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Extra-long-playing records, my grandmother and Ted Nakamichi

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Extra-long-playing records, my grandmother and Ted Nakamichi
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

This is a story about my grandmother and crazy Ted Nakamichi.

They never knew each other, and they lived on opposite ends of the globe. But Inez Pratt and crazy Ted were on to something good, something that most of the world never knew about.

My mother's mother grew up poor and uneducated. She raised her family alone after her husband took off one day to take up with another woman. She never spoke about him. She just carried on.

This was misfortune enough, but my grandmother was also blind. As she grew old, her joys in life were her children and her grandchildren—and her talking books.

They came in the form of records from a government agency. She had a big record player in what looked like a suitcase, and every week she would open the packages that came in the mail and place the discs, one by one, on the platter. They gave an hour of pleasure with each playing.

THEY WEREN'T ordinary records. The kinds that were popular then, in the '50s, were either 45s or 33s—small records with big center holes that played at 45 rpm or big ones with small center holes that played at 33 1/3 rpm.

My grandmother's talking-book records turned at 16 2/3 rpm, half the speed of regular long-playing records. Normal LPs can play for 30 or 40 minutes at most, but the half-speed versions were able to play for at least an hour.

Hi-fi manufacturers thought they sensed a trend, and began adding a fourth speed to record changers. But most record companies ignored the slowest speed, and it remained little more than a curiosity.

My grandmother passed away at the same time that her favorite records did. Talking-book records were gradually replaced by cassettes, and the bulky record players that were shipped to the blind gave way to little cassette machines.

BUT TED NAKAMICHI had an idea. If records could be recorded at half their regular speed, why not cassettes? The company that his father founded researched the idea, and in the 1970s Nakamichi Corp. introduced a brilliant line of cassette decks that recorded at both the regular speed and at half speed.

Tapes that normally played for 45 minutes on each side were able to play for an hour and a half. That was three hours of audio on each regular tape. (And four hours on the thinner C-120 tapes.)

Nakamichi thought the biggest problem would be sound quality. Just as it is harder to write legibly on a piece of paper when you cram twice as many words on each line, it is more difficult to record a full range of sounds when the disc or tape isn't spinning or moving at a regular speed. On a disc, the wiggles in the grooves become squished, and on a tape the magnetic patterns tend to blend together.

NAKAMICHI SOLVED the problem with a super-precise tape-recording head. The sound quality wasn't as good as on Nakamichi's regular recorders, but it was plenty good enough.

But a bigger problem eventually killed the half-speed cassette deck. Consumers didn't trust it. Other companies watched from the sidelines as buyers stayed away from Nakamichi's new design. To millions of consumers, the search for higher and higher fidelity meant that an extra-slow tape speed was a step backward.

Other manufacturers even thumbed their noses at Nakamichi by selling cassette decks that recorded at double speed, but those designs, too, ended up as failures.

The universal consumer axiom—Don't be the first to try it or the last to buy it—had buried Nakamichi's brainchild.

By the '80s, compact discs began to offer long-playing times, nearly twice the playing time of a long-playing record, along with the super fidelity that consumers were looking for. You would think that this would have ended the odd experiments with even-longer playback techniques, but there was one more try.

A EUROPEAN COMPANY experimented a few years ago with double-length CDs. There

is no way, as you probably already know, to make CDs spin at half speed, but there's another approach—if the CD's music or spoken audio is recorded in monaural.

Monaural sound needs only one track, since it does not use left and right signals. All CDs have two tracks, one each for left and right. There's no reason those two tracks couldn't contain different recordings—Beethoven on the left, for example, and Mozart on the right.

So that's just what this company did. Old monaural recordings were reissued on CDs, with separate performances on each of the two tracks. You listened to these oddball CDs by turning your balance control all the way in one direction or the other. Or, if your stereo equipment had "left'' and "right'' settings, you could play one channel through both speakers.

A great idea? Maybe. But consumers didn't think so. And once again, the other companies stood back, chuckled a bit and kept making money and CDs the regular way.

It's too bad. Those double-length CDs would have made great replacements for the talking-book records my grandmother fell in love with 40 years ago.


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