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Off The Record

Article from Music Technology, October 1988

When is a record not a record? Tim Goodyer discusses the effects of the media upon which music is recorded on the music itself.

WAX CYLINDER, MAGNETIC wire, shellac disc, vinyl disc, open reel mag tape, eight-track cartridge. Compact Cassette... These have all taken their turn as media on which music (amongst other things) has been stored and retrieved for the listening pleasure of what we might as well call the "record-buying public". Right now we're in the middle of the Compact Disc revolution. And just around the corner are DAT and CDV - Compact Disc Video. As I said, all media for storing and retrieving audio information.

But they're more than that - or more precisely, their effect has been greater than that of simple audio reproducers. They've influenced the way music is written and recorded, determined the places in which it can be listened to and, in certain circumstances, made pieces of music available only to a select few. I'll explain.

In the days before recorded music the only way to listen to a piece of music was to be where someone else was playing it or play it yourself - somewhere where there was an instrument you could play. The first recorded music made the presence of musicians unnecessary, but the equipment necessary for the recording to be replayed was bulky and expensive, and therefore restricting. Now it's anything but...

Rather than removing the restrictions on the nature of the recorded music you might be listening to, the effect of progress has been to dictate more exactly the format of a recorded piece of music. Before there was the option of fitting five four-minute songs onto one side of a vinyl LP, a composer's only consideration concerning the length of a piece of music was what he wanted to achieve with it. Sometime in the early '70s someone had the bright idea of using a whole side of an album for just one piece of music. Think of the freedom of expression... Just make sure you don't run over 22 1/2 minutes, boys.

Certain artists treat the 12", 33 1/3rpm album format as a vehicle for more than ten unrelated songs. Call it anything from continuity of mood to a concept album, the record company have a strange habit of tacking a couple of "bonus" tracks on the end of the cassette version ail the same. However, this didn't stop Prince presenting the CD version of Lovesexy as a single track, effectively preventing you from accessing the songs in anything other than their intended running order.

Back in the studio, limits of four, eight, 16, 24, 32, 48 or whatever tape tracks have played their part in determining the arrangement of everything from 30-second radio jingles to those "concept albums".

At present the record industry are engaged in a campaign to phase out vinyl in favour of cassettes and CDs - and whatever comes next. With the advent of the FM broadcasting of Radio 1, Trevor "Bruno" Brookes is even attempting to make his weekday programme an all-CD show. But there seem to be two major stumbling blocks to this particular piece of "progress". The first is the quality of prerecorded cassettes; in spite of constant reassurances like "chrome tape" and "real-time copy" appearing on their sleeves, the general quality of pre-recorded cassettes is far lower than that of the readers' demos that are sent in to MT. The second is that more people than ever are buying two or three copies of the same record at a time in order to use them for making music themselves.

So what of the future of recorded music? Personally I can see music eventually becoming available in a form not dissimilar to computer software - you'll buy the recording in a form suitable for uploading into your hi-fi. Your current music collection would live in memory ready to be called up without the need for cassettes or discs of any sort. Tidy, convenient - who knows?

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Oct 1988

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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