The Green Door

A drive in the countryside, with a golden oldie playing on the radio, leads quite innocently into a discussion about advances in audio recording technology. Dave Wilson reports, and is made to feel his age.

‘There is a happy land where only children live. You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir.’ (David Bowie)

Last weekend, as I was driving into Cambridgeshire with my son Paul, an old song by Frankie Vaughan came over the airwaves. ‘Goodness gracious,’ I said to Paul, ‘I’ve got this very same song on an old ’78’ at home.’ Silence.

‘Yes, that’s right!’ I exclaimed, hoping that my son would share my enthusiasm for all things technical, rare and antique, ‘on a 78 no less!’ Silence.

After what seemed like an eternity, the horrible truth dawned on me. He didn’t know what a ’78’ was. He hadn’t got the foggiest idea what I was talking about.

But how could this be? For almost sixty years, the ’78 rpm’ record dominated the music business. For sixty long years, from 1900 to 1960, all the great classical musicians produced their finest work on this prestigious format. The revered work of gods like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan was all to be found stamped in shellac that spun at this most hallowed of all speeds.

And it wasn’t until the early sixties that this workhorse of sound reproduction was finally sent to the great musical knackers yard in the sky, finally outmoded by the 45 rpm and 33 rpm formats which were used for singles and albums for twenty odd years after that. Until they too, of course, met their fate at the hands of the digital Compact Disk (CD) format in the early 1990’s.

Than it occurred to me. Since Paul is 14, he can barely remember my 33 rpm album collection, let alone anything older. All his recordings are on CD.

It’s somewhat sobering to think, however, that even though he hasn’t been alive all that long, more recording formats have entered the marketplace since he was born than in the entire lifetime of my dad. Just think about it. The ’78’ lasted for sixty years. But alongside the development of the CD audio disk we have had the digital video disk (DVD), the MP3 player, Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and the MiniDisk. More formats, in fact, than you could shake a Charlie Mingus at.

And what might the future hold, I hear you ask? In the next twenty years, we might see music recorded on cubes full of nanotubes, memory that stores music based on the dielectric properties of molecules, or holographic memory based on electro-optic (E-O) beam steering technology. Somewhere out there, someone is working on the stuff right now.

So I’d love to be a fly on the wall thirty years hence. When my son tries to explain to his kids just how, all those years ago, he used to listen to his favourite Purge Cannister and AngelCorpse songs on that really outmoded CD format. Silence, I’ll wager, will also ensue as Paul realises that not only have his kids never heard of the recording format he is droning on about, but they have never heard of the bands either.