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A History of Music Players
What would our life be like without music? A few words that come to mind would be “worn” and “colorless”. An event where the most joyless naysayers are likely to have at least a basic appreciation of music. For many of us our most vivid memories can be triggered by music. Just a few bars of a particular tune can take us back to very specific times, places and events in our lives. These memories often lay dormant until brought back by a particular piece of music. Sometimes these memories are clear and soothing. sometimes they don’t. Music evokes responses within the listener that cover the entire emotional spectrum. Our rich history of music players, and their evolution, has been a direct result of our love for the medium.
The history of music players began with Edison:
Thomas Edison introduced the phonograph — often called the gramophone — in 1877. Edison’s phonograph was the first device that could both record and play sound. This was a revolutionary development. Before 1877, for thousands of years, music could only be listened to in real time. Large musical performances could not be recorded and therefore were not available for wider consumption. You were either one of the lucky ones in the live audience or you had to rely on repeat live performances that may or may not have been equal to the original. There was no recorded music in the house. Imagine that
Edison’s phonograph, like all early ground-breaking inventions, was crude in design and function. The sound quality was poor and the device had to be manual. However, Edison started the evolution that would fundamentally change the way we consumed music and forever change the impact of music on our lives. There would be no history of music players without that first Edison phonograph.
An important step forward:
Vinyl records and turntables. Besides the fact that vinyl records are making a comeback, there is a very large portion of the population that has never listened to a spinning vinyl record on a turntable. These people deserve our sympathy. For warmth of sound nothing comes close to vinyl. Never mind the inevitable scratches, the wear of the needle or the occasional twitch; Their vinyl records and turntables had a charm that the digital evolution failed to capture. The sheer thrill of pulling an album out of its sleeve for the first time and gently placing it on a turntable cannot be overstated. It goes beyond mere nostalgia. The album covers themselves were often works of art that were enjoyed along with the records. Albums and turntables were a much more tactile experience than any other type of music playback device… perhaps that’s what’s driving their resurgence.
The great leap forward (???):
In the next step we will come to the much reduced 8-track tape player. This infamous technology entered the scene during the mid-1960s and survived until the late 1970s. Most of her notoriety is deserved. They were extremely high maintenance, requiring one to carry an assortment of chemical cleaners, pencils, screwdrivers, tape, and various other gadgets just to keep things running. They hissed, they “chattered” from track to track, and about once a day they would stop and reveal a tangled mess of tape that had to be extracted and rewound. But, they had one glorious advantage… you could play them in your car! They were portable, although “portable” meant that if you wanted to carry your tape collection in your car, you needed a small steamer trunk to do so.
One byproduct of the advent of the 8-track cassette was the introduction of music clubs. Clubs that offered a naive teenager ten whopping 8-track tapes for only 99 cents. What a deal! The only small caveat was that you had to agree to buy ten additional tapes at the “regular” price over the next two years. So what! Still sounds like a great opportunity for a kid with limited funds. Of course the problem was that the ten cassettes you had to buy at regular price came from a very limited selection. Obscure bands with names similar to “Captain Ron and the Prairie Jumpers” or “The Blue Moodys”. Most of us kids ended up being turned over to a collection agency…
Improved tape technology (the last analog entry in the history of music players):
Compact tape technology. what a relief. The next generation of music playback was an order of magnitude better than the 8-track cassette. You still had the occasional spaghetti tape but it was much easier to deal with. The compact cassettes were a fraction of the size of an 8-track, resulting in a game-changing ability to pack a lot of music into a relatively small space. The noise reduction technology has also advanced, thus significantly improving the overall quality of the sound. Unfortunately, the “music clubs” continued their efforts to trap the unsuspecting youth, but by this time I was too sophisticated to fall for their tricks.
The digital revolution:
The compact disc first appeared sometime during the early 1980s. By the mid-to-late 1980s, discs had already overtaken the compact cassette in terms of units and dollars. The ultimate in player reliability, storage and pure signal clarity. It was amazing to listen to digital music for the first time. No other technology has been able to produce such crystalline quality. How many of us still own large quantities of CDs despite the continuous development of digital technology?
digital vs. analog. There are some (I am among them) who claim that the transition from analog to digital, while significantly improving the clarity of the signal, comes at the expense of heat. If you doubt that, just listen to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on CD and then on vinyl. But, that may be a topic for another day.
Where will the history of our music players lead us from here? It will be fun to find out.
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