Friday, April 09, 2010

My first CD player

When CD players were a brand new thing, back in the middle-80s, I wanted one so badly. The first generation cost thousands of dollars and were agonizingly primitive. Only heavy-duty audiophiles had them, and the number of CDs available was so small you could make a list of them, but there was a lot of buzz.

This was before the vinyl backlash. The first generation of CDs weren't remastered at all; they were just dumped to CD. The problem is, studio engineers had been mastering their recordings specifically with vinyl in mind for years. If the medium is going to introduce a particular hum, you mix your music accordingly so it will sound good with that hum. Move that mix to a medium without the hum, with a nearly perfect reproduction, and it sounds cold, and people go back to vinyl, while uttering vague, inaccurate mumblings about "digital". Once people started remastering CD releases (and later, composing and mixing them originally with digital fidelity in mind), that issue faded away and became a relatively marginalized interest group.

At the time I had a fairly inexpensive all-in-one stereo system I'd gotten for my 13th birthday, with a dual cassette and phonograph along with the obligatory AM/FM. I was desperately eager to get a CD player, so I started saving up. A friend, whose family had more money than mine, happened to get an early CD player without even trying. It loaded the CDs on top like a phonograph, complete with a plastic lid you swung back down over the unit. It had no LCD display: all it had was fifteen LEDs for the first fifteen tracks, and woe be unto you if your CD had more than fifteen tracks. They made a huge deal of the opportunity to reprogram the order tracks played in -- back then, that was vaunted as one of the world-changing features of CD players, but no one ever used it -- but with nothing but 15 LEDs, you couldn't even tell how you'd reprogrammed the order even if you wanted to.

Still, it was a CD player. He bought a half-dozen CDs (that's about as many as they even had at the store) and we listened to them over and over and over. Meanwhile, I stared at my bank account balance as it crept up, and I worked extra hours when I could, and I kept visiting the store that had the system I'd picked out. As I recall, it was around $700, which was a boatload of money for a teenager going to school and trying to save money out of a Taco Bell paycheck, especially back then, so it took forever. The system was cube-shaped, with a dual cassette deck on the bottom, a very sleek and modern style, and the front top half being almost totally blank except for the CD drawer and a few buttons. Yes, the CD player took the entire top half of a big cube-shaped stereo system about 18 inches on a side back then.

When I finally got it, I loved it to bits, except I soon discovered one odd thing. There was no rewind or fast-forward. You could skip full tracks, but no moving around within a track. At all. Even then, that seemed weird. I kept going over the manual looking to see if I'd missed something, and holding down buttons in different combinations. Even my friend's phonograph-style first-adopter CD player had fast-forward. And I was listening to a lot of prog rock then with 20 minute songs. You don't want to have to go back to the beginning of one of those because you can't fast forward.

The lack of those buttons haunted me to the extent that for many years, even long after I got rid of that system, I had dreams about it. In the dream, I would finally discover some odd combination of button presses that worked as fast-forward and rewind, or some switch I had to flip to enable them, or something. I would have this dream as often as once a week, for years and years. In hindsight, I suppose it was a very, very specific version of a house dream.

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