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LPs, cassettes and other matters… February 4, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been reading Travis Elborough’s The Long-Player Goodbye – which examines the rise and fall and somewhat smaller rise of vinyl. Some of the snippets of information are remarkable, what struck me as fascinating for example, was this, discussing not LPs but that upstart, the cassette tape:

Bow Wow Wow’s eight-track ‘cassette’ album, My Cassette Pet, similarly saluted a format whose sales at the end of the [1980s] would outstrip those of vinyl LPs. In America in 1987, they accounted for 63 per cent of all albums sold. At their peak in 1989, sales of pre-recorded tapes reached 83 million.

That surprised me until I read on in the book about the arrival of the WalkMan. Of course. And talking to people in the business in Ireland much the same was true here in relation to the take-up of cassette tapes in the 1980s. And yet, I’ve got to be honest, I was never hugely fond of the cassette because of sound degradation, though sheesh, given what 128kb MP3s did to sound quality it now seems like my complaints were minor. It was a clunky technology, prone to breakage in a way that vinyl wasn’t. But it was portable and playable on the move whereas vinyl really wasn’t.

And for all that I complain the cassette tape compilation was an art in itself (famously noted in High Fidelity). And I always loved the way that on a cassette one could get a blurring, as it were, between tracks taped from the radio generating a sort of found sound. The time spent making these was considerable, it had to be done in real time of course (speaking of which talking to someone recently they were musing about their old record collection and how it was necessary to rip it in real time and that was a bridge too far for them, even though they kind of wanted to).

Then there was the simple fact of being able to listen to music on earphones – that was revelatory. Low to mid-end music systems could have extremely variable stereo, but here it was, immediate and up front. I was using a walkman well into the 1990s – I think as late as 1998 or later.

But all of this was, of course, washed away by CD and later MP3. CD Walkman’s weren’t great. They had to have buffers because spinning disks were even less forgiving than tapes (and as anyone who used a tape will know, more often than one might expect they would break and have to be carefully glued back together. Unspooling cassette tapes was an art of sorts too). There was the MiniDisc which seemed to work much better but also cost an arm and a leg.

And so to the iPod, which for all its corporate sheen – and really the WalkMan was pretty damn corporate too, had numerous advantages. I had an iPod shuffle which I loved, an iPod Mini – ditto, and when the Touch arrived it was as if it had fallen off of a flying saucer so advanced the touch screen appeared to be.

Which raises the question, where next if anywhere? Smaller units, sure, or a localisation to mobiles (and streaming streaming streaming, which I dislike intensely). But what further refinements are possible?

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1. sonofstan - February 4, 2017

Just on sound quality; had an interesting chat yesterday with some audio students about what people will put up with – we were discussing sound and VR and the difficulty of making it credible. we worked out there was a threshold of credibility and expectation that varied according to price and convenience – so, as they well knew, people put up with MP3s because of the practicality, whereas, as you say, cassettes were often criticised from what seems now to be very high vantage point. You mention the minidisc, which to my ears was a superior technology to either CDs or any but the very highest quality files, but died a sorry death. They also told me that ‘no one your age’ is into gaming, so I’m afraid I used you and a few others here as counter examples.

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WorldbyStorm - February 4, 2017

Thanks, tell them I’m obsessed by the game Deus Ex. That’s my sense of minidisc that it was better. Isn’t it odd how it’s all worked out. FLAC is top of the range but expensive for download files. And I’m genuinely unsure I need very good. But 128 isn’t great so VBR/320 does it for me. But compared with CD/vinyl it’s a bit flat.

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2. rockroots - February 4, 2017

Somewhere, I have hundreds of home-made cassette compilations of what I was listening to in the 90s, each with hand-made covers. I loved the utility of tapes and was still listening to a walkman until at least 2006, much to the amusement of work colleagues. I still compulsively make playlists on my MP3 player (refusing to buy anything Apple, for reasons I can’t quite remember) rather than listening to complete albums, but it just doesn’t have the same personal touch.
Funnily enough, I was in a record shop during the week that was selling used cassettes – the first time I’d seen them on display in many, many years. And I see that Japanese noise rockers Acid Mothers Temple are releasing their latest album on cassette only, just to be contrary.
One drawback currently is that tape players haven’t come back into vogue like record players have. I searched high and low for a decent tape player last year to digitise some old tapes of my grandmother singing and talking and eventually had to settle for a new walkman bought online, but it added a horrible loud hum to anything played (and the walkman was the problem, not the tape). I can certainly see there being a niche nostalgia market for tapes, but not much more than that.

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WorldbyStorm - February 4, 2017

I hadn’t thought about the difficulties in getting a walkman. But that makes sense that they would be kind of obsolete.

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3. sonofstan - February 4, 2017

I’d a brief cassette revival about 10 years ago when I had two cars in a row with only cassette players. it was kinda fun doing up comps again.

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WorldbyStorm - February 4, 2017

Yeah, they were a labour of love but no real labour at all.

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sonofstan - February 4, 2017

Like working for google, wha’?

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WorldbyStorm - February 4, 2017

Er…..no! 😉

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4. GW - February 5, 2017

Allow me to quote from the Ladybird book of the Mid-Life Crisis:

Frank is forty-one. He has been to the record shop. He has re-bought all the music he liked when he was young, but on the most inconvenient possible format.

He also asked the twenty-two-year-old behind the counter what new records were good. He bought everything she recommended because she had amazing hair.

He hates all the new records, but not as much as he hates himself.

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