This is the story of my life of music-listening and the evolution of technology. I thought of calling this article “From Transistor Radio to CDs, iPhone, MP3s, streaming audio. and YouTube” but that title is a bit long.
The technology of listening to music has changed enormously in my lifetime of over half a century.
In my childhood I had to wait for my favourite song on the radio or hear the record in a shop or at a friend’s house. Now I can find almost any song easily on YouTube or play the media file on my computer or phone.
I started listening to popular music in 1969 using a portable battery powered transistor radio. Music was portable back then and I could listen at my desk or lie in bed and listen to radio station 2SM or 2UW. When I wanted to hear a favourite song I had to wait patiently for it to be played.
My favourite time was Sunday night listening to the 2UW Top 40 countdown when I could hear all the current pop songs. Look at the Top 40 chart of June 1969 on this web site.
Singles and Albums
Singles (45 rpm) and Albums were quite a luxury to own and I couldn’t afford to buy many. My friend Jamie bought quite a few records so I was able to listen to these at his home. Back then, an album was something special to be enjoyed with full attention as well as admiring the album artwork. I would listen to records with my friends using a portable record player or sometimes my father’s hifi system.
I bought a few singles in my teenage years (read about singles Article about Singles (45 rpm). There used to be album compilations of current hit songs and these albums were good value to get a collection of songs. The albums had catchy names like 20 Explosive Hits.
There is something special about a record album package – 12 inch vinyl record and sleeve. The cover art work is special and sometimes the lyrics were printed on a and cover adorned with art work. Look at the fold out cover of Led Zeppelin III (album) . Appreciating an album cover got list in the transition to CDs and their booklets were too small to be of much use. Nowadays the concept of an album is almost forgotten and young people live in a song based world. Asking a young person to name their favourite album will probably draw a stare.
Records need a record player and I got my own turntable for my 21st birthday. After I started working I bought a new amplifier with FM radio, speakers and later I bought a new Yamaha cassette deck which I still own to play my cassettes. The hi-fi system is an important part of my home as I love listening to music. Now many people just have their computer and phone and possibly a portable Bluetooth speaker for portability.
Open Reel Tape Recorder
My father bought a portable Toshiba open reel tape recorder in 1971. It had a built in speaker and needed a microphone to make recordings. It was mono (not stereo!) and the quality was quite basic. I used this machine to record songs from the radio by holding the microphone to the speaker of the transistor radio. The quality was very poor and I always missed the beginning of the song as I scrambled to set up the machine and press the record button. I had to pay for my own tapes so I was always on the lookout for budget-priced tape reels.
Later I got a cable to connect the tape recorder to my father’s record player and I was able to record my friend’s records to the tape. Playing tapes is very tedious because I had to keep fast-forwarding or rewinding the tape to find the start of songs. The machine had a counter which you reset at the beginning of the tape so it was possible to make a crude index of the tape contents.
In the 1980s I bought a second hand Akai open-reel tape deck to play my old tapes, but eventually it broke down so I threw it out and all the tapes.
In 1973 my father bought a Technics Cassette deck which offered a much higher quality experience than the open-reel machine. Now I was buying blank cassette tapes so I could record borrowed records or songs from the radio. Cassette tapes varied in quality depending on what kind of magnetic material was used. There were “Chromium Dioxide” tapes but in the last few years of cassette tape-recording I used TDK-SA tapes.
Until 1979 Sydney radio was only AM and the quality is much lower than hearing a record. My favourite radio station from 1975 onwards was 2JJ (known as “Two Double Jay”) operated by the ABC. You can watch their opening broadcast on YouTube – They moved to the FM band in 1980 so I could hear much higher quality music broadcasts. Now you can hear then live by visiting the TripleJ website.
FM broadcasts are high quality and similar to listening to a record played on the hifi. Sometimes I would record music from FM – classical music from community station 2MBS-FM, ABC Classic FM and 2JJJ (Triple Jay – a step up from Double Jay).
FM radios were available in cars, as portable devices and part of a hifi system as an FM Tuner.
Portable cassette players were very popular for playing the tapes and the Sony Walkman was the pioneering product. I had another brand of cassette player but I didn’t use it so much. The biggest problem was battery life so I used rechargeable batteries.
Compact Discs (CD)
In 1986 I Bought my first Yamaha CD player for $500. It was quite an investment and the disks cost around $30. They were premium priced and valued more than records. A limited range of discs were available in Sydney and I mostly bought classical music.
The public libraries started acquiring CDs and phased out their record collections. I borrowed CDs from libraries and enjoyed listening to the high quality recordings. I often made cassette recordings of the disks using TDK SA tape (a high quality tape) but the quality was of course inferior to the CD.
I was able to build my CD library because of several business trips to the USA where CDs are much cheaper and the range of music was amazing. I also worked at Time Life Australia which owned a mail order CD club so I was able to get many CD for low cost and in some cases I got classical music for free.
In the 1990s it was possible to buy a very expensive machine to make copies of CDs but the cost of CD drives for computers was plummeting. Once I had a PC with a CD drive for writing disks and another drive for playing disks. The prices are now so low, and my most recent drive in my computer is a Samsung purchased for $30.
I made copies of many CDs which also required making a photocopy of the CD booklet to get the information. I was good at copying, cutting and gluing paper to make the CD copy.
Now I had a problem. Too many CDs! I bought a cabinet to hold 500 CDs, I store them in boxes. They are everywhere and driving me crazy. Fortunately there was a new advance in technology which has made the CD almost obsolete.
In the mid 1990s I bought a Sony Discman – a portable CD player which was very nice but drained the batteries quickly. Sadly it broke down and I threw it away.
MP3 files (Media files)
There is a lot of digital information in a compact disc – 700 MB approximately for over an hour of music. The music needs to be be compressed (reduced in size) without losing too much quality. The invention of the MP3 format enabled music to be stored on the computer and not take up excessive space. The music is converted (encoded) to MP3 using a program like WinAmp which I still use for CD ripping and playing music.
There are newer formats for encoding music such as AAC (Advanced Audio Encoding) which is used with iTunes software and Apple products. The WinAmp program can save in this format so this is now my preferred program for ripping CDs.
MP3 files can be made from your CDs as well as borrowed CDs, but there was another world out there called Torrent – a global file-sharing network. I used this for a while to find music and I downloaded several hundred albums before giving up this activity.
How do I store and organise all these MP3 files? I have a 2 TB (that’s 2000 GB) external disk drive where I keep my music files. I am gradually converting (ripping) my CDs to digital format but it’s a slow process and it’s hard to know what to do with the CDs once I have finished with them. They are very hard to sell as no-one seems to want them.
These music files can be played on the computer but how about the technology of portable music playing? The first MP3 player I bought looked like a fat USB stick with a headphone jack, 3 buttons and a place for the battery. It could store about 128MB of files and didn’t have a display. It reminded me of a cassette player – press the forward button to go to the next song.
I soon tired of this and bought a SanDisk player for about $90. It had a small display and more advanced controls.
Next I bought an iPod which was very expensive and it had the ability to record very low quality videos and voice notes which I used to record my early Toastmasters speeches. Now my iPhone does these functions in much higher quality so the iPod is hiding in my desk drawer.
Now the smart phone has built in music player and there is no need to have a separate player. However I sometimes use the iPod because it is much lighter and doesn’t have the distractions of the phone.
Remember how I talked about high quality FM radio? I only listen to FM radio occasionally in my car. Now the radio stations are broadcasting on the Internet using Audio. ABC Classic FM is available live and the link available on the ABC Classic FM page. I can record broadcasts using software to save to a file. No cables required – just the click of a button on a program.
YouTube is a wonderful collection of music and concert videos. If I think of a song I can search YouTube and find it. I have found films of concerts of my favourite groups from my youth – Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin. It’s all there on YouTube ready for viewing or saving for later with the YouTube download program.
What about the very popular Spotify music streaming service? Yes it works and you can pay the subscription for a better listening experience. I have used Spotify but I don’t use it because I already have everything I need.
I have my CD collection which I can play at home on my hifi system or in my car.
My hi-fi system now consists of an NAD amplifier, Gale Speakers and a CD/DVD/BluRay player. I can plug USB sticks into the player. I still have my cassette deck but I only occasionally connect it to the computer or hifi. I have a plan to convert some “important” tapes to MP3 but I haven’t done anything about this. Maybe I will just let go of these tapes.
I have my MP3 (and collection on disk so I can play on my computer. My computer sound system is good quality with Behringer studio monitor speakers on my desk.
I have my iPhone to play songs “on the go” but I rarely use my phone for listening on headphones. I can connect my iPhone to the car stereo using an audio cable but more often I use the phone as a GPS so I don’t worry about music playing.
Often I use YouTube to find new music.
In my lifetime I have used transistor AM radio, open reel tape, cassettes, cheap MP3 players, DiscMan and iPod . All of these are obsolete.
CDs are still available but not so important now as I stopped buying CDs many years ago with the exception of some bargain priced discs from the LifeLine book and music fair.
What will the future hold for how I listen to music?