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Ghostwave at the 74 Sessions
March 5, 2010 8:33 AM   Subscribe

A future history of the CD revival. In response to a piece on cassette culture (previously), music writer Tom Ewing reports from the 2020s' revival of interest in the compact disc format, and the interplays between hazy memories of growing up in the '00s, reaction against networked "social playlists", and a fetishisation of both the "glossy, uneasy sheen" of the CD sound and the constraints in working with physical artefacts.
posted by acb (56 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
CD nostalgia won't be complete without the dogbone and the excessive cardboard longbox.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:45 AM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


> CD nostalgia won't be complete without the dogbone and the excessive cardboard longbox.

Those things were, environmentally-speaking, a moronic, wasteful obscenity...but goddamn if they didn't look great cut up and displayed in a high school locker.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:54 AM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thanks to the Web 3.0 app "Napstr", my generation's children will be using their contact lens-based combined terahertz CPU and display units to beam one another retro novelty song MP3s encoded at 96 kbps and mislabeled as "Weird Al".
posted by griphus at 8:55 AM on March 5, 2010 [21 favorites]


For a Pitchfork article, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would.
posted by reductiondesign at 8:56 AM on March 5, 2010


This is an interesting thought exercise - as someone who grew up with vinyl as the authoritative medium for consuming music, the particular physical properties of CDs don't really spark any kind of attachment in me.

If physical media of any kind is completely out of the mainstream consciousness in 10 years' time, will CDs have more or less charm than vinyl or cassettes? I guess it will depend on what was around as you grew up.
posted by usonian at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2010


until thurston moore, brian eno, or david byrne gives out their upcoming marching orders in a decade, i am going to sneer at you compact discers.
posted by the aloha at 9:05 AM on March 5, 2010


I am nostalgic for the message the industry liars gave us that replacing $5.00 albums with $12.00 CD's was only temporary until economies of scale made CD's even less expensive than albums.
posted by bukvich at 9:06 AM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Your favorite plastic form factor sucks.
posted by Babblesort at 9:06 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is why for the last decade I've been hoarding my unopened vintage TDK Metallic blue dye 74 minute CDRs with old school jewel cases (not slimline or spindle).
posted by burnmp3s at 9:08 AM on March 5, 2010


Yo I green-sharpied the edges too. Check it out.
posted by fuq at 9:08 AM on March 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


This is why for the last decade Eponysterical. Right?

I did like the last line in the piece, though.
posted by Fraxas at 9:14 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


No way no how. CD-Rs are fucking garbage that barely last 5 years let alone a decade. If you want to put time into a mix-tape you make a cassette tape, not a CDR, there is no nostalgia of drag&drop mp3s into a burning program to make an audio CD. Its virtually the same process as updating an iPod.

Now get off my astro-turfed nostalgia lawn.
posted by wcfields at 9:21 AM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


This is amusingly timed. I overheard a conversation the other day where one guy was trying to convince the other that CDs would undergo a huge resurgence in about a decade, a trend that would be identifiable by the huge and prominently displayed portable CD players hanging from the belts of the cool kids.
posted by invitapriore at 9:22 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since I've started downloading most of my music, CD shopping has lost pretty much all its appeal for me. Vinyl shopping, on the other hand, remains a wholly satisfying experience.

For some reason, flipping through stacks of musty old records in a thrift store feels like much more of an adventure than digging through piles of dusty jewel cases. (Maybe it's because if you go to any thrift store and randomly select a CD, there's a one-in-three chance of its being either 3 Doors Down, Atlantic Starr, or Michael W. Smith.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


No way no how. CD-Rs are fucking garbage that barely last 5 years let alone a decade. If you want to put time into a mix-tape you make a cassette tape, not a CDR, there is no nostalgia of drag&drop mp3s into a burning program to make an audio CD. Its virtually the same process as updating an iPod.

Say whaaaaaa? All you compudrive space nerds need to get off my 78rpm Kentucky Bluegrass. Music isn't music unless you can play it with a goddamned stick. Do you really want MACHINES telling you what your music sounds like? No sir, not me. Acoustic recording! Acoustic playback!
posted by The White Hat at 9:32 AM on March 5, 2010


My mind is, I think, still so incredibly blown at the idea that someone would deliberately revive cassette tapes that I can't really deal with a CD-R revival just yet.

Anyhow, Amiga 500s playing MOD files, that's where it's at.
posted by Artw at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


The problem with CDs is that you don't need a 5 cent adapter for them to play on your record player like 45s did.
posted by srboisvert at 9:38 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


usonian: "If physical media of any kind is completely out of the mainstream consciousness in 10 years' time, will CDs have more or less charm than vinyl or cassettes? I guess it will depend on what was around as you grew up."

The memory is a fond one: disengaging the belt from my turntable so I could spin the end of "Darling Nikki" backwards and find out what Prince was saying.

Then I remember how, if I wanted to listen to something else, I would have to stand up, walk to the turntable, lift the tonearm and put it aside, lift the vinyl platter off the spindle, reinsert it in its paper sleeve, guide the paper sleeve into its cardboard envelope (taking care not to scrunch the corners), fetch a new cardboard envelope from the shelf needing manual alphabetization, remove the paper sleeve, extricate the vinyl platter, put the platter on the spindle, and apply the tonearm.

Nostalgia has its limits.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2010


I am sorry to have to tell you this, The White Hat, but those things are machines, too.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:43 AM on March 5, 2010


"when you can't see what the product is and someone's still making money, then the product is you."

Not bad. Not bad at all.
posted by anazgnos at 9:43 AM on March 5, 2010 [8 favorites]



Then I remember how, if I wanted to listen to something else, I would have to stand up, walk to the turntable, lift the tonearm and put it aside, lift the vinyl platter off the spindle, reinsert it in its paper sleeve, guide the paper sleeve into its cardboard envelope (taking care not to scrunch the corners), fetch a new cardboard envelope from the shelf needing manual alphabetization, remove the paper sleeve, extricate the vinyl platter, put the platter on the spindle, and apply the tonearm.

I remember that too. In fact, I remember doing that several times last night.
posted by anazgnos at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Joe Beese: Then I remember how, if I wanted to listen to something else, I would have to stand up, walk to the turntable, lift the tonearm and put it aside, lift the vinyl platter off the spindle, reinsert it in its paper sleeve, guide the paper sleeve into its cardboard envelope (taking care not to scrunch the corners), fetch a new cardboard envelope from the shelf needing manual alphabetization, remove the paper sleeve, extricate the vinyl platter, put the platter on the spindle, and apply the tonearm.

It's funny, just yesterday I got a replacement belt for an old turntable I got a while back, thus allowing my to play records for the first time in about 18 years. I've been bingeing on vinyl all day, and absolutely loving every single tedious step you just described. I do love my iTunes library and the organization and metrics that it supplies (I write AppleScripts to generate playlists for maximum entropy and uniqueness of artists, for crap's sake) but what I have missed for a long time is the deliberateness that accompanies listening to music on vinyl.
posted by usonian at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


using their contact lens-based combined terahertz CPU and display units to beam one another retro novelty song MP3s encoded at 96 kbps and mislabeled as "Weird Al".

This is not mislabeling. In the future, the word weirdal is a generic English term for anything that is really, really cool.
posted by rokusan at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


artw, I'll see your Amiga 500s playing MOD files and raise you some Commodore 64s playing SID files.
posted by usonian at 9:58 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, nice one. Ring modulation!
posted by Artw at 10:04 AM on March 5, 2010


I love the Portal song by weirdal.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on March 5, 2010


usonian: " I've been bingeing on vinyl all day, and absolutely loving every single tedious step you just described."

I freely admit that something is lost by removing the physicality and deliberateness from music playback. As someone observed of jet travel: If a person's distance loses its importance (because it's now so easy to overcome), their presence loses importance as well.

But I feel that I gained so much more in the switch to digital music files that I would never willingly go back. YMMV.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:06 AM on March 5, 2010


artw, I'll see your Amiga 500s playing MOD files and raise you some Commodore 64s playing SID files.

There's already a large nostalgic subculture around that particular flavor of music.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:10 AM on March 5, 2010


> Since I've started downloading most of my music, CD shopping has lost pretty much all its appeal for me. Vinyl shopping, on the other hand, remains a wholly satisfying experience.

You're my sock puppet, right? Or the other way around, I forget.

My wife is one of the people who initially resisted MP3s; it bothered her that there was no physical aspect to the product, so she kept buying CDs. But a couple of years ago she made the switch and now she can't imagine why she'd bother with a CD. We used to spend a ton of money between the two of us at Soundscapes, but the only CDs I buy these days are re-issues with really outstanding liner notes and photos (i.e. Numero Group). I mean, yeah, you can get the "digital booklet" on iTunes, but those things are terrible.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:11 AM on March 5, 2010


I'm just glad to hear that the human race will still be around in 2020.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:13 AM on March 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


But I feel that I gained so much more in the switch to digital music files that I would never willingly go back. YMMV.

Well, the nice thing about it is that it doesn't have to be either/or. My iPod is pretty much grafted to my hip, and when I bother to think it over it kind of blows my mind that I have upwards of 50 GB of music on my computer (which is peanuts compared to some people), but I still love my dusty old records.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2010


Quick bit of CD history.

1982 or thereabouts. I'm driving cab. I pick up a guy who's just attended a retailers convention where one of the talks concerned a demonstration of a newfangled audio playback technology called The Compact Disc. Key selling point: not only do these things have superior audio quality, they're also INDESTRUCTIBLE. Apparently the demonstration climaxed with a CD being cut with a pair of heavy duty scissors ... AND IT STILL PLAYED!!!

Seems to me something BIG changed in the manufacturing process between then and say, five years later when they finally hit the market en masse.

Oh and this comment took a little longer than normal to formulate as I had to get up in the middle and flip a record.
posted by philip-random at 10:16 AM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh man, dogbones. I hadn't thought about those in years. Those things were a billion times worse than the security stickers that replaced them. (The white ones that ran across the entire top of the disc.)
posted by entropicamericana at 10:17 AM on March 5, 2010


> Apparently the demonstration climaxed with a CD being cut with a pair of heavy duty scissors ... AND IT STILL PLAYED!!!

I remember a tv commercial from back around the time when they were rolling CDs out where a guy literally wrestled a disc out of a dog's jaws, wiped it off and then placed it in a stereo, whereupon it played perfectly. Yes, the reality was...somewhat different.
posted by Stonewall Jackson at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2010


In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive, they may find...

Retro-hipsters riding space fixies listening to portable way cylinder players.
posted by Artw at 10:20 AM on March 5, 2010


the nice thing about it is that it doesn't have to be either/or. My iPod is pretty much grafted to my hip, and when I bother to think it over it kind of blows my mind that I have upwards of 50 GB of music on my computer (which is peanuts compared to some people), but I still love my dusty old records.

My thing is that, I've been downloading mp3s as long as there have been mp3s to download, but it's never occurred to me to regard them as a "final" product. It never occurred to me to think "great, now I didn't have to buy records or CDs anymore". The intangibility and the flakiness of the sound held no appeal as anything other than a quick-hit way to check out new stuff...not to actually "keep" it. Quality has trended upwards, but this means stuff downloaded or burned at whatever was "good enough" just a few years ago is gonna sound increasingly flaky going forward. I feel nothing but pity for anyone who decided whatever was 'good enough' in 2002 was all they'd ever need, ripped all their CDs, and then got rid of them.
posted by anazgnos at 10:31 AM on March 5, 2010


The concept of a record having superior audio quality partially lies in its analog recording, meaning that you are recording the space between notes as heard at the time of recording.

Tape media, was a magnetic encoding on a media that lost shape and form over time (thus leading to frequency modulation of the music and inconsistent playback. The recording process imparted interferrence and further damage to the media was actually inflicted by the physical process of forwarding and rewinding the media. The tape offered nothing advantageous over the record - except maybe the act of being able to produce a mix tape.

CDs, were digital encoding, allowing for quantized silence between notes meaning that if your encoder fails to sweep the event at a given interval - it didn't exist. In other words, it isn't actual playback. All digital recording misses this. That's why there was a resurgence for the record.

With the advent of recordable discs and cheap personal recording devices, making a personal mix was again possible - except these mix CDs didn't degrade over time. In

Current Tape Fans, on the other hand... Current Tape fans are idiots not understanding how detrimental their media is to the music recorded on it.


So no. Tapes are a flash in the pan fad and realistically so are CDs since there is nothing that could be done with a CD that can't be done with digital media - except for having nice cover art - and if that is what you like .... may I direct you to an art gallery and out of the few remaining music stores.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:34 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


As someone who made cassette mixtapes as a kid, CD-R technology was a huge step up. I liked making mixes, but I hated excess blank tape at the end of either side of the cassette. So for each tape I made, I would note the length of every song I wanted to include and then manually calculate the sum of different combinations of songs until I found a set that was as close to 45 minutes as possible (assuming a 90 minute tape). This was an onerous and error-prone task, as the second sums had to be carried over the minute column when they reached 60 rather than 100. Overriding my basic elementary school math training required constant vigilance. CD-R was so much easier, since I could just drag-and-drop songs in different sequences to test not only timing, but how well different songs segued into each other.

People reminisce fondly about customizing j-cards, but CD-Rs had even more white space to create hand-drawn setlists and cover art, and if you buy minimally branded CD-Rs, the disc itself is an empty canvas. By the time I went fully digital, I had about 500 cassettes. I've kept maybe 5 that have sentimental value, but I don't miss the rest at all. Even with most of my music on hard drives, I still make mix CDs since there is something nice about sharing a hand-decorated physical object. Anyway, this is just to say that I still buy CDs, I still make CD-R mixes, and unless I'm listening through earbuds, I still think they sound way better than lossy compressed audio formats. Viva la compact disc!
posted by Mendl at 10:38 AM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Current Tape Fans, on the other hand... Current Tape fans are idiots not understanding how detrimental their media is to the music recorded on it.

Or they are the odd sort of folks who embrace the fact that the media will distort and change over time as part of the experience. And my walls of CDs keep me warm at night, when thoughts of the transitory nature of life and digital recordings give me nightmares. But love of low-grade compression? Maybe I'm already too old to understand the youth of the future.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:53 AM on March 5, 2010


I feel nothing but pity for anyone who decided whatever was 'good enough' in 2002 was all they'd ever need, ripped all their CDs, and then got rid of them.

Yeah, that was me. Ripped everything at 160kbps, three CDs a day, on an old 66 MHz PowerPC. The original CDs are long gone. But you know what? It doesn't matter, because my tastes have changed since then, so I only dip into the old stuff for nostalgia or variety. In any case, it's all available, all the time, on the 'net. If I really want to listen to "Songs of Faith and Devotion" at 320 kbps, it takes all of 15 minutes to download a copy.

CDs, were digital encoding, allowing for quantized silence between notes meaning that if your encoder fails to sweep the event at a given interval - it didn't exist. In other words, it isn't actual playback. All digital recording misses this. That's why there was a resurgence for the record.

This doesn't make much sense to me. What is "quantized silence between the notes?" Are you referring to the omission of signal components at a higher frequency than (sample rate / 2)? It is of course true that CDs do not reproduce sound above 20 kilohertz, but is your hearing really good enough to pick that out? It seems to me you have an awfully restrictive definition of "actual" playback, which covers approximately none of the sounds I hear, ever.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:16 AM on March 5, 2010


what I have missed for a long time is the deliberateness that accompanies listening to music on vinyl
Heck, for some music distribution methods, I have to get up, leave the house, go across town, pay a per-listen(!) fee, wait in a room for twenty minutes, and then hear it. And if I want to alter the playlist, I have to go up on stage and threaten the performers! Talk about deliberateness and physicality of music.
posted by hattifattener at 11:29 AM on March 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


In any case, it's all available, all the time, on the 'net. If I really want to listen to "Songs of Faith and Devotion" at 320 kbps, it takes all of 15 minutes to download a copy.

That's true, and it'll probably be true for the foreseeable future, and I enjoy that as much as the next guy. But if that free availability is what you're relying on, then you're dependent on the system that allows that to happen, and the individual components of that system are vulnerable and transitory. Somebody somewhere has to have a copy; he has to rip it and upload it; rapidshare links don't last forever, trackers are shut down; blogs are subject to mass blogicide, etc.

So you're happy with the idea that there's a cloud of music out there that you can freely access at any time, and not really concerned about "having" it. And that's fine. That's the thing I've never really been down with, though, at least in terms of that being a primary way to enjoy music.
posted by anazgnos at 11:34 AM on March 5, 2010


I do love my iTunes library and the organization and metrics that it supplies (I write AppleScripts to generate playlists for maximum entropy and uniqueness of artists, for crap's sake) but what I have missed for a long time is the deliberateness that accompanies listening to music on vinyl.

I was just thinking the other day about all those teenage afternoons spent lying on the living room floor listening to an album while staring at the album cover, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend.

I was wondering if teens have the same kind of relationship to music we did back then, or are favorite bands and singers more distributed.
posted by not that girl at 11:39 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regardless of the future popularity of tapes...
Last week I found a couple tapes on the street. I actually uploaded one- a pretty good mix- as one giant file here. Check out that hiss!
I think the thing that I like about mix tapes- physical tapes- is that if you find them at a thrift store or something and buy them, the actual music has been affected by how much they've been played. The more a tape has been loved, the worse the sound quality is. You literally love your music to death.
In any case, I'd love to upload more. If anyone has random mix tapes they want to get rid of, PM me.
posted by 235w103 at 11:53 AM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


You literally love your music to death.

Reminds me of this... Agrippa.
posted by Artw at 11:57 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cds? maybe by 2050, not 2020.

All I have to say is fuck MP3s- they're the Burger King of the musical format. They've degraded people's senses for hearing music.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:15 PM on March 5, 2010


I love the Portal song by weirdal.

The Portal song is totally weirdal.
posted by rokusan at 12:33 PM on March 5, 2010


I'm about to head to France for a few months, and at first was lamenting the fact that I would have to choose a mere sixteen gigabytes of music to cram onto my credit-card sized mp3 player to take with me.

Then I remembered how much space those 16gb of mp3s would occupy if in CD form.

._._._._.

If our hearing of music has been 'degraded,' I would argue that this occurred with the adoption of CD's, not mp3s. Both CD's and mp3s take the analog signal and perform a Fast Fourier Transform on the signal to discretize it. This means taking the signal and breaking it up into component parts. In particular, there are a countably infinite collection of components, and each is given a coefficient based on how prevalent that particular component is in the particular slice of time we are looking at. This is predicated on the idea that the particular time slice is representative of a not-quite periodic function, which is mostly true for the lengths of time (1/44100th of a second) that we're discussing. However, since these slices aren't actually periodic, some discontinuity is introduced. In essence, though, we start with a signal, and end up with a big string of numbers.

With a finite amount of data storage space, this set of numbers can only be stored with so much accuracy. We have to throw away all but finitely many of the components, but that's ok, because the human ear can only pick up so many different frequencies. Then we must also choose how much storage to allocate to each number. We clearly can't allow infinite precision, so there has to be a cut-off somewhere.

Once we've decided to apply an FFT, the outcome depends on the decisions we make in the the encoding process. One set of decisions leads to the CD format, which takes up a whole lot of space, and arguably includes a mass of redundant our useless information. mp3 is based on doing a bunch of research into what people actually hear, and then throwing out the stuff that they don't. Also, with mp3, we have a choice about the kinds of decisions to make in the FFT process, which have varied with time and produced better files as people have learned more. With CD's, the choices were made for us in 1980 or so, and we're just riding the outcome. There's no room for improvement in CD's, but plenty in the more variable mp3 format. I wouldn't be at all surprised if we eventually end up with better encodings than CD's contained in files a fraction of the size of a CD. In fact, I think we're already pretty much there with 320kbps variable bit-rate mp3s.

In any case, if you want to argue about CD's vs mp3s, you are free to. Both formats have already made the decision to compromise on the quality of the recording in order to achieve a more convenient digital form. And at that point, you're left to arguing the choices made along the way.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:57 PM on March 5, 2010


Far as I'm concerned, shows like this cancel out anything negative you want to say about cassette culture.
posted by naju at 1:34 PM on March 5, 2010


You're deeply incorrect about what's on a CD. There's no Fourier transform involved in CD audio, nor is a FFT what you seem to think it is. You may also want to read up on the information-theoretic aspects of audio processing. Claude Shannon's 1948 paper is very readable and will help you understand what effects the sampling and quantization have on audio.
posted by hattifattener at 1:36 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


In the interests of capital T truth, I just want to second that kaibutsu's comment is full of factual errors.
posted by no1hatchling at 1:41 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


here's a site devoted to cassettes. I like it very much.
posted by Acari at 2:16 PM on March 5, 2010


I think kaibutsu was confusing digitisation with lossy compression. The FFT (or some sort of frequency-domain transform) is used in compression; each fragment of sound is broken down into frequencies and then the transform does its work on those (discarding psychoacoustically unnecessary ones, massaging the data into a more compressable form, and compressing it). Digitisation is a much simpler process, essentially taking amplitude readings 44,100 times a second (for CDs; other media may vary) and recording those.
posted by acb at 6:50 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dunno man, I'm still into MiniDiscs.
posted by timelord at 8:37 PM on March 5, 2010


Ah; reading a bit more, it looks like I had stumbled on a bad article about how CD's are encoded. The FFT is absolutely used in audio compression. CD's use exactly the kind of sampling acb describes.

My bad!
posted by kaibutsu at 11:07 PM on March 5, 2010



@kaibutsu:

May I suggest to you that if you don't absolutely, positively know what you're talking about FOR CERTAIN, please kindly pepper your statements with fragments such as, "I believe..." or "If I recall correctly..." or "I think...?" If that's too much, please at least preface them with some qualifier showing that there is a possibility you are wrong.

Spouting incorrect information as if it were the gospel truth does not an ounce of good. In fact, it potentially leads to metric tons of harm.

Suppose you went on one of your rants like above, but instead of audio encoding, you were talking about the manner in which a life support system works for a critically ill patient or perhaps astronauts?

I apologize for sounding so harsh, but you're really leaving landmines around for people who may see or hear an uncorrected statement of yours. It's quite a disservice to any community. It's great you're eager to help others, but please only do so when you know you truly are helping.

I realize we all make mistakes. I make more than my fair share of them so I know I'm no genius by any means. Please, though, try to think of others when you "explain" things. The only thing worse than not explaining something to newbs is telling them flat out wrong information.

Again, I mean no harm, and I apologize in advance if I sound like I do.

@ hattifattener, no1hatchling, acb:

Many thanks for restoring my sanity so quickly after reading kaibutsu's gibberish.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:03 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


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