II. Things have changed: The sound scene

I was listening to a long TV advertisement this past weekend that featured Pat Boone and Patti Page pushing songs from the 1950s — all quite familiar to people my age and older. It was kinda’ fun listening to the old hits, and it spurred me to write my second installment about how things have changed so dramatically in my lifetime, in this case with audio media.

When I was a kid, my family didn’t have a TV until I was about 8 years old, maybe a little older. In fact, only a few families in our neighborhood had one — black and white, of course, and you had to adjust the “rabbit ear” antennas to get a clear picture. That meant I was right on the tail edge of a generation that grew up listening to the radio . . . and we had a very nice stand-up Zenith with a big dial on the front of the wooden cabinet and lots of glowing vacuum tubes in the back that had to warm up before we could hear listen to anything.

It was actually quite a good radio for its day; and, if we were patient with dialing and the ionosphere was just right — which was usually more likely at night — you could tune in stations all over the world on that thing.

We loved listening to programs such as The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, Hopalong Cassidy, The Green Hornet, Amos & Andy, Jack Benny and George Burns, Batman and Buck Rogers, to name just a few.

We also loved to listen to the radio in the family’s ’52 Pontiac or my dad’s ’49 Ford pickup truck, with the starter pedal on the floor next to the gas pedal. Of course, both vehicles were both stick shifts (i.e. manual transmissions) and dreaded having to start the pickup on a steep hill, because that required one foot for the clutch, one for the brake, one more for the gas, and another for the starter. Yup, it was tricky!

But I digress. The car radio provided a back-up when the parents wanted to listen to Lawrence Welk or somebody else who didn’t appeal to young people. In fact, lots of kids would just sit in their family cars and listen to radios in those days.

Naturally, we also loved to listen to records, and one Christmas my sister, who was eight years older than me, got the latest phonograph that featured an auto-changing device where you could stack about six records on a special spindle: As one record ended, the needle-arm would automatically move to the side, a new record would drop onto the turntable, and the arm would move back to just the right starting point. When the last record in the stack finished playing, the needle arm was “smart” enough to automatically return to its holder and turn off the machine.

This phonograph also featured 33-and-a-third speed, which was what we needed to play the new vinyl albums. By that, I mean “LPs” — long-playing records that could hold about a dozen or so songs and last for an hour. Prior to that most records were the smaller 45 rpm — revolutions per minute, with the larger holes in the middle — and 78 rpms, but the 45s generally just had one song on a side and lasted for two-to-five minutes. Both the 45s and 78s were also more brittle and could shatter if dropped.

Whatever size they were, we had to keep the records clean, or dust would collect on the needle and degrade the sound. We also had to change the needle from time to time, because it would get dull, although a so-called diamond needle or stylus would last a lot longer  — but cost more. We also had to be careful not to scratch the records, because that could make the needle jump grooves; and sometimes, for whatever reason, the needle would get hung up in the same groove, so the music would repeat itself over and over until someone nudged the needle-arm.

After a while, people would collect large stacks of albums. Some of them still do, but I can’t remember the last album I owned — somewhere back in the 70s or 80s maybe. Indeed, nowadays it seems the only place I still see 45-rpm records is in the occasional jukebox in a 50s-themed restaurant or visitor attraction.

Stereo sound was a big innovation, and well-to-do people would have big systems with an amplifier, maybe even a pre-amp, a tuner, and boxy speakers. In fact, the whole speaker thing was very diverse and sophisticated. But technology marches on . . . and when I was in the 7th grade at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City, in the late 1950s I first heard about the latest innovation in sound — cassette tapes — although it was a year or so later before I actually saw one. Surprisingly, they haven’t changed much, although it seems to me the tapes inside the earlier ones were more likely to get snagged on the players.

Inevitably, LPs gave way to cassettes which, in turn, were partially replaced by 8-track stereo cartridges, sort of. The whole 8-track thing seems kinda’ blurry in the modern history of audio: They didn’t stick around very long because they were just so clunky and limited in the number of songs they could hold. But they were popular for a while: I remember my sister-in-law had an 8-track player and a stack of cartridges, and a friend who I used to commute with to the University of Hawaii from Laie had a player in his car that we would listen to in the late 60s, early 70s.

No, cassettes were kings for quite a while. Remember Sony-brand walkmans? They were personal cassette players you could walk around with — and not much bigger than the cassette — just like a generation earlier people would walk around with portable radios. And then there was the whole boom-box thing — big honking portable stereo systems that were light enough to haul outside while we were working in the yard, or washing the car, or going to the beach.

I can’t remember the last time I owned a stereo phonograph or played an LP on one; and I think I might still have a cassette or two laying around gathering dust, but I don’t think I have anything to play one on…because CDs — compact discs — took over the sound world for quite a while. In fact, lots of people still have stacks of CDs laying around; and in the beginning, you had to have a CD player, some of which also shrunk to a size not much bigger than the disc itself.

I suspect today most people play CDs on a computer — a good thing because their advent coincided approximately with the explosion of personal computers back in the 80s and 90s…which have since led us to the age of MP3s and other digital sound files that can play on a wide variety of devices, including iPods and similar devices. This technological advance meant people could store thousands of songs on their own computers and, among other things, “burn playlists” or collections of songs to personal CDs.

As computers got better, faster, and smaller, personal MP3 devices went along for the cyber-ride, to the point that some Shuttles and iPods today are not much bigger than a fat postage stamp; but, with the right pair of earbuds — which have morphed from the big earphones of yesteryear — can pump out some pretty impressive music. Likewise, any self-respecting smart-phone today can also hold hundreds of songs for instant playback at the touch of a button, or two.

As I reflect on the sound technology changes I’ve seen in the past 50 years, it’s hard to imagine where it’s all headed in the future. For example, I can remember a show-and-tell in elementary school where someone brought in their grandparents’ old phonographs that had to be hand-wound to play and put out music from a horn-like speaker when the needle tracked down the grooves of a cylinder-shaped record.

No, I suspect the future of sound technology in the coming years will continue to swing toward instant accessibility and merging with video, and the devices we’re familiar with today will seem like your great-grandparents’ old gramophone-and-horn speaker. And you know what? I’ll be right there as long as I can, enjoying it.

— By Mike Foley

Read Part I of this series…

Read Part II of this series…


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