By Jack Sharkey, March 12, 2018
If you are a music fan today, you are lucky enough to have four different and equally viable ways to listen to your music:
- • Vinyl
- • CD
- • Lossless Digital
- • High-Quality Streaming
The arguing is over, mp3 and lo-res streaming formats simply don’t deliver the level of quality music fans should expect in this day and age, so we can put that whole discussion to bed. Permanently. But forget the mp3 and all those hundreds of dollars in iTunes gift cards you squandered on horrible mp3 files, listening to really high quality music has never been easier. Now if we could just find an hour or so to just sit and listen…
Digital has not proven to be the death of music we were told even three years ago it was going to be. In fact, the argument could be made that digital has revived interest in listening to music for the sake of just listening. Never in the history of music technology have music fans had it so good. That being said, the history of popular music is filled with examples of really bad playback formats. But these horrible formats didn't kill the enjoyment of music for fans who were stuck listening to them: You simply can’t miss what you don’t realize you are missing.
Earbuds plugged into a Smartphone playing mp3 files is just this generation’s version of a slight mis-step in the long history of our technological musical evolution. With that in mind, here's our quasi-serious History of Bad Music Formats.
This is where the reviled music publishing arm of the music business got its start. If you wanted to hear the current pop hits of the day, you had to buy the sheet music and wait until mom and pop threw you in the back of the buggy for the bumpy ride over to Grandma Griselda’s place where she would bang them out for you on the Spinet.
Never before in history had people been able to listen to music that was not being played live right in front of them. You had to get up and go out to hear music. Now, with the Edison wax roll and the soon-to-follow RCA Victrola, you could sit in your parlor and listen to the hits of the day.
The First Console Record Player
No one much complained about background noise. People were just happy to listen to something other than Aunt Margaret and Uncle Rufus sing Camptown Ladies. Every. Single. Time. They came to visit.
Mute (below): Useful when making a crank phone call. Literally a crank phone call because you had to crank the handle on the phone to generate the electricity to make the phone work.
Full Volume (below): Full volume was only used by teenagers to listen to Rudy Valee records when mom and pop took the trusty Pierce-Arrow out for a spin, and not one of them complained about phase coherency (mostly because the records were mono).
The Console Stereo
When you were looking forward to a sweet evening of Ferrante and Teicher chased with some Scotch to dodge the madness of the Cold War, nothing beat the console record player. As the technology progressed, they morphed into giant room-filling stereos and if your mom and dad were really hip they came complete with a bar. And actually, they didn’t sound all that bad.
The Juke Box
Only people of a certain vintage and geographical locale will truly remember two songs for a nickel conveniently played right at your table at a diner at three o'clock in the morning. Listening to your current favorite single through those tiny, tinny little speakers while eating French Fries with brown gravy, the sound quality didn't matter. Also, everyone else in the joint had to listen to what you picked (once you finally got control of the the damn thing), so the second best part was loading the jukebox up with horrible Debbie Boone songs right before you left so everyone could enjoy them for the next hour after you were gone.
The 45 RPM Single
Sure they were convenient. Sure you could use one of your mom's thread spools when your brother hid the little adapter thing. Sure they only cost $0.59. But have you ever actually heard how bad these things sound? Especially after your other brother used them as Frisbees. Even worse were the flexi-disks you would get in magazines and what-not, like this 1972 NME Exile On Main Street teaser from my own personal colelction of bad music formats.
The Dreaded 8-Track Tape
The 8 Track. Four 2-track stereo "programs" all wrapped up in one neat little package that looked just great on the dashboard of your '68 Buick Skylark or your newly-hip dad's stereo console with the turntable, bar and built-in 8-track player.
Nothing was better than mellowing out to Wish You Were Here with that cool girl from your Mass Media 101 class except for when the track would change right in the middle of Have A Cigar with that jarring and annoying CLICK.
Of course, the most important 8-track accessory was the 8-Track Azimuth Adjuster which allowed for fine tuning your 8-track player (especially in your car) so you could hear the high frequency information (such as it was). It's a good thing we all smoked back then.
A blueprint of the most essential 8-Track tape accessory. Ask your dad, he'll explain it.
The Cassette Tape
Apparently they’re coming back. This distresses me. The cassette was okay I guess, except for the hiss. No treble, just hiss. I still remember the hiss.
So you see? You kids today have it easy. Back in the day, if you wanted to make a mix tape to impress that cool girl in your American History II class (after the cool girl from Mass Media dumped you over the Have A Cigar Incident) you would have to spend all night recording an awesome mixtape in real time. Want a playlist for a road trip today? Select a bunch of songs from Spotify and hit the road. Back when? Spend all night recording a road trip tape before skipping town for a few hours after that cool girl from American History II said thanks for the mixtape but she already has a guy who makes her mixtapes.
So, that's a really loose history of some bad music formats. But regardless of format the point is to enjoy your music in the best way you can, and that holds as true today as it did when Edison first gave us a chance to stay home and listen to some tunes. It's the nature of being a music fan to start out with what's available and then let the music take you on a journey to find out what good sound is all about.