Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A deft technological improvisation, of which I am proud, but for which I cannot take credit

"Whether you're making a mix tape, archiving vinyl, or recording from a live source, TDK audio tapes are pure performance perfection."
- The TDK website

One day, in 1999, I spent an entire Trigonometry period absorbing a classmate’s detailed instructions on how to download mp3 files. Later, at home, I navigated my Netscape browser to a primitively coded forum style website with neon green text on a black background. This site had errant html code and no search capabilities, but it did have music files. It had these little music files that took hours to download. Soon, my collected melodies squeaked from the pitiful single speaker of my Power Computing Mac Clone Tower.

And so it began. I joined Rapster, the Mac version of Napster designed for my obsolete operating system (OS 7.5, I think it was). I eventually amassed a small but respectable fleet of melodies to play over and over. The only one I remember was “Bling Bling,” by the Cash Money Millionaires.

This was all happening long before suggestively hip black silhouettes danced in front of psychedelic rainbow splatter spaces. My precious little tunes were hardly portable. CD burning had not yet come to the masses, or at least anyone I knew well. With patience uncommon in sixteen year-olds, we endured the hours of downloading, but we could never have our songs to go.

But then, a good friend, let’s call him Guillermo Hatleroy, had a great idea that rescued us from this tortuous technological purgatory. Borrowing an instrument from the Compact Disc era, Guillermo concocted a baroque marriage of analog and digital technologies, boldly introducing the infant mp3 era to its outmoded ancestor, the cassette tape. The result was a recording Rube Goldberg.

The set-up hinged upon a car audio cassette adapter. This looks like a regular TDK without the tape inside and a long headphone cord snaking from its corner. This headphone jack plugged into the sound out port on the computer, and the cassette adaptor at the end of the cord was inserted into one side of a dual tape deck. The other side of the dual tape deck held a blank tape. This is where the mix was made. Hit play on the mp3 player and the blank tape at the same time (the adapter tape was just left running constantly), wait for the song to finish, and presto: mp3s onto tapes. To this day I marvel at Guillermo’s ingenuity.

I relate this story with a great deal of pride that my friend and I inhabited a corner of recording history that is now completely forgotten, and was likely never known by more than a few. At the time, we were scientists, rebuking the established mode of planned obsolescence and forcing an elegantly brutal anachronism. Now our lot is cast with characters like Copernicus and Phrenology, our work disqualified and overthrown by superior theories and techniques. Today, we have nothing but our stories of frontier recording. But my friend’s historically contextualized genius lives on in my memory, as well as my mix tapes, many of which I still have.


Anonymous said...

what ingenuity! Such promising minds.

John said...

couldn't you have just used a dictaphone with a mic line in and run a male-male stereo mini cable from your computer's line out? I mean the setup you describe just seems needlessly baroque.

uncle tom said...

"Needlessly" and "baroque" cannot be used in the same sentence.