A Poetry Of Lossy Media

Thomas Park
September 2017


A Series For Analog Tape photographs by Randee Silv, and music by Model 201

It is interesting that we try to create and preserve media that is, technically, “perfect”, or lossless, and does not fade with time. Perhaps a more honest approach would be to record on lossy media, and note and reflect upon the influence the passing years have—if art is a truly a mirror, it cannot truly be permanent.

People, animals, plants, they all age and pass away. Materials, even the sturdiest, do, as well. Astrophysicists can suggest an approximate time when the Earth itself will disappear into the Sun as it swells into a Red Giant star.

Theoretically, by using digital methods, we can create ideal and permanent records of media. A file I create today could be accessed 1000 years in the future, and if compatibility was in place, it would sound the same.

This is certainly a compelling and exciting capability. To the archivist, it presents the possibility to freeze media in time, so that any further decay is arrested. If all media were archived in 2017, then they would continue indefinitely as they existed in that year, at that time.

That’s all technically very interesting, but it does lack a sense of poetry. What is permanent? Ideas, perhaps, could be, or virtually so. Most things of this world are not permanent. Even durable materials such as stone and metal crumble and rust over periods of time.

Analog cassettes are a more organic and feasible way of storing audio—in a sense, a more humane way. Immediately the effects of the passage of time on the music is apparent while listening to tapes.

While surveying some cassettes originally recorded over 20 years ago, I noticed a variety of time- and device- based sounds—there was what we call “tape hiss”- a sustained, upper-range layer of white noise. To my ears, this seemed louder now than when these tapes were recorded—though it may be the case that I am simply more used to high-fidelity digital recordings that have no lossy sounds of this nature, and so I was more aware of the earlier sounds. There were periodic sounds that were something between metallic and noise sounds. I was not sure what those were—they seemed to have to do with the decay of the tape. There were also thrumming bassy sounds emitted by the cassette player. I was amused to discover that these bassy sounds could be detected on any of a variety of cassette decks, of different ages and conditions.

William Basinski, with his famous “Disintegration Loops”, captured instrumental phrases on reel-to-reel tape in the very process of erosion. Listening to these recordings is both musical, emotional and philosophical, as the process of time is made manifest before our ears.

In the 1990’s, there emerged a sampling movement in popular music, in which phrases from older recordings were used as bases for newer songs. Many newer songs therefore contain elements of tape decay (or more frequently, vinyl scratches). Sampling in this manner has continued through our current day. This practice connects newer songs with the older ones, and raises issues both of the passage of time and timelessness.

Using media to reference older works allows for resurgences of previous cultures. While listening to songs that sample pieces from decades ago, both the current and original works are enjoyed. The newer works invoke a form of “retro” culture—a sense of revisiting “the oldies”. These works also bring the “oldies” up to date, framing them with newer sounds and voices.

Simply listening to vinyl or cassette tapes that have been ripped has a retro element. Media created in the past can now be enjoyed in a contemporary setting—and with audio technology that has improved, allowing us both to remember and to experience our memories in a different fashion.

For the musician, and perhaps archivist—there emerges a challenge. That is to capture, as Basinski did, media in a unique state of decay—to digitize the media at one moment, and therefore to preserve both its original condition, to some degree, and its “present” one. This brings up all kinds of possibilities—one analog cassette, for example, or vinyl record, could be recorded at different times. One recording might represent a certain symphony as retrieved from a particular segment of tape, say, in March of 1995, where a different recording could be made and cataloged at a later time—maybe March of 2005. The archivist (and others) could experience and assess the differences between the two recordings, and note the effects of time on the media.

Media freezes it source(s). Then, media, adding a layer of complexity, either remains “frozen”, or in the case of lossy media, begins a process of decay, altering the recording. The musician “Rapoon”, with his “Time Frost” cd, used a recording of the “Blue Danube” as source material. The recording was ripped from lossy media, showing signs of aural decay. These signs were accompanied by glitches, patches of static and other noises, added by Rapoon in the finished songs. In the notes for the release, he envisioned a future person finding the recording lodged in a glacier, after a newer ice age. The image of a cd stuck in a layer of ice is evocative, referencing both the freezing cold of the glacier and the frozen state of the audio as created for the cd.

This year, I began a process of freezing several old cassettes in time and created “rips” of over a dozen cassettes. By capturing and preserving a tape mix, conversations with its author led to the sonic and nostalgic qualities of the tape, and its condition in 2017.  The passage of time had altered the music, making it much more complex sonically. These recordings are, for the most part, available to me as lossless files, with no decay, as I have saved the files from when they were created. Yet, I return to the ripped versions and listen to them instead, with their warm, organic qualities, and attributes added by time, dust, heat and other factors.

 



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