What are you listening to? Richard King on early adopters

richard-king

“To listen to music is a rare and rewarding pleasure, one that transforms the everyday just by pressing the play button. What are you listening to?” Richard King

I would never consider myself, by any stretch of the imagination, to be an early adopter. I delayed any decision about purchasing an iPod until a friend illegally copied their digital library for me, an act of generosity that nevertheless caused my laptop to irreparably crash.

A few years ago I surprised myself by subscribing to the permanently fragile and glitchy iTunes Match service. I think the idea behind iTunes Match is that your music library can be accessed on any device from the Cloud, so rather than downloading tracks onto a phone or tablet, the user listens to a matched version of their library in iTunes, or something like that. I instantly ran into difficulties with iTunes Match as it failed to recognise, and was subsequently unable to match, many of the tracks stored in my computer. The problem wasn’t merely an oversupply of esoteric or obscure music unavailable on iTunes, although I’d certainly like to assume that was a contributing factor. Rather, the fact that twenty per cent of my library consisted of live recordings of one band, The Grateful Dead, was perhaps with some justification, beyond the comprehension of iTunes Match.

As I began searching online for solutions to the increasing number of problems I was experiencing: iTunes’ inability to distinguish between two different versions of the same song of equal length, missing artwork and most frustratingly of all, randomly indexing songs from disparate concert performances together, I was struck by the abeyance between what had once been two symbiotic Californian institutions, The Grateful Dead and Apple Inc.

In their lifetime The Dead’s audience were particularly tech-literate and included many subscribers to Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, the utopian publication that considered a future drawn from the theories of Buckminster Fuller and growing one’s own food to be both attractive and necessary. The Whole Earth ethos saw the advances in computing technology as a moment of personal liberation, one that would enable new global conversations and establish the much-vaunted idea of the networked society. In 1985 Brand and a partner launched The WELL – ‘The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link’, one of the first virtual communities and a precursor to the Global Business Network, another organisation which counted Brand as a founding partner and an exemplar of the reciprocity between behavioural research and the DAVOS financial elite. In his series ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’, the filmmaker Adam Curtis partially explored this divergence between the original counter-cultural altruism that inspired Silicon Valley and its capture as an asset by technology companies most of use every day such as Google, Apple, Samsung and Facebook. Curtis concluded that such organisations consolidate their position in our lives without our approval, conscious or otherwise.

The Bay Area utopian tech impulse prevalent during the early years of Apple, when many of the fledgling company’s staff were apparently Deadheads, may still be found online at the Internet Archive. The Archive is a not for profit digital library whose slogan is ‘Universal access to all knowledge’ and whose virtual shelves contain almost nine thousand live recordings of The Grateful Dead.

Among these digitised live performance tapes are a handful of ‘Betty Boards’, concerts recorded by Betty Cantor, a sound engineer who worked with the band during the seventies and whose technical skill produced some of their cleanest and clearest sounding recordings. These include several soundboard tapes of the band’s May ’77 tour, often cited as their most accomplished, or depending on your level of commitment to the band, most transcendental.

Nearly every Dead performance on the Internet Archive features details of the recording equipment used. This information often includes the make of microphone, tape recorder and occasionally even the brand of cassette used by the ‘taper’.

For example a recording of a performance at Red Rocks on 8th July 1978 is described as:
Source: Unknown Microphones => Unknown Tape Deck [Patch] => Nakamichi 550 [Dolby Encode] >> MAC

The Nakamichi 550 was a state of the art three input recorder in the late seventies and its owner evidently saw fit to use its Dolby function when using a Metal cassette (MAC). The process by which this metal cassette is converted to digital audio and hosted on the Internet Archive is also described:
Lineage MAC >> Nakamichi DR-1 => Grace Design Lunatec V3 [Pre-Only] => Korg MR-1000 >> DSF [1-bit 5.6448 MHz Stereo] >> Korg MR-1000 => Korg AudioGate >> WAV [24/96]

As with the science of iTunes Match, I confess to not being entirely clear how this works. The sonic lineage of a ‘Betty Board’ from the Huntington Civic Center a few months earlier in 1978 seems equally complicated:

Betty Soundboard
SBD > Nagra IV (7.5ips) > R1 Nagra IVs > SR1 > Phillips SuperCD 24/28 > Presonus DigiMax 96 > SB Audigy II Pro > HD WAV > Adobe Audition 1.5 > Izotope Ozone 1.5 > Izotope Ozone 3.5 > WAV16 > flac
See the recordings of the Grateful Dead Live at Huntington Civic Center on 16 April 1978.

What is noticeable is that this process has ended with a lossless FLAC file rather than an Mp3.

As I began searching for solutions to iTunes Match I visited blogs and articles written by people who were having similar difficulties with the service accommodating their Grateful Dead library. I suspect some of the authors may have been tapers of concerts in the 1970s and by the standards of their generation, early adaptors of technologies such as the Nakamichi 550. That such committed audio obsessives were struggling with iTunes Match is revealing. To many people, converting an ancient live bootleg recording into a lossless audio file might seem like an act of madness, but to some of us committed Deadheads this is madness in a particularly beautiful form. Somewhere in the Deadhead’s obsessive quest for perfect live recordings, which insist on listing microphones, recorders and types of cassette is an alternative idea of digital music than the one we are currently presented with by Spotify, Sonos, Rdio and Apple.

This is listening behaviour that falls through the cracks of data profiling and predictive user listening behaviour. It is also behaviour that anyone with an interest in music deeper that the surface of a digital interface will recognise, and a reminder that iTunes is ultimately a shop front, a platform, a dominant company’s idea of how music should be consumed and heard online.

For the Deadhead tape collector who once dreamt of owning an archive of the band’s every performance a digital utopia now exists, although it is one more suited to Apple’s previous logo, a warm bright colour scheme that used the entire spectrum of the rainbow.

Richard King’s latest book, Original Rockers is out now on Faber & Faber.

Next week Matt Poacher on Chris Watson, Richard Skelton and the art of field recording.
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