I bet you can’t immediately figure what the picture on the left is all about. Especially if you are 30 years or newer. Even if you do know, I bet you can’t immediately figure how the mystery object relates to cycling… Read on.
A short while ago, I discovered that my local second hand book shop has a secret cache of vinyl records; all hidden away in a secret room. 30,000 LP’s all racked and ready for purposes still unknown to the brave proprietor who, hitherto, has kept his stash under lock and key. Through some intrusive persistence on my part, I discovered a treasure within a treasure. Many of those 30,000 LP’s are still factory sealed!
Just like the stash in Tutankhamun’s tomb, these treasures have been sitting undisturbed for going on 30 years, just waiting for re-discovery and finding, at last, an admiring home. Well, say no more, welcome home… I am grabbing as many as I can afford, which is far fewer than I could afford if only desire could pay my way… But even with modest means, I am now living in a regular time warp of glorious analogue sound once more. Those were the days and those days have come around all over again!
But it’s not nostalgia that’s happening here. I am not one of those who spend a lifetime living in the past and I am definitely not a technology avoiding Luddite. Indeed, I have a regular passion for the eternal upgrade path that ever newer technology brings. I suppose I am a ten second delay early adopter when it comes to technological stuff. So why the fascination with vinyl records in these days of the digital CD?
Because LP’s sound better than any CD played on any twice removed from affordable CD player could realise. (Provided your turntable and cartridge are up to the task). Truly.
Here’s an instance, then, of old technology being replaced by technology that’s worse. LP’s don’t pit with age. LP’s can play way over and under the frequency constraints of ‘Red Book’ CD’s. LP’s present a sound that’s warm and round, wide and deep. Just like its meant to be*.
If you can accept this basic premise, why, then, did we all let the LP almost disappear? Why have we almost universally adopted the lesser CD instead? There are lots of reasons, some simple (like convenience) and some un-sound (like gullibility to mass marketing spin). Read Greg Milner’s most excellent book Perfecting Sound Forever if you have a desire to explore this a bit more.
But it got me thinking. My ears do not deceive. At least one piece of ‘old technology’ is better than that with which it was replaced. And don’t even get me started on the overcompressed, lossed-out rubbish the recording industry is foisting on us via MP3 files and the like these days.
It occurs to me that most of us also know another bit of ancient technology that’s resisting the techno black-boxing of this ‘digital age’. Yes, vinyl LP’s are a standout from the ‘analogue’ days. But so too are bicycles. Let me explain.
Consider the definition of ‘analogue’:
relating to or using signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position, voltage, etc. Often contrasted with ‘digital’ (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd Edition).
The concept of ‘directly relating’ is the key. With an LP, you can, if you try, directly relate with – if not replicate – the mechanics involved in making sounds for our ears to hear. Observe record grooves. That’s the picture at the top of this page. See all those bumps and troughs? A physical needle bumps its way over that rough vinyl road and vibrates sound back to our ears. The earliest ‘mechanical’ records vibrated sound back to us via a metallic horn. These days, electronics carry the vibrations via voltage fluctuations, but there’s no sending the music off into the mathematical domain as digital rendering involves. You can stay connected to the concept of sound from its making through to listening at the other end. It’s all about vibrations, from the vibrations of the original sounds through vibrations picked up by a needle, to vibrating the hairs in our inner ears. Digital is a darker, black box affair. The link from sound to hearing is broken by a black box of algebraic tricks in between. Remember, dear human, that we hear in analogue. If we were to hear in digital, we’d have to become robots first.
‘Directly relating’ is what we still get from bicycles too. Riding a bike sends us all manner of information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position… See a bump, feel a bump. We don’t feel bumps via their translation into a string of zero’s and one’s in between.
Indeed, I reckon that the practicalities of ‘analogue’ happens whenever we can trace cause and effect without recourse to translation into the black box of secret-handshaking, jargon encrypted science. Analogue sure is easier to fix when your caught out beside the road with nothing but a tyre lever and patch at hand. Try wrenching a string of zeroes and ones. Analogue lets us wipe the clicks and pops of dirt via a good old fashioned cleaning cloth. Analogue lets us replace a worn stylus or change a worn cog. Analogue lets us change a cartridge tracking weight or adjust the pressure in our tyres to better fit the bumps and troughs of our travels down any road.
But it’s not just a matter of easy repairability and manual control. Here’s my basic premise: keep the mechanisms of our pleasures within the possibilities and responsibilities of self-control. If you don’t fancy taking a soldering iron to the black box transmission that disconnects traction with your pleasure trail, stick to analogue connections instead.
There is a huge pleasure to be had from exercising direction, empathy and understanding over all the cogs in the box that power our lives. Simpler chain lines are easier chains to keep in gear. Why disconnect yourself from the source when the source is the source of the experiences we seek? I don’t want to rely on a ‘digital mechanic’ running behind my bike every time I want to go for a ride when I could simply reach down and re-rail a de-railed chain**. The whole point of bike riding, and listening to music, is to understand and control the chain of delivery as far as I can. There’s a total joy to be had from enjoying the mechanics involved. That’s why some of us still go into the woods with a back pack on our backs rather than play that journey on a PlayStation instead. That’s at the root of my love affair with bicycles. That’s at the root of my re-inspired love affair with vinyl LP’s. Give me the holistic experience of analogue over the disconnect of digital any time. Don’t forget, we humans can only feel in analogue, despite what the digital boffins would make us believe.
*If you are an audiophile like me, you will know that the Super Audio CD (SACD) is a parallel universe of a story to the story I am telling now. Yes, the SACD can approach the oh-so breathtakingly wonderful subjectivity of sound that vinyl LP’s provide. But that particular black box bag of super technological tricks was sidelined by the ruthless cynicism and patronising contempt of a record industry run by accountants, deeply, perversely, connected to business models as antiquated as those that prevailed in the days when they sealed Tutankhamun’s tomb. So perverse is the SACD story is that it’s easier to find LP’s than SACD’s in any half decent record shop…
**Speaking of de-railing chains, keep the black box of electronic shifting well away from any bike with which I would choose to be involved!