The War Of The Formats

As I recall in this oral history, it was only twenty years ago, well, more like thirty now, that digital didn’t exist in the world of music. Cheap record stores were filled with milk crates holding the latest albums and just behind them were some more that you had never heard of but you did in that maybe a friend said it was good, so you bought that too. The shrink wrapped albums were slippery to tuck under the armpit on the way home and if more than one record was bought you could kiss the use of your hands goodbye.

And when returning home, there was the sound of the record sliding out of the sleeve that caught the grooves of the record when it was pulled out askew. Carefully, but sometimes not so carefully, it was threaded onto the velvet bed and the refreshing snap and hissing noise followed close behind.

Records were for sitting down.

And so alone, or with friends, the daily catch would play for an hour, then an hour more, then life called and another hour ensued. There was nothing so wholesome as listening to a record. It is not just music, it is an experience. Records held our hearts tenderly and carefully and LP ruled over us in a fair and just manner of only requiring us to sit or be by its altar when we desire music. But some were rebellious in this kingdom. Some desired to go elsewhere with their music. To take it to the streets, to take it in the car, to mobilize music and form an infantry of sound.

Then tape came.

The sharp sounds of tape collided with the mellow harmonics of an LP and music saw its first division. It was the new technology, it was the technology that you could take with you in your car and then your home. And then, wherever you went. It was the sound of Punk, and Metal, of aggression and rebellion. The legions of tape accepted the inferior sound in their quest to go out into the world and provide a soundtrack to everything in their lives. Including jogging.

The walkman.

Gone were the days of sitting at the altar of music absorbing its good tidings. But there were still some of the same things. Tape was an experience too. The sound of a creak from the shell being opened and the rustle of the liner notes brushing against the moving tape and then finally the engagement. The sharp and bestial sound of the tape being absorbed into the machine. And with a ten dollar pair of headphones replacing the amphitheater of the LP, we all walked with our private soundtracks. We were all separated. Tape tore the world asunder from its quiet and communal state of being in its quest for anarchy.

From the recollections of LP, the walkman was designed to be the death of music as we knew it.

While walking around wherever you may please with your walkman and ten dollar pair of headphones. At home languished the growingly obsolete sound system selected solely for the enjoyment of a record. While tinny cymbals blasted your ears into tinnitus and a lack luster low end depleted what beauty there is in a timpani, at home sat the answer. The walkman was the death of music as we all knew it. Tape achieved the anarchy of sound that it so desired with its legions of joggers.

The CD came.

Life sprung anew in the world of music when digital music made its claim for the future of audio. Cheers rung out as well as indifference and some with hate. It was new, but easily damaged, had to be handled with kid gloves. And then there was the sound. Wars broke out over whether it sounded better than records and heads of sound engineers were piked in front of studios warning others of what side they were on. Tape as a trespasser was forgotten when the clan of the LP heard how clear and pristine the sound rang out from a CD knowing it wasn’t pure, it wasn’t analog, it was torn apart and reassembled in a computer. How could audio sound good if that was what it went through to reach our souls. But it was good. It was almost better. It couldn’t be better than analog, but maybe it was. The wars ensued through the terrible 90s over format, but CD was crowned king and victor despite holdouts from the languishing records. And in that time, people had returned to their homes to listen. Others took it out for a walk. But no one jogged with it. It was a precious and delicate item that required love and care from all its owners and servitude was gained. Anarchy was subdued. Some rebels still clung to their tapes, but CD had won and restored order.

CD took back what Tape had done. It pulled music away from activity and instead into serene environments of contemplation where it would soundtrack the meditative thoughts of walking your dog. Its superior sound brought back the monoliths of speakers to play an ode of its triumph over the realm of the tape and the record. It was king at last and had fused the worlds of Tape and LP into a vibrant middle ground for all subjects.

But then CDs were used for something else.

It started with bizarre looking players.

They played CDs,

But also MP3s.

Small, tiny files, many of them, smaller than a song on a CD, could be an entire album that was the tenth of the size of a CD. CDs could be magnified in their scope with these little things, the little digital lampreys sucking the lifeblood from the new king. People would strip their CDs of all its contents and then place it in a well thought out area of a drawer in a desk. The blood of CDs were stolen thousands of times every minute and then in jest were placed back on CDs to be replayed. MP3 soon formed an alliance with Flash and with it the death of the king followed. All CDs were worth now were their contents. It held no power to bring people into contemplation or sit with others in a room. Songs were now transformed into less than pristine, corrupted, forms and taken everywhere with little tiny earbuds. Joggers returned.

CD could not stand for this. His power was dwindling though record sales continued to prop up his kingdom. In an open gesture he called out to his long vanquished foe, LP, to join him against the corrupted music seeping into the world. LP joined him and they called upon their slaves writing at magazines. Article after article beat the drum of the impending doom that would fall on all of us, but the little file grew like a virus and there it went onto the internet.

A realm never truly traveled before by audio was breached.

MP3 had done what none of them could, what none of the physical formats could ever do.

Napster, Kazaa, Livewire, Grokster, the list went on even as LP, CD, and Tape forged an alliance through the RIAA to tear down the bulkheads that their foe lived in. But lawsuit after lawsuit only stopped the bursting dam by patching the leaks.

CD had lost.

Joggers went past him in the park with earbuds in listening to MP3 as a small cackling laugh seeped into air. He had restored order and guaranteed a lasting piece for a millennium. Music was private again, like it had been with tape. No one built a monolith to an MP3. It had no physical altar other than the modem. CD sat in a spindle to twirl once again for the pleasure of a housewife cooking dinner. He felt serene in his old age. He had lasted for a little over 20 years, which was good in his opinion. He fought a good war, subdued anarchy, attempted to rid the world of joggers, and now can be happy that some people still listen, knowing that they would one day he would rise again with a new format, one never dreamed of. He spun in happiness having heard of someone new named Spotify, and the format was OGG.

29 responses to “The War Of The Formats

  1. Nice post on the continuing saga of recorded music, somehow after everything is said and done it really comes down to “Was it a good song” or not.

    • Very true. And interestingly enough, despite being lossy, Spotify has great sounding music that only has a few tells and can really only be seen as lossy when using a reference system like mine.

  2. This was REALLY good reading. I enjoyed the story of the LP, to tape, to CD King to internet in ways I never imaged, Also brought back a lot of memories for this old lady 🙂 I remember the controversy between cassette tapes and 8-tracks…a side journey. Thanks!

    • Thanks, I’m an audio engineer and geek so the actual wars I have extensive knowledge of and they still rage today. I cannot believe how many arguments there are about which is better – LP or CD. It’s CD, but LPs sound nice and are great for classical music and jazz.

      • I am reading some of your other stuff also. I just think you are an awesome writer. I Have bipolar also, and have both genius millionaires and pauper homeless people in my family…so I get it…I would love to reblog some of your work sometime if you don’t mind. I wrote and published one book, but I am writing three more. Right now, the one I am focued on is the story of my mother and her sister…one survived the other did not. I have been following you for some time, but I rarely have time to delve deeply into my reader at length, so it is really cool when writing catches my mind and pulls me in deeply. Thank you for sharing.

      • Thank you as well. And feel free to reblog what you see here. The blog is relatively new and is starting to take shape with me writing pseudo short stories for posts rather than me droning on about my boring life of audio and sports.

  3. It’s like you opened a bottle of port with the first sentence and got drunker and drunker as the essay went on. How’s the editing hangover?

    Ya missed one, young ‘un: The clunky, clattering 8 Track Tape. I grew up on those. Not much of a choice when you live out in the middle of middle America farmland and your legs aren’t long enough yet to reach the accelerator pedal.

    The portability of the form that stored music takes matters little to someone who prefers to hear it luxuriantly filling every inch of a room like the warm smell of baking chocolate chip cookies. I loathe earbuds. They suck. Just the sound of the name fosters images of grotesque things a doctor must remove from the side of one’s head with a lancet and a local. I’d rather my entire body be enveloped by layers of sound vibration, not just my inner ear. Soon, researchers will announce that the former is natural and healthy and the latter is psycho-inducing, or at the very least, confusing to the amygdala. You’re right: music is meant to be a shared feast, not rationed out in single serving packets. Unless you’re sitting next to me on the train.

    If it doesn’t sound, taste, and feel absolutely beautiful, skip it. Your life is precious. Don’t settle for cheap underwear.

    • I have a reference headphone system and that is just about as close as you can get to a brilliant sound system. The detail and space and gorgeous representation of music is second to none. While I don’t feel the reverberations in my chest, I don’t miss it at all. The openness and clarity is like nothing I’ve heard from a speaker system excepting a mastering system I’ve had the privilege of listening to.

      • I will look into reference headphones, thanks for the tip, James.

        FYI: I’m an uber-sensitive human in the acoustical world. When my neighbors play a video game, I can feel the low end sound vibrating through the ground between our houses and up through my flooring. No one else notices this.

        When a motor is running a little off, it drives me nuts. When a dog barks suddenly, it feels like the sound has a sharp edge that’s scraping the inside of my skull. Babies screaming send me over the edge. All my favorite musical artists are men and women with deeper, smoother voices.

        Silence is so wonderful, I can feel it palpably all over my body, but only the kind of silence that is real. Stuffing earplugs in my head or turning on white noise doesn’t do it. I used to climb mountains just to get to this state of aural nirvana.

        Considering my nuclear-powered ears. I pick where I live, where I eat, and where I hang out very carefully. I hear that people on the autism spectrum often have this auditory characteristic as well. As more and more children are born this way, maybe society will achieve a tipping point where we take noise pollution more seriously.

        Until then, I will continue to go jogging in cemeteries. It’s completely awesome.

      • I would suggest buying AKG 7xx class headphones. They’re used in mastering practices because they’re so accurate and flat. They just released the 712 and I’m drooling over those, but I have the 702s and with an amp and a good DAC they are beasts in making music transparent. Each instrument is separated and the sound is like it is set on a stage in front of you playing specifically for you.

      • Sounds delish. Also sounds like something I might have to say goodbye to my right kidney to purchase.

        Still, it’s nice to know there is someone out there I can get good feedback from, if you’ll pardon the pun.

      • If you’re looking for cheap but a standard in practically every studio and movie set out there, Sony MDR-7506 are about $100 and the best flat sound out there for the price and don’t need an amp to be powered properly.

  4. But the LP has made a comeback, at least here in Australia. We dug out the old milk crate, bought a new turntable, and sat our kids down. Seems horrifying to think that our 19 yr old had never heard a record before. And you forget the warmth of a record. So while I love the iPod for the sheer fact that it can hold all of my music and go anywhere, you still can’t beat a record. Great post.

    • It has made a struggling comeback. But it’ll never challenge MP3 sales or even CD sales again. Still, it is reassuring to see record stores in san francisco doing well outside of the Amoeba Room.

  5. Having lived through LP’s, tape, CD’s and finally digital formats, I have found that the music was always stifled to suit the medium that it was played upon. Now I take lossless digital music and play it through a DAC (Digital Analog Converter) then run the signal through a tube amplifier and into the best speakers / headphones that I can afford. Now I know how the music was really meant to be heard.

    • For reference I use a solid state system and the music is sharp and detailed. It’s like nothing else when you can hear back up singers inhale in the background or the squeak of a guitar string slipping slightly out of tune. Mmm, good headphones, ones meant for sitting down since the equipment has to be plugged in to power them, is something that hopefully starts to catch on with the new focus on more expensive headphones.

  6. I was amused and maybe pleased that you skipped right over the existence of CD walkmans (walkmen?) for jogging. I tried a few, falling prey each time to the newest promise… “1 second digital loop” then “3 second forward scanning” then “Active Anti-Skipping” or whatever all they claimed. Clearly CDs and CD players were meant to sit still.
    Enjoyable post.

    • I thought of that, one of CD’s attempts to overpower Tape’s grip on joggers, but I settled for how it stabilized the listening experience to being in the home or in a car (later one) and not something you too with you everywhere when active. CDs were always passive and tranquil in my opinion.

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