Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pennies on the Tone Arm, MP3 Style

Back when vinyl records were king, there were plenty of problems with them. Not so much problems – it’s just that if you didn’t take meticulous care of your records, they often got scratched to shit and sounded awful. Guess what? I was a kid. I didn’t handle my records with special gloves (which I’ve seen vinyl enthusiasts do). I dropped the needle all over the record to skip certain songs. I accidentally dragged the needle across the record. I often left records out of the sleeve, thus exposing to them to dust and more chances to be scratched.

As a result, most of my records sounded like shit after a few months. (If it was a record that really grabbed me, I’d play it incessantly for a good few weeks.) Snap, crackle and pop were part of the soundscape. Some scratches were so prominent that I remember them as much as I remember musical passages in certain songs, and am surprised not to hear my memorized skip on a clean CD version. Skips were the worst, especially when they stopped a song cold. There was a way to get around skips: put pennies or other small coins on the tone arm to force the needle deeper into the vinyl grooves. It was a bad thing to do, wearing out the vinyl more quickly, but sometimes it was necessary. The only thing worse than a skip was a mis-shaped record. I once left a T. Rex greatest hits collection sit on the seat of a car in summer. In direct sunlight. The record looked like a big black contact lens after that, totally ruined.

As you gather, I’m not a “miss the warmth of vinyl” person. (I think the "warmth of vinyl" dudes would be much better served by the warmth of a bare tit.) I’m much more a music fan than an audio enthusiast. CDs, for the most part, sound fine to me. (You want a kick, go to a website run by Steve Hoffman, apparently a famous mastering engineer, and read some of the dozens of posts on there regarding CD sound quality. Guys arguing over the Japan mastering of Hotel California that costs $500 on E Bay, as opposed to the Dutch mastering that you can get for $25 on import. And another guy who found the rare DCC version that trumps them all in sound quality in a used bin at a record store in Pasadena for $4.99.)

MP3s, if they’re created at 192 kbps or higher, sound fine to me. (Even some that are recorded lower sound fine – the source material dictates the quality of an MP3 file.) MP3s, in my opinion, are the greatest thing to happen to music in my lifetime. (Of course, they’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to the music business in terms of lost sales and future audiences believing “music is free.” In short order, the music industry is going to have to figure out how to survive without physical product to sell, and millions of people openly pirating the un-physical product. I don’t envy them!)

The problem with MP3s? Really nothing, save that sometimes the players we store these things on malfunction, and when they do, christ, it is hell.

Nothing really went wrong with MP3 player (a Creative Nomad Zen 60 GB Jukebox) this past weekend. What went wrong was my Windows XP quietly upgraded the media player to version 11, which apparently has bugs in it that make not just the media player, but my entire computer, including the Creative software that allows me to transfer tracks to the MP3 player, not recognize the MP3 player. Doesn’t sound like a big deal? Without my computer’s ability to recognize the MP3 player, the player is frozen in time – can’t add music to it, can’t transfer that music anywhere else.

Understand this player holds 60 gigabytes of music – right now, I have about 40 gigabytes on there, roughly 8,500 songs. Of those songs, I have about 80% of the various folders (50s Rock, 60s Pop, 70s Rock, Blues, Country, etc.) backed-up on DVD discs. The remaining 20% or so falls into two folders: Pop and Country Rock. Pop is basically new pop music from the 90s onwards (all quirky, indie shit … no Britney Spears, I’m afraid). Country Rock is any sort of alt. country music from the 90s onwards. We’re talking roughly 2,000 songs that were in danger of disappearing for me. About 1/3rd of them are backed-up on a previous MP3 player, another 1/3rd I could painstakingly recreate from reloading songs from Emusic and my CD collection, and about 1/3rd comes from other sources that would have just disappeared. A few hundred songs, gone just like that, and a few dozen hours spent re-loading and burning tracks.

That’s the main issue with MP3s now. You have the ability to create such large collections that it may not dawn on you, until you’re in a situation like this, just how much music you have on these players. We’re talking the musical equivalent of dozens of albums. If you had taken a few dozen of my albums back in 1979 and threw them on a fire, I’d have shit my pants in rage. In 2007, you can lose a few dozens albums worth of songs in the blink of an eye, or the momentary change in software on a computer that wipes the slate clean.

I was pissed.

I got even more pissed when I went on the Creative discussion boards to find that the company had done virtually nothing to address the problem, and that hundreds of other people had the same problem. Unfortunately, I started trying the various “home remedies” some of these people have come up with (all with varying levels of success) to correct the problem. After half an hour of trying various solutions, my MP3 player had switched into some strange safe mode, stayed frozen in that window and did not appear to be working. A condition which lasted all of Saturday night while I shit bricks in my shorts and exhaled steam from my ears.

A piece of advice on these internet discussion boards related to products you purchase: never listen to them. They’re always fucked up. The people on there are often snotty tech-heads who leave out key steps in the process that end up really fucking with you and your product. For instance, I had a previous player where the earphone jack wasn’t connecting properly. (If you take apart any audio device with an earphone, you realize that when you plug an earphone in, all you’re doing is forcing one piece of metal to touch another, thus tapping into the audio.) Various tech-heads on the discussion board laid out instructions on taking the machine apart and fixing the headphone jack yourself – one guy even laid out a picture diagram on how to do it. What his picture diagram missed: the small gasket-style casings, springs and other parts that immediately popped out of the player once you unscrewed the back. I went apeshit with that. Eventually sent the player back to Creative (it was two weeks old and the earphone jack was already malfunctioning) and demanded they fix it, which they did after weeks of hectoring and a warning from the Better Business Bureau.

In short, the guys on these boards … picture the arrogant prick in the I.T. Department who treats everyone like an asshole because their computer knowledge isn’t as broad as his. (Which, uh, is why they gave the job to the prick in the first place?) It’s guys like this, who really aren’t very smart. You want to know what true intelligence is? It’s the ability to share your knowledge with other people in a way that let’s them understand and do what you do. Many tech-heads aren’t capable of that deeper, empathetic level of logic. Like so many people, they either guard their knowledge so no one else can have it, or they’re incapable of demonstrating it to anyone else. In a word, no, make that two words, fucking useless. This is the kind of revelation that occurs to you when pop off the back of a $400 MP3 player, springs and other small metallic shit pop out, and you realize you’re in much deeper shit than you were before, thanks to some guy you used to beat up in high school.

Luckily, Sunday morning I found the right driver so that I could at least get my player working again. Still, the computer would not recognize it. What I eventually ended up doing was “rolling back” the version of Windows Media Player to 10, erasing all my Creative software, reloading it and new drivers from the Creative website … and it still didn’t work. I did notice on one of the message boards reference to a non-Creative piece of software that you could buy for $25 that would act as a Windows Explorer type program that would allow you to load up your player. Guess what? I bought it, and it worked. What’s even funnier is that after that software worked, it kicked off some internal (competitive?) switch in the Windows Media world and allowed the Creative software to work again … so now everything is working, although I’m not exactly sure why.

And as far as I’m concerned, the sooner I get those Pop and Country folders copied to my hard drive and burned onto DVD, the better, because I now trust this shit as far as I can throw it. (I can probably throw that player about 50 yards, the laptop about 20. And I may end up doing both before this saga concludes.) I feel like a mental patient in some type of remission, where everything is sane and clear now, but in a few days, I’ll descend back into the darkness of tangled synapses and dementia. Who knows, maybe everything really is all right and I have nothing to sweat. But still, all this week I’ll be getting those thousands of songs onto my machine and then onto DVD discs.

What have I learned? Nothing about Microsoft Windows, which has always been rife with these sort of aggravating blindsides. It’s just mindblowing that they allow this stuff to happen, and more accurately, probably do this sort of shit on purpose in some misguided attempt to thwart MP3 file copying. They’re like that king ordering back the ocean: good luck, assholes. Microsoft is bad, but fucking Creative, they know they have this enormous problem, and do absolutely nothing to address it. Next player I get, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to get an iPod; I just don’t like the clunkiness involved with converting everything to those Mac files for the machine. Although I do think their player design and ease-of-use are the best. Their price tag also sucks. But Creative has to have the worst customer service I’ve encountered with any product, much less one you spend hundreds of dollars on. Their actual product is good – my previous 30 MB player is like a tank that will outlast every player I’ll ever have. But their software, the issues with Windows Media Player 11, the total unresponsiveness of the company to address such a key problem: unbelievable. It’s like walking into a fast-food joint, and the pimply-faced kid behind the counter takes a cheeseburger, grinds it into your face and screams, “Fuck you!”.

What I’ve really learned is that music means more to me than I thought it did. It’s easy to take it for granted, quietly sitting in huge gigabyte folders on your player. But when you’re placed in a situation where you’re about to lose all of it in a moment, man, you fight like hell to keep it and take it personally. I want to keep this stuff the rest of my days and am kicking myself now for not backing up files on a regular basis. If you’re reading this and are in the same boat, do it, now, back this shit up, either on disc or external drive. You will be one sorry bastard if you don’t and find yourself behind the eight ball like I almost did this past weekend. If you need to register this in your mind properly, go back to your physical product of choice, be they CDs or records, and imagine a bonfire with Bill Gates in a red devil’s outfit pitchforking every album you own and chucking them into the flames.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

One fundamental truth about technology: generally speaking, the simpler it is, the more durable it will be. Regardless of one's opinion about the sound, I can tell you this: I (or someone) will be playing my vinyl records long after mp3s and CD players have become obsolete. My turntable has already outlasted three CD players. (I also have a Walkman Pro cassette machine that's even older than the turntable and still works like a charm.) Based on what I've seen, IPods and other digital players are overpriced, poorly-made devices that, even if they weren't designed to be obsolete in about two years, won't last much longer than that anyway. A well-preserved vinyl record is much more durable than magnetic tape, and much more accessible and robust over the long-term than digital data. It's so simple to decode, an alien could fall out of the sky and in hours would not only figure it out but be able to build a device to play it. Even severely damaged records can be restored quite satisfactorily. When future civilizations dig up our artifacts, whatever music they find will be on phonograph records; music kept on all other storage media will have long since become unrecoverable.