Tuesday, March 1, 2011

my love for my new, old walkman

I recently recovered a box of tapes from my brother's loft a good 5 years after I put them up there, in what looked like it might be the last resting place before landfill.

That landfill has recently claimed a large mass of low quality plastic with the magnetic footprint of low quality comedy abutted with long forgotten weather forecasts.

My rescue of the tapes was primarily to scour those largely unindexed reels of Chrome Dioxide BASF C90s for some old band material to digitise and play on my ipod, but something about the ahem, user experience, made me wonder about the medium and our attitudes to stuff these days.

In order to actually play the tapes, I bought a Sony Walkman, for just over 20 UK pounds.

So, to unbox, what do you get for that these days?

The Walkman unit has a tape player with rewind and fast forward functions. It has bass boost. And there is an FM and AM radio. And a case. And some earphones.

First up, the tapes. I put in one Duracell AA battery, stuck a tape in and bingo, I am back in 1995, as the great Tallgroove jam away. The sound quality is very good given it was recorded on a Bush tape recorder, in the corner of an LS6 bedroom, using the last available plug socket.

The real magic here is that the tape played. It had not been touched for 5 years and sat patiently in a box as Windows Media Player, iTunes, Winamp, Sonic Stage (yes, I used that as my main player in my Vaio days) and various phone based music applications and tools went through hundreds of builds, moving to and fro around DRM issues wrestling with limited hard disk space, then limitless lossy rates, sluggish store interfaces and the death of Woolworths on the high street. The tape sat patiently, and as soon as it was called for, continued on without missing a beat.

It was not so much an attention span issue, but a surprisingly interjected U2 song which made me first reach for the next track function. Ah! A flaw. I have to "Fast Forward", where the unit forwards, but not that fast.

The Walkman can not send and receieve emails. And I can't play Peggle on it.
On the plus side, I do not need to upgrade the tape playing mechanism and spend hours on blogs trying to identify why version 10.1.4 behaves slightly more idiosyncratically than expected.

The world a tape transports you to is flawed, but curated. Not necessarily always curated with the first compilation for new girlfriend level of detail, but with songs cut off, DJs plugging the Radio 1 roadshow, and traffic updates from days before the M25. Quite a few of these little addenda add the colour to the compilation.

12 songs slid into an iTunes playlist does not cut this level of affection. And what if you only want the reprise of I Am The Resurrection on one compilation, but are looking to fill space on another?

And then you have the attention issue. Track 2 sounds a bit iffy, but rather than skip straight away, the peril of fast forwarding past track 3 means you are more likely to stick it out rather than instantly dismiss material as incorrect from the off due to 200GB more unindexed music on various other portable hard drives.

A case in point, I listened to two Seal songs just in case the me of the 90's had recorded a few chords in the middle of whatever came after Kiss from a Rose on Seal 2.

As well as the tape, you now have the radio. Imagine now, having an untethered free data source with content readily available in any country of the world. Apple would charge you crazy amounts for bandwidth for this service!

So what have I learnt from this... Imagine the prospect of checking your work email on a Walkman back in 1997. Did you really need to? You probably knew all the phone numbers off by heart of the people who you called most often so didn't need to Sync your contacts. Or you had a little book that you kept relatively safe.

There as something of a commodity about a tape - it captured that moment in time, the addenda mentioned earlier, alongside those live gigs taken from the radio, the first play of Love Spreads, and of course, the lovingly crafted adolescent compilation tape.

Eternal love was up for grabs if you could just cram as much appropriate material into that 90 minutes. You could dictate the whole flow and mood of the tape without there being the option to skip over to Facebook and see if any other suitors looking for fun and feeling groovy.

Quite what the end game with my Walkman remains to be seen. The initial novelty will no doubt fade, but then I can  choose to either store the memory in a box in the loft, or tape over it.