The technology changes, but the band plays on…

30/09/2010 at 3:03 pm (Music, Technology)


I’ve been shopping for a new iPod. I know what I want – it’s a simple choice.  I’ve got loads of stuff saved to iTunes, and I can’t be arsed to do it all again. I like the iPod, I’ve had one for years, and the new iPod Touch is a way of getting to use all the nifty features of an iPhone without having to resort to a touchscreen to make calls and texts.  Sorted.

Hitting a few sites and forums, the comments were pretty positive.  One thing that did strike me on one review was the following comment (or as near as I can remember):

“Of course, I haven’t even considered the idea of a music player that just plays music for about 10 years.”

I must be incredibly behind the times! I think I have put some video, a couple of pictures, and maybe a game on my iPod in the last five years that I’ve owned it. That was mainly to show that I could. I am stating the obvious here I know, but our requirements – or rather, demands – tend to be shaped to fit what we know to be available to us.

Since the age of about 10, or thereabouts, I’ve always had a personal stereo. A constant companion on the school coach, boring car journeys and hiding in my bedroom. It has become an essential for walks to and from work, and is a little pocket of Me Time. I’d be lost without entertainment on the go.

It got me thinking about how things have developed over the last… (oh my God!) 24 years. I vaguely remember the classic early, blue metal cased Sony Walkman in the house where I grew up. I can’t remember who brought it in, but it was there. Before this, a portable cassette player was a chunky thing that was almost as big as a shoebox.

This would have been about 1984. Most kids of mine and my brother’s age would be recording the radio or Top Of The Pops with it. We’d use this old cassette player to record bits of TV shows and film themes. We all had to be deadly silent because the recorder could pick up the sound of a daddy longlegs sneezing in perfect clarity. Peculiarly, it also left the recorded subject stuck behind a muffled hiss. Playback of pre-recorded cassettes faired little better.

So as I was used a slight hiss and doughy acoustics – and I do mean doughy, not dodgy, although it was dodgy too – I was happy with my first real personal cassette player, which was probably a Christmas present. As years passed, I owned various shapes, sizes and brands; some had incredible features, such as bass boost (more dough), graphic equalizer (woo – slidey controls to effect dough level), radio (you could get one local station by balancing it on the edge of your bedside table) and even record function for dictation.

Recording was a great idea on paper, except the one I had featured a very aggressive record button.  Somehow it could even record over pre-recorded tapes that had nothing over the tab holes. I wasn’t pleased to find that side two of Huey Lewis and the News’ Fore had been completely replaced by the percussion of my pencil case. But this is what you put up with, because expectations didn’t rise above what was available at the time.

Yes, there were machines with higher sound quality, but I wasn’t too worried about that, I just wanted some tunes to blunt the sharpness of school. Over time, technology was leaving the cassette behind, but it wasn’t CDs that I chose to join me on my journeys. CDs were for home in my mind. I’d make a mix tape using them, but I don’t remember ever owning a personal CD player. No, as we entered the new millennium, I discovered MiniDisc.

I loved the “digital tape” aspect of MiniDisc, and enjoyed its simplicity and compactness. Then, as time marched on, Sony developed NetMD. “So, let me get this straight,” I kind of said to myself, but probably not at all in that way, “I record my CDs to my computer, sort out which ones I want to put on a MiniDisc, and make compilations like that? WOW!” I was quite taken aback by the concept. “And I can fit HOW MANY tracks on one disc?” At the lowest bitrate, you could fit five hours of music on a single MD. That was truly impressive.

Of course, at this time, the flash and harddisk players were starting to surface. Sony doggedly stuck with MiniDisc.  I couldn’t blame them; the NetMD idea was a really good one, just a little too late. It was bound to fall against the launch of the the new king of the brands. Sony’s Walkman had to breathe in and make space for Apple’s iPod.

I did buy one of Sony’s hard disk players, the NWHD1. A very sexy, brushed aluminium player with digital display and amazing sound quality. I could get hundreds and hundreds of songs on this baby, and I really was very happy with it. This was the pinnacle of what was happening in the field of personal stereos, at least in my mind.

I’d seen iPods of course, and while they looked stylish, they weren’t totally grabbing me. My HD1 was the bomb! And then a thought struck me. It was a thought that was born out of wanting something more and not settling. “Instead of a plain digital display,” I pondered, “it would be really cool to have a colour screen, perhaps showing the album cover.” I’d started to think like a proper consumer.

And then, in 2004, the iPod appeared in colour. Seductive, slimmer, brighter… I tried and tried, but I was hooked. We’ve been together for five years now. It’s fallen down stairs, been kicked across the floor, clacked against pavements, and still it works. Charging port is a bit capricious, the body is a bit scratched as I lost the leather case I bought for it ages ago, but it’s been awesome.

And now it’s time to move on, and open the next chapter of personal audio, and video, and gaming and… stuff.

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