Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The history of listening to music from an old fart

[This could be my longest post ever]
This post has a target audience. That would be anyone born after, let's say.... 1980.... give or take. I want kids today to appreciate the bullshit we had to go through to listen to our music. Having said that, for anyone born before 1975, this will be a nostalgia trip.

Let's start with vinyl. You see, back in the day, music was sold on vinyl records. Big-assed 12 inch long play (LP) 33 1/3 RPM albums and smaller-assed 7 inch "45 RPM" records for singles. There were huge limitations to listening to music on vinyl.

Because the music was produced by letting a phonograph needle drag around a groove, converting bumps into a feeble electrical signal, which was then amplified and turned into sound, the record had to be delicately cared for. This meant the record lived in a paper sleeve, which was itself tucked into a thin cardboard sleeve. Although this extra packaging was purposed to protect the vinyl, it presented itself as the perfect canvas to present visual art as a value-added extra to the music. Album art was great. It added an indescribable dimension to the music owning experience. Some album sleeves contained printed lyrics, folded up posters while others chose to use the vinyl itself as the canvas - manifesting as picture-discs and multi-coloured pressings. I had a few of those in my day. While today it's the websites that are the value-added product from today's artists and music videos were the extra prize in the 1980s and 1990s, album art was the big deal in the years prior.

In addition to protecting the vinyl with sleeves, the vinyl collected dust like a magnet, due to its electrostatic material. Dust is bad because it interferes with the fidelity of the needle-dragging-along-the-groove thing, and the accumulated static electricity discharged itself through the needle (amplified by the stereo system) as irregular loud pops. Audiophiles spent considerable money, time and effort trying to keep their records clean, dust and static free using all manner of brushes, cloths, fluids and treatments. Picture this - every time you'd remove a record from its sleeve, you'd gingerly (by the edges please) place it on the turntable, likely covered in some exotic felt mat, then brush the surface free of dust and other free-loading particles before dropping the needle into the groove. Now you know where that phrase comes from.

Then there was the playback device, the turntable. A decent turntable with a decent needle and cartridge would set you back a few hundred dollars, but the serious audio nuts wouldn't flinch at dropping a cool thousand or more on custom tables with exotic designs and materials with acoustic isolation properties only a recording engineer could appreciate. Using a record player was no simple task either. That needle and cartridge (and the pivoting arm it was attached to) needed to be adjusted and balanced to ride the groove just right. This was a ritual that had to be performed on a regular basis. Diamond needles wore out and needed replacement at least every other year, depending on frequency of use. Cost? $50 for a new needle was nothing. Speaking of riding the groove, another thing vinyl records were susceptible to was warping. This happened if you stored records incorrectly or left them near a strong heat source or in direct sunlight. The correct way to store vinyl is standing up on its side, which collectors accomplished by storing them in old milk crates.

Listening to music on a record album was a curious thing. You have to understand, when music was primarily played from an album split into two sides on vinyl, we would typically listen to the whole album from start to finish. Play side one, then flip the record over and play side two. This is a dimension of music appreciation not normally experienced by today's youth. Listening to an entire album in one sitting not only got music fans more familiar with the creative spectrum of an artist, it motivated many artists to create albums that were based around a central theme. It also motivated them to produce more than one one good song. Or maybe they just seemed good to us because we would listen more than once before making up our minds. The modern music generation is focused on singles. One or two songs from a modern album are promoted by the label and the rest wallow in obscurity - sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not.

The sheer size of a record and the necessary playback device meant that music was not portable. You could take your vinyl records to a friend's house, or a club. But you couldn't play them in your car, on a bike or going for a stroll. Which brings us to our first real revolution in music playback technology. The compact audio cassette tape.

You will note my deliberate omission of the 8 track tape. [Getting on soap box] That blasphemous sub-standard medium was suitable for pick-up trucks and wanna-be hot rods and was shunned by the audiophile community as a mediocre delivery system akin to a toy piano. The 8 track was but a blip on the tape medium radar and has been forever relegated to the scrap heap of consumer history along with the pet rock. [Getting off soap box] But let's get back to the compact cassette tape. This invention revolutionized music listening - it was the first small, recordable medium available to the consumer. Yes, I know about reel-to-reel. That's not a portable system. The music industry feared compact audio cassette tape. The car industry loved it. Joggers adored it. Now album owners could make copies of music from their vinyl collection and put it on a medium that could be played in their car, in a boom box and eventually in portable devices no bigger than a paperback novel called a Walkman. Even though Sony trademarked that name, everyone's hand-held tape player was referred to as a Walkman.

Tape aficionados could make mixtapes, creating whole sessions of music combinations never before heard together. As previously mentioned, record listening was focused on an entire album at a time. Creating mixed tapes gave us the freedom to play a song by Styx, then one by Zeppelin, then one by Hendrix, and so on. Before tape, only radio had that power, freedom and flexibility. Talk about a paradigm shift.....

Just as vinyl owning audiophiles took great pains to extract the best sound from their records, tape 'deck' owners had their own tweaks to perform. Not all tape was created equal. You had your Type I normal ferrous oxide formula, your Type II chromium oxide formula, your Type III ferric chrome and the ultimate Type IV metal. Oh yeah, we were all about setting the bias on the tape recorder properly, and we knew about stuff like signal-to-noise ratios and equalization and all sorts of technical mumbo-jumbo. It didn't stop there either. Not only did you have various grades (types) of tape, but they came in various recording capacities too. C60 could store 30 minutes per side, C90 could store 45 per side and C120 a full hour per side. Of course, any self-respecting audio nut knew never to buy the C120 size because the tape was so thin and flimsy (to fit in the case), it tended to stretch and even break during playback.

Oh yeah. The breakage. Audio tape had a tendency to get jammed up real good inside a tape deck, especially a deck not kept clean and de-magnetized on a regular basis. Removing a tape that had been 'eaten' by a tape deck was a delicate operation and often led to tears if the mangled rust coated plastic ribbon was beyond salvage. Cleaned you say? Yep. We rubbed isopropyl alcohol soaked cotton swabs on the contact parts of the tape deck (rollers, spindles, heads) to remove the gunk that built up. Gunk causes tapes to be eaten. The demagnetizing was necessary because all that magnetic tape rubbing across the parts made them magnetized, which affected the sound, especially the high frequency response. If you witnessed the act of manual demagnetization of a tape deck's parts, you'd think you had stumbled across a Star Trek fan doing their best impression of Dr McCoy checking the health of his patient with a medical scanner.

Tape playback did have one particularly annoying feature. Because tape was a linear medium, getting to a specific song was tedious and fraught with constant fast-forward and rewind actions. This took some getting used to considering the ability to precisely drop a needle into the groove right between songs on a record. But even more so than records, tapes were meant to be listened to as a complete piece in two parts (one part per side). The difference - while you could buy albums in tape format, the composition on a tape was often created by a consumer - a musical director in their own right.

Yes, the tape generation regarded their tape collection as personal works of art. I considered it a privilege and an honour to be asked to bring my mixed tapes to a party. It was like being asked to perform on stage. You knew you had good mixtapes in your collection when people would ask you to make them a copy, or better - if they asked you to create a custom mixed tape just for them.

The cassette tape also revolutionized two industries. The music industry, which originally had pronounced the tape as the medium that would utterly destroy their business model, ended up embracing tapes and began releasing new music right onto pre-recorded cassettes. This new format would sell so well that sales of pre-recorded cassettes would eclipse both vinyl records and the new CD format combined, for a while. That is a fact. (How do I know? I used to work in the business) The other industry that was revolutionized was mobile audio. Car stereos suddenly had a reason to get better and louder. Portable music! Remember the thousand dollar turntable? Get ready for the thousand dollar car audio tape deck - amps and speakers not included.

Then came the digital revolution. Compact discs. I studied the technology behind CDs when they first arrived on the scene. They were a marvel of technology. They had so many advantages over their predecessors. Easy to clean. Resistant to wear, static and magnetism. Portable. Pure, clean sound. An old school audiophile will insist that digital versions of analog music lacked the warmth, the subtle tones of the record and tape. They may be right, but the world didn't seem to care back then. We all jumped on the digital bandwagon, save for a few hold-outs. The reason? How we would listen to our music would be revolutionized yet again when the Discman portable CD player arrived and car stereos slowly converted from tape decks to CD players.

Digital Audio Tape was next (DAT), but it never caught on, the innocent victim of endless legal red tape prior to its introduction. In short, the music industry again claimed that this new recording format would ruin their business model only this time they had the ear of a lot of US government officials. They also had a lot of money in those officials' pockets. The time wasted debating the fairness of the disruptive DAT technology killed it before it arrived on store shelves.

Computers created an opportunity to shrink the audio format even further. MP3 files made it possible to take a digital music sample from a CD (which on a computer hard drive occupied around 12MB per minute of music) and shrunk it down to a more manageable 1MB per minute. Why did we care? Because hard drives were not very big nor were they inexpensive at the time. Worse, internet connections were quite slow and people were more likely to share their music with each other online (on IRC - remember that?) if a song transfer (on dial-up) only took 10 minutes instead of 100. Yeah - that's 10 minutes per song (circa 1996). Pretty soon, the computer geeks had collected thousands of mp3 files of both their own music and tunes others chose to share with the world. Our music collections would never be the same again as we got to sample more music than radio or music television could ever hope to share with us. I could only imagine what our faces would have registered if we told ourselves that within 10 years or so, we'd be able to download entire albums in just a few seconds.

Most importantly though, the mp3 made it possible to carry and play our music in ways never imagined even by the gadget creators themselves. Now we have digital music players no bigger than a piece of Bazooka Joe gum. We can carry our entire music collections on our phones, our laptops, on memory sticks, and play them in our cars or on a plane or out for a walk. Even better, we now have the tools to mix our favourite music in ways that would have boggled the mind of a teen in the 1980s, let alone a recording engineer. Even a digital DJ could eschew records (blasphemous!) and instead of carrying dozens of crates of records to a gig, just bring a pair of mp3 playing devices and be ready to entertain with any song from their entire collection. As a former DJ, you have no idea how amazingly freeing that would have been for me in the 1980s.

So there's a little insight for you young 'uns on how music was played a mere 30 years ago through to today. We've gone from a time when our music mostly stayed at home and occupied whole walls of our rooms to a period where a whole collection can be brought anywhere and enjoyed at any time. That's a luxury we now take for granted.

P.S.: I still have a soft spot for records and CDs for their fidelity, a quality often lost on the youth of today. I hate to break it to people, but there most definitely is a difference between the pure sound of an uncompressed audio file direct from a CD (or a FLAC loss-less copy) than an mp3 file, no matter how good the conversion. Don't take my word for it. Feel free to come visit and I'll let you hear uncompressed high dynamic music on a decent stereo. I dare you not to tell me you like it better.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Karl for that beautiful stroll down memory lane! Back in the day I was quite proud of my collection of albums and equipment, and spent a lot of time and money maintaining them. But it seems to me that we have traded convenience for quality these days. The thing I miss most though is the wonderful album cover artwork. I would occasionally buy a record just for the cover!


Anonymous said...

I still have a mix tape you made me many, many years ago. I loved it...It's a maxell tape :) Heidi