02/05/2015 10:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Virtually Challenged

In honor of the Grammys this coming weekend, I decided to write about audio.

This past week I purchased a MacBook Air to replace my old laptop. It is great -- lightweight and fast. There is no CD slot. When questioned about this the young sales person asked why I would possibly need one. I explained that I am a musician and a teacher and that I need to listen to CDs that are in my collection and also to ones that students might send me. He admitted that so much is now digitally downloaded and guided me to a peripheral CD/DVD drive.

Good enough.

Two weeks ago I watched and episode of The American Experience on PBS about Thomas A. Edison. There was wonderful footage of his recording machine and how it worked. I still cannot get my head around how that worked anymore than I understand how planes fly. Science has never been my forte.

These two events made me start thinking about how much I don't care for digital downloading.

Though never an audiophile, I always enjoyed getting a new LP (this stands for Long Playing), slitting the shrink wrap across the side and putting the vinyl plate on the turntable, being careful not to scratch it. (There were two camps regarding whether the plastic wrap would remain on the sleeve or not.) From the side, at an eye level down low by the needle, the LP looked like it was riding along on a nice country road and the needle magically rode along, seemingly soaking up sound from the grooves. The blank space between songs was really only seen from this angle. When I was in college the music history teacher played the "drop the needle" game. (I wonder if anyone under forty even knows this term.) Still, who does not remember the sound of the needle scratching while searching for a selection, or the fuzzy static sound when it reached the center of the LP. Especially fun was changing the speed so that the sound would either become molasses slow and slurred or Alvin and The Chipmunks fast.


I was happy when cassette tapes came along because they were quite useful for taping my voice lessons or rehearsals. My first experience with tape was as a child when my Uncle Cyril bought my brother and me a small, cream-color reel-to-reel machine. It was also the first time I heard my speaking voice. No idea what ever happened to it. Fun as it was, it was oversized and not portable. The cassette tape basically shrank the process. Tape was annoying because it broke. It also would come loose. Remember using a pencil in the hole to rewind excess tape? Also, if you did not push in the little tabs on the side you could easily erase or tape over something important.

The tape players became really frustrating when it could reverse direction midstream at the push of a button. One could never find anything without starting from the beginning and remembering to reset the counter, otherwise it was anyone's guess where a song might be. However, this was the recording apparatus of choice for a long while and I still have cartons of cassette tapes that include my father's sermons and my rehearsals with Joan Sutherland, just to name a few. I keep my old battery operated Walkman cassette player for good measure.

CDs were a real boon aside from the packaging, which was excessive and insanely frustrating trying to open them, breaking nails to peel off the sealing.

Funny that companies were so protective then where as nowadays there is so much illegal downloading. Browsing at the Tower Records on Broadway and 65th street was always a great time. Ironically, that space is now occupied by an Apple store. As an artist I was always thrilled to actually see my name in print on the front of a commercial recording. There was a permanence and tangibility to it. In my own recording career I was on two LPs that I know of. The rest was on CD.

For sure the commercial recording experience was streamlined with the advent of digital technology. I am old enough to remember the playback sessions taking a while when the engineer had to rewind tape. Once it went digital they needed to only enter a few digits into a computer and voilà.

I admit that ordering through iTunes is convenient, especially being able to purchase and download a single song. Note: I wrote "purchase". Now that we have streaming services the artist can get a bum deal of lost royalties. Young singers now can upload their recordings and videos -- some made on their phones or computers -- in lieu of a live audition. That said, I really find the virtual nature quite unsettling. I look at my CD collection and browse. Sometimes I search them for programming ideas. I don't do that on my computer. I miss reading the LP covers and the CD booklets. It is not dissimilar to reading the newspaper online. I miss the overall experience of seeing the entire page and reading little things I might miss online.

I can listen to a recording my mother made on a three-speed turntable that I kept.
Brachiosaur that I am, I really am starting to miss the palpable and tactile experience. I wonder if my future non-virtual grandchildren will ever be able to listen to their grandmother's LPs and CDs or their great-grandfather's cassette tapes.