Although MP3’s are a small part of the computing spectrum of things that have changed my life, they’ve had a strong impact. I love ’em and use ’em. My iPod (child of MP3) is full of them, representing the things I listen to regularly: music, audiobooks, and podcasts.
To fully appreciate MP3’s I only have to think back to the late 50’s and early 60’s. Transistor radios were in the early stages of becoming a consumer product, thanks to the US space program and the subsequent development of solid-state technology.
1959 and my beloved Chicago White Sox were in the World Series. Back then they played ballgames during the day which, unfortunately, also corresponded with being at school. I was in grade 9 in Lyndon, Illinois, and one of kids in my class had a new, white transistor radio with an earphone stuck in one ear.
Periodically he would call out the score. That he was rooting for the recently-moved LA Dodgers made it worse as my Sox slowly went down to defeat. He was the rich kid in the class and I wanted to sock his smug face.
That year, the new high-fidelity sound systems, dubbed hi-fi, were beginning to expand into stereophonic recordings. The music aficionados, with their Heathkit amps and preamps and AR-3 speaker (singular) considered ‘stereo’ a fad, an unnecessary complication, and a detriment to the hi-fi sound.
By the time I went to university, four years later, stereo had supplanted mono completely. Four years after that, I acquired my first stereo system — a Lafayette receiver, turntable, and speakers. It was low end, but it was all I could afford on a student budget.
But try as I might, I never liked LP’s. They were fussy to keep clean and after very few plays they got scratchy. The big dust jackets had great artwork and I loved the liner notes, but the medium itself never appealed to me.
In the 70’s I upgraded to some nice Marantz stereo gear with a good turntable and a quality Shure cartridge, but I still didn’t like LP’s. In the 80’s when relatively high-quality cassette tapes appeared, I moved to tape and with the aid of a higher-end Sony tape player, got reasonable sound from them. But tape, while convenient, always sounded a bit muffled, even when played with all the Dolby enhancements.
I was slow to embrace CD’s in the early 90’s until I discovered that Vanguard and Elektra were issuing material from the 60’s folk era. I really liked 60’s folk and soon started accumulating CD’s.
I loved CD’s. I know audiophiles gripe about them, but to my non-audiophile ears they sounded clean and they were really convenient. Except for storage. Those damned plastic cases were thick and slippery. Environmentally unfriendly too, as we later came to appreciate. But if you took reasonable care of them, they didn’t get scratchy and lose their freshness.
Because I was a writer about things computerish during the 80’s and 90’s I watched the development of digital video and audio formats with interest. The advent of the DVD was terrific. Great quality video and sound, plus convenience that blew away VHS tapes.
But the dark horse in the mix was the lowly MP3 music format. Despised by audiophiles, they sparked a raging prairie fire of popularity, and all kinds of rippers appeared to convert CD’s into MP3 recordings, and players for the desktop computer became a hot item.
Portable players began to appear — some, like the high-end models from Creative Labs, had hard disks that could hold your entire music library. Soon that previous darling of the masses, the Sony Walkman, faded into technological extinction.
Apple both capitalized on the MP3 and boosted it into the stratosphere when it introduced the iPod and iTunes. Cracking through the reserve of the music industry, they offered music singles for 99 cents. And it became easy to sync podcasts with your iPod, creating growing audience support for podcasting.
The rest, as they say, is history. History that is still unfolding. Recently there have been changes in the pricing structure of music from the iTunes store, and DRM (Digital Rights Management) has been removed. Amazon.com, and other online stores, also sell MP3’s online.
This morning, before leaving the house for my daily walk, I slid a CD-R of MP3 jazz albums into my Bose Wave. The CD-R plays for hours. I’ve put my entire MP3 collection on my netbook so I can listen to anything that grabs my fancy wherever I am.
My little iPod — a 4GB Nano — slips in my back pocket and I listen to podcasts while I’m cooking or cleaning around the house. The MP3 has changed how I listen to audio — all for the better.
Yet I can’t help but note the similarity of my little Nano to the tiny transistor radio my classmate sported in 1959. Gadgets may change, but the love of gadgets endures.