Long before technology provided us with a pocket sized phone where we can store thousands of our favourite tunes, listening to music on the go was often an unreliable and expensive pastime. In this article we outline a condensed history of the long & arduous journey of Man’s mission to unshackle popular music, setting you free to enjoy your latest playlist at the gym. Dance on the beach under the stars. Or irritate your fellow travellers wherever you roam!
The Early Years
Music on the move is by no means a 20th Century invention. In days of old, serfs and jesters were employed by Royal Decree to entertain Kings and Queens on their travels and engagements by playing the popular tunes of the day on a variety of early instruments such as the Lute, the recorder and the Lyre. However, not so for the common man whose exposure to music was a less personal experience and remained routed in street parties, gatherings or theatre performances.
And with no way to record music, this is how it remained for hundreds of years.
1877 – Along comes the Phonograph
Although it was an amazing innovation at the time, even the invention of the phonograph in the late 19th Century didn’t free recorded music from being a stagnant experience. As many phonographs were unwieldy with a huge horn and weighing up to 300 pounds they were intended purely as home entertainment. Again it was the rich and privileged that were able to employ help to move the system between locations. And with the high cost of the players, recorded music ‘on the move’ remained extremely limited and still largely a pastime of the elite.
On the Road
In 1904, an American inventor, Lee de Forest, demonstrates the first car radio at an Exposition event in St. Louis. It was too early for it to be entirely successful and it wasn’t until 1920 that the valve and transformer technology had progressed to the point where an in-car radio could become a viable everyday accessory.
In 1924, Kelly’s Motors of New South Wales, Australia made history by installing its first car radio.
But it would be another six years before Motorola (yes, the mobile phone pioneers) produced a radio receiver that was marketed in America by GMC. At $130 (approximately a fifth the price of a car), it was still ludicrously expensive and not many of these early models were installed.
In fact it wasn’t until just before WWII in the late 1930’s that push button AM radios were considered a standard feature in a new car. By the end of the war there were an estimated 9 million AM car radios in use. It’s the mid 1940’s and music was on the move!
The 1950’s Revolution
It’s the early 1950’s and portable music takes a giant Quantum leap with the invention of the tiny semiconductor known to one and all as the Transistor. No longer shackled to heavy cumbersome valves, along came tiny radio receivers called transistor radios. The sound was tinny and scratchy and they were prone to picking up static. BUT NOBODY CARED! It was the 50’s. At last, you could listen to your favourite radio station wherever and whenever you liked. It was cool. It was rebellious. It was a revolution.
Of course, the transistor radio had been coming since the late 1940’s. But only ever as prototypes or demonstration models by Sony, RCA and Intermetall of Germany. The first commercially available one was released by Texas Instruments and IDEA of Indianapolis in October 1954.
It was called the Regency TR-1. After a year they had sold 100,000 units, but the reviews of its performance generally focused on the tinny sound of the small speaker.
Cassette for a change
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, transistor radios became better designed and more accessible, with later models being affordable by the average household. But then in the late 1960’s along came the portable cassette player/recorder and for music on the move, things were set to change.
The cassette player was battery operated, had a reasonably sized speaker and could be listened to in comfort over separate headphones. Unsurprisingly they became very popular, very quickly.
Unlike the portable but bulky 8-track, the cassette player with its user friendly C30/C60/C90 minute cassette format, was the perfect complement to home taping systems like the music centre. At last, you could record your favourite records and radio shows and play them back in the garden, the park or at the beach. By the 1970’s, it was every school kid’s dream come true.
Walk the Walk (man)
So, by now we have the car stereo, we have the transistor radio and we have the 8 track and portable cassette player. Teenagers and parents alike were all using affordable portable music devices wherever and whenever they wanted. But in a few short years, things were about to get much, much better.
Enter Andreas Pavel . A German-Brazilian inventor and former television executive, who devised the Stereobelt in order to, as he put it, ‘add a soundtrack to real life’. The Stereobelt offered high fidelity music through headphones while its wearer was participating in daily activities.
Pavel took his invention around to many of the high end audio companies of the time, most of whom rejected it, mainly on the grounds that people wouldn’t want to wear headphones in public (!)
One of those companies was Sony, who in 1979 came up with the revolutionary Sony Walkman. A miniature cassette player designed to clip onto a belt and listened to on accompanying headphones. (Andreas Pavel, by the way, entered a legal battle with Sony that would last for decades until he was able to claim some of the rights to the German sales of the Walkman, which he claimed was based on his original design).
The Walkman prototype was actually based on a modified Sony Pressman. A compact tape recorder designed for journalists and released 2 years earlier in 1977.
The Sony Walkman was an instant hit and coincided with the trends of jogging and aerobic exercise. Activities that were so much more fun when you were listening to Queen or Abba. Madonna or Bowie. Plus, the Walkman’s 2 AA batteries and headphones added lightweight convenience and privacy to the experience of listening to personal music.
Also arriving on the scene in the mid 1980’s, by way of New York’s burgeoning Hip Hop scene, was the Boombox or Ghetto Blaster. The bigger the better, these hybrid portable music centres focused on volume and clarity of sound, often including tape to tape features and other gimmicks.
So with the Sony Walkman and the Ghetto Blasting Boombox, by the mid 80’s, everyone could afford to take part in this latest accessorised pastime. Listening to music while on the move.
All change for the new format
But wait! Aren’t those old cassettes sounding a little hissy these days? A bit muddy? A little woolly?
Isn’t it time for a cleaner, brighter sound?
Compact Discs had been around since the early 1980’s, but became popular and commercially available after the introduction of Sony’s one and only Discman. A portable CD player with extra outputs that you could plug straight into your home system. Perfect for every get-up-and-go Hi-Fi enthusiast. Despite the heavy price tag of early models (hipsters could pay up to $350 in 1984) The Discman once again sparked a revolution in portable music by improving the sound quality of the mobile experience.
Sure, there were other makes of portable cassette players and CD players. But Sony managed to corner the market with early innovation and mass production, which meant that their competitors were constantly wrong footed, finding it hard to catch up with the brand leader. This was Sony’s time to shine and the huge Japanese conglomerate made the most of it with their new slogan, ‘It’s A Sony’.
The Nineties hiatus
And that’s the way it stayed. At least for a few years. Yes, there were other innovations. The Digital Age meant that information could be recorded in good ol’ noughts and ones and we were treated to Minidisc, another Sony invention that had great success in Japan and moderate success in Europe. Digital Audio Tape (DAT), introduced in the late 80’s became a popular format in the music industry and many portable versions were used for field recordings or broadcast quality vox pops (street interviews). Less so for portable recreational music, these two formats were considered pro or semi-pro, though Minidisc picked up a hardcore following of enthusiasts who saw it as the natural successor to the CD.
By the mid 1990’s there was a feeling that something was in the air. But nobody, except the forward thinking futurists and computer geeks, seemed to know what form it would take. Surprisingly, what happened owed a big debt to the past as we were about to find out.
The MPEG3 (Moving Pictures Experts Group layer 3) was an audio format first adopted by movie makers in the 1980’s and using a theory that had been around for donkey’s years. The theory being that the human ear is unable to pick up a number of masked frequencies. So why not strip those frequencies away, thus making the resulting file many times smaller and easier to handle.
This lighter, more accessible format was perfect for use in the fledgling computer/internet market as full bandwidth WAV files took forever to transfer on dial up modems. So, despite the loss of quality, the MP3 was adopted as standard and by the late 90’s, music websites and blogs (Napster, anyone?) began to appear hosting music tracks ripped directly from CD and converted into the MPEG format.
It followed that eventually the public would need portable players to listen to these files away from their computer towers. And so, the MP3 Player was born.
The first mass-produced MP3 player with flash memory included was called the MPMan, developed and manufactured by SaeHan Information Systems. The MPMan was launched in 1998, but was expensive and complicated to use, so it never really took off.
It was followed a few short months later by the Rio PMP300. This was cheaper and had better connectivity. Able to plug directly into a computer it was an instant success.
However, that success was short lived as in 2001 Apple Inc were to release the first ever iPod on an unsuspecting public.
Changing the game
The Apple iPod was an instant game changer in the portable music market. The user could now upload thousands of songs (from Apple’s hugely popular iTunes platform) onto a single device. And, unlike a Discman or the many other portable devices, you could choose specific tracks from albums, building your own playlists to listen to while travelling, or at work, or at the gym, or to play at a party. Suddenly, everyone was a DJ. A music curator. In charge of their listening destiny. More than ever before. This was truly a revolution of huge magnitude.
Other personal music file players were available of course, but Apple ruled the roost and sold millions of players from 2001 onwards, upgrading and updating with version after version as the technology improved.
In 2004, three years after the initial release, the iPod dominated digital music player sales in the USA with over 90% of the market of hard drive based players and 70% of the market of all types of players.
In January 2007, Apple reported quarterly revenue of $7.1 billion of which 48% was made up of iPod sales. That’s a whole lot of people listening to a whole lot of music. And iPods dominated the market for more than a decade. But as this article has proved. In the world of mobile music, nothing stands still forever. A huge shift was on the horizon. And coming up fast.
Smart Phones had been lurking around for quite some time. Early prototypes with obscure operating systems had been introduced way back in the 1990s. But a mobile phone that could stream, download and play music? Early on in the millennium that was still pretty much a pipe dream. However, Samsung were the first to innovate with the Samsung SPH-M100 (UpRoar) launched in 2000 and considered to be the first mobile phone to have MP3 music capabilities in the US Market.
The data speeds of competing models would find the large files difficult to manage. Phones in this period concentrated more on their camera technology and other features.
However, Motorola (remember them from the early car radio days?) introduced a flagship Rokr model in 2005 incorporating support of media player features. And it wasn’t long before data speeds improved and new technology and faster connectivity (3G was introduced commercially around 2002/2003) allowed the pipe dream to become a reality. Perhaps now, music’s migration from MP3 player to Smart Phone could begin in earnest.
The final chapter?
Apple once again dominated the market with the release of the iPhone on June 29th, 2007.
Here was a device geared up to multi task and offer accessibility to an Aladdin’s Cave of music from the iTunes store. It had the ability to do so much more than all other portable music devices combined. It was the World leader and turned Apple into one of the World’s most valuable publicly traded companies. As of November 1st 2018, a total of more than 2.2 billion iPhones had been sold, giving a great chunk of the World’s population access to the ultimate portable mobile music playing device.
The future beckons
So here we are. Android and iOS phones offer the perfect solution to listening to portable music. Creating playlists. Streaming. Downloading (and uploading) tracks. What more could we possibly want from a portable music player?
Well, let’s not forget that, despite the rise of music friendly phones, the portable audio player still exists. For instance, check out the Hifiman HM-60X series, The Tera-Player and Sony’s PHA-2. The huge advantage these bad boys have is sound quality. Your average audiophile will chat for hours about the poor quality of lossy audio formats like the MP3. And when you listen to a lossless format at a hugely higher bandwidth, the difference in quality becomes clear.
So perhaps the future lies in a device with all the convenience of a mobile Smartphone, but able to reproduce a faultless studio quality listening experience through full bandwidth wireless earbuds.
Or do we just implant a microchip at birth and beam it all down from the Moon?
Perhaps they’re working on that right now. Let’s hope so!
Simon Power is a sound designer & composer for BBC’s Doctor Who audio dramas. He is signed to Banco De Gaia’s Disco Gecko record label and as Dream Valley Music, composes for films, TV and games.
I’ve been a big synthesizer music fan from many, many years. It all started when I first heard Jean Michel Jarre album “Oxygene“. Then when I first heard the SID chip from Commodore 64 and tunes from Martin Galway and Rob Hubbard. I felt in love with those sounds, those leads, portamentos, basses. The music on the „Oxygene” was cosmic, was not from this world. It was really great. Until this day, it is like JMJ was getting something out of synthesisers that still sounding really like it was not composed on synths.
And from those times, in 1980’s started my chase for having good sounding real hardware analog synths. But, in 80s it was not so obvious for me. Poland was under communism and all the knowledge about synths was, for the most part, hidden. We didn’t have synth TV commercials or music magazines. Poland was also a poor country. We didn’t have the money to buy expensive synths.
The SID chip in the from Commodore 64 wasn’t enough for me. Now, when CHIP music is very popular, it is not so clear to me. Despite the SID having an original sound, sonically this is a very rudimentary sound in the field of sound quality. It doesn’t have any real warmth or depth. So, I decided to sell my Commodore 64, which I regret until today (I now have another one, but it is not my original) in order to to buy a synth that I could afford. But, it wasn’t really a synth. It was just a keyboard with some basic synth options: a Yamaha PSR36. Today, some people find this keyboard nostalgic. But for me, it was just a sound which I really didn’t like. It was ok, but not professional. Of course, I made a lot of tracks on it with some help from a tape machine, but I really hate Yamaha PSR36 cheesy sound.
Those times I played on a borrowed Roland D-20, which I liked very much, but it was too expensive for me to buy one. Also I played once on a Roland D-50 in a music shop. It was just like being in heaven for couple a seconds. After that, nothing was the same. But, I did buy a Roland D-50 – 30 years later!
My next synth, which I hoped would be better and that I could afford, was a Yamaha DS55, but it wasn’t. The FM sound quality on this synth didn’t sound like a Yamaha DX7, it was only a little better but still sounds plastic. No one heard in late 1980’s about trance or techno basses and I think the DX100 was far better than DS55.
So, I started to look for the next synth, and the next, and the next. A pretty good purchase was a Roland JX-1. It wasn’t an analogue synth, but it sounded pretty good. My first pro synth, in fact, a Rompler workstation, which sounded more professional was the Korg 01WFD. I added to it also a Roland JV880. So it was my first semi-pro sounding pair of synths, not exactly synths, just romplers (A machine that plays back sounds created by pre-recorded samples stored in ROM). I still like romplers till this day, but they weren’t analogue. They weren’t Moog or Prophet quality.
My first analog synth was Roland JX8P. I really like it. But editing it was a nightmare, so I relied mostly on the patches and I sold the Roland after a couple of months. Since it was end of 1990’s, my career as video game composer had started, so I was looking also for gear on which I could imitate an orchestra. So, a Roland JV1080 and Akai S3000XL was a better idea for investing my money. Also, I bought a Korg Prophecy and a virtual analog synth which I really loved, the Nord Micro Modular. But my first really good and proper analogue synth which I have until this day was a Waldorf Pulse. I don’t use it very much, but I’m keeping it. I like its power basses, but I don’t really like its filter.
Having a versatile set of hardware for composing music for video games and movies was most important to me, and in the beginning of the new century the analogue sound wasn’t as popular as it is today. In those times you were asked to stay away from 1980’s style music. It was the time when Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Orbital were on top, so distorted sounding synths were on top too. It was the times of Roland TB303, which I respect, but never quite liked.
I think my nostalgia for going back to 1980s and having real analogue synths started with Dead Island video game. Also, I really loved the first plugins like the Pro-53 from Native Instruments and Minimoog Model D from Arturia. And I really realised that not having a real analog synth, which is/was cult, meant that I was missing something.
But when I composed music for for Dead Island, the nostalgic sound from 80s still wasn’t really mainstream. So the producers didn’t allow me to go back to 1970s / 80s zombie movies which were based on analogue synths and old Emulators, Fairlight. So, Dead Island has the sound of distorted synths paired with orchestra samples. But, on Dead Island Riptide I started to use very heavily the Zebra2 and Diva from U-he, which sounds very similar to Moog, Roland, Korg analog synths, with bunch of plugins from Arturia – mostly Minimoog, Prophet 5 and Arp2600.
For the game Dying Light I decided to go deeper into the 70s/80s zombie movies vibe. But real analog hardware synths were also starting to get really expensive, so I couldn’t afford much really good stuff. Mostly, the soundtrack to Dying Light was composed on XILS plugins, Jupiter 8, CS-80 from Arturia and SH101 plugin, virtual analog or sample based UVI. Also on a couple of synths. My first Moog Sub Phatty and really great machine, great DCO analog synth Elektron Analog Four.
And then came the Prophet 6 and it all began to move faster for me. I just felt in love how good hardware synths sounds and how much I love them. Especially when they are polyphonic. After Prophet 6 was OB6. It was a really great synth. I like them both. My music from this time was more toward Tangerine Dream and Boards of Canada, also still my beloved John Carpenter style in mind. I just feel nostalgic for this era and it looked like everybody else were too. In synth music, the 1980’s were back.
I need to find my own way of course. My first, a cult old analog synth was the Roland Jupiter 6. It is pretty obvious for me now, but from this synth I was really starting to understand what is my way in the synthesiser world. Also, I started to understand one big difference. There are vintage oscillators and modern oscillators. What not all people notice, oscillators are ageing. They start to sound different after some time. Not exactly more detuned, but the difference between Prophet 5 and Prophet 6 is really obvious, and not only because of filters. So, the reissue of synths are always good, but new synths are not sounding the same as old synths.
Also, I started to understand that I don’t need a shop with synths. I don’t need to be a collector, even I wanted to be, because I love it. It is not necessary for having your own sound to keep a lot of synths in my home studio stock.
Before Jupiter 6 I bought Minimoog Model D reissue. And I realised one additional thing. There not only sound can be inspiration. Look of synth can be inspiration too. Having cult synth, cult looking synth just under your fingers is like supermodel which agreed to go to date with you. It is inspiring, touching real knobs, real wood and metal. It is so important for your composing process.
On my bunch of synths I composed my first album „Der Weg”, which I can say it is my own way. Inspired of course by Tangerine Dream, Boards of Canada, Carpenter and Jarre, it is my own way, more dark, very nostalgic and to have a lot of changes. I didn’t like too long arpeggios in music, I can’t stand synth pads which are four minutes long. I need music which is pulsating, which is telling a story, which isn’t boring you. The name was kind of a tribute for german electronic musicians like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, of course. Since John Carpenter was inspired by them too, Jean Michel Jarre too. Also, in the 80’s Germany was kind of a paradise when you go there from our poor Poland. It was what the 80’s should look like, 80s like we almost never have, in Poland it was kind of remains of 80s, not quite real 80s like other world.
Sequential Prophet 5
So, in 2018 on my vacation on the Baltic Sea I borrowed a Prophet 5. And it was like a thunder blast. I understand. It was this synth which I was always looking for. Dark, detuned, inspirational, very deep sound. With a broken heart I exchanged it for a Jupiter 6 (I hope I’ll be back some time to it, or MKS80, since I don’t want to sell my house to be able to afford a Roland Jupiter 8) and after hearing one great album from artist Maciek Polak, which was made only with an AKS Synthi, I decided to go minimal.
I think I should check myself. I never liked restrictions and I always thought that more synths mean better music. And I first started to think that maybe too many synths does not mean better music, but to rely on only a couple synths will unleash my creativity.
So. Because I really love my Minimoog Model D I came to an idea. Let’s make an album with only two synths. Two cult analogue synths under my fingers. Let’s try, let’s do that.
The first couple of tracks came really easy. The Prophet 5 is so inspirational. Just Prophet and some bass from Moog, and the track was ready, and it’s sound. I really don’t need to use a bunch of plugins to make it sound better. There was just no need for that. Even if I was about to start using too many plugins, the magic somehow started to disappear.
I made this album in three months since my everyday work is to create music for video games, and mostly I’m doing this album to chase my true artistic soul. I did that after my work hours. It is funny since you are a composer doing something after your work hours. But it is a reality. Both my recent synths album are more niche and were created in my free time.
At the end of album, it was starting to get harder for me to compose the tracks. But, as I presumed my creativity was starting to work much better. Limitations trigger creativity. Also, this album wasn’t as dark as „Der Weg”. I tried new ways for my own synth music style. I started to be inspired by Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and Max Richter on a couple of tracks. But, I had no mellow piano. Only pure hardware synths, only electronic music. Also, not like in the early Tangerine Dream music, no mellotron. Nothing that can cover Prophet 5 and Minimoog. That was a strong side of this album, I believe.
Also, one thing I should mention. It was also the reason why I started work on the album. I’m constantly watching demos on youtube. Demos of old, vintage synths. Sometimes the owners of that synths are doing a full track. It is good, a lot of very good tracks. But, why not a full album? Someone did, but with a bunch of synths. I tried to find on Spotify or Apple Music albums with only Prophet 5 or where Prophet 5 is more important. I couldn’t find any. It’s cool that I can hear some sounds from Prophet 5 and some from Moog, but how about a full album with only two synths? It would be interesting how those synths would sound together, not disturbed by any other synths or drum machines? How would they really sound in the hand of artist? Maybe that would be interesting.
Meanwhile, I bought a Roland SH2. It was really a temptation to use it, because I love it since it is sounding like SH101 on steroids (plugin of a SH101 I used a lot on Dying Light). But I tried to stay consistent with my decisions. I think sometimes is good to change decisions on the fly, but sometimes it is not good to change them. In this case, I thought it will be too confusing and the album will miss the point and also it will be a temptation to add another synth, and another. So, it would have ended up far from the original idea.
So, I kept used only two synths. Also, I programmed my own sounds on the Prophet 5. I tried not to rely on factory presets. I think it is not a demo of factory presets. It is an artistic approach to show how the Prophet 5 can sound. I only was soft heart when I started to hear my lovely sounds on Prophet from Escape from New York, I think, the best minimalistic soundtrack from John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. For example, the main bass was with using of pulse oscillator which was very surprising for me how deep and dark it can sound. Also, I found one lead sound which was really similar to Tangerine Dream lead sound. And when I mentioned John Carpenter: I will never understand why he did his newest, great albums on plugins. Plugins are great. I love them. I even compare Repro 5 from U-he with my Prophet 5 on YouTube videos and I found how close they are sound. Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 is really not worth so much money when you just not love it, when you not a nerd. It will not bring you back the money that you invest in it. Many video game musicians and film composers, due to deadlines, are using plugins only, even if they love analog synths. The Stranger Things TV show is an exception. But they built the whole idea of the soundtrack on using real analogue gear.
Back to John Carpenter, a little bit I understand him. He always used the newest stuff possible. Sequential Circuits instruments and ARP Quadra was brand new stuff those days. Now, plugins have their own three minutes. He put his composing style in music and don’t really care about original sound. But, I’m not John Carpenter. I care. I think, even when plugins are really good, they are missing some dimension, but the biggest problem of using them is that they are not as sexy as the real thing. They have knobs or faders which you can’t touch, not real wood to smell, not this gorgeous look in the studio light. Plugins are more like a poster of a supermodel or supercar which you can remotely manipulate with a mouse, but never really touch and feel.
I know, that I sound like a nerd and hardware lover. Yep, I sound like one, because I am one. I’m probably one of a dying breed. In the same way as V12 or V8 car engine sound lovers. In the next ten to twenty years, there will be no petrol cars anymore, replaced by electric cars. No one will be excited by an old V8 engine sound. Still, it will be annoying. It’s the same with hardware synths. They will end up in the hands of collectors. Harder to repair. Now, it is kind of thrill to turn them on and hoping they will still work. All those things will be lost.
So, probably only hearing this album will be reminded how those synths really sounded.