Media format history

Let’s wheel out the way-back machine, boys and girls, and set it to about fifteen – no, seventeen years for today’s history lesson, as we talk about something called media formats.

Don’t run off to another random website because you think I’m going to get into some Noam Chomsky, FAIR media studies bullshit. What I’m talking about is how the music gets from your favorite band to your head. Now, I know most of you kiddies nowaways use something called MP3s, which enable you to steal all of your music from the intraweb thingee through a program that lets you immediately download that one song from the album that your friends say you should listen to. This lets you immediately type “that milkshake song” into your music-stealing program and download the one song from the album, ignoring the other dozen that don’t matter, so you can listen to it over and over and over until the powers that be tell you to move to the next trend. And that’s fine, but I thought I’d take a moment to riff on some ancient, archaic formats that were around when your grandparents were in high school in the mid-eighties, and the company that made iTunes had a game called Breakout as their cash crop and all of this interweb stuff was just a wet dream of nuclear scientists hidden away in a DARPA laboratory, spending money on new ways to digitally transfer porn into MX Missile bunkers deep below the earth’s surface and transferring the cost to the taxpayers in the form of $670 hammers.

You may be familiar with the Compact Disc. It’s the recordable format you use when you want to get a whole bunch of stolen MP3s from one computer to another. There’s also a lesser-known form of this that comes from the factory with the songs already on it. And instead of being packed 50 to a spindle, each individual “album” comes with a tiny booklet that has the names of the songs and sometimes pictures of the band, which are for people who don’t have cable TV and can’t see videos on MTV. It sounds very wasteful and old fashioned, and even counter-intuitive that people would *pay money* to buy one of these “albums”, but these are also the same people that bought games like the Atari 2600 for hundreds of dollars and thought it was neat when two different blocks moved around the screen and shot at each other. And what’s even more strange is that there were actually more formats of music before the digital age, in something called analog.

Okay, I’ll drop the facetious trip and get to what I really wanted to talk about, which is the whole analog versus digital format. I know that analog and vinyl are back in the sense that everyone is spinning records in clubs, but playing records is music about as much as mixing housepaint is art. I know everyone is into the whole trip of house music or DJ music or whatever the hell you call it, but I think there’s pretty much an unwritten rule that if you have any Ted Nugent or Grand Funk Railroad in your collection, you can’t be into DJ-type music. Maybe I’m wrong, and I guess I do have at least a couple of BT albums in my collection, but that’s about where the story ends as far as I’m concerned, and if you’re looking for my weigh-in on the debate, you just got it.

Back to analog. I have an all-digital setup here in the pad: Dolby 5.1 and DTS if needed, fed out of fiber from a DVD player and with a 6+1 changer riding shotgun and the PS2 optically hanging out in case I need some backup (like when I get some fucked-out DVD-R-Audio-G from Taiwan that the mailman fucked up in the envelope or whatever. Sony put some mighty drives in those PlayStations – they can crack almost anything that spins and is five inches across.) There’s the iPod to go with me, and a stack of (legal) MP3 in my home PC and at work. I’ve even got a CD player alarm clock to tell me to get the fuck out of bed every morning. The analog gear has long left the rack, though. My circa-1993 dual-deck tape recorder lay disconnected by my never-played Korg M1, and I don’t even know what happened to my tape walkman, but it’s probably in a shoebox under my bed with my Pez dispensers and collection of broken Sony MD recorders. I think my collection of Iron Maiden albums on vinyl might still be at Marie’s place – not that I have a turnable to listen to them. I still have a few shoeboxes of tapes that were too good to get rid of, but since I sold my VW with a tape deck five years ago when I left Seattle, I haven’t had much use for tape, and even less for vinyl.

But I thought about tapes the other day, when I was listening to the new Queensryche album on headphones. One of the songs, “Desert Dance” has this really weird filter effect, I think it’s called a comb filter, on a verse as the first few lines are sung, and then the music almost stops but comes to a head, and then the filter vanishes and the whole thing charges on. It’s the kind of thing that’s indicative of when a band like QR or Dream Theater self-produces an album because of whatever ego trip they happen to be on, and everybody ends up twirling every knob in the booth just because they happen to be there. While the effect is cool, it’s also disorienting, because it’s the sort of thing that makes me think that my batteries are dying or my headphones have taken a shit yet again or… or…

The tape is fucked up! Man, how many years has it been since you’ve thought about that? It almost slipped my mind, the decades of capstans getting a bit too gummy or reels not being tensioned correctly, or slight folds on the tape from the whole thing getting vomited out of the player while you were doing 90 down the road and you threw the whole thing into the passenger seat and told your shotgun officer, “find a pen and fix this fucking thing!” Everything is digital now, and while I’m constantly running into problems like MusicMatch fucking up and putting all of the tracks in the wrong order, or finding out on the train to work that some fucking idiot on FreeDB has tagged Venom’s Black Metal album with the “Native American” genre label or something. But that’s the kind of thing that you fix on the fly or edit later or, god forbid, re-rip the album on another computer to get the shit straight. It never alters the sound though – every bit still ends up the same from the factory to your ear.

But remember when tape made this the exception rather than the rule? I know every time I listen to the CD for ZZ Top’s Eliminator album, I expect this low warble at about three seconds into the first track and three seconds before the end of the last track, because the felt pad had some kind of oxide on my old tape copy from 1983 and sat for a decade before I got back into the tres hombres in college. Every time I hear the Rush song “Witch Hunt”, I think of the copy my friend Derik taped for me; we used the stereo down in his basement, and when I was fucking around on his drum set, it vibrated the turntable’s needle, and left a slight audio ghost in the background of my C-90 copy that I heard again a million times, until I upgraded to CDs. When I listen to Electric Ladyland, I still expect the needle to jump just like it did on side three of my stepdad’s old copy, which became permanently recorded on my tape. And remember XDR tapes? I think only EMI made them, but they had this sweep of five tones at the start and finish, an indicator that their jazzed-up bullshit Dolby ripoff was giving you superior sound when you popped in that Pink Floyd tape. All of these artifacts became permanently engrained in my unconsciousness as I listened to these tapes over and over through my teens and college years, and I never thought of it, except the distant thought that “I wish these fucking Compact Disc players were smaller than a kitchen appliance so I could fit one in my god damned car and get rid of these tapes.”

I lived through the change from analog to digital, which in fifty years I hope to be some smaller version of some other great technology handoff, like the people who grew up riding horses and then graduated to the Model T. I remember first seeing a ten-thousand disc player in Omni at a time when I barely had experience with the cassette tape, maybe around 1982 or so, and thought, “that might be cool, if you were Howard fucking Hughes or something.” (Actually Hughes was dead by then, and I don’t know who I thought was rich back when I was ten – maybe George Lucas, or the members of Kiss.) Anyway, I think I’ve told the whole story of me buying my first CD player at some point in the past (sorry, no link.) But I remember the growing pains of the media, the long box era gradually being replaced by the shrink-wrapped jewel box (but sans the fucking security stickers). I remember when everyone was way too concerned about upgrading to digital, and there was a flurry of digital-ready analog cables, analog speakers, analog tuners, analog power strips, and everything but carpeting. I remember once, while buying one of the Aiwa tape walkmen I had during college, that a salesperson at that snooty audio store out by College Mall in Bloomington was telling me that Sony had a discman coming out that would read ahead a CD while playing it and store a few seconds of the tune in RAM memory as a sort of skip protection. I was looking at the guy like, “you are fucking high, my friend! I just bought four measly megabytes of memory for more than the cost of two Sony Discmen!” and he’s explaining the future of portables to me like the Navy explaining the USS Nimitz to a bunch of 1940s dimrods in that movie The Final Countdown (or insert your own favorite time-travel machine movie.) Lo and behold, a few years later, every single pink disposable portable CD player available at Target for under $50 has like an hour of skip protection built in. It’s like the CD was a big deal, and then I woke up one day and everyone had a hundred of them. And every car came with one, standard.

Weird, wild stuff. And that, kids, is a quote from this guy Johnny Carson. Believe it or not, Jay Leno was not the creator of the Tonight Show, you see… Oh, nevermind. I’ve got new CDs to rip.


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