Prognostications for 1969

Editor's Note: 40 years before it became a reality, J. Gordon Holt predicts music streaming and predicts the Compact Cassette will become the dominant prerecorded music medium.

Traditionally, the New Year is the time when editors light their pipes, tilt their chairs back, fold their hands and shut their eyes, and make bold predictions about The Future. It is said that prognostications are always risky, because events have a nasty habit of making fools of those who prognosticate. It has been our observation, though, that the only prognosticators who are remembered are those who were proven right, so we are going to do some fearless limb-climbing about something that is coming to worry increasing numbers of stereophiles: Namely, which of all the current recording media is going to become The Standard for home use, and which are going to be left stranded on the shoals of obsolescence?

As things stand now, it is possible to mass-produce 4-track 3¾ips tapes that are better in most respects than the best 7½ips 4-track tapes of five years ago. Dolbyized masters, better tape coatings, and refined duplicating techniques and equipment have improved sound quality at both speeds, but particularly at 3¾ips.

As a result, there is now a movement afoot to make 3¾ips the new standard tape speed for home use. And the recent reductions in stereo disc prices have put even more pressure on the tape makers to cut their prices as much as they can afford to. Going to 3¾ips could do this.

But anyone with a sense of history must by now be seeing the shape of things to come in the tape field. The first stereo tapes were 2-track, at 7½ips. Every stereo tape machine was geared to that format, and every record manufacturer of any consequence was producing the 2-track tapes and selling them at astoundinging prices. But the sound quality was excellent and a lot of very interesting material was made available, so a goodly number of stereophiles invested heavily in a 2-track machine and proceeded to build ambitious collections of the 2-track tapes.

Then came 4-track, with incompatible heads, and while a few tape machines were made to accommodate both formats, it was the end of the line for 2-track tapes. They were discontinued almost immediately, and the man with a library of them was forced eitner to quit buying tapes or to trade in his now-obsolete tape machine for a 4-track model for which he had to pay an additional price for the special head setup that would allow 2–4-track compatibility.

If he had learned anything from the experience, he would have gone back to collecting discs then, but the attractions of tape were too strong for most sound perfectionists to resist. Many of us made the switch, albeit grudgingly.

Now, it's happening all over again.

Admittedly, there would seem to be less likelihood that the 7½ips speed will disappear from new recorders as promptly as 2-track tapes disappeared, but it is costly to make a recorder with a choice of more than two speeds, and as 3¾ips becomes established as the "quality standard," 17/8ips will become the second speed on increasing numbers of machines.

Obsolescence won't be immediate this time, for most current-model recorders already offer the 3¾ips speed. But it's going to become increasingly difficult, and costly, to buy a new machine that will play 7½ips tapes in either track format, let alone in both 4-track and 2-track.

At least, the 4-track 7½ips format was with us a lot longer than the 2-track tapes: nine years, as compared to five. But the buyer who started with the LP disc and stuck with discs all the way through can still play his 21-year-old monos on the latest stereo phonograph, and is not yet in any imminent danger of seeing his disc library obsoleted. Add to this the fact that he has been able to buy discs of every piece of music that has ever been released on any commercial tape format to date, and we see why the disc collector today shows little interest in switching to prerecorded tape of any kind.

As we see it, the final version of the prerecorded tape is still not here. We strongly suspect that the economic pressures we mentioned are going to force yet another speed reduction, this one to 17/8ips, which will end up as the standard speed for all prerecorded tapes. At that point, we suspect that just about everyone who has stuck with the open-reel tape format until then will be on the verge of giving up and going back to discs. That will be when the tape manufacturers will spring their ace-in-the-hole: Three-channel open-reel tape with the third channel carrying ambient reverberation information.

Once again, but briefly and probably for the last time, tape will become the perfectionist's medium, in the open-reel format. It will not go over well enough with the general public to pay its way, despite a flurry of sound-in-all-directions recordings, and will eventually be phased out. The compact cassette, featuring sound quality slightly better than today's best 7½ips 4-track tapes, will then become the dominant home-music medium for the mass market until such time as an inexpensive sound-and-sight system becomes available.

Paradoxically, considering its unsurpassed durability, tape is even now shaping up as the medium for temporary music. Open-reel releases were originally classical music-oriented, but recent release lists have shown fewer and fewer classical titles and a proliferation of the kind of Now music which will be dead and forgotten in the near Then.

Each month, however, brings a spate of new classical releases on disc, so the serious listener already has no real choice between media. In general, he buys a new release on disc, or he goes without. The typical pop record buyer is not much interested in building up a "library" of music. He wants to enjoy now what's new now, and pass on tomorrow to what's new then. So when the latest triumph of recording technology obsoletes his collection of out-of-style pops and square mood music, he's not likely to feel as if the record industry has betrayed his confidence. He'll buy the new recordings and the necessary player with as much enthusiasm as his wife adopting the latest Spring fashions.

As tape has been evolving into the transient medium, the exact opposite has been happening to the disc. The longer it stays around in essentially unchanged form, and the more changes take place in the tape medium, the more attractive the disc looks to the person who wants to collect recorded music. The tape-versus-disc situation today is not wholly unlike that which existed when LPs and 45-rpm discs were vying for supremacy. The LP won out as the classical-music medium for the obvious reason that it provided long, uninterrupted playing time. The disc is going to beat out tapes as the collector's medium for the equally obvious reason that it is the only one that shows any semblance of permanence.

Currently, there are rumors about a new form of audio disc that will be photographically duplicated and optically reproduced, but we doubt that it will unseat the grooved vinyl disc. Videotaped music will have to show something more than closeups of the players doing their Thing if it is to go over, but the mating of appropriate scenes or abstract images to music recordings (as in parts of Walt Disney's film Fantasia) could yield an interesting new art form that just might signal the beginning of the end for the kind of music listening that stimulates only the aural sense. But we think it will take more than just this to drop the final curtain on the music-only disc recording.

We believe, in fact, that the musical disc, compatible with today's version thereof, will be the medium for serious music until there is a revolutionary change in our entire approach to record collecting.

Some record buyers are collectors in the true sense of the word. They buy recordings to own as well as to provide a choice of available music for listening. But the vast majority of people who build record libraries do so for the latter reason only.

We believe that, not too many years from now, someone is going to set up a community Dial-a-Hit service, similar to the now-burgeoning cable TV services, but providing the means for selecting, at home, a program of current pops or background music from a central, computerized data-storage bank. There will be all sorts of legal and technical problems at first, but this will be the way of the future. As the service becomes generally available, the mass market for transient material, on tape or disc, will be the first casualty. Commercially recorded music will then be sold mainly to the collection-builders.

Eventually, the private-access public-collection services will include music of more permanent worth and, finally, audio and video material of higher fidelity and greater variety than any individual person could even afford to purchase.

Only then, we feel, will the grooved disc reach the end of the line. We'll guess that, 20 years from now, the only people who will own any kind of mass-produced recordings will be those who want to own as well as to use them. The disc will be dead, and the ultimate winner—the last recording medium—will be the memory banks in the Central Entertainment Archives. And by then, no one will care who won.—J. Gordon Holt

Glotz's picture

Gordon was clairvoyant! Just wow.

Venere's picture

Not only did he predict streaming and stored music "files" as the preferred playback method of the future (compared to physical media) he also predicts the prolonged strength/existence of the analog vinyl disc as the last survivors of the physical media choices for serious listeners. Pretty amazing. Can you also print some of his less accurate predictions, like perhaps the demise of the Bose brand, and Wilson speakers that the average Joe can afford (and no, the Sabrinas don't qualify as "average Joe" speakers, sorry). Just kidding, I assume he didn't predict either event, but he must have been wildly wrong occasionally, and those would be equally entertaining.

LCocozza's picture

That is just amazing.
Even the legal issues he managed to nail.