January 15, 2011

What happened to personal sound recording?

We keep hearing about how creative and do-it-yourself people have become, especially young people, since digital age began. That's clearly not true -- just look around and see what the result has been, compared to what young people were up to in the late '50s through the early '90s. They invented a hell of a lot more with less dazzling technology.

Obviously it's the qualities of the person, and most importantly of the zeitgeist that influences them, rather than of the technology the person employs that determines whether the outcome is good or bad. Therefore, huge technological change will have almost no effect one way or the other on the quality of the little things that people create. If it were otherwise, you would be able to classify things you'd never seen or heard before with high accuracy into the pre-digital and post-digital periods, as long as you stripped away other giveaway clues. In reality, the terrible-sounding single-focused music of the post-mp3 era doesn't sound so different from the junk of most of the '90s. Albums were dead for most of that decade, too, well before Napster.

In contrast, you can tell what rough stretch of time it was made because the zeitgeist is so powerful in shaping things that songs from two different zeitgeists will sound completely different, the Rolling Stones vs. Weezer for example. However, someone who hadn't heard their music would not be able to distinguish the songs of Weezer and Arcade Fire as being on opposite sides of the digital divide, or even which Weezer songs were from the late '90s (pre-Napster) and which from the late 2000s.

As with the professionals, so it is with the average person who has a handful of consumer electronics that allow for creative output. The average person is not super artistic and dedicated, or even an amateur. What the average person's pictures look like are what you see throughout people's Facebook albums, and they look no higher in quality or creativity than what you would've found in the average person's photo albums, or among the loose pictures that they kept in envelopes, shoeboxes, or just lying around a drawer.

One way in which people were more inclined to use technology creatively rather than passively during the pre-digital age, though, was making their own sound recordings. Even the lowest quality boom boxes and home cassette decks had some kind of microphone, and so did the higher quality walkmans. In between these, in terms of power and portability, were tape players and recorders about the size of a largish hardcover book. Often these built-in mics were improved on by a not-so-expensive handheld microphone (the ice-cream-cone-sized ones with wire mesh or foam padding at the top) that plugged into the tape player.

Even when CDs became the dominant media for listening to recorded music, tape players still held on because even if you weren't listening to recorded music on cassettes, you were still probably recording your own sounds on them, since you couldn't make your own recordings onto a CD. That's why every home CD player through the '90s had a tape player (and also for copying a CD onto a tape).

Yet digital music players, whether home or portable versions, lack a microphone (except for the few home stereos that still include a cassette player). The 2010 model of the iPod Touch has a camera that records video, although I'm not sure if it has a microphone to record sound as well. If it does, then it's finally reached the state-of-the-art from 1985, although home stereos that serve as docking stations for the iPod will still lack a microphone.

And even the sound recording that comes along with the video recording function of digital cameras and smartphones is pathetic. On any cassette player, you can record for up to 60 or 90 or however many minutes straight, depending on the type of blank tape you got and what speed your recorder recorded it at. When you take a video with your iPhone, which will include recording the sound, I'm not sure how long you can go, but it's nowhere near that long. Even shorter for the average digital camera. There is simply too much information being recorded visually for it to be that long.

One objection is that microphones have migrated from music or video playing devices to computers, but again I'm focused on what people are doing with the technology. And people who have a mic on their laptop are generally not using it for recording sound -- transmitting perhaps, like during a skype chat, but not recording it. Lots of people watch YouTube videos, but few record/make even one, let alone several. One reason is surely that you feel so much more nervous recording both your image and your sound than just your sound alone. You feel less of a spotlight when you're talking into the mic on your tape player than shooting a video of yourself near your computer through a mic-webcam. Thank god phones are still largely sound-only rather than sound-and-image.

The more important objection is -- well, how do we know that people were doing such creative DIY things with tape recorders in the pre-digital age? I'll start a list of typical things we used to do with the mic, although I wasn't even a teenager in the '80s when personal sound recording hit its peak, so please chime in in the comments with anything I've left out.

- Recording the sounds from instruments that you, and maybe a group of people, were playing yourselves. (This was back when people still played music.) Whether you had an electric guitar or a keyboard with a line out, there was sound coming from the amplifier, and a cheap and easy way to record that was to set the microphone near it and capture it on tape. I know there are computer programs that do this now, but they're either too expensive or complicated for the average person to be using them.

- Recording your voice singing along to something. OK, so you don't know how to play an instrument -- not even power chords on a guitar -- but who doesn't know how to sing, even if badly? Sometimes you would just sing on your own, other times with the original song you coming in through your headphones that were hooked into a separate music player. I even did this on-the-go as a child. Whenever I got bored on longish trips to my grandparents' house, a fun and easy way to pass the time only required two walkmans -- one to play a song through the headphones so I could hear the music, and another to record my voice as I sang along. I remember doing that for "Bohemian Rhapsody" a lot because it was longer than most songs and killed more time.

In case you're wondering if I drove my mother crazy singing like that, no, I did this in the hatchback part of the stationwagon, not in the passenger's seat -- this was before it was illegal to roam wherever you wanted inside the car -- and usually with a sheet or blanket over me, both to keep outside noise from getting in and to spare everyone else from my performance.

- Recording a one-way conversation for someone who can't be there. My dad was in the navy for several years before and after I was born, and sometimes he'd be away for months at a time. To keep him in touch with how I was coming along, my mother used to record entire cassettes of her talking by herself and also with me. She would prompt me to say what I ate for lunch, what I was doing for fun, to sing the songs I learned in Sunday school, etc. Again the difference in length of sound recordings from tapes vs. digital is crucial. Leaving a voice message on someone's cell phone doesn't allow for any depth, and neither does a sound-and-image recording from a smartphone or digital camera. A YouTube-style video recorded with a webcam could work, but again people feel too nervous when their image is being recorded that they tend not to record for as long and don't open up as much as when they're just talking into the mic. Plus cassettes gave my dad something tactile, not just some file transferred over the internet, and that makes it more special. He kept those tapes for at least 10 years after we made them, and may still have them.

- Recording your thoughts in a "Dear diary" way. It didn't even have to be stream-of-consciousness, since you could always pause and resume, or even rewind and tape over a part you thought was wrong. I don't remember doing this; if I did, it must have only been once or twice and not about anything important. That's because boys are a lot less likely to keep diaries than girls. I know that it was common enough among girls for it to be accepted as natural in Twin Peaks, where Laura Palmer records her thoughts onto tapes that she sends to her psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby. As with the previous example, the length makes a real difference because you can go much deeper by recording onto cassettes than on the memory in your iPhone or whatever. I wasn't old enough when this was popular to get tapes from girls, but I can tell from Dr. Jacoby's reaction that it would have been heaven to listen to a tape of a girl speaking just for you like that.

- Recording other people's responses to your questions, reporter-style. I don't mean when you worked for the school paper, since I assume those guys still do that. I'm talking about whipping out the walkman with a record button on it at the lunch table or going around the cafeteria or schoolyard and goofing around with the question-and-answer format. I know this is still done with digital cameras and smart phones, and here their shorter length is not even a weakness since this behavior doesn't last long and isn't meant to be deep. Still, I think the presence of a camera makes people less likely to let go and participate since they'll get stage fright -- either that, or they won't say much at all, and just make a bunch of kabuki faces to get out their goofiness visually rather than verbally.

What else did people use sound recorders for? I'm especially interested in what role they played in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. Mix tapes are copying already-recorded sound. I'm talking about recording something of your own. Did they used to send each other tapes the way they used to pass notes or send hand-written letters? I don't recall seeing that in movies or TV shows from the time, although if I thought hard enough I could probably remember an episode where Kelly sent Zack a tape of her talking.


  1. In the 70s, my sister and I would record improvised, surreal comedy skits on a Sony cassette recorder. We would also record our family's Christmas Eve gift exchange--just turn on the recorder and let it run until the tape ended. I still have some of those tapes.

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