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Monday, August 15, 2005


Something I can do without

Call me old-fashioned, but the current craze for iPods and other MP3 players leaves me cold. I could provide a number of rational reasons why I won't buy one (and will do so shortly), but Stephen Fry expressed the emotional case well in an unusually good This much I know column in Sunday's Observer Magazine.

Much of what has evolved for man to use - a pen, a piano - is beautiful to touch, to look at and hold. It is important that the tools we use to work are not just well designed, but vibrant enough to engage one emotionally.
This is why the biro has never supplanted the fountain pen; why the synthesiser has never fully replaced the grand piano; and why we like steam engines, sailing boats and analogue clocks. Technically more efficient tools are readily available, but lack soul.

When it comes to music, more recent formats have never satisfactorily replaced the vinyl disc. I began buying records in the early 1970s, when vinyl was still king. Cassette tapes had only recently become available but were shoddy by comparison. The only other format option at that time was the already doomed eight-track cartridge.

Buying and owning a vinyl LP was and remains a sensual experience. Along with the smell and touch of the record was the sleeve (ideally a double gatefold designed by Hipnosis or
Roger Dean), and the whole ritual of taking the disc out of its sleeve and placing it on the turntable.

When compact discs came along, they lacked the same tactile qualities as the vinyl record but there was still something to treasure. And, to compensate for their compactness, CDs had the added attraction of greater durability compared with a fragile LP.

But what is a download? It is virtual. It seems completely ethereal. You can't hold it or touch it. One computer crash and it's gone. One software upgrade and it's obsolete. There is neither the satisfaction nor the insurance of true ownership.

I still get a buzz from buying a record (vinyl or CD) and cannot imagine obtaining the same thrill from downloading a song from a website. But I also cannot imagine any practical use for downloads.

buying guide to MP3 players on the Amazon.co.uk website begins,

Gone are the days of lugging your entire CD collection around on trips, or scrabbling under your car seat for an old cassette that’s encrusted in mud. With an MP3 player (or Digital Audio Player to give it its correct name) you can store an arm's length of CDs in a device no bigger than your mobile phone and play them back in any order you so choose; you can even create custom playlists and compilations to suit your mood.
This presupposes that you were "lugging your entire CD collection around" in the first place. What's wrong with listening to music at home? That's listening, by the way, not having a mild distraction on in the background.

I don't know about you but, when I play CDs (or vinyl records), I usually sit down and listen to them. Like all forms of art, music repays concentration. Focusing enables one to lose oneself in the music and emerge refreshed. Otherwise music is nothing more than background noise.

I can understand listening to music in the car on a long journey (when "lugging" CDs ceases to be a problem), but why would anyone want to listen to their music collection while walking down the street? It strikes me as an essentially anti-social (not to say, potentially dangerous) activity. And since one cannot become completely absorbed in the music (at least not without the risk of being run over), wearing any portable music player in the street seems pointless.

Because I prefer to listen to music, I want good sound quality. Downloads can't deliver true hi-fi quality for two reasons. First, download files are compressed in size, so that some of the detail is lost. Second, no matter how much the quality of portable MP3 players is raised to hi-fi standards, the fact that a listener is typically using it in a noisy and distracting external environment means that any sound quality can never be fully appreciated.

As it is, the MP3 files currently on offer vary wildly in sound quality and levels. And the choice of downloads is restricted. Thousands of songs are available for download but the choice tends to the recent and the mainstream. The sort of obscure blues or world music I often buy is not always available in this format.

I find the internet useful for music but in different ways, in particular to listen to music I've not heard before. I can use the internet to preview song extracts on Amazon and other retail websites, to find out whether I like music before buying it. And I can listen to radio programmes online, in particular via the BBC's
radio player, which enables me to hear my favourite music programmes at any time of my choosing.

But downloaded music files I don't need. With CD sales rising, especially among forty-something men like me, it would seem that I am not alone.

Of course you can 'rip' your own CD collection onto the MP3 player, Simon. That does not deal with most of your objections but at least it ensures that you have the version you want on the MP3 player. I note that the latest tool is a plug in speaker set so that you can use your MP3 player like a normal hi-fi. What is the point?
The device I've been meaning to get is the one connecting my partner's Ipod to my stereo so I can 'rip' some of my vinyl collection onto it, alongside all the downloads (some of which are free) of much newer bands.

There are far worse things doing on in music... like the takeover of the gig business by Bush-backers Clearchannel....
Simon, I identify fully. I persist in using Standard 8mm cine film which has been superceded not only by video but also by Super 8mm! A well-engineered camera (Bolex), the care required to ensure the film isn't wasted by being wrongly exposed, the wait until the reel is developed, the sense of theatre involved in viewing it (the smell of hot elctrical equipment, the drawing of the curtains, fiddling getting the film aligned ...). None of this can replace the "instant fix" of DV.

Oh, and Kodachrome lasts for around 100 years if properly kept without any colour fade.
One of the reasons, surely, for the success of the iPod was its own stylishness, a surrogate for the missing record sleeve and vinyl disc.
I got an MP3 player when I started to have to take the train. If I didn't listen to music I would otherwise be spending those three hours every day doing nothing, or going slowly insane.
Hipgnosis? You're showing your age, Simon.

Actually vinyl/analogue really is better. CDs only sample the sound and MP3 are a sample of a sample.


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