Music plus tech

As a teenager I used to think I would listen to my walkman for the rest of my life. It was so essential to me – the cassette tapes I had painstakingly curated, the stock of fresh AA-size batteries, the headphones I found in an airport in England. The ritual of plugging it all in and pushing play. It just didn’t get any better.

One day in my early 20s I found my dad’s LP collection and an old hifi setup. I heard classics like Otis Redding and Springsteen in such clarity and power. Besides the fidelity, there was the long beautiful process of choosing the record, cleaning it, playing one side through and flipping it over, reading the liner notes, poring over the album covers, adjusting the needle and the audio settings. A new ritual was born. My life changed.

Now in my 30s I have my iPhone and an Apple watch. New tech, new ritual. I can call up any song I want no matter where I am. The digital liner notes are getting better every day and the sheer convenience of Bluetooth and music on the go is changing my life again. Don’t even get me started on Spotify’s daily mix and discover weekly playlists. That revolution in curation is a topic for another post.

Older forms of technology can all still be used of course. And often they retain their original power even though the convenience factor is low. Vinyl has made a come back. Audiophiles also tout the benefits of CDs and cassettes. For me this means I now have an arsenal of ways to access the Music drug. The music is the constant, Platonic form while the tech revolves and morphs around it in a clumsy, circular dance.

Perhaps one day the headphones will be nothing more than chips in our brains. A neuralink device Elon Musk sells for a fee. What might a music listening ritual look like for this scenario?

I get comfort from the fact that the music never changes. Taste and quality may vary, but a song is a song no matter what. The catalogue keeps on growing, but the essential form and function of a song is set. It is information in the form of a sound wave being received by the brain. Only the tech for delivery varies.

Footage

I received a video yesterday from my dad. He was fronting a full on soul band. A blues brothers style suit on, he was singing on stage playing his Stratocaster next to my sister who played saxophone.

It made me think that not many families have such cool footage. It reminded me that my family roots are creative, bold, and musical.

It was such a great video to receive and I was so proud of them. Thanks dad.

Audio and Winning

The Raptors won the first game of the NBA finals yesterday. It’s the easiest thing in the world to recognise. Their goal was to be the biggest, fittest, most organised, efficient, accurate team that scores the most points and concedes the least. They won.

I think the NBA is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it is not in my interests to try and make it as a pro baller. I’m only 6’1, already in my 30’s and I live in Africa – also I have never played a real game of basketball in my life – to name just a few hurdles i have. I wouldn’t win that game.

So how do you win at audio? More art than sport, there is scope to make your own rules and your own goals. Here’s my suggested list of things to do to feel like you are getting the most you can from your listening:

  • Read about music as you listen to it
  • Understand the equipment which you listen to
  • Play an instrument, even if you do it badly
  • Record yourself
  • Choose your own music, rather than letting the app, radio or the TV decide
  • Create a physical space and ritual dedicated to listening
  • Write about your audio experiences

Audio, Resistance and Caring

It’s not cool to care. Generally, those who care deeply about something are a pain in the butt for those who would rather brush over the details and move along to the next thing with as little fuss as possible.

If you are happy to take the music that is fed to you, that’s fine. Spotify has you covered. You will likely never annoy anyone with your opinions, the cost of your listening equipment, or the attention you give to the sound in your ears.

However, if you care about what you hear – if you appreciate the art involved in making a song, if you are curious about where a piece of music comes from or what is available that is not on the charts or in the format everyone is used to – get ready to meet some resistance.

Audio Responsibility

Who is responsible for the music you listen to? And the interviews you hear? Who decides when your voice gets recorded or not?

In a post industrial world, we have more choice than ever as to how and when we consume things. Take your music streaming service of choice – it likely has ~50m songs to choose from at the tap of a button. This can be overwhelming, which explains the success of Spotify and its algorithms. These ‘tailored playlists’ take the responsibility away from you and the music you hear.

The idea of audio responsibility then, asks us to behave in a more engaged way around music and anything else we feed our ears.

A couple of tips to get started on the road to audio responsibility:

  1. Read about it before you listen to it. This forces you to be an active participant and it makes the experience so much more satisfying. Check out this book to get started: Link
  2. The equipment you use makes a difference. Headphones, amplifiers and speakers are the best places to start investing (responsibly) in your audio experience.
  3. Nobody knows what you want to hear better than you. Not even Spotify.

Here’s to taking responsibility. 🙂

Recording yourself

Do you like the sound of your own voice? The first time I heard my own voice must have been on an old phone message machine we had growing up. It held messages on tiny cassettes which it could play back to you.

Having a very creative best friend, we then started messing around with dictaphones and video cameras. When I got into music and sang in a band, we’d record on anything just to hear ourselves play.

And then came smartphones. Nowadays people are trying to get away from being recorded so often. Google Apple or Facebook hears everything we say. There are full fledged studio apps available at the push of a button/ swipe of a screen.

I seem to hear my own voice a lot these days. Whether it is sending voice notes, or creating podcasts. Hearing yourself forces reflection on what it is you’re saying and how you’re saying it. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s worth a try.

Hifi and WW2

Cognitive dissonance is tricky to deal with.

In Germany after the war, Allied forces found a new recording technology – magnetic tape. This provided a huge leap in audio fidelity ahead of disc recordings and rapidly became the dominant mastering medium for sound. The Nazi’s had used it for a while already for broadcasting. It later enabled multi-track recording and led to the first hifi systems being created.

Fast forward 74 years and here we are, the audio equivalent of the autobahn. A Nazi legacy item that audiophiles and musicians couldn’t really do without. Magnetic tape enables those timbres, tones and spacious melodies.

Of course it would have been infinitely better without the war, and with Nazis never having existed.

But here we are.

Hook line and sinker

I have this old stereo amplifier. I bought it from a slick salesman. He linked the amp up to some INCREDIBLE speakers in his made-for-purpose listening room. I was blown away and handed over too much cash. I’ve been trying to patch together that same sound ever since.

The thing is, I WANTED this to happen. I wanted to hear the perfect set up, I wanted to hand over my money and yes deep down I even wanted the frustration afterwards of not quite getting the salesman’s sound.

We humans are strange animals. A quest is often more fulfilling than a destination. But demonstrating a destination is a powerful sales technique.

Hook line and sinker.

The tech urge within

For some reason the world of audiophile technology and tech hardware has become extremely refined in its marketing of products. The premium that must be paid to own a new high grade audiophile amplifier is insane. And yet….

And yet I want one as if it is going to cure my human condition. I don’t understand this urge. Why do I feel so intensely that I have to be part of this tiny group of people that spend their children’s school fees on audio equipment? Do I honestly believe the music will sound THAT much better? No. Sigh…..

I think the truth is that there are many industries that have tapped into this tribal urge to belong – Apple being the most obvious. An iPhone essentially does the same thing as a phone one tenth its price – and yet the company’s revenues go up and up. People want to spend money on things which make them feel part of a group.

The trick is to decide what will make a tangible difference to life, and what is merely hype.

The latest iPhone will not out-perform my Motorola to the point that my life improves. And neither will a new amplifier improve the performance of my headphones.

The pull is strong indeed though. It’s like these companies are using the Jedi force to extract my wallet from my pocket, and it is all I can do to push it back in.

That’s my consumer culture rant for the day. Back to work 🙂