Do you remember when you last listened to music? I mean listening as a foreground, not background activity. I used to do this all the time. But not now. Why? In this issue I explore how the human music experience has changed over hundreds of years.
I’ve also made a YouTube mixtape playlist with some of my favourite artists. If you can, try putting the music on physical media, printing this issue and experiencing things differently. If you just want the playlist on in another tab while reading that’s fine too. Feel free to follow through now and try the offline version some other time. As an experiment I split this issue into parts by track. Unfortunately I couldn’t embed each song due to Substack’s limits. Sorry if this feels a little clunky. I’m trying new ways of writing.
1. Coldcut, Autumn Leaves (Irresistable Force Trip Mix 2)
Coldcut are a highly influential British dance music duo. They pioneered a lot of sampling and founded the epic Ninja Tune record label. They're master remixers and great artists have remixed their work. I've opened the playlist with The Irresistable Force's remix of their cover of Nat King Cole's Autumn Leaves.
Getting The Most From This Issue
Download the playlist. Write it to a physical medium that supports 74 minute media like Minidisc or CD. Even your phone’s music player in a pinch. Print (yes, dead tree) this issue.
If you can, block out an hour and a half with no distractions. I know its hard. Try a nice long bath. Get your headphones or a speaker, your player and the printed issue. Put the music on. Switch the screens off and listen. Listen to the first couple of songs and work through the printed issue.
I used YouTube as it’s easier to embed on substack. Don’t feel constrained when making your own. If you share playlists on social media using the #dorktape hashtag other readers can find them. It’s better to introduce people to music they mightn’t have heard before, but it’s your playlist. You do what you like.
2. Fink, Bloom Innocent
Fink is a 3-piece band led by Fin Greenall (also nicknamed Fink). Their song Cold Feet featured in the show Better Call Saul. If you like what you hear, check out the Hard Believer album.
Lets Get Listening
This playlist’s rules are:
Nothing too weird
A listener should find at least one new artist they haven’t heard before
Lyrics must be in English
If there’s interest in non-English language music I’ll do a B-Side issue. Many of the artists featured here are well known in their home country or genre. This playlist isn’t meant to be obscure but I've deliberately avoided the most obvious choices.
I’m all for leaving parasites out of the equation. I’m uncomfortable with screwing musicians over their art. If you download the playlist please play it on youtube so they get their views. If you like the music, support the artist via bandcamp if you can. I want to help you get off screens for an hour, not deny musicians a living. Check your local copyright laws to make sure what you’re doing doesn’t expose you to any particular risk.
I don’t want to make assumptions about your setup, so all I’ll say is that youtube-dl is available here. Once installed, you can pull everything down with this command:
youtube-dl -f bestaudio --extract-audio --audio-format wav --ignore-errors --add-metadata "https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9cmOQrqHfGPoPLcEoO4opnRxzclA3Jof"
This downloads the music into lossless WAV format. This lets you write to CD with tools like ImgBurn or WebMinidisc for Minidisc. If the above looks a bit scary, there are many online youtube download services you could use instead.
Press play when you’re ready and I’ll see you in print.
The Modern Music Experience Is Weird
I often re-read Daniel B. Markham’s Technology is Heroin essay. It opens on how people historically experienced music. Most people only heard their favourite pieces a few times over their lives. Each time it would be different due to tuning. Tuning was only standardised in the 20th century. You could hear the same song played by the same band and it could sound completely different.
Carl Radford compares classical and modern tuning from 6:00. The most audible difference affects pacing and tension. You could listen to Mozart every day of your life and never hear it as Mozart intended.
Some (incorrectly) say Thomas Edison invented audio recordings. Of course Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented recorded audio in the 1850s. Here he is on the video below. Around 1:50 you can hear an 1859 recording of a 435hz tuning fork. It had recently become the official French A note reference pitch.
But wait. The A note is 440hz. Why 435hz?
In the 19th century Orchestras increased musical tension by tuning string instruments higher. They associated higher with 'better'. It was not. In fact music would often end up shifted by entire keys. In 1859 the French government chose 435hz as the official A note reference frequency. Tuning forks were built to the new standard. Somehow the UK misinterpreted the French standard and chose 439hz. Other countries went from 413hz to over 470hz for the same A note.
By the late 30s, the BBC's World Service led International radio broadcasting. British orchestras used 439hz. Electronic clocks used in radio at the time generated frequencies using multipliers and dividers. 439 Is a prime number, meaning it’s indivisible by anything other than itself or 1. This made a 439hz signal more complicated to broadcast than a 440hz signal. At a 1939 international conference in London the UK pushed hard for 440hz, and the world was stuck with an A note at 440hz.
3. Altrice, We Are Not Forever
Altrice’s Stem is a remix of Caribou’s legendary Swim album. Both are brilliant albums, but Stem is more lowtempo and darker. We Are Not Forever is one of my favourite tunes. Stem is available on Bandcamp, a platform that provides a better deal for artists than iTunes or most recording labels. The album’s well worth the $5.
Radio and The Phonograph
The phonograph changed everything. People listened to music in phonograph parlors like the one above. From this point on music was the same every time. Musicians never made mistakes. Soon phonographs became cheap enough for middle class homes.
Another new technology was also taking off. Amateurs had played with voice over radio since the mid-1900s. It was only from the 1910s that commercial radio started to take off in cities. Once people no longer had to travel miles in their best clothes to hear it, music became less formal. That casual element was chased in France in a very different way.
4. Erik Satie, Gnossienne No. 1
Erik Satie was a pioneering music genius. In the early 1910s he invented a new short form of music, musique d’ameublement. Satie’s furniture music consisted of short pieces for live repeated performance. His early Vexations contains instructions to repeat the piece 840 times. Satie built the future of music with the tools of his time. I’ve shared Gnossienne No. 1 as it's an easier listen than Vexations. But that’s also the point. Satie saw what was coming and designed furniture music for the background.
The General and The Elevator
Meanwhile in the US, George Owen Squier found telephone lines provided better audio quality than Radio. In 1922 he built his Wired Radio project to deliver sound over electrical lines. He saw Radio sets as expensive, unreliable and unnecessary. Piping the signal over power or telephone lines to subscribers was simpler and better.
Wired Radio needed music to sell to subscribers. He founded a company called Wired Radio Inc, but changed it to Muzak. Squier believed Muzak could boost factory productivity.
Muzak was a hit but Squier died in 1934, two years before it’s first commercial delivery. Radio won the first format war, having fixed earlier problems. Muzak’s biggest customers were elevator companies, spawning the “elevator music” genre. Muzak was forever associated with Elevators, Malls and Airports. Until one day a reluctant English rock star was stuck in Cologne-Bonn Airport.
5. Brian Eno, Deep Blue Day
Brian Eno was a rock star. He had major success with glam rock group Roxy Music. After leaving he worked with every major 70s name from Robert Fripp to David Bowie. Eno liked experimental music, much to his management's chagrin.
One day stuck in Cologne Bonn Airport, he noticed the electronic background music. Instead of feeling calmer, the fear of the impending flight took grip. Eno used this as inspiration for his new album, Ambient 1: Music For Airports. This wasn’t the first Ambient album, just the first to refer to itself as Ambient. While the album is historically significant he's made better. I've chosen Deep Blue Day from his Apollo Atmospheres album instead.
Hollywood's golden age kept music front and centre in Cinemas. Elsewhere music moved to the background as pre-recorded music filled the airwaves. Nowhere was this more evident than with the arrival of the car radio.
Car Radios first appeared in the 1920s but were expensive and awkward to install. 1920s Car batteries typically supplied 6 volts, while radios needed 50-250 volts. In 1930, Paul Galvin drove to the Radio Manufacturer’s Association’s annual meeting. He parked outside the convention and turned his FT71 prototype up to full blast. People bought the radio, dubbed a “Motor-ola” at $130 a piece, about a quarter of the cost of a new car at the time.
Cars began to enter the mainstream after the 2nd world war. It was the invention of the transistor that let car radios flourish. With mass-adoption the car radio changed radio programming. As daily car commutes took off “Drive Time” radio became highly popular and competitive.
In 1955 Chrysler struck a deal with CBS Electronics. CBE would install their Highway Hi-Fi phonograph in Chrysler's cars. It used special records and a weighted stylus that destroyed them. It was a total bust but the genie was out of the bottle. Car journeys were often dull. Music provided a distraction but radio only worked in the cities. People wanted background music in the car wherever they went.
Ford introduced an 8-track tape player into their 1960s models. Old Car Memories discusses the 8-track's history. While 8-Track tapes weren’t perfect they hit a sweet spot between price and usability.
Each song took up a single tape track with 8 songs per tape on continuous loop. Skipping from one track to another meant skipping to the same part of a different track, often in the middle of a song. On long car trips it was easier to put in a cassette and let it play in the background. For the whole trip.
6. Chuck Berry, Maybellene
The same year CBS' built the Highway Hi-Fi Charles “Chuck” Berry released his first rock and roll song, Maybellene. It was Berry’s breakthrough hit and one of the first Rock and Roll songs.
Every part of a classic Rock and Roll hit is there: young love, a guitar-driven lead, a big beat and a pace that never lets up. Everything about it roars Rock and Roll despite the song’s hillbilly origins.
Enter The Album
Vinyl records are plastic discs with grooves, pits and bumps. A stylus passes over the bumps creating an electrical signal via magnetic induction. The signal is amplified and sent to a speaker.
The 12 inch, 33 and a third RPM Long-Play (LP) disc fit 23 to 38 minutes per side with better material than noisy 78 RPM Shellac discs. As the 12 inch LP became popular, artists bundled notes, books and extras into packages called albums. Historically an album was a collection of material bound in a book, such as a photo album, but from then on was associated with vinyl records.
The album format changed music again. Before the LP, artists released singles with a song on each side. Sometimes they'd release an Extended Play EP disc with two songs per side. The LP arrived just in time for rock to pioneer the format.
7. King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King
King Crimson were founded in 1968. Acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones often drew on rhythm and blues. King Crimson's inspiration came from classical music and Jazz. Their first album, The Court of The Crimson King features heavy rock, distorted speech and dark mellotron sounds. They’re not as well known as they were in the 70s. King Crimson, along with groups like Pink Floyd pioneered a very different form of progressive rock music through the album format.
Is it live, or is it Memorex?
In 1963, Philips Eindhoven released the two-spool Compact Cassette tape. Built for diction, sound quality was initially poor. Several breakthroughs improved quality throughout the 1960s. By the early 70s it sounded better than 8-Track.
Memorex ran campaigns with Ella Fitzgerald to sell cassette tapes featuring “Mrx2 Oxide”. Consumers put Philips Compact Cassette tape players in their cars and homes. With the Compact Cassette, people could record songs from the radio at home and play them in the car.
In 1979 Sony released the Walkman, using Philips’ Compact Cassette. The Walkman (and clones) changed the way people listened to music again. People had portable radios, but the Walkman let people take their own music with them. It provided privacy and solitude even in tightly packed open spaces. Just as Drive Time dominated the 60s, the Walkman provided the wearer with a personal soundtrack for the 80s commute. By 1983 cassette tape sales outstripped vinyl records, in part due to the walkman.
8. Joy Division, Ceremony (Bootleg)
Joy Division were the Salford New-wave megagroup that never came to be. This recording is from the band’s final performance at Birmingham University on the 2nd of May, 1980. Faced with deteriorating epilepsy lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. The band split, reforming as New Order.
If it wasn't for bootlegs this performance would've disappeared forever. Bootleg tape traders sold pirated concerts and albums from market stalls and pubs. Although bootleg vinyl recordings existed, they really exploded with the advent of higher quality cassette tapes. People traded low quality cassette tape recordings around the world. Bootlegs reached far further than official releases ever could.
Traders graded bootleg tapes from A to E. Anything labelled below A was usually an E grade. Modern media remastered out much of the early 80s sound. I wanted younger readers to hear what bootlegs really sound like. Although the uploader cleaned up the above recording, it still sounds like an A grade bootleg. There are 5 different bootleg recordings from that last Joy Division gig alone. Anyone with blank tapes and coloured paper could be a bootlegger for a day.
The Boom Box
While the Walkman shut out the world the Boombox brought music to you whether you wanted to hear it or not. In the US a Sony LP-2 Walkman cost $150 at launch (about $500 today). By comparison Boomboxes were relatively affordable. It’s no accident that the Boombox was pejoratively referred to as the “Ghetto Blaster”.
The classic setup had a handle, a cassette deck and speakers as large and as loud as you could fit. In the US Boomboxes and bloc parties took off around the same time. On August 11th, 1973 at a Bronx block rec room DJ Kool Herc experimented with two turntables. Borrowing a technique from Mahattan discos Herc switched across hard funk breaks. This style of mixing breaks to extend and make new sounds took off.
Emcees would deliver announcements and hype the crowd. Coke La Rock, part of Herc’s original Herculoids crew would improvise lyrics over the top the beats. Emcees like Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Melle started reciting written lyrics. Hip hop was born.
Recordings of mixes and raps made their way to Boomboxes in the street. Kids would perform elaborate dances over pieces of cardboard taped to the floor. B-boys and B-girls caught the media’s attention. The Boombox became an iconic symbol of what the media called Breakdancing.
9. Hashim, Al Naafiysh (The Soul)
By the time Hashim’s Al Naafiysh (The Soul) became a hit, breakdance had become a global phenomenon. While Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock had a bigger impact I find Al Naafiysh a better song. Hashim stayed on as a promoter and did a few more songs but nothing on the same scale. The playlist video is a fanmade music video shot in London in the early 80s.
Video Killed The Radio Star
Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, most people listened to AM or Short Wave Radio, cassettes or vinyl. FM Radio took off in the 80s offering stereo sound and better quality audio. But two things changed the 80s musical experience: The music video and MTV.
Believe it or not MTV used to almost exclusively play back to back music videos. It followed the popular American Album-Oriented-Rock (AOR) format. This excluded a lot of music. Of course Hip-Hop, Electro and other underground forms of music didn’t fit into AOR. If you liked big hair rock bands you were in for a treat.
Music videos had been popular in the UK since the 60s thanks to the Beatles' global success. Prerecorded promo videos were cheaper to ship from the UK than bands themselves. As such MTV played a lot of British music in the early days. The first song played on MTV was British band The Buggles, “Video Killed The Radio Star”.
The glut of British and lack of American videos led to what the media called the ‘second British invasion’. This music wasn’t played on Radio at first. MTV viewers would call into radio shows and demand it. At first record shop owners were confused by people demanding bands with names like Wham, Culture Club and Duran Duran. They caught up by getting MTV in the shops. British 80s bands became big in the US mostly through MTV, not radio.
10. The Psychadelic Furs, Love My Way
If there’s one song that screams MTV it’s 80s brat pack movie title track Pretty in Pink by The Psychadelic Furs. Nothing says 80s like a film with John Hughes attached. Unfortunately lead singer Richard Butler sounds dreadful. Love My Way also featured in 1983 movie Valley Girl with Nicholas Cage. It's a better song too.
The Format Wars
Walkman clones became cheaper and boom boxes died out. The CD promised better than vinyl quality audio but only became popular as prices came down. At first it was only possible to copy CDs to lesser formats like Cassette tape. The demand for CD quality copying was there.
Sony released the Minidisc and Philips responded with the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC). Both offered better recordable, portable, audio quality. DCC shot itself in the foot with DRM. Minidisc's later NetMD also introduced DRM just in time for MP3s to arrive. At the same time CD writers were cheap enough to copy audio CDs DRM-free.
Bootleggers moved from cassettes to CDs filled with MP3s. These CDs had player software included, often pirated copies of a program called WinAmp.
While Music production changed a lot over the 80s and 90s, discovery and listening hadn't. People heard music from radio, friends or copied media. They'd track down the source and at some point usually bought an album (which was better value than a single).
Then the Internet changed music.
11. Major Lazer, Get Free
Diplo and Switch founded Major Lazer, now a project with a host of artists. The project features a cartoon Jamaican superhero with a laser gun for his right hand. For every banging tune like “Keep it going louder”, or “Pon De Floor” there are 3 or 4 tunes pulling in different directions. But when it’s on point nobody rocks the house like Major Lazer.
Napster didn't come out of nowhere. It was the final piece of a larger puzzle. Most 90s computers had lower quality sound output than CD players. Even PCs using fancy Soundblaster Cards weren’t plugged into home music systems.
MP3s first appeared in the mid-90s. Before Dial-up, Intel's MMX and WinAmp, MP3s were painful to use and distribute. Your average sub-£1000, 1995 era PC could play MP3s but only if you didn’t do anything else.
Disk storage was expensive and MP3s didn't fit well on floppy disks. Compression often made MP3s sound 'bubbly'. Compared to bootleg tapes and AM radio it was as good as you could get.
The leeoverstreet recorded a session on his Windows PC in 1998. It’s a time capsule featuring Winamp, late 90s websites and low-quality forgotten formats.
Napster didn’t solve audio quality or make it easier to play MP3s. Napster solved discovery and distribution. Napster was the first time music became available on an industrial scale. For many people this was a completely new era of music discovery.
Downloading music online had risks. Sometimes the music was fake. Sometimes there’d be malware in the download. Stories appeared about people being sued for downloading copyrighted material.
When Metallica’s “I disappear” single appeared before release, Metallica sued Napster. Napster took their servers down but the protocol had been reverse engineered. OpenNap servers popped up, letting people use unofficial clients to get their tunes.
The genie was out of the bottle.
12. Kasper Bjørke, Doesn't Matter (Trentemoller Remix)
Anders Trentemøller is a brilliant Danish composer, producer and remixer. There are very clear Joy Division and Depeche Mode influences in his work. If you like his Doesn’t Matter remix, you’ll love his Lost album. Lost is all killer, no filler and a smidge under 9 Euro on Bandcamp.
Traditional LP album recording involved a complex chain of balanced equipment. Engineers boosted quieter parts of songs to avoid dipping below noise floors. They toned down louder parts to avoid distortion. CDs introduced the concept of a digital master. This allowed engineers to make each bit as loud as possible. Just as orchestras thought tuning higher was better, labels thought louder was better. This led to the 1990s loudness wars.
From 2000-2010 more people listened on mobile devices like iPods and feature phones. By then audio compression was now automated. Engineers optimised songs for loudness, often at the cost of dynamic range.
Wikipedian Kosmosi’s screenshot of the ABBA’s Super Trooper remasters show how much remastered sound changes.
That loss of dynamic range makes for a flatter sound. This isn't bad for background music. Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing is far from background music, as YouTuber wado1942 shows. Good mastering can clean up cheaply produced music. Even this can have hilarious results. I remember an early Nirvana remaster making their lo-fi grunge sound like clean 90s power rock.
Compression affects sound unevenly. The human ear perceives a hi-hat differently to a bass kick. Dynamic compression cuts off peaks and troughs muting drum sounds. This lets engineers pump the volume right to the limit. The theory is that louder music grabs your attention. In practice it adds little, often takes away more than it gives and leads to ear fatigue.
Some people think it's avoidable by buying vinyl. Compression flaws are about the message, not the medium. CD remasters often end up pressed to vinyl. Vinyl has a different noise floor, but in the worst cases digital remasters ignore it.
13. Georgi Kay, Joga
Georgi Kay is an Anglo-Australian multi-instrumental musician and songwriter. She's most known for her work in soundtracks and collaborations with other artists. Her Joga cover featured as the title music in the TV series Top of The Lake. If you like this check out In my mind and her album Where I go to disappear.
Internet Killed The Video Star
As Napster was shutting down, a struggling tech company bought a Mac media player. After some changes they rebranded it and released iTunes on the 9th of January, 2001. A year later they released the iPod. In 2003 iTunes 4.0 introduced an integrated music store. The iPod and music store saved Apple, becoming their biggest revenue sources.
Consumers also began to move from specialist shops to large supermarket chains. This happened with everything from computers to fashion. Wal-Mart became the world’s biggest music retailer until Apple overtook them in 2008. Although online music purchases grew they didn't replace declining vinyl and CD sales. Apple also weren’t exactly sympathetic to the industry’s desires for more money.
Broadband Internet connectivity brought homes permanently online. Services like Shoutcast and Pandora started to become popular. Streaming platforms initially fought for label access with Spotify winning the lion’s share. Internet streaming rights weren't often covered under artists' contracts. Instead they often lay with labels.
With so much more choice online music TV numbers dwindled. To attract viewers, MTV showed fewer music videos and more reality TV. A new site called You Tube encouraged people to upload their own videos. User slvgdvg uploaded the first commercial music video to the service, Coppe’s I lick my brain in silence.
As with bootlegs, people recorded music videos from TV and and uploaded them to video sites. In 2009, legal disputes led to music videos being temporarily blocked on YouTube in the UK.
The Internet displaced earlier music experiences as others had before them. Each cut out old gatekeepers before becoming the new.
14. Prequell, Part VII
Thomas Roussell is a French composer, arranger and orchestrator. I’ve featured part of his Prequell project before. I still listen to it 4 or 5 times a year from start to finish. He’s composed a lot of music for fashion shows and movies. Prequell was his first solo album. In his own words he drew inspiration from artists like Daniel Arsham, and movies such as Back To The Future.
The Return Of Physical Media
At the start of this issue I called the playlist a mixtape. The mix is the right size for CD or Minidisc. I have a Sony MD-N707 with a patched EEPROM and a Sony MZ-RH1. Minidisc (particularly Hi-MD) was the best of the removable disc formats. Although the DRM was frustrating it's still a great portable recording format.
The Minidisc experience sits somewhere between a CD and early iPods. It's geared towards the LP album format, but uses a playlist. It's removable media but the media is the perfect size for swapping over. It looks like a retro-futuristic CD but it’s rewritable via USB.
The sound on headphones is no better than a mobile phone. But it’s a taste of the future that never came. Minidisc would’ve been the player of choice for Shōtarō Kaneda, Case and Neo given the chance. Minidisc won't spy on you. Minidisc doesn't care how you acquired your music. Minidisc doesn't do copyright strikes.
If you like mixtapes in high fidelity audio, Minidisc is worth a look. The N707 is a great starter model, hackable and is cheap second hand. It runs on a single AA battery. The RH1 is a dream device without DRM but gumstick batteries won't last forever and prices are insane.
The Near-Future Of Listening
Alan Blumlein invented stereo recording in 1931. His inspiration came from “talkie” cinema, not music. Cinemas had a single speaker often to one side of the stage. Blumlein wanted the voice to follow the characters across the screen. His bosses were so unimpressed with stereo that they reassigned him.
Deaf in one ear, Brian Wilson wanted listeners to hear The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album in mono. The Beatles fussed over the Sgt Pepper album's Mono master but left Stereo to the engineers.
Producers optimised music for lower quality sound systems for decades. When people started playing music on smartphones engineers changed again. Take Carly Rae Jepson's 2011 hit Call Me Maybe. From the 4/4 'tap' to the layered treble and bass stabs in the chorus, the dynamic range is tiny.
Over centuries the world went from mono to stereo and added speakers from there. The music moved from a point in the distance to all around us. With mobile phones, bluetooth speakers and home assistants, mono is back. Unlike stereo, there's no wrong way to place a mono bluetooth speaker. It’s either good enough or it’s not.
If you’d have told me 20 years ago the future of pop was mono and no dynamic range I’d have laughed. But the way we feel about music is rarely the same as how ears hear sound. The future of modern pop is as it ever was: softly-edged music for the lowest common denominator. Only the lowest common denominator changed.
Things You May Have Missed
I thought I’d finish with the playlist's final track, Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf’s The Magician. It’s a beautiful song to end with. I hope you’ll give it a listen some time. I’ll leave you with a quote from Shirley Manson, someone who’s always a good read wherever you find her words:
I want to hear from the creature who isn't blessed with unbelievable good looks and incredible genes. I want to hear from the geek girl, the forgotten girl, the invisible girl and the miserable girl.
If you know a girl like that she’s probably bombarded with images telling her she’s not good enough. Why not remind her why they’re wrong with a mixtape for her?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue. I know some of you are keen to hear about some more technical things I’ve been up to. We’ll get there, I promise. I’m working on the ZX20 as I write this. I’ll share it here when there’s something worth sharing. In the meantime I’ll be back with more Tales From The Dork Web next month.