What would our lives be like without music? A couple of words that come to mind would be “bland” and “colorless”. Event the most joyless contrarians likely 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. Those memories often lay dormant until resuscitated by a particular piece of music. Sometimes those memories are bright and soothing. Sometimes they are not. Music stimulates reactions within the listener that cover the entire emotional spectrum. Our rich history of music players, and their development, has been the direct result of our love for the medium.
The History of Music Players Began with Edison:
Thomas Edison introduced the Phonograph—also often referred to as the Gramophone—in 1877. Edison’s Phonograph was the first device that could both record, and play back, sound. This was a revolutionary development. Prior to 1877, back through millennia, music could only be listened to in real time. Great musical performances could not be recorded and were, therefore, not available for wider consumption. You were either one of the fortunate members of 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 home. Imagine that.
Edison’s Phonograph, like all initial breakthrough inventions, was crude in design and function. The sound quality was poor and the device had to be cranked by hand. Nevertheless, Edison had started the evolution that would fundamentally change the way that we consumed music and forever alter the impact of music on our lives. There would be no history of music players without that first Edison Phonograph.
A Major Step Forward:
Vinyl records and the turntable. Aside from the fact that vinyl records are making a comeback there is a very large swath of the population that has never listened to a vinyl record spinning on a turntable. Those folks are deserving of our sympathy. For warmth of sound nothing comes close to vinyl. Never mind the inevitable scratches, the wearing down of the needle, or the occasional warping; vinyl records and their turntables had a magic that the digital evolution has not been able to capture. The pure 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 to be enjoyed along with the records. Albums and turntables were a much more tactile experience than any other type of music playback device… perhaps that is what is driving their resurgence.
The Great Leap Forward:
Next we get to the much beleaguered 8 Track Cassette Player. This infamous technology entered the scene during the mid-60’s and survived until the late 70’s. Most of its infamy is well deserved. They were extremely high maintenance, requiring one to carry a variety of chemical cleaners, pencils, screw-drivers, tape, and other sundry gadgets just to keep the things working. They hissed, they “clunked” from track to track, and about once a day they would grind to a halt revealing a tangled mess of tape that had to be extricated 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 by-product of the advent of the 8 track cassette was the introduction of music clubs. Clubs that offered a naive teenager a whopping ten 8 tracks cassettes for only 99 cents. What a deal! The only small caveat was that you had to agree to buy ten more cassettes at the “regular” price over the next 2 years. So what! Still sounded like a great opportunity to 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 Bail Jumpers” or “The Blue Moodys”. Most of us kids were eventually turned over to a collection agency…
Improved Cassette Technology (the last analog entry in the history of music players):
Compact Cassette Technology. What a relief. This next generation of music playback was an order of magnitude better than the 8 track cassette. You still had the occasional tape spaghetti phenomena but it was much easier to deal with. The compact cassettes were a fraction of the size of the 8 track, resulting in a game-changing ability to pack a ton of music into a relatively small space. Noise reduction technology had also advanced, thereby significantly improving the overall quality of the sound. Sadly, the “music clubs” continued their endeavors to entrap the unsuspecting youth but by this time I was much too sophisticated to fall for their trickery.
The Digital Revolution:
The Compact Disc made its first appearance sometime during the early 80’s. By the mid to late 80’s CD’s had already overtaken the compact cassette in terms of units and dollars. The ultimate in terms of player reliability, storage, and pristine clarity of signal. It was astonishing to listen to digital music for the first time. No other technology had been able to produce such crystalline quality. How many of us are still holding large quantities of CD’s despite the continued evolution of digital technology?
Digital vs Analog. There are some (myself among them) that claim that the transition from analog to digital, while greatly improving signal clarity, has come at the expense of warmth. If you doubt that, just listen to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on CD and then on Vinyl. But, that is perhaps a topic for another day.
Where will our history of music players take us from here? It will be fun to find out.