From the humble gramophone to iTunes and MP4, music technology has come a long way.
My earliest recollection of listening to recorded music is that of a strange looking contraption with a brassy and shiny loud-speaker mounted on it, churning out a crackling version of a Carnatic melody (kriti) by one Kanchipuram Dhanakoti who would sign off the three-and-a-half minute song, raucously announcing her name. Well, that was the custom then!
This was soon replaced by a better looking and more compact box with its speaker built in and a neat looking turn-table that worked on an optimum speed (78 RPM) only if it were wound enough by a special lever which resembled the manual-starter of a truck. A circular disc made of vinyl would be placed on the turn-table and it would be activated by a spindle at the top with a stylus (subject to change once in a while) that coursed over its grainy surface and generated the music much to our delight and wonder!
The image of a dog peering into the loudspeaker with curiosity later became a popular brand mnemonic – “His Master’s Voice” - for The Gramophone Co. of India.
Those were the days when the high-pitched voices of S.G. Kittappa, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and Dandapani Desikar ruled the roost on 78 RPM vinyl. T. N. Rajarathnam’s three-and-a half minute capsule of Thodi was breathtaking, to say the least. When Long Playing records (LP’s) and Extended Play (45 RPM) followed the 78 RPM, there was a veritable explosion of various genres of music that entered our homes. Remember Saraswathi Stores on Mount Road where everybody who wanted to buy records homed in on with regularity?
While there was the haunting voice of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan surprisingly singing ‘Rama Ni Samana’ in Kharahapriya (unbelievable, but the recording is still available) and Veena Dhanammal’s dulcet fingers floated over a seemingly fretless veena to thrill the connoisseurs of Hindustani and Carnatic music respectively, the younger generation (which included yours truly then) began to get LPs of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra from the world of Pop, and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong straight, so to speak, from the smoke-filled bars of New Orleans.
A remarkable change in the world of storing and delivering music took place when the spool recorder made its first appearance in Japan and later took India by storm. The AKAI-M 10 (if I vaguely recall the model) became a household name and a status symbol for those who wanted to swing in with the times and display it in their living rooms. Catering to a higher segment, the tape recorder, armed with four tracks, boasted the capacity to bring home several hours of Carnatic music concerts, long-drawn symphonies of Beethoven, jazz standards ranging from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, not to forget the complete repertoire of the golden oldies, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood, and ghazals of Begum Akthar.
But Man’s thirst for innovation soon put paid to the rule of the cumbersome Tape Recorder. The entry of Compact Cassettes into the world of Recorded Music was a remarkable phenomenon making it possible for music to go wherever he wanted it to and allowing him to manipulate its flow in whichever sequence he desired. One thrilled to the idea of having a small package of invaluable music tucked away in one’s pocket. (At a later point of time, history would repeat itself when the pen-drive captured much more music within its tiny frame!).
The advent of a slew of Japanese models flaunting two-in-ones (tuner plus recorder) made it possible to record music easily on cassettes and play them at leisure. The versatility of cassettes made them extremely popular and the music industry witnessed an unprecedented boom with enormous popular appeal. One vividly recalls how NRIs would swoop down on Sankara Hall on Mowbrays Road and other exhibition halls to pick up cassettes in baskets!
Teenagers had the pleasure of listening to Elvis Presley and the Beatles at home while those of ‘sterner’ stuff could switch over to Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison in the privacy of their “pads”! My prized collection of cassettes of Jean Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli demonstrated how international fusion could be churned out on violins by those virtuosos even in the early 1990s!
As a jolly bachelor in Calcutta, I spent lazy Sunday afternoons at home with my friends, quaffing generous draughts of beer and listening to popular tracks from Abba (“Hasta Manhana”), Osibisa and Boney M (“Ma Baker” and “Daddy Cool”) on my heavy-duty Aiwa!
Came the moment when EPs and LPs, packaged tantalisingly in colourful jackets and fighting a losing battle for shelf space, finally took a bow and graciously allowed cassettes to step into the limelight. During this metamorphosis, a soft interim entry by Laser Discs did make some ripples but the fiery momentum set up by the flow of cassettes drove them away without much ado. So too did Cartridges with a short life-span.
The recording industry appears to be a cruel and relentless one with no regard for their star players; thanks to a slew of new products being researched and finally churned out by the ever pioneering software industry, CDs and MP4 players have wiped out cassettes from the field of play just as cassettes did to LPs earlier.
Music lovers, saddled with thousands of cassettes collected and recorded with passion over many years and hours of night-long recording sessions, are today left with a treasure-trove but with no takers! The next generation is ‘cool’ with its pen-drive, iPod and Smart Phones. Apple and Bose are there to cater for those who can afford them. A neat and tidy hard disc back-up unit takes care of all their music, apart from their study notes and other papers!
Cassettes and cassette players are no longer being manufactured and it is a Herculean task to get the old ones repaired at Electronics Repairers who are preoccupied with more sophisticated equipment. Cosmic, Norge and Nakamichi Cassette Decks, once a part of the prized accoutrements, are now perhaps a mere memory!
The initial enthusiasm that drove many to several outlets in Chennai to transfer their musical treasure from cassettes to CDs has evaporated of late since the portents are indicative of CDs themselves being eased out by music files, MP4 players and through downloads from various sources, not to mention retail points such as Giri Trading Co., Mylapore, building up of one’s own library on Real Player and, of course, tapping into the inexhaustible sources of YouTube, I-tune Stores, non-stop Radio Stations and music-centric websites on the Internet.
One is reminded of a clairvoyant advertising tycoon who prophesied a decade ago at an Asian Advertising Congress that one day, not too far away, each home will be equipped with just One Black Box that will use a convergent digital technology to incorporate all the elements of Voice, Video, Text and Graphics delivering all forms of Information, Communication and Audio-Visual Entertainment. Beware, Apple and Microsoft are already at it!
It looks like we are almost there!