Scoville Units Unite

15 Aug

Change the Record

Given I have finally started making a go of sorting my music collection out I was thinking about why I like vinyl so much. This may be appear disjointed a bit as no matter how I try to construct it, going forward in time, backwards or listing format by format it is all so interconnected that something feels out of place, or tries to reference something before or after it. For that I do apologise in advance.

The 80s

Growing up in the 80s I remember my parents and most people whose home I visited having this kind of stereo set up.

Normally a single unit, or with a turntable on it. Analogue dials, the ability to play records, cassette tapes or tune into the AM or FM radio. Your TV station had 4 channels (that alone probably ages me well). Your remote control was asking my sisters or I to change it. We’d press down one channel and that would pop out the button for the previous one. VHS and Betamax weren’t a thing yet. People bought different weekly magazines with TV listings as there was no red button to check. Teletext and Ceefax were the closest thing you had to the internet we know now. And no one had cable (Telewest etc), or Satellite TV yet (neither Sky, BSB nor BSkyB). You hooked up your home computer – Speccy, Commodore or Amstrad up through an RF cable to probably a 14″ portable TV. Or maybe even a Master System later on. I also remember an aunt having a small 10-12″ Black and White telly as their bedroom telly.

I say all this just to put in context that looking back 30 years it really was a different way we interacted with entertainment.

And that stereo set up, next to or under it were little storage boxes for cassettes and underneath was normally a row of records. These would no doubt follow a sort of bell curve with the bulk being from when your parents were teenagers->having first job and then tailing off to having the occasional new one there. Probably some 45s kicking about too. Usually with some terrible one hit wonder (I seem to remember Joe Dolce Shaddap You Face being in my parents collection).

Later I remember CDs coming along, and the one uncle who had a substantial collection of them also having LaserDiscs in his cool home set up. A whole wall of separate media items, amps, tuners, players of various sorts and catalogued videos and the like.

I seem to have memories of owning a really small portable radio with a CD player on top, and it being rubbish. A portable cassette player and then later the awful portable CD players.

The 90s

At college I managed to get a hi-fi system with separate components.

This kind of thing. Amp, graphic equalizer, Radio, Tape deck and turntable with big powerful speakers, I bought a CD player to go alongside it. This was the ideal set up. At the time the shops were full of single plastic shelled units – if your CD player broke, then good luck you had to go out and replace everything. My current set up uses still uses that same graphic equalizer. I set it up with my TV on a desk with speakers either side. My PC next and the stereo on a unit alongside. With Playstation etc plugged into TV. I also had the Playstation and PC hooked up to go through the stereo. Every Sunday afternoon I would tear down the stereo, clean it all and reassemble taking care to untangle the cable mess that had inevitably appeared.

My music collection was growing with both CDs and records, the occasional tape if it was the only thing I could find a particular album or single on.

We had heard of this new thing called MP3. This was great. WAV files were huge and my hard drives were 4.3GB then 20GB. You had to rip a CD as WAV, which would normally rip at 1 or 2X speed. Then you had to drop the individual file into another program which converted to MP3. You chose 64bit or maybe 128, but never higher as the files were too big. Later you may buy some CD-Rs at about a pound each, and a failure rate of about 1 in 5. You’d then burn about 10 albums as MP3s to a CD at 4x speed. I say this in so much detail so you can put in context downloading an album off a site like bandcamp today where you select the format and download it faster than it took to eject and insert the CD-R.

Hopefully I have now contextualised the different formats I grew up with enough to debate the merits of each of them alongside my memories and interactions with them. I have experienced all of them on great and terrible set ups.

Cassettes

Cassettes had always been a bit rubbish. The memories of tapes being chewed up or the tape becoming dirty. The switching of sides, fast forwarding and the click at the end. The occasionally badly designed album where about half a side was wasted so you had to sit for ages skipping to the end to swap. The jamming mechanisms. The only merit I ever saw was the use for saving programs from the C64 and Speccy. I think my strongest memory of a tape is Dek sitting with some cover tape from a Speccy mag and fast-forwarding through a stereo to a program that was the fifth one on it of 7. The learned audio cues and wasted mental energy we must have had. As well as the time spent! Having to spend 10minutes loading a game, losing and then reloading again. The utility of the format was clearly great but the single way to interact with it makes it feel awkward.

No matter what set up I heard cassettes through, from car stereos, to home stereos, portable players or whatever the sound quality was always terrible. As it leads into the next section, the artwork was almost universally awful, small reproductions of the larger versions used in other formats. Normally the folds at the corners and the thicker plastic there interfered with reading tracklists and so on. Not a great experience.

Vinyl

Trawling Grouchos and Record Fairs, as well as the occasional trip through to a store in Cockburn Street in Edinburgh which stocked hip hop imports was how I acquired records. I used to go through all of Grouchos vinyl about once every six months. Ah those mornings with no classes at College were great. This was in the Overgate Store era (roughly bottom of escalator near loos in current building?). So a bit less stock than they currently have. Vinyl was how you found DJ promos of hip hop singles or older punk records which weren’t really around. Basically anything pre-90s that hadn’t been popular enough to be reissued on CD at the time or possibly even still has not been.

I always loved the massive artwork and huge liner notes normally with the full lyrics. How else do you learn the real lyrics to songs pre-internet? I remember picking up Rap Is Really Changing by Mucho Macho which I had never heard of, as it was 50p or a pound and just had an awesome graffiti piece on the front. It’s actually pretty good and I’m glad I took that chance on it.

At the time, records were becoming scarcer. People were ditching collections after upgrading to CDs. High Street shops were shrinking space or removing it altogether. I remember Virgin having a wall of it. It dwindling down to 2 metres of storage and then up to 4 before I left. All of it by then singles, with the very occasional album. The 7″ was reduced to a part of a 3 disc set alongside 2 CD singles in an effort to mask the dying singles market. Bands would occasionally have 7s on their stalls when touring but barely ever 12s. Why hump around boxes of them in the back of the van when you can store 5 times as many CDs in the same space?

Even at the time I found this disappointing. I don’t think it was even because of memories of records as a kid. I think I had two 7″ flexi discs, one from the He-Man fan club. It was because a format I had grown to love was seemingly going away. I had heard lot’s of people complain about the quality of the format, how CD was better because it was digital. I don’t know what they were talking about. Vinyl played on a bad stereo sounded bad. Uncared for vinyl sounds bad with scratching, popping and hissing. Skipping tracks or being stuck on a track even. But vinyl on a good stereo sounded better than CDs on a bad stereo. I rarely noticed the difference between the two on my good set up.

There was just something about playing vinyl though. I have heard people describe it as like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. You take that giant piece of artwork and remove a record from it. Remove the inner sleeve and spin via the edges to locate the correct side. Place on the turntable and grab a cleaning cloth to wipe it. Place the needle at exactly the spot on exactly the track you want to listen to and sit back to hear it. Once it finishes you pick up the record and flip to the other side and repeat. Just the way you interact with it feels like a level above the crudeness of a cassette where you press a button and the reel moves, with all you see changing is the spool rotating.

This physical interaction with the medium, directly at the location where sound is stored on it is what allowed the birth of hip hop. The fascinating documentary Hip-Hop Evolution has some of the pioneers demonstrating how the created the sounds and techniques which enabled hip hop to be created. It would not have been possible if CD or cassettes were the only formats available.

CDs

As someone who grew up as a teenager in the 90s, CDs should really have been my bag. I should be writing this about how great they are and it sucks that digital audio is replacing them.

But CDs were kind of similar to cassettes, in that your immediate impression when picking it up and looking at it is the artwork is a miniaturised version of the proper artwork which was on the record. I think the main saving grace of a CD album was the booklet was usually thick with loads of photos and the lyrics included etc. The disc itself always looked great, if bland. This modern piece of technology which is smooth on each side, at first glance appears an upgrade on a record with its physical grooves you can see with the naked eye instead of a microscope.

The CD single is what generally clued you in to the flimsiness of the CD. Generally being in a very thin, easy to break plastic case, with a thin booklet with tiny writing on the spine, or in a flimsy cardboard sleeve. It definitely appeared to be a cheap downgrade on the 7″.

When I first bought CD singles, it was things like Busta Rhymes – It’s A Party which was 99p and contained 6 tracks. Just a couple of years later, the CD single was £2.99 or even £3.99 and had 3 tracks. Maybe a video of the single if you were lucky. That would generally need you to install some horrible software like RealPlayer or Quicktime though. This, amazingly led to a drop in single sales, so you now got CD1 and CD2, each containing the title track and 2 B-sides, remixes, live tracks or other album tracks. So now you could be paying £8 for 5 tracks when three years earlier you paid £1 for 6. This might highlight one of the overlasting negative impressions of the CD single. Not of the format itself, but of the marketing and promotion of the format.

The Album? Instead of the 8 or £9 I had seen when I started buying music, it was £15 or £16. For people interested in pop music they would be getting the 2 songs good enough to be singles and 8-10 filler tracks. The industry, understandably started to die. Why? The musos cried! It must be online piracy. No other possible explanation for it. The ability to download a single track over the course of an hour was the only reason people could have stopped buying the product we are trying to sell.

There was a bonus to the ability to rip CDs to MP3s at now quicker speed. People would do so then sell their albums on the day of release for £5-6. You could quickly build a larger collection of nearly new items.

During this period CD promo singles were a thing. Normally in weird or different packaging, sometimes with different tracks to the released versions. I collected loads of these for 50p-£1. There are a couple of artists – like Fun Lovin Criminals, where I had pretty much all their singles on vinyl, CD and as a promo of some form.

But there were a number of problems with CDs. The first was that yes, when you get a brand new one and play it it could sound great. But over time, dirt, scratches etc would accumulate and the disc would be trashed. There is another similar issue which I thankfully haven’t encountered called CD Rot. This is where a chemical reaction inside the disc caused the data layer to deteriorate and become unreadable. The promise of the perfect medium to replace the poor vinyl had not been realised.

There was another more serious problem though and is the one which led to the misconception of CDs being a superior format full stop. When records were being mastered for being released on vinyl the audio experts involved would place the tracks in a particular order due to the closer tracks as you got to the centre of the record. No such care was taken with CDs. As the data was all 1s and 0s it was irrelevent. This on the face of it seems great as the artist can present their work in whatever way they intended. But albums would be mastered without taking that care, and then pressed onto vinyl. Leading to horrible audio quality on the vinyl release. So someone comparing the two would, unsurprisingly, wrongly conclude that CD sounded better.

The audio engineers took advantage of another feature too. Those all in one plastic units which I disliked. They generally came with giant subwoofers as part of the speakers because for pop and dance music it would be cool to play the music as loud and with as much bass as possible. This led to what became known as the loudness wars. The illustration on the article shows it perfectly. Originally a track had the volume changing as the song continued. Due to digitally remastering it it’s essentially a block of noise. The sound quality was awful.

The record execs looked at the plummeting sales and again realised the only possible reason was piracy. Not the shit product they were presenting to the public.

Digital music

Seeing their falling sales, and trying and failing to stop online piracy the music industry for on board. Firstly with things like iTunes. The ability to download AAC files which at the time only played on Apple devices didn’t really appeal. Eventually the iPod became to dominate the market, beating superior products like the superior iRiver which could play MP3s or the even better iAudio which could also play FLAC.

Skipping over needless boring details, eventually we got to today where bandcamp provides you with a range of formats and you can throw up a track for free or provide a download with your CD too.

This in itself was a gamechanger. If you bought vinyl you were stuck with a physical medium. With a CD you could also rip to an audio file to archive, back up or play on another device.

The ability to include download codes with physical releases changed things again. My bandcamp collection is almost 200 releases. Some I have bought online, some were free and others came with physical releases. No more did you have to sit down and decided to buy a release on a format and pick CD so you could have digitial audio too. Vinyl started to have a resurgence. This has pros and cons. One of the cons is the backlog at the small number of manufacturing plants. Some bands resorted to releasing cassette versions of their material rather than wait months in an order queue to have it pressed. The tape comes with a download code.

There’s also what I normally call the Phoebe Potential issue. This is from an episode of Friends where Phoebe becomes upset that trees are being chipped so aren’t fulfilling their Christmas Tree Potential. People are buying records and never playing them – just downloading the music or displaying the artwork. Now admittedly I do that with the very small number of casette releases I have bought in recent years but that is because it means I no longer need that tape deck component and wouldn’t enjoy listening through it anyway.

I’m currently archiving all my CDs as MP3s. I can’t be bothered with the extra space needed for FLAC or similar formats. But the MP3s are 320kbs VBR rather than the poor quality 128 ones I used to have. After that the majority of the CDs can be packed away in boxes in a cupboard. Their small storage size helps with that.

As for my vinyl. Although it’s possible to set up equipment to record as MP3s, I haven’t decided to do that yet, although I may. That would also give me the excuse to put it away in a cupboard. Given the vast majority of recent releases aren’t boring black vinyl but bright and colourful and as I described how I enjoy the physical interaction with the medium, I don’t really want to do that. Instead they are on display, in a series of cabinets underneath my stereo. Just as they were in every house I visited as I grew up.

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