With the discovery that audio CDs sound much better on my older Apex player than they do on my new Sony, I was sent on a strange spin. Rex called from California last night, and we were talking about the “golden age” of audio equipment. I was trying to figure out just when people stopped caring about how things sound. We both pretty much agreed that it was when CD’s entered the scene. Funny how a supposedly superior medium would start a chain of compromise which left the shelves of audio stores filled with inferior crap. It has to be better, it’s digital. Maybe Baudrillard was right in that respect; we now live in the age of simulation. CD’s simulate music, rather than presenting it in all its imperfect glory of harmonics and subtle modulations.
I’m not really a luddite. Every time the technology has changed, I have moved along with it. Rex and I were pondering the diversity of formats that we have chased in our lifetimes— from four-track tapes to eight-track tapes, from mini-cassettes to micro-cassettes, from LP to CD, and a thousand variants along the way. I’ve owned most types of audio delivery systems, mainly because getting the data requires owning a device that can cope with it. But there’s a rupture between digital data delivery and analog sourcing. Analog’s main problem is noise, whereas digital’s main problem is sync. Though I think the funny little blocks of color created by malfunctioning DVDs or VCDs are beautiful in their own right, glitches in audio are downright disturbing. When analog fails, the failure is usually harmonious (background hiss of pink-noise, or harmonic modulation of the sound through feedback). When digital fails, what comes out has no discernible relationship with the original. Of course, the die is cast— it’s now a digital world.
I was watching a history channel program about Rome, and that phrase supposedly uttered by Julius Caesar as he crossed the river to conquer Rome —“the die is cast.”— stuck in my head. The phrase has two possible connotations since the dawn of the machine age. In Caesar’s day, it meant that the roll of the dice (the randomness of fate and history) was done, and what would happen, would happen. The phrase made me wonder though— because my father was a bit of an amateur machinist, with cases of tools and dies in the shed— that it could also mean that destiny was fixed, rather than random.
A die is a machine tool now, rather than an instrument of chance. It stamps out identical replicas of whatever it was formed to produce. In the case of audio, we stamp out approximations (though fairly good ones, most of the time). There is a limit to how good something can be, once it is cast on that little silver disk. We’ve settled, in expediency, for something that really can’t be brought closer to the source— cold and metallic, shiny and pretty— unlike the ragged imperfect licorice pizzas with their warps and propensity for damage. Though both of these reproductive technologies are produced by dies, they have little in common. The grooves in a record trigger vibrations, just like the vibrations of a speaker which moves the air that sends the sound to you. Grooves are first cut then stamped. The needle just plows along the furrow, harvesting the swings of fate (and dustspecks) along the way. CDs are first burned, forming little pits which are stamped into thin foil. The dark forest of vinyl is replaced by shiny mirrors that either catch the light, or don’t. Chance can wipe away the map of a CD quickly, leaving it totally out of sync— a coaster or ornament for a wind-chime— dead, rather than merely annoying to listen to.
Strange how the verb version of “die” has such a different meaning— to cease to exist. Were did the nominal version of die come from? I was looking at the OED, and it appears to have come from the Latin datum. The same root as data— but with rather a different connotation. The past participle of dare to give— “It is inferred that, in late pop. L., datum was taken in the sense ‘that which is given or decreed (sc. by lot or fortune).’”
It’s back to Apollo and Dionysus I suppose. Cold geometry, arithmetic perfection vs. wild and uncontrollable worlds of vibrations. It’s a matter of how you view the data— cast with precision— or tossed by fate. Either way, it gives me a sinking feeling.