Friday, 30 August 2013

Music Mechanics

A friend of mine made an interesting remark the other day.  Here’s how he arrived at it.  We were mourning the passing of old technology like the cassette, 8-track cartridge, VHS videotapes and of course, vinyl records.  The real issue, we surmised, with the march of time is that we are all left with the data media, records, tapes and so on, but not the equipment to play them on.  As cassette players and record decks become a rarity we are left with a load of un-retrievable data.  It was at this point that my friend propounded his theory; that of all the media formats, vinyl would be the one worth holding on to as it would be possible for many people, with a rudimentary understanding of physics to build a machine to play them.

Let me expand this a bit.  The vinyl or indeed, shellac, disc was invented during an age when everything was the product of mechanical engineering, electricity barely having been discovered.  As a consequence, the physical record carried an analogue groove which was read by a mechanical contraption, a needle on an arm, and the vibration thereby generated, amplified by physical, not electronic means.  Even today it should be possible to build a rudimentary machine that tracked the record groove and fed the vibrations produced to a large horn much in the same way that the first record players did.  So even if the apocalypse comes, owners of vinyl records may well be able to play them again after a bit of mechanical fiddling with components that could be made or cannibalised.

Those still owning a stack of tape formats such as cassettes, cartridges or CDs would not be so lucky as these are a product of the electronic age and would require a knowledge of electrical engineering and the correct materials to build circuits.

The idea that the age of mechanics has now become the age of electronics was brought home to me when I tried to buy a Meccano set for my son’s birthday.  These days it is manufactured by a French company and is not generally available in the same way that say, Lego, is.  Lego has filled the void left by other construction toys in a big way but it has a flaw.  I read a recent review of today’s Meccano written by a Civil Engineer and he made a pertinent point.  His view is that Lego allows you to build today’s structures in an unreal way but Meccano allows you to build the same structures in a real way.  In other words Lego does not use real engineering principles and thus teaches you nothing.

It seems that in the age of electronics, no one is really interested in teaching youngsters how to build mechanical objects as the knowledge is redundant.  Perhaps building a record player may well be beyond today’s generation after all?


Charlie Ricci said...

Very interesting post, Martin. I love my ipod but only as a sidebar to my physical media. I still miss liner notes, album art, and watching records spin. I think the modern way of listening to music is not as much fun. Going to someone's house and flipping through someone's record or CD collection is a lot more fun and feels less invasive of another's privacy than searching through their ipod.

music obsessive said...

Charlie - perusing others' record collections was one of life's pleasures, now gone forever. Hacking their computer password to get at a few MP3s doesn't really do it.

Craig said...


Although I often find myself disagreeing with you, I still come back and read your blog posts because you do something that many other blogs do not... You make me think.

Anyhow, love the post and agree 99%. I do somehow think there's something to be learned from Legos, but regardless, I think there is a bigger picture.

The lack of rudimentary skills of "the next generation" is nothing new, and seems to increase exponentially with each passing generation. As far as post-apocalyptic skill sets, I think hunting/gathering has been replaced by X-Box prowess, so we're already screwed either way. Listening to music in the apocalypse will likely be the least of our problems.

Yet, your point is both well made and true. Recorded music is best in its more analog states, for numerous reasons, one of which being the point you make here.


music obsessive said...

Hi Craig - Thank you for your kind comments. It is probably true that after a hard day hunter/gathering without success you will at least have the Joni Mitchell box set to come home to!! :)

I think mechanical engineering has long gone but who's to say that post apocalypse that will save us anyway? Let's face it - who knows how to make a light-bulb these days?

Craig said...

To answer your question, the same guy who made the talking machine. :)