Today we mostly associate cassette tapes with the miniaturization of the Walkman, casual listening, and dubbing for mix tapes. But over the years there have been attempts to treat the cassette as a serious music reproduction format. The TC 800 series from Yamaha was one example - and probably the most unusual looking.
Yamaha is a storied name in Japanese audio electronics, and of course is also well-known as the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments. These days its electronics are at mostly on the better end of mass-consumer, but in 1975 they sought to create a statement product with the TC 800 cassette deck.
Treating the cassette deck as a high-end product was something of a fool's errand. There were limits to what the inexpensive, inherently flawed technology could reproduce, with its limited bandwidth and dynamic range, and poor pitch stability. But as Nakamichi would continue to do in the 80's and 90's, particularly with its famed Dragon cassette deck, Yamaha took a crack at a high-end of cassette reproduction. But while the Dragon was primarily about extracting the very best output from cassettes, the Yamaha places as much emphasis on recording. Perhaps Yamaha engineers had aspirations to capture some of the reel-to-reel market that was still a niche in the 70's.
Yamaha had previously used the famous Japanese industrial design consultancy GK Design for much of its audio products (the founder of which, Kenji Ekuan, I once had the fortune to meet, and who sadly passed away recently at the age of 85). For the TC 800, Yamaha turned to Italian architect and designer Mario Bellini. Bellini also designed the Olivetti Divisumma 18 that we've featured, but while that calculator is playfully shaped and colored, the TC 800 is a very different animal.
(Click any image to enlarge)
If one didn't know better, one could be excused for thinking that the TC 800 was designed in the 80's. It's black, hard-edged angularity paired with slightly soft-touch plastic texture were a decade ahead of their time - typical of Bellini setting stylistic trends that others would later follow.
For those used to thinking of cassette decks as relatively pedestrian and innocuous products, the TC 800 is a shock when you see it in person. This is partly due to its surprising size - over 12" wide - and unexpected weight at almost 11 lbs (4.8kg).
And then there is that dramatic wedge shape.
Perhaps inspired by the wedge shapes that were fashionable in car design in the early 70's (for example, the Lamborghini Countach, the Lotus Esprit by Giugiaro, Bertone's amazing Stratos HF Zero, or Pininfarina's equally outrageous Ferrari Modulo). Or perhaps it was a way to assert dominance over other audio components it was paired with. The slanted face made the TC 800 impossible to stack under components such as an amplifier or tuner. It had to be at the top of the stack. (A similar trick was used by the Sears Roebuck catalog - it was given a slightly smaller footprint than the competing Montgomery Ward catalog, so that in theory neat-freak housewives would place it on top).
Then there is this diagram that looks like it was done by Bellini's office to show the ergonomic benefits of the slanted face, making it easier to operate the unit when either sitting or standing. They also show how the unit tucks under one's arm, but I can say from personal experience that the weight of it makes this precarious one-handed.
Whatever the rationale, it certainly made for a dramatic head unit that didn't look like anything else on the market.
Yamaha first introduced two variants in 1975, the 800 and the 800GL (shown here), each with slightly different functionality. A later unit supplanted them, the 800D, that was produced until 1978.
The wedge gets cantilevered up by a foot that flips out on the bottom. This foot unfortunately is broken or missing on a lot of units you'll find for sale - on this unit it works once in position, but must be handled carefully. Without the foot extended, the unit sits flat down on the surface with the controls horizontal.
The horizontal sliders for the levels and tone controls look dramatic, and are easy to understand at a glance. They clearly mimic the look of a mixing deck in a recording studio, reinforcing the high-end, professional persona of the machine. It's easy to see if the left and right channels are adjusted to the same amount as they'll be vertically aligned. But for fine control they are actually a bit harder to use than knobs as there is a tendency to overshoot the desired position.
The switches all have light actions but distinctive clicks, so you're never in doubt about what they've done. The gauges light up a dull incandescent yellow for when recording or listening in the dark, and of course it's always fun to watch the needles bounce in time to the music.
What gives it soul?
What comes through when you look at the TC 800 is its lack of compromise: A pure wedge. Entirely monochromatic (aside from small UI elements such as the fluorescent orange rectangle of the record button). Its hard edges are off-putting yet strangely attractive.
It is an undiluted realization of Bellini's vision, where you can feel him working with an entirely different idiom than the Divisumma 18 from just 2 years prior.
While not as famous in designer circles as the Divisumma, Bellini's TC 800 was actually far more prescient at modeling the angular, techno look of consumer electronics to come in the following decade.