Wraparound Sound

I WISH I could remember the first cassette I slipped into my brother’s Sony Walkman with the bright orange earphones. Most likely, it was one of his. Something with lots of past-the-speed-limit guitars, some liquid bass. What I was most struck by was just how “inside” sound one could get. It was different from listening on the floor, head near the speakers, feeling the bass quake. That was a way to let music enter your body, but it wasn’t like this. Really, the Walkman let you live inside it.

This past week, Sony announced that it would stop making the cassette Walkman in Japan, there are plans to continue manufacturing them in the States, but for how long, it is uncertain. That’s made me pause.

My brother, now a musician, was/is an early adapter. He’s always quick to pick up the new electronic passkey. CD player, iPod, etc. would follow. But the Walkman is significant in that it did change our relationship — not just his and mine, but the world’s really — to listening to music — in that it became more private than you could have ever imagined. There have been a flood of studies, articles, essays written about the effects of all of this: how the Walkman has damaged our ears; made us anti-social; has shifted the way we communicate in public. All true. But there is something about dropping into a deep pool of sound, where you could for the first time hear sighs, whispers, chuckles along that bass-line quake.Erroll Garner growling with his piano, Glenn Gould’s half moans, the back-and-forths between musicians on Stevie Wonder opuses. Like you were in the room with them. It was a different way to *hear* music, the notes, the pauses and the interaction — a different sort of socializing, as it were. You could carry your world with you and not have to impose your mixtape tastes — or rather obsessions — on others. But mostly, it brought new meaning to floating on a song.

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2 thoughts on “Wraparound Sound

  1. for me, the walkman was a way to hear the soundtracks of daily life that i carried in my head. i would cue up songs or album sides to match my moods when out walking, sneak into the greek theatre in berkeley when it was empty and listen to imaginary concerts, or just to let sounds dictate the movies that would superimpose over the daily grind like music videos (in those pre-mtv days).

    i don’t miss the hiss — i prefer the sterile digital clarity, despite it’s lack of warmth — but i do miss the way people would carefully select and rerecord songs for personal playlists. committing time to choosing and ordering these things made you think them through; today, in seconds, you can shuffle and reorder digital playlists that, wile sounding good, don’t manage to show the same level of care and forethought.

    in all of this the saddest thing is that for all the technology, few bother to spend time at the recording and mastering level to really do things with spatial separation. stereo is the accepted norm when there’s so much that can be done with surround that would really put a listener into the middle of things. the end of the walkman is slightly sad, because it indicates a clear break with the past, but sadder is the fact that with all these tools we’re still not really hearing anything any better than we did 30 years ago.

  2. ah yes, “mind videos” before videos. i had a lot of those. my favorite one was one i “created” to “can’t find my way home” set in the bay area 🙂 . . . . .

    interesting you mention the hiss….i hadn’t thought about that in so long … and you’re right. i miss the “crackle” of vinyl — that felt like a package you’re opening, or some such. different from skips — which i don’t miss at all.

    and your’e right about mixtapes vs. playlists — although, i do have to say i spend a lot of time constructing the latter as well. one of my assignments came recently from an editor of mine who wanted music she could listen to while lying on the floor (in the dark . . ) — and so . . . that I tinkered with for some time and it did require that I go and forage around for sounds on old CDs that fit the bill, but that was the first time that I felt the need to “get it right” in the same way that I used to with mixtapes.
    .

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