Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's the colour that counts

I think the first audio cassette I ever held in my hands belonged to my grandfather. I’m guessing it emerged after he died in 1975. And it was so frustrating because nowhere in my grandparents’ or my parents’ house was there any kind of device for playing the thing. Goodness knows what Granddad was doing with it in the first place.

We’ve almost come full circle …

Over the last six months I have discovered iPods. First, Bonusbarn upgraded his white iPod Nano to a green one. I bought the white one off him and put my downloaded music onto it. This didn’t take long. Bit by bit it began to fill up with other stuff. I bought a widget for playing iPods on a car cassette player. See, it was dawning on me that my beloved set of car-listening compilation tapes was wearing thin, stiffening up, stretching, generally getting wonky … and I had no means for re-recording them. A lot of them came off LPs I had once bought but no longer possessed, and even if I still possessed them I no longer had the means to play them. Some came off CDs which I still own but we barely have the means to re-record them. The only tape mechanisms now in the flat are the ones accidentally attached to a couple of radios. They record, but the quality ain’t great and the new recording often sounds worse than the one it’s replacing.

And now the white iPod is full, so I have been given permission to upgrade to a purple one with eight times the capacity of the white one and twice, or possibly four times the capacity of Bonusbarn’s green one. It was a cheaper option than buying a decent tape recorder. He doesn’t know this yet.

But this means I can go one step further than with the compilation tapes. I created them in the first place because while I enjoyed the works of the selected artists I didn’t necessarily enjoy them by the albumful; and anyway it was fun to mix and match the absolutely best songs. Which led to the inevitable heartbreak of having to leave some of the good, but not entirely the best good, stuff off as it can’t all fit onto a 90 minute tape. With a purple iPod this is no longer an issue.

Of course it’s not quite as flexible as mixing and matching the recording of your own tape, or if it is I’ve yet to find out how. iTunes will let you shuffle your music randomly, or play it album by album, in alphabetical order of title rather than year of release, and in track order. But you can still have a certain amount of geeky fun classifying everything by genre and playlist. You’re essentially populating a database, after all, and fun doesn’t come more geeky than that.

It’s not quite as fun as the good old days of putting coloured stickers on your cassette collection for ease of classifying, but it’s better than nothing.

It also goes without saying that I totally ignore Genius, the cunning means by which iTunes studies your musical tastes and suggests music you might like to purchase to go with it. Until iTunes drops DRM completely and unconditionally, it will be a cold day in Hell before I buy something there. Anyway, one of the joys of life is serendipitously picking up a track at random from the background noise of your day to day existence, deciding you like it, hunting it down and acquiring it. Being fed music by Apple would miss the point completely.

And speaking of DRM ... it was a truly frabjous day when Amazon launched its own reasonably priced DRM-free MP3 download section. That way I’ve been able to select favourite tracks from LPs that I formerly owned and added them to the purple iPod too. It means that in some cases I have paid for something twice in the course of my life, but only by a matter of pennies.

But this led on to a further moral conundrum. Another huge plus of the unambiguously legal Amazon service was that the dubious attractions of the dodgy Russian download sites vanished. I admit to having frequented them in the past but it was becoming clearer and clearer that the money wasn’t reaching the artists concerned, even if the Russians maintained that was the artists’ fault and not theirs. So I stopped using them.

But some tracks that I want to iPodise aren’t available on Amazon. I’m thinking specifically of the early work of Mr Oldfield and the entire oeuvre of Sky. The dodgy Russians have the Oldfield corpus covered, and do at least have Sky’s second (and best) album and half of their fifth. So on the grounds that I have already bought Sky2 and Five Live in my youth, and Sky have had their royalties off me, I admit to reacquiring them for a handful of roubles.

But now the question looms in my mind: what will replace the iPod …?

I comfort myself that both LPs and audio cassettes needed special, though cheaply available, equipment to play on. As do MP3s and whatever format it is iTunes converts them to; but even so, more and more of my music is becoming available on a big electronic database somewhere and I’m reasonably certain it should therefore be convertible to any other format that comes along. We have the raw data; what we make of it is up to us. No one will be stumbling across mysterious recording media in my effects after I’m gone; what I have will be plainly available, there on screen, in rights-free format, for anyone who wants it.

For the fun of it, here is Toccata from Sky2. Drummer Tristan Fry looks like he's enjoying it most. For his more energetic solos he was known to take his glasses off.


  1. You can mix and match your tracks in iTunes by creating playlists and then dragging and dropping tracks into them. It will also tell you how long your playlist is, which was useful in the days when one would then burn it onto CD, but I haven't done that in a while.
    You can then synch these playlists with your purple iPod. And on your iPod itself you can create an 'on the go' playlist (good on train journeys) by scrolling down the list of tracks and when you find one you want to add holding down the select button till it flickers a bit. Well, that's how it works on mine, but mine is a now museum-worthy 4GB second generation green iPod mini.

  2. I'd add to that that if you want to reorder your songs on a playlist, sort them by the first column (which appears to just contain a number), which will let you organise them in whatever order you prefer.

    Regarding Genius, you can close the toolbar and use it to pick songs from *your own library* which are similar to a selected song, which lacks completely the dread taint of ITMS - which, incidentally, is completely DRM-free as of April 7th.

    Database nerdery: I love iTunes for its smart playlists, which can be as SQL as you like. Admittedly it's either "all these conditions" or "any of these conditions", not A || (B && C), but you can do that just by realising that one condition can be a track being in another playlist - so playlist one can select songs which have both B and C, and playlist 2 can select songs which are either in playlist 1 or have property A. The possibilities are endless!

  3. I knew very little of any of that, so thank you both!

  4. Yes, I meant to say that (well not quite that well informed but something close) about smart playlists, they are a lot of fun. I am not a great fan of Genius though, its algorithms are not very imaginative. Give it something electropop from the 80s and it gives you more electropop from the 80s. I'd like it to think a bit harder. But it's good for dinner parties.


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