Get Into The Groove: Bob Stanley

A brief history of recording technology...
Bob Stanley cover.jpg
The seven inch was electronic engineering’s gift to pop, the perfect format for teenagers – hard to break, portable and it contained around three minutes of music on each side. The long playing album, devised by Columbia, was the choice of adults. ‘Hi fi’ sales topped $70 million in 1953, and home entertainment was here to stay. That year’s New York Audio Fair drew 20,000 through the doors, and police began to receive the first noisy neighbour complaints, thanks to the album. Men became audiophiles; hi fi was a major new hobby – and the ‘hi fi widow’ was left alone as her husband obsessed over perfect sound, while simultaneously spending his wages on building up his record library. In post-war Britain, hi-fi systems were rare. Dansettes – a portable record player built in primary Festival Of Britain colours – were the most common record player, and it wasn’t until the turn of the 1970s that a stereo record player became commonplace in UK households.

The Beatles were on the cusp. Sixties pop was geared to the transistor radio – bass-free, all fizz and crackle. Listen to a Who single like ‘I’m A Boy’ or ‘My Generation’ and you are listening to music electronically modified to sound as exciting as possible on a tiny, batterypowered speaker. The same goes for ‘She Loves You’; the sonic lushness of Abbey Road showed how our listening expectations had changed – the distance between them was as great as that between the Dixieland Jass Band’s hyper racket and Bing Crosby’s super-relaxed style.

By the time of progressive rock, which made use of the album’s 20-odd minutes on each side, the long player was the music industry’s lifeblood. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon – 45 million sales and counting – came out in 1973 and epitomised 24-track studio, audiophile quality pop. The album came out in ‘quadraphonic’ and some wondered if this would take over from stereo. Meanwhile Philips in Holland had manufactured the humble audio cassette – it sounded like mud but, boy, was it convenient; by the 1990s cassette sales had overtaken vinyl in Britain.

The Japanese had been trying to make the least muddy sound since 1964 when Sony employee Heitaro Nakajima created a digital music recorder. Comparing it to analogue sound Nakajima poetically described it like this: ‘somebody had removed a veil’. Unfortunately, the hardware was the size of a fridge. In 1975 Philips, creators of the crummy cassette, launched the video laserdisc. It flopped, but they were soon approached by Nakajima’s team in Japan as the laserdisc’s technology was digital. Could the two electrical giants pool their knowledge in the quest for perfect sound?

They could. On 27 April 1982, at a conference in Athens, Sony unveiled the digital compact disc. It was the biggest electrical development in music since the birth of the album, maybe since Edison. Music lovers ditched their vinyl collections and replaced them with the new scratch-free cd. From 1982 – when Billy Joel’s 52nd Street became the first album released on cd – to 1997 when downloads first sent the music industry into decline, it was boomtime.

Even a new Philips format like DCC, designed as a digital replacement for the cassette, could appear and quickly die without Yet once the digital cat was out of the bag, it could only spell doom for the industry. The geeks seized control, the record companies were pitifully slow to react, Apple stole a march with iTunes, and fans merrily swapped music for free. No one needed to spend money purchasing music ever again, just the hardware on which to hear it. Still, the industry is in flux. The oldest record in my collection is Eddy Arnold’s Texarkana Baby. It was one of the first batch of 45s released in 1948, appearing on RCA Victor’s green vinyl (a colour code to indicate it was a country record – shame that idea didn’t continue!). Some still believe that the fragile 78 is the most viable future format – they’ve survived wars, floods and fire after all. L. Ron Hubbard insisted all his teachings were preserved on vinyl albums. Meanwhile, the digital audio tape (DAT) commonly used by studios in the 1990s is already decaying, almost useless. So much for progress.

The appeal of the 78 is undeniable – that cold, strange weight! the fragility! – and the low prices they go for on eBay doesn’t put me off either. But everyone needs their cut-off points, and collecting 78s is probably a bridge too far for my sanity, my wallet and the structural safety of my home. Will I end up scouring eBay for mint minus wax cylinders? No. I’ll content myself for now with the lightweight seven inch vinyl format, the red Parlophone of Adam Faith, the black-andsilver London of Del Shannon, pretty much anything on the Red Bird label. The seven inch single is electricity’s greatest gift to the music lover. And the act of guiding the needle onto any of them is as close to religious practise as I’m ever going to get.

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Extracted from upcoming publication 'We're Electric'.

Ampera 'We're Electric' will be available for purchase from 1 April - at The Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Rd, priced at £12.95 RRP, as well as online at www.idler.co.uk

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