes associated with the sound and produces a fluctuating electric current that represents those changes. This current is amplified and used to operate an electromagnet in the recording head. The electromagnet magnetizes the tape—it flips the magnetization of some of those tiny magnetic particles so that the tape becomes effectively magnetized in one direction or the other. The larger the pressure change at the microphone, the more current flows through the electromagnet and the deeper the magnetization penetrates into the tape’s surface. After recording, the tape is covered with tiny patches of magnetization, of various depths and directions. These magnetized patches retain the sound information indefinitely.

During playback, the tape moves past the playback head. As the magnetic fields from magnetized regions of the tape sweep past the playback head, they cause a fluctuating electric current to flow in that head. The process involved is called electromagnetic induction; a moving or changing magnetic field produces an electric field, which in turn pushes an electric current through a wire. The current from the playback head is amplified and used to operate speakers, which reproduce the original sound.

The rest of the cassette recorder is just transport mechanism—wheels and motors that move the tape smoothly and steadily past the recording or playback heads (which are often the same object). There is also an erase head that demagnetizes the tape prior to recording. It’s an electromagnet that flips its magnetic field back and forth very rapidly so that it leaves the tiny magnetic particles that pass near it with randomly oriented magnetizations.

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