Sunday, April 4, 2010
Spool's out and in again
A little box in a translucent black, white or grey with blank strips across its dual faces to fill in neat minute hand-writing is probably my earliest visual memory of music. (I remember my father's LP and EP collections, especially the broad and colourful covers, but that was something which was strictly out of bounds for inquisitive yet destructive toddlers) A black magnetic tape (with immense powers to attract one) hangs loosely between two spools. A light tap on the side to make sure there are no loose loops - a pen rotated around one of the spools to doubly make sure - locked into the safe cavernous desk of a National Panasonic mono-speaker - just push play. Scratchy sounds greet you as the ticker starts to count like a very slow slot machine minus the fruit pictures, before the music emanates and envelopes you.
The National Panasonic was sold to my mother's tailor (it presumably still entertains him and his troupe) and a BPL Stereo came in. Later everyone was talking about the quality of sound and the experience of a CD and that was something we audiophiles cannot resist. So out went the black BPL with plain dual speakers and in came a silver hulky looking Philips with a CD/DVD and of course the cassette player. Over the last few years music has predominantly been of the downloaded variety which is played over the computer system or on the move on my phone.
One reason - convenience,better sound quality and other technicalities apart - for the cassette player being ignored was the squeaky heads of the dual cassette desks that were running faulty or so we were led to believe by the local technician. Our repeated cleaning of the head unit with cotton and a tinge of after shave did not solve the problem. A month or so later the squeaky sounds magically vanished, but not for long. Months of dust gathering by the cassette unit later we called the Philips service centre who immediately sent home a uniformed technician with a huge bag of tools. After opening the bag much like a doctor from the Victorian times visiting a home to attend to a delivery, the uniformed man deftly located a pair of pincers, some cotton and demanded any kind of spirit available in the house. Aftershave being the only available spirit was promptly handed over which was used to douse the small cotton wad. Soon he was wrist deep into the cassette player deck, twisting and prodding, teasing out what looked like dust and grime from when Knopfler had sailed to Philadelphia. Half an hour of such sound dusting and 200 bucks richer the technician left, a bright, resuscitated cassette player in our midst.
As I mentioned over the last few years it has been only listening to music online or offline after downloading it. Thats easy. Playing music too, is easy and mechanical. Ctrl F and run through albums, enqueue songs and press play. Cassettes on the other hand involve a lot more, hand-eye-mind coordination. It takes a while in hunting down the exact song you want to listen to especially if you have nearly a thousand cassettes to burrow through to find that epiphanic album. Cassettes have the romantic ability to escape your scanning eyes for a long while and then sticking out just a bit on that left corner of the highest shelf almost out of reach. But only almost...
Cassettes also have that immensely pleasure giving quality of jumping at you point blank when you are least expecting them. Thats exactly what happened earlier this morning. While searching for a recorded version of Zappa's "Joe's Garage", the Saint
manifested himself, eyes meditatively closed, leaning slightly forward, fingers taut, lips pursed around the reed with Giant Steps. After that it was pure bliss...A Spiral.
Image via David Airey
For more magnetic tape memories go here.