Lou Ottens enjoyed a life that saw him turn a short temper into a major cultural milestone.
Ottens was the Dutch engineer who spearheaded the 1963 invention of the cassette tape and the introduction of a portable cassette recorder/player. The moment of creation came when he got angry at his reel-to-reel recorder for shooting tape everywhere. He wanted to give tape a roof over its head, and since he was head of new product development at Phillips, he and his staff made it happen, giving us a way to finally make our music collections truly portable. Ottens — the Father of the Mixtape — passed away in early March at age 94.
Cassettes were a game-changer from an audio engineering standpoint, but the cultural impact was even more mind-blowing. We could slip entire albums into our back pockets.
Reel-to-reel had a lot going for it but it was cumbersome and not portable in any useful sense. Sure, you could make a compilation tape but then it had to wind up with someone who also had a reel-to-reel player.
Early cassette technology was lo-fi and no one cared, because suddenly we could sit a tape recorder in front of a speaker and record our 45s and LPs — and then take the music with us anywhere! We could tape 60 minutes of prime radio — and then take the music with us! It didn’t matter a bit that it sounded like Marc Bolan was yelling from the basement next door because we finally had a personal, portable soundtrack, and that was empowering.
Cassettes were a revolution and they only got better.
Quality grew rapidly and tape decks quickly got more sophisticated and then more affordable. Bootlegging grew into a subculture. Musicians were reveling in the freedom of recording spontaneously to cassette, often capturing something they could never completely reproduce (see: Bruce Springsteen’s straight-to-cassette Nebraska and subsequent band versions of the same songs).
Photo by Idin Ebrahimi
More importantly for us normal people, as the technology evolved, we could make excellent recordings directly from our turntables, with perfectly-matched levels and Dolby noise reduction. The only thing missing was hormones and then — BOOM! — there they were, boy, and that meant kissing and kissing begat mixtapes and mixtapes begat more kissing, because there was no better way to start a make-out session than giving someone a personalized mixtape of very, very, very special songs.
And that is also how a bunch of kids invented the modern digital playlist, which has far exceeded the analog mixtape in popularity. Hell, we don’t even have to make our own playlists anymore because the algorithms do it for us. Ottens retired in 1986 and the things he made possible continued to impact the world for many years to come.
Granted, a playlist is extremely handy but nothing can beat an old-school mixtape, and that’s not blind nostalgia talking. Mixtapes aren’t easy to make and a truly good one can take hours. You know what else isn’t easy? Love, and that’s why a playlist doesn’t stand a chance against a mixtape, because the more you love someone, the harder you’ll work on that mixtape. It’s the perfect blend of technology and humanity.
That’s why mixtapes became a symbol of love and friendship, and remain so. When Ottens gave us his compact cassette, he was also opening a door that often led to romance, heartache, healing, friendship, and keggers.
I have very specific memories of certain mixtapes, made for myself and others. There was the one made for the wedding of friends, which traced the paths of two friendships. Or the one after I discovered what was then called alternative rock; it was 90 minutes of R.E.M., Big Star, and various Mitch Easter projects. The one I made for my second girlfriend, so desperate to please and impress her, actually worked.
These weren’t cassettes. They were my life.
According to his New York Times obituary, Ottens was a pragmatist who saw the cassette primarily as a problem successfully solved. There was no romance. This was irrevocably proven when he instigated the development of the compact disc, which subsequently nearly wiped out both the cassette and the LP.
While you eventually could make a CD version of a mixtape, it was never the same. Scrolling through iTunes, making a list of songs, and then clicking on “Burn Disc” doesn’t remotely compare to the ritual of recording vinyl to cassette. The selection, the cleaning, the juggling of tracks based on impact and time remaining, the endless math, that feeling of elation when the last track fades and only seconds later the tape runs out.
Nearly three hours of work, 90 minutes of tape, and a piece of your heart. That’s Ottens’ ultimate legacy and it’ll never go away. Somewhere, someone has just now figured out what to call the latest mix for their crush and are meticulously writing it on the tape’s impossibly small insert. Or they’ve perfected a Maiden mix for their vintage Walkmen.
Some heroes don’t wear capes but do magical things with capstans, and that was Ottens. He leaves the world better off than when he arrived.
Original feature image by Gregory Wong Woong Ming.