Days of future passed

>> Monday, June 29, 2009

Over at BBC News, a 13-year-old British teen, Scott Campbell, reviews a stunning piece of portable music technology: the Sony Walkman, which he carried around for a week for the article.

It's actually kind of awesome and worth checking out. Scott Campbell grew up in the digital age, cassette tapes becoming a thing of the past in much the same way as albums on wax cylinders, say. When I was his age, of course, cassette tapes were ubiquitous and I had a ton of 'em, mostly copied from LPs. Campbell discovers, among other things: that the tapes can be kind of warbly (he attributes it to battery life, but it's far more likely the problem is old and stretched-out tapes), that cassette tapes come with two sides, that "Metal/Normal" aren't EQ presets, that the thing has tons of metal moving parts. And of course it seems utterly huge to him--"It was the size of a small book," he writes with some evident surprise.

The piece, surprisingly, doesn't make me feel as old or sad or even as nostalgic as I might have expected. The kid really doesn't come off as a smartass or even terribly spoiled by his "future" tech. I found myself, upon reading young Mr. Campbell's piece, to be more impressed with the reminder that today's high tech is tomorrow's clunky relic-of-youth. And I found myself impressed with the reminder, too, that yesterday's trends aren't always dispositive, either: a few weeks ago I found myself in a local indie record store surrounded by 180-gram vinyl LPs (many of them new releases and not just reissues), today I'm reading an article by a kid who was given a portable cassette player as a relic--the point being that I'm not sure anyone would have expected, thirty years ago, for vinyl to outlast cassette tapes, and there you go. (Vinyl, whose demise has been imminent for twenty-something years now, has now also managed to outlast MiniDiscs and SACDs, and actually seems like it might be healthier than DVD-A, a format so troubled that it mainly seems to be released as bonus materials in conjunction with CD special editions. Again, go figure.)

More than anything, I suppose, I find myself humbled by Campbell's review, actually. There we were, with our miles of tightly-spooled iron-saturated plastic ribbon, and here we are now. And in thirty years more, assuming we still have improbably managed not to collectively off ourselves, there will be some kid, maybe, assigned the chore of carrying around an Apple iPod for a week: It's huge, and it has a big button in the middle of a sort of ring on it, which makes a satisfying "click" when you press it. For the first few days, I didn't realize that the ring was touch-sensitive (although it doesn't detect nerve-impulses, it's just some kind of electrostatic thing) and you could "scroll" through playlists and albums and even individual files, although it only holds 160 gig, about a tenth of what a music player holds now, and that's with lossy 128 kbps MP3 files instead of lossless 1440 kbps MP8s. The earbuds--which you actually have to stick in your ears--are huge and uncomfortable, although you get used to them after a while. The one I used was black--father said they used to come in all sorts of colors, but when you picked a color you were stuck with it and couldn't change it or set it to shuffle....

(H/T to Boing Boing!)


Jim Wright Monday, June 29, 2009 at 8:02:00 PM EDT  

I still have mine. It doesn't work, but it was just so cool that I can't throw it out. I had the later model with the reversible option (you didn't have to flip the tape, it had two heads and could play in either direction).

I remember arguing with friends over the merits of EP vs LP, Metal home recordings vs regular commercially made tapes, and Alkaline vs rechargeable batteries (rechargeables sucked in those days and were hideously expensive).

Nathan Monday, June 29, 2009 at 8:27:00 PM EDT  

I read that earlier today and got a kick out of it. I actually never had a walkman, but I did buy a discman as soon as they came out. That fucker skipped if you breathed funny on it.

At some point early in its life, I tossed it in a box and never saw it again.

Random Michelle K Monday, June 29, 2009 at 9:40:00 PM EDT  

My various and sundry Walkmen got me through college. I went through about one every two years, partially because of use and partially from being shoved in my jacket pockets.

I also must have made myself about a hundred mix tapes, of whatever it was that I felt like listening to at the time.

I had a CD walkman, but it just wasn't an acceptable substitute for the tape player--as Nathan notes it skipped like you wouldn't believe, so I kept using my tape walkman long after I started buying CDs--I'd just use the CDs to make mix tapes.

Actually, the CD Walkman is why I held off so long buying an mp3 player--the portable CD player was about worthless, so I didn't want to waste my money if the mp3 player was going to suck just as badly.

All my Walkmen are long gone. I went through so many through high school and college they had no sentimental value for me, and would get dumped when I got a new replacement.

Best ones had the reversible option as well as an FM radio. Ah, those were the days.

Leanright,  Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:41:00 AM EDT  

The greatest moment for me was when I got a dual tape deck. Copied everything I could get my hands on.

ntsc Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 6:34:00 AM EDT  

And you didn't even mention 8 track.

Vinyl, assuming virgin vinyl properly processed, stamped and recorded, is an archive material, all other method of recording sound is not.

Vinyl is also analog and holds information in roughly the range of 20-20,000 Hz. Cds in theory go out to 22 kHz but in actuality stop around 16 kHz, a significant number of people can still hear that difference, I can't anymore.

In 1970 I had a sound system worth over $3000 in 1970 dollars, on an E-5 base pay.

I have over 30 feet of vinyl 12" LPs and am slowly converting them to CD. This is 90% classical with the remainder mostly being Broadway, although I can see a Piaf, now there is Tom Lehrer and some PDQ Bach.

neurondoc Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 10:08:00 AM EDT  

Great post, Eric. Thanks for the link.

I just chucked out my last Walkman a couple of weeks ago. Man, that thing was heavy. I didn't really notice the size so much as the weight. I, like most of you, made about 50 zillion mix tapes, depending on my mood. Some came from radio, some from vinyl, some from CDs. I threw out all of those tapes a couple of years ago when we renovated. I hadn't listened to them in years...

I never had a Discman, because of the skipping issues. Like Michelle, I just copied my CDs onto tape.

Now I rip my CDs into MP3s and make mix CDs from those. In a way, what goes around comes around...

Jeff Hentosz Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:30:00 PM EDT  

The funniest part of that article was the bit about the "metal/normal" switch. It took me a minute to get it, even though it was explicitly stated, that he thought it was for a "genre-specific" EQ setting. Great example of someone coming to a completely logical, albeit wrong, conclusion when starting from a vastly different reference point than us more-seasoned folk.

Eric Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 7:41:00 AM EDT  

Jeff, that was one of my favorite parts of the piece, too, and for the very same reason.

It sort of gets you to wondering about History and Anthropology texts, how many interpretations may be the result of a single missing, minor fact....

John the Scientist Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 2:07:00 PM EDT  

"It sort of gets you to wondering about History and Anthropology texts, how many interpretations may be the result of a single missing, minor fact...."

Lots and lots.

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