Something for the Weekend, Sir? When I was younger, I had a chronic problem with fluff gathering in awkward-to-reach places.
What can I say? My personal grooves acquired dirt very easily. It was a teenage thing, I suppose.
Neither sterile wipes nor the careful application of a vacuum cleaner seemed to help so I ended up seeking professional advice. A man-in-the-know sold me small bottle of mysterious, colourless, odourless liquid and block of foam wrapped in faux velvet.
This alleviated my suffering considerably as I turned 20. But I only truly recovered when I started buying CDs.
Despite its current popularity with millennials and old geezers alike, vinyl was, is and always will be a bloody awful medium for playing music.
I’m no audiophile or sonic bore but I have no wish to return to the days when recorded music would be accompanied by an incessant mandatory overdub of pops, fuzz, crackles and farts. It was like camping overnight with a vegan.
Don’t get me wrong: I hold the vinyl format in enormous esteem for its sheer analogue ingenuity. Especially marvellous is the way Alan Blumlein at the beginning of the 1930s devised the method that allows the recording and playback of stereo (he called it “binaural”) within a single groove on a gramophone disc.
Blumlein filed the patent for this invention in 1931 while working for the once-mighty EMI but only got to demonstrate it properly by recording the London Philharmonic Orchestra at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in 1934.
Eighty-one years later, on 1 April 2015, I found myself sitting in the very same Studio 2 at an IEEE event to commemorate Blumlein’s invention. During the afternoon lectures, crusty old recording engineers swapped stories and shook their heads unhappily while staring wistfully at the famous parquet wooden flooring.
All were in agreement: how did modern audio get to such a terrible state of affairs?
OK, complaining that the present isn’t as much fun as the past is something that old people always do. We will all end up doing it eventually. Regular readers will have noticed that I started a while back.
Particular ire was directed at the low expectations of today’s yoof when it comes to aural quality. One engineer said he’d spent his entire professional career sweating blood over ensuring the purity of recorded sound, only to watch his grandson pop a smartphone into a glass tumbler in the kitchen and stream some tinny repetitive shit from KissFM, believing it to be the pinnacle of musical reproduction.
Bah, responded another ancient deck geezer, don’t you remember how the kids in the 1960s were mad for crackly transistor radios? And for every posho experiencing prog rock in the 1970s on vinyl via hugely expensive, strobe-controlled turntables and amplifier boxes the size of a bedside table, there’d be 10,000 others still listening to Mungo Jerry on their Mum’s powder blue Fidelity portable record player in glorious mono.
This reminiscence had a Proustian madeleine effect on me. Buying and playing gramophone records in the 1970s was a pain in the arse because the quality of the discs was utter pants. Practically every album purchase would demand a return to the record shop to seek a replacement that didn’t send the needle skipping all over the place.
The appalling quality of vinyl pressings may have been a knock-on effect of the oil crises of the era which forced manufacturers to recycle plastic a little too enthusiastically.
I didn’t care for the reasons: I simply detested all that palaver involved in trying to persuade a record to play from start to finish without emitting random clicks and bangs, or jumping entire choruses. Vinyl might seem cool now but at the time, it was all about having to wipe the grooves clean with surgical care, regularly replacing needles, balancing pennies on the arm or, if all else failed, screaming “just fucking play the fucking thing you fucking fucker” at the turntable.
All that vinyl had going for it was the picture sleeves that the records came in. As soon as I could, I ditched vinyl for compact audio cassettes.
I then spent the next few years pretending that I didn’t mind tape hiss and convincing myself that noise reduction really worked rather than just blanking out the treble and making all your music sound like it was playing from inside a fur-lined shoebox. In another room.
My reverie was broken by the retired Abbey Road engineers pouring further scorn on music download and streaming services, reserving particular ire for the MP3 encoding format.
As you will be aware, some key MP3 patents expired in recent weeks. Good riddance?
To give it credit, MP3 was useful in making digital music more portable and less reliant on playback devices with fragile moving parts. But it was always a compromise to fool your ear, rather like FM radio: you’re not getting the whole sound and, despite the initial claims that sensible compression settings only discard inaudible frequencies, you do notice the difference.
So is the future in AAC?
Not for the grumbling engineers. “What was wrong with CD?” they said. “The music industry allowed it to be killed off too soon.”
I would go further. The industry’s cack-handed attempts in the 1990s to copy-protect CD audio, often rendering the discs unplayable from a computer, accelerated its plunge in popularity.
I might also suggest that CD audio might have remained a more popular format than it is today if as much engineering design effort had been invested in the plastic jewel cases as the optical technology on the disc. If your smartphone exploded into shards of razor-like fragments every time you launched Spotify, streaming services would die off pretty quickly too.
However, it was little surprise to me that my recording engineer fellows at the IEEE event had little time for the vinyl revival. For them, it is simply a smartphone-in-a-glass-tumbler for hipsters.
And terrific packaging, of course.
Otherwise, it’s a regression too far. If you lost faith in MP3 years ago but are disillusioned by streaming, just take one step back to CD. You’ll get fantastic quality audio, no skipping or crackling, ridiculously inexpensive players (which means more spare cash to spend on the amp and speakers) and still benefit from sleeve art, booklets and the like.
Going back to crappy vinyl is like getting miffed with Netflix and reverting to VHS.
However, now that the MP3 looks to be heading to a retirement home, things could go either way. On one hand, it could lead to hardware and software developers ditching the format as undesirable and out of date.
On the other, now that MP3 is mostly free of legal strings, it could re-invent itself as a new underground format reminiscent of the Napster days – a kind of gonzo audio platform that provides a suitably pseudo-analogue analogy for millennials.
Our hated MP3 could yet prove to be a deep, down and dirty – but not fluffy – groove for the next generation. But do they have the heart for it?
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He gratefully acknowledges any proffered congratulation for not employing any cliched puns on the word “spin” in this article, and for not linking to that bloody song by Dead or Alive.
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