Monday 17 October 2005

When the world is running down...

Is it just me or are natural disasters becoming more frequent and more severe? I try to tell myself that there were just as many hurricanes, flash floods, tornadoes and so on thirty years ago as there are now, but somehow that doesn't ring true. Maybe it's just that the media are more adept at reporting such extremes of nature these days; the world is certainly a smaller place than it was in the 1970s and even '80s. Or maybe it's just that we're all more environment-conscious these days, so Hurricane Xanthe battering some Gulf province we've never heard of gets reported in much greater depth than would have been the case in years gone by...

...or maybe it's just that the cumulative effect of too many years' global warming has pushed the planet's delicate equilibrium so far out that when it springs back, it does so with monumental force. If so, how much further do we have to push before the inelastic point is reached, and equilibrium is unrecoverable? I've mentioned this before but I'll mention it again - please take a look at the CRed carbon reduction campaign.

And before anyone writes to harangue me, I'm not trying to pin the earthquake in Pakistan on global warming - I'm just talking severe weather-related events here. I don't believe there's anything to show global warming influences plate tectonics... but I do believe massive pollution and unsustainable deforestation have screwed the climate. I'm not sure what will come first, half the country's roads being flooded as water levels rise or fossil fuels running out - either way, at least domestic pollution will drop somewhat.

Footnote: "When the world is running down you make the best of what's still around" is a very catchy (if excessively titled) song by the always-excellent Police.

Tuesday 11 October 2005

C30, C60, C90, Go!

I embrace technology. I'm interested in gadgets. I work in IT... so yes, I'm a tech-head, geek, nerd, whatever. Somewhere in the dim and distant past I even worked in an independent hi-fi store. So you'd think I'd love the speed and efficiency with which CDs can be ripped and MP3s encoded. And, to a certain extent, I do. But there is one drawback, one caveat, one proviso, one bugbear, one problemo - the joy of compiling a compilation tape has been lost.

Tape? Cassette tape? Am I mad? Yes, I know that tapes degrade, oxidise and eventually wear out. Yes, I know that the sound quality does not stand up in our digital world (although a decent Metal tape with Dolby S noise reduction comes pretty close to a budget CD player - see, I told you I used to work in a hi-fi shop). But a compilation tape... a mix tape, if you prefer...

These days, burning a CD takes just a few minutes. With media-playing software, you can juggle MP3s into just about any order you like and quickly burn or transfer that playlist to the medium of choice. But with tape, everything was different. Building a playlist required a pen and paper. Putting the desired tracks in order was a complex balancing act that involved weighing up a pleasing or meaningful sequence of songs against the running time of each track, to make the best use of the 45 minutes you had on each side of the tape. Nothing worse than having to fast-forward to the end of a side before turning over, right? And even when you'd finally worked out a time-sensitive and aurally satisfying running order, you then had to invest the time in actually doing the taping. It might take ten minutes to burn a disc but recording a 90 minute compilation tape, with changing records, cueing up and releasing the pause button, could take three hours or more.

And what of splicing tracks, or fading out? Seguéing tracks together required careful use of the pause button, timing and a fair amount of luck - trial and error was the name of the game, but it could be done, and oh, how satisfying it was when you got it right. Fading out? How many times have I slowly wound down the Recording Level knob whilst counting to myself? Cross-fading though, that was always beyond the realms of domestic hi-fi. So hurrah for the digital revolution... these days, tracks can be edited with astonishing results using free software on a basic home PC, all at the click of a mouse. Any idiot can do it... but the art has been lost.

Because of the time and effort that went into making a really good compilation tape, giving someone a mix meant something. Making a tape for a friend meant "these are songs that I like - you might like them too because we're mates". Making a tape for a girl meant "I want you to think I'm cool" or "I want to seduce you with music"... or, most often, "look how obvious I'm trying to make it that I like you". And what pleasure could be gained from making a tape for yourself! Sometimes, with careful planning and a stroke of luck, the perfect compilation would emerge, and do sterling service on the car stereo for the next six months.

I still have a number of compilation tapes knocking about. I even keep one particularly good mix in the car "for emergencies", i.e. when I'm sick to death of the CDs in the autochanger. Others are gifts from people that mean so much. I'll never play them again because they're becoming so frail, but I'll never get rid of them. The sight of them with their hand-decorated inlay cards is enough for me to remember the thought that went into them, the emotional investment that was made. But I do recognise them for what they are: relics of a bygone age, the 20th Century. Nowadays the whole product can be done and dusted in minutes, digital inlay artwork included - some homespun discs could even be passed off as commercial products, which makes me a bit sad. I can't argue with the fact that technology has made compilations easier to make and more professional in quality but there's just no fun in it anymore. No more will I spend a blissful weekend planning and recording a perfect C90 and never again will I be able to give someone a compilation that says "this is how much you mean to me".

Footnote: Nick Hornby covers the importance and complexities of the compilation tape somewhere in the middle of his excellent book High Fidelity, whilst "C30, C60, C90, Go!" was a single by the short-lived and archetypical Eighties band Bow Wow Wow.