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Cassette playa: in praise of tapes

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  • With tape culture enjoying an unlikely renaissance of late, Woebot reflects on the medium's enduring appeal
  • published
    26 Jul 2010
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The notion that technology is always improving is riddled with holes. Music has suffered in the digital age, and we should lay the blame on formats.

Both the CD and its bastard spawn, the mp3, have made convenience the priority, but at the expense of factors crucial to the consumer’s identification with recorded music. Music was first disassociated with imagery, and its tangibility reduced, with the mass abandonment of vinyl in favour of the CD. Then it was disembodied, made ethereal, and had its fundamental connection to its author ruptured with the arrival of the mp3. This break is made literal in the process of digital encoding: one is no longer ‘listening’ to music, but rather ‘hearing’ an aural snapshot of it.

This distinction between ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ is crucial.

This distinction between ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ is crucial. At its heart are concerns that are usually the preserve of the deeply unfashionable science of the audiophile. Vinyl’s persistent success has everything to do with ordinary people’s implicit, almost sub-conscious grasp of the superiority of analogue sound, a sound that suckles the listener. On the other hand, the imminent collapse of the  ‘music industry’ might just be to do with force-fed malcontents who, in the face of digitised music and by the even less satisfying qualities of lower bit-rates, have failed to keep coming back for more.

Cast your mind back to the first time you heard a CD. The sound was so clear, even at loud volumes. In comparison to the crackling of unloved vinyl its superiority seemed a no-brainer. But fast-forward to your first experience of an mp3 and the chances are that you gave no thought to its sound quality at all. As if by sleight of hand, convenience became everything. But it didn’t have to be like this. There was a convenience format already in existence, an analogue one that’s still throwing darts even though the landlord has called time.

The Walkman will kick the iPod’s ass.

If you ever get the chance to compare the sound of an iPod with a peak-period Sony Walkman, leap at the opportunity. Models to look out for especially are the (admittedly cumbersome) WM-D6C, resplendent with recording features, the legendary WM-DD9 with its twin motors and quartz-locked playback system, or the equally feted WM-DC2. Give the Walkman a reasonably well-recorded or commercially pre-recorded cassette and it will kick the iPod’s ass. Your ears won’t believe what they’re hearing: the body, the punch and the bite are quite remarkable.

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