Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Paper & 'The Middle Frequencies'

This Saturday April 21 is Record Store Day, an international celebration of your local independent record store. Melbourne is incredibly rich, per capita, in independent record stores so to my fellow Melbournians I say go find your local, have a browse and help support these wonderful places.

This may seem an odd topic for a stationery blog but anybody who has listened to vinyl probably knows why i'm bringing this up. It's what a friend of mine once described, however vaguely, as 'the middle frequencies' and it's common to any 'analog' record of anything - music, writing, sketching, scribbling...

Very quickly, a record is 'analog'. There are physical grooves etched into the vinyl which replicate the actual soundwave that any recording makes. Sound is just vibrations in the air and those exact vibrations are copied perfectly by a record. You get everything, a full sound, every single part of the spectrum. CDs, DVDs and MP3s are all abstractions in a way. They are varying degrees removed from the original and work by 'sampling' that sound wave. They do this pretty frequently, a CD 44000 times per second, but amazingly, there is still a stark difference between a CD and a record.

In many ways, it's no big deal, right? I mean, you get the notes, the melody, rhythm, the timbre stays the same but you miss those 'middle frequencies' because a CD isn't taking the whole signal, it's just choosing points of the soundwave to pick up. Put as simply as I can put it, a record sounds 'more live'. It's 'closer' to the actual sound, fuller, more rounded, more real.

I'm sure that by now the metaphor is quite clear. Hand writing is your Record, word processing is your CD. As i type this into Blogger, i'm getting all of the letters, the punctuation, it's even making sense. But as i look to my notebook on the left, i see 'middle' with an underline, 'handwriting' looking something like 'hand__-_k_' and i even tried to sketch a soundwave...dearest Blogger, you're robbing me of the middle frequencies!

Sometimes, a bland, emotionless reproduction is great. If i submitted last month's report to the boss with hand drawn graphs and my barely legible script, I'd be wasting everybody's time. But not everything should be so darn boring and objective. The progress of science has duped us into seeing, doing and making everything 'objectively'. To that i say poppycock! Stories, relationships, emotions, the kind of stuff that makes a day worthwhile, these are totally subjective and if you want to get the whole thing across, word processing does not cut it. Illustrator does not cut it and Photoshop is totally inept.

But it's not just the full spectrum of the soundwave (or the full gamut of emotion) that makes an analog record the business. There are endearing little rituals associated with each. Taken together, this does make anything analog 'more work', but the other side of the coin is that it makes them way better. It takes more time and more care to maintain a record than it does a CD and it takes more care to play the even have to get up and flip it after about 15 minutes. But audiophiles do this because capturing the whole sound, the closeness and richness of it, is totally worth it.

Likewise is takes slightly more effort to write a letter and even to open one. But it's fun! There's anticipation, a small sense of wonder, and a big sense of absolute gratification that can only come with the fulfilment of that very human desire to own a physical artefact of something. To hold something augments all of the emotions and associations in memory that come from what it is. But it's not just correspondence, of course. Creative writing, journalling, reflection...these are stories, they are subjective and if you trust them to a screen you're missing the whole story, regardless of how much 'more work' is involved. Writers and storytellers do the extra work because it's totally worth it.

The last point worth mentioning is about memory. Psychologists and Neurologists have flooded the academic record with studies showing just how fickle and untrustworthy our memories are, especially when it comes to 'colouring' and 'shading', i mean, really filling in the finer detail. 'Was there the faintest breeze? And did she have a ponytail?" (To quote Gil-Scott Heron)...that's the stuff that makes a story! And that is the kind of thing that comes across in a paper record of something which a screen can't tell you. Not necessarily the words, but the way they are written, where they are written, how they are written. These are important degrees of meaning, the finer emotional details, the difference between the actual record and a sampled abstraction thereof.