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The First Sony Walkman Was Released 40 Years Ago (stereogum.com)
300 points by lnguyen on July 2, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 170 comments

The UX of cassettes was very useful for sharing and swapping music or speech, and for resuming where one left off. Because of the linear tape, the cassette's "playback cursor" was stateful and independent from whether the medium was read-only or not. Playback resumed at (nearly) the same spot as it was last stopped, even if moved to a different player. Successor formats didn't have this property.

Interestingly, Sony emulated the auto-resume feature in some Discman CD players, and later it became common in car CD players, but there was no way to maintain playback position after swapping players. Later, MP3 players maintained their own playback state, but getting tracks on or off the device's built-in or removable storage was with file-based interfaces that connected to computers.

This stateful cursor functionality is only returning these days with URLs to media-hosting sites that accept timecode parameters.

When I was a student I worked up a mix tape for a girl I was into. I spun the tape to the start of the second track then gave it to her. Next time I saw her I (casually) asked her something she could only answer if she'd heard the first track. That meant I knew she'd played it through, then rewound it and played it again.

That's pretty genius. 18-year old me would have never thought of that.

I remember that when someone would hand me a tape, I would generally rewind it to the start before pressing play; especially if I could see that they had not rewound it before giving it to me. Maybe she did that rather than play it twice.

Well? Did she play it all the way through?

Seriously, can't just leave us hanging with suspense like that

I'd say it worked out pretty well.

I did worry about it being a bit stalker-y, but it certainly helped my self confidence.

I love how you conceptualise things based upon what seems to be your familiarity with DB cursors, stateful interfaces and other CS concepts. You're absolutely right, of course - it's just an interesting choice of conceptual frameworks to position your analogy within. I'm sure a non-programmer could also identify this property of cassettes as a medium, but they wouldn't be anywhere near as precise, nor use anything like that terminology...

I'm reminded of a character called Randy in a book called Cryptonomicon:

> To translate it into UNIX system administration terms (Randy's fundamental metaphor for just about everything)

I had a smile of recognition reading that, just like I had a smile of recognition reading yours. Stateful indeed. You might even term it a continuation.

Note that “cursor” (Any part of a mathematical instrument that moves or slides backward and forward upon another part.) predates databases and computer interfaces.

it's even more interesting to think that people designed these devices without this frame of reference

They didn't :-). The cursor -- a moving indicator, as part of a slide rule or any other similar instrument -- has been called that way since the early 17th century.

This reminds of a comment, where someone never having used a typewriter before, commented that people in the olden days were prescient enough to put #(hashtag) on the keyboard, before Twitter was invented.

Or someone finding a floppy disk and saying – oh, that's cute, a 3D-printed Save icon!

it's not the name it's how and why it was on a tape

> how and why it was on a tape

I think you're overthinking the whole thing, it's not really "on" a tape. It's the default operation of a tape, they didn't have to come up with the idea, it's a side effect of the medium. You need a motor to move the tape, no motor = no movement = the tape stays in its current position. To automatically rewind the tape you'd need some sort of mechanism under tension in it which would probably make it less reliable / more expensive.

Indeed. A cassette was a miniaturization and interface improvement over reel to reel systems. So it inherited some of their properties but added new ones (like the protective case) and lost some properties (like splicing or adding and subtracting length of the medium)

You can splice a cassette but it's relatively inconvenient. Adding time to the medium is limited by the capacity of the case.

What I really want to know is whether the fact that a standard pencil could be used to manually wind a cassette was an intended feature or a happy accident.

I would wager it was the latter as Philips missed a trick in rebranding it as an accessory/dongle and monetising it. Now, if it was Apple..

I think it is intended.

And there is an equal number of times where this ‘feature’ is(was) annoying. I.e rentable video tapes returns

Motor or Bic biro. Essential for those times the car player (it was always the car player) mangled or despooled half the tape.

that's what I was hinting at. Did the designer really think about it or was it just naturally there.

They didn't think about it.

I enjoyed reading your comment, and couldn't help but thinking how I miss this time. The joy of bringing something physical to somebody - a cassette, a vinyl - for their listening pleasure. The feedback loop from the act of giving and receiving. This whole idea of physical sharing made the music more personal and magical.

Nowadays I have shared playlist for family and friends, and it lacks magic.

I remember discussing with a guy in college. He was deep into digital format. Everything he listened was encoded and store on hard drive. Which most of us did at the time. But I told him that I missed the physical side of things. LP covers, CD boxes. He was entirely dumbfounded, almost annoyed.

I missed it too. So I went ahead and got an old, refurbished harman/kardon cassette deck after months of research about different cassette and deck varieties. Learnt about type 1 (ferric), type 2 (chromium dioxide) and type 4 (metal) cassettes.

And now when I get back from work in the evening, I put on a cassette whilst making dinner. Or when I have friends over. And I let them pick the cassettes, which is always rather exciting.

I listen to a lot of metal and classical music, so finding original cassettes (even the really nice metal ones) isn't that hard at all. Plus they're cheap! (Waaay cheaper than vinyl).

And if all that weren't enough, there are bands still putting out cassettes: synthwave artists (Taurus 1984), indie bands (Tvivler), and even pop (Sigrid)! And if I don't find artists I like, I can always make my own ;)

tldr: If you miss it, you can still go out get yourself a cassette deck and enjoy it!

> a lot of metal and classical music

I find this part of your comment interesting because I have noticed such an overlap among a number of people versed in music. I wonder if there is a good way to explain this.

It is indeed interesting. I'd say that it has to do with:

- complex structures (not necessarily always 4/4 or 3/4)

- variations in dynamic range (loud parts vs. quiet parts)

- storytelling / philosophical themes (the human condition, freedom, suffering, literature)

- intense "solos" (Mendelssohn insanely fast yet moving segments on the piano vs. Petrucci going crazy on the guitar)

- mastery of musical instruments (particularly true in progressive metal, but metal drummers, guitarists/bassists and keyboard players tend to play at a very high technical level)

- song length (like Seventh Wonder's "The Great Escape" at about 30 mins)

None of these individually are unique to either genre, but taken together, we can start seeing quite a bit of an overlap.

A surprising, or maybe not so surprising, number of metal bands, and song writers have borrowed heavily from classical. No end of interviews with rock guitarists where they talk of listening to some violin piece and wanting to honour or duplicate in on the guitar. No end of albums with a rock cover of some classical piece, from The Agonist's a capella of Swan Lake through several Pachelbel's Canon in D, etc.

Not forgetting a good few borrowing from the folk canon, and I don't just mean late era Rainbow after Ritchie got his new girlfriend. :)

When I listen to Swedish death metal in particular, the tremolo picking and riffs, combined with the distortion (almost always a dimed Boss HM-2) almost sounds like a furious string section, somewhere around a cello-type sound. So many songs could just as well have been pieces of classical music.

Ha ha, Dream Theater and Complete Mendelssohn String Quartets (Pacifica Quartet) are probably the top played on my phone. The string quartet tributes to Iron Maiden and Dream Theater are pretty good.

My daughter is going to a rock strings camp next week where she will be playing Metallica, Zepplin, etc on cello.

>>My daughter is going to a rock strings camp next week where she will be playing Metallica, Zepplin, etc on cello.

Have she listened to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalyptica?

From a fellow fan (and musician) of both genres I'd say that this analysis is absolutely spot on.

The only real difference in a lot of cases is the choice of instrumentation.

I don't miss cassettes jammed in the player and vinyls ruined by scratches, personally. At least CDs are more resilient.

You also had the paper liner you could put your own artwork on to personalize it. It was a point of pride to "stick it to the man" and ignore the 10-12 lines for you to write a track listing on, and just share whatever you thought the other person would like to see.

> Nowadays I have shared playlist for family and friends, and it lacks magic.

The physicality of the medium is just one aspect - another source of magic was the lack of a skip button. Well, that and the fact that most people had fewer distractions back then and regarded listening to music as an actual activity, not merely background noice.

Your comment makes me nostalgic - few things feel as magical as carefully compiling and recording a mixtape for someone special and knowing, to a certain degree, that there's a good chance the gifted person actually takes the time to listen to it just as thoroughly. As a music lover and collector I still have the tape decks and, more importantly, the selection to create those tapes, but good luck finding anyone being able to play them.

On a sidenote: There's still a niche audience for tapes. If you spend time on Bandcamp you'll see quite a few labels and artists offering their release in good old tape format. There also this limited series inviting various DJs, selector and crate diggers to share their mixtape: https://www.alteredsoulexperiment.com/products

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the UX of cassettes and vinyl encouraged an immeasurably deeper immersion and exploration of music. My walkman would keep playing as the battery died, playing the music slower and slower still for about 20-25 minutes. This was fun and made it easier to figure out how electronic drum patterns and sounds were put together. To say that had an impact on my own productions later would be an understatement. Also it didn’t matter that I had one album or mix on the tape, I would happily listen to it hundreds of times. Didn’t need infinite scrolling libraries of compositions...

I had the opposite experience once. In the 90s Louis Farrakhan spoke at umass. It was a strange time.

I worked at the college paper and a reporter let me listen to her tape. when listening back he kept getting higher and higher pitched. It finally occurred to me that when recording him batteries where getting lower and lower and the tape was recording slower. When played back at normal speeds.. it never got to “Alvin and the chipmunks” high pitch but.

There's something about the 2k+ era where the optimal point in life is timeless, perfect and predictable. Whereas most things we did enjoy before that were not.

> Playback resumed at (nearly) the same spot as it was last stopped, even if moved to a different player.

You did have to remember which side you were listening to, though. So, the tape carried all the necessary information to maintain state, minus 1 bit. :-)

ahh yes.. but then there was the endless rewinding and fast-forwarding to find the part you wanted to hear.. CD's were a welcome change back to the random access of records for many

I had portable cassette players that would rewind or fast forward to the next blank spot between songs. It was slow, crude and limited to the next and previous track, but it did work well in the era before CDs.

You'll probably be happy to learn about the file format M4B! It saves your listening position, so you can move it between systems and use different programs and it should remember your position. It's the preferred file format for audiobooks.

Cool story.

Fond memories of Sony and the Walkman era. I worked part time for Sony from the mid to late 1980s while I was a student, paying tuition bills. It was a dream job for a consumer electronics nerd and budding AV enthusiast, getting to demo and play with everything. Sony was still king of CRTs with XBR line of Trinitrons consistently on top. (Back breakers to move across a room, BTW.) Their ES family of audio amps and reference CD players were generally well respected. Meh for speakers.

But back to Walkmans ... it was really eye-opening how multiple times per year they would release new variations in size and materials and features or just colours, and people would line up or pre-pay to get their hands on them. People who already had Walkmans, often. The brand loyalty was mostly deserved IMO, because Sony was really doing some original R&D.

Personal faves ... compact models in the drop & waterproof Sports line, especially when issued in non-yellow. The solar model was weird, and not super effective, but damn Sony was trying.[1] The metal, and great-sounding Boodo Khan with supplied headphones was also pretty slick.[2] But from a materials and engineering POV there were some gorgeous delicate little metal-body units and at least one was actually the same size as a plastic cassette case itself.[3] (It would expand slightly when you inserted your media.)

Long after I left Sony I tried to keep the brand faith with MiniDiscs for years. But the MD's time has also come and gone...

[1] http://www.walkmancentral.com/products/wm-f107

[2] http://www.walkmancentral.com/products/dd-100

[3] http://www.walkmancentral.com/products/wm-10

I had the cassette size box one I inherited from my younger brother when he bought a new one. Replaced my akai. As a college student I had about 4 rechargable aa batteries. I loved that the Walkman works with one aa battery, as I never knew my batteries state of charge.

Amazingly thin. As you pointed out you had to pull the device open so the cassette could fit inside. The battery seemed to take a lot of the internal space.

The main disadvantage was really slow fast forward/ rewind but you hardly did that with mix raves anyway.

This isn’t the same model but the photos give a good idea of the inside mechanism. These were complex mechanical systems.


Some bigger model internals: http://stereo2go.com/forums/threads/sony-walkman-wm-f2097-mo...

Thanks for sharing this stuff.

It’s hard to resist thinking of iPhones when you talk about people lining up to buy the latest model, even when they already have a Walkman. It makes me daydream about Apple looking like Sony (a bit bloated, a bit of a faded giant) in 30 years.

I'd say that Apple are already pretty much at that point, tbh.

Late tape players were amazing. I think the last one I got was from aiwa, but it sported everything: slim, electronic buttons, li-ion battery. At some point, the technology around them was so well understood that the companies building them really did go over the top to provide the most luxurious experience.

I had one of their 34" XBR HD sets. 211 pounds (132 kg), nearly all of which was at the front, because of the thick glass that the Trinitron tube had. It was a total PITA to get up the stairs when I bought it.

The funny thing was that Best Buy had stashed it off in an aisle, and not next to the then-new plasma and LCD TVs in their showcase area. If they had, people would have seen that it had a better picture (sharper, deeper blacks) and cost a fifth as much.

Oh man, the WM-10!!

In junior high that walkman was THE status symbol. Anybody who had one was was considered super cool. A buddy of mine started stealing them from Best Buy and started a small black market in our school.

Although The Walkman was released 40 years ago, Sony had actually made something that will look familiar another 10 years earlier and was used on Apollo moon missions: https://airandspace.si.edu/multimedia-gallery/5254hjpg https://www.sony.net/Fun/design/history/product/1960/tc-50.h...

Incidentally, I only discovered this recently after hearing the Apollo 11 astronauts use one to play a prank on mission control while on the way back to earth. You can hear this at the amazing https://apolloinrealtime.org/11/ (definitely works best on desktop not mobile)

The Walkman is a classic case of how an entrenched competitor with deep pockets couldn't really stand in the way of an innovative product. I point this out because, whenever you come across an idea for a startup, you'd inadvertently find one or more businesses already built around the idea, sometimes with ginormous funding or income. Remember how iPod beat Walkman, Firefox gazumped IE, Zoom sped past WebX, stripe pocketed payments: Find the key pain points and try to solve them. Don't turn a blind eye [0] no matter how difficult they might be to solve, you wouldn't know it until you try.

To quote mittermayr from a recent thread [1]:

> Don't throw away an idea because someone else has already made it. People completely underestimate the amount of money you can make as a runner-up, or even as a 5th or 10th-place service in some markets. Most of the products I'm involved with have made me quite substantial amounts over the years compared to the minimal time required to upkeep them. There's at least ten companies I can name at an instant that do almost exactly the same, yet I still make money doing the very same thing.

> Appreciate the invaluable advantage a market-proven idea brings and focus on whatever its target audience lacks or loves most about the most-popular offering. It doesn't mean you have to copy something (where's the fun in that), but consider this if you start working on something and then come across someone who's done the exact same thing with good success. Don't give up, use it.

[0] http://www.paulgraham.com/schlep.html

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19164873

FWIW the iPod didn't really beat deep-pocket Sony's cassette Walkman or MiniDisc per se, it beat the uneven and dizzyingly wide field of onboard-storage digital audio players, from thumbdrive-looking sticks that only held a couple songs, to full-blown Creative and iRiver HDD players on which you could conceivably carry your entire collection, but whose device UX, song-copying computer-side UX, and resilience were bested by Apple. It also came at a time when portable CD players that could play a CD-R full of MP3s or WMAs were widely available, and were a popular incremental upgrade for those who were already used to burning their own CDs.

With suddenly dozens of ways to enjoy portable audio, Sony was hurt by the fall of the MiniDisc. Less so in the world of CD players, but in the the world of digital audio players, they were just another poorly-differentiated manufacturer. Songs were decoupled from their original hardcopy and became files one could manage on a computer, and the UX of moving these tracks onto portable playback devices was starting to matter.

Actors like Real, Microsoft, Apple, MusicMatch, and NullSoft were in this space, and their interests didn't necessarily align with the interests of audio player makers. Apple initially partnered with MusicMatch when the iPod launched to have a file management story on Windows, before they shipped iTunes.

> Remember how iPod beat Walkman

No. No I don’t. Who the fuck was still using a Walkman in 2001?

While the portable CD players from Sony were branded "Discman", they later used the "Walkman" brand for a range of featurephones (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_Ericsson_W580i) explicitly designed as music players. So you could actually say that the _iPhone_ ultimately beat the Walkman...

How I loved these feature phones. Did everything I needed, playing music later even e-mail also it was nowhere near as nice as Gmail. Youtube wasn't an option, but the sound quality was at least on par with my Pixel 2. Also phones were small enough to fit in every pocket.

They almost certainly did that just to keep the trademark active.

I was using this around 2001:

Freecom Beatman Mini CD MP3 Player ( https://www.semox.de/23-06-2008/verspateter-fruhjahrsputz-is..., scroll )

MP3 players in 2001 were either expensive or had tiny capacity, eg a single album, which was never enough.

Yup, I had a Memorex MP3-CD player around then. Gave me the flexibility to play both regular CDs and 700MB of MP3s on a CD-R, at a much cheaper price than what iPods were going for at the time.

I did, AFAIR. USB MP3 players haven't happened yet AFAIR, and the alternative were DiskMans, which had all the problems of optical drives: shake it harder, it'll lose playback or damage the CD; any scratch or speck of dust on the CD was likely to make some tracks unplayable or even half of the CD unseekable, etc.

Optical media really sucked hard for regular use. In retrospect, I'm surprised people put up with CDs and DVDs for so long.

Factory-pressed CDs are really durable. I have CDs from the 80s and they still work fine. Now CD-Rs... it depends what you buy. If you used some cheapo brands then yeah they would fail. Otherwise they were also fine.

I had a Rio 300 followed by a Rio 500 before the iPod was announced... those were the times.. converting to 64bit wma format so you could fit maybe 40 songs on the 300

The mp3 players of 2001 were so fucked up that keeping your Walkman in use wasn’t uncommon. Not among techies maybe but regular people, many of whom didn’t even have a computer yet. How would they even fill their mp3 players? (And even the techies could sigh - rip CDs? Download mp3 from ftp sites?)

On many occasions it was still easier, even in 2001, to dub a CD to a cassette than juggle the computer gear.

The Walkman was sold until recently (if it isn’t still) and of course living in a big city you see a handful of people using a Walkman. It never died completely. There is of course the hipster resurgence of cassettes of the 2010s. Of all this I’m aware. But techie or hipster or not I was around in 2001 and the Walkman was well past mass adoption by that point in the western world. Shitty MP3 players that people loaded up with Napster and Discmans/Aiwas knockoff were what the poors and regulars did. MD and nicer hard drive players were the enthusiast options. The iPod did not have the Walkman to contend with in a meaningful sense.

Also in the US at least, the majority of households had a PC by 2001. I came from a shit poor backwater by this sites standards. We had computers.

And by 2001, FTP sites? That was post peak of Napster (after Feb 2001). Kazaa, Emule, etc were all regulars options. You’re a few years off, which was substantial in the 95-2001 timeframe.

I may be tainted by the fact that I doggedly stuck to Linux in the time period 1995-2014. :-)

And I agree, walkman was not a major contender in 2001, I just mean it wasn't entirely gone from "normal user" perspective. But I stand by that iPod was the first solution which had as easy UX as a Walkman if you wanted your own playlist. As shitty as iTunes was and is, it was still the first really working music software anyone could use.

I recall the first time I bought a cassette tape walkman was about the year 2003, 2004.

A mid-80s Walkman is central to one of my earliest vivid memories.

Among the gifts I received for my 9th birthday in 1986 were (1) An AM/FM radio Walkman (replete with the classic orange-padded on-ear headphones), and (2) a plastic kite with an eagle on it.

The following day, I walked over to the park nearest our house, stood in the middle of an open sports field, tuned my Walkman to the relatively new Australian rock music station EON-FM, and launched my eagle kite.

Fairly soon, as I stood there proudly flying my kite on what was a solidly windy day, the radio playlist transitioned into the intro to Money for Nothing by Dire Straits.

To this day, I can still feel the visceral sensation of the buildup of that intro and the sound explosion of that opening guitar riff, and in that moment I knew what rock'n'roll music was all about.

I sometimes think back to that just-turned-9-years-old kid in the middle of that field, flying that kite and having his mind blown by rock'n'roll blasted through his brand new Walkman, and think "you're doin OK kid."

The complete genius of the Walkman was that it featured two headphone jacks. Such a simple design decision, with such large ramifications. In total, the Walkman is a classic example of a disruptive industry: creating new industries and killing (or at least mortally wounding) old ones. I remember how terminally moribund the industry-controlled pop charts had become before mix tapes became a thing.

I guess I never took advantage of that.

For me it was:

1) Headphones — I was used to listening to music from speakers. Even familiar music was new sounding with headphones. I had listened through headphones before, but infrequently. The Walkman only had headphones — checkmate.

2) Walking around (rocking around) with my music. Sure, "transistor radios" had been around for decades, but this was a compact, stereo, cassette player.

…I'm reminded of Frank Black's "I Heard Ramona Sing" — a tribute to both the Ramones and the Walkman.

And like the white iPod ear buds that came twenty years later, those orange foam headphones were a status symbol. Simply walking around with them hanging around your neck made you cool e.g.; Marty McFly at the beginning of Back To The Future

I find it amusing that we went from relatively small Walkman headphones, to tiny little Apple earbuds, to giant Beats headphones as the status symbol.

Remember the old ridiculously huge cans from the 1970s with a quarter-inch jack? They're back!

That was my exact thought the first time I saw Beats headphones.

It's hard to consume conspicuously when everything is miniaturized.

One super useful feature was "Auto Reverse", allowing you to listen to both sides of a tape without having to take the cassette out and flipping it. It came out 3 years later, eg in the Sony WM-7.

One thing I learned while looking into this now is that Music Cassettes (MC) have the magnetic recording tape, and then at both ends a "leader", which is much stronger than the thin magnetic tape, so it doesn't break when the end is reached. Furthermore, the leader is transparent, unlike the magnetic tape, and so auto reverse could be triggered by an optical sensor (this website claims that the WM 7 had an optical sensor - I thought Walkmen (Walkmans?) triggered auto reverse from the mechanical pull when the tape reached the end.)


EDIT to add: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassette_tape#Tape_leaders

I used to buy leaderless cassettes and I had no issue with auto reverse on my portable cassette players.

My Walkman senses when the supply spool stops rotating, and then reverses.

That's what I thought would happen. I really wonder whether the WM-7 actually has an optical sensor.

Don't forget the MiniDisc format that Sony also released years later under the "Walkman" brand - for a while there it was an audio storage format and playback hardware that briefly seemed ahead of its time. Sony, if nothing else, were technical innovators during their best days. You knew the gear wasn't imagined and designed by a bunch of bean counters.

> You knew the gear wasn't imagined and designed by a bunch of bean counters.

Hmmm.... Only later when they were marketing TV's?

Hated Sony for selling essentially the same TV with the same guts but leaving out one chip (for example) so that "Picture in Picture" required you spend an extra $500 on the high end model.

I always suspected it went something like this:

• Engineers describe the feature set they can deliver for a new TV.

• Bean counters determine it can be manufactured for $500.

• Marketing decide there will be three models: the F, the FX, and the FX+. Determine pricing will be: $800, $1200, $1800.

• Marketing aligns the FX+ model with the engineers feature set — cross off features to arrive at the FX — cross off even more to arrive at the F.

• Profit.

I shouldn't beat up on Sony though — all consumer electronics have been doing something like this since ... when ... the 1950's or so?

What does this have to do with anything? Product differentiation is not price discrimination.

If they were selling the same exact product with same features at different prices, then maybe. But this is not the case.

This is just you being unhappy with the market clearing price for those features.

It is a form of price discrimination called tiered pricing:


For a mass market good it’s not tactful to openly ask each customer how much they’re willing to pay and sell at that maximum price, so another way to get closer to achieving that is to differentiate products with features that have very low marginal costs.

Psychologically, it’s also part of “anchoring” where you establish the lowest value of the product with the lowest price version, so the middle and high prices don’t seem so bad.

And of course, who wants to buy the cheapest version of something? People generally feel better buying a better product, so the cheapest one might only exist to do that. Also a good strategy for wine in restaurants, sell the wine with the lowest supply cost at the middle price, because people will opt for the middle priced item over the lowest price.

Thanks, yeah, that's been our Brave New World. :(

The bean counters don’t set the price.. the market does. The bean counters are there to predict how the market will respond and plan accordingly.

If they weren’t selling an adequate number of FX TVs at the higher price... they would lower it. I guess they didn’t have to.

This has nothing to do with price discrimination either, which is when the same good or service is offered at different prices in different markets.

If you think this is crazy you should have a look into CPU manufacturing.

Remember the cool kid having a Dual Deck stereo to make mixtapes. Having a rats nest of tape when one failed.

Then that evolving into whoever had good internet and a CD Burner. Eventually almost 'renting' music by returning a CD-RW with a new request list. Just how much Discmans would skip with Burnt CD's versus Legitimate ones.

To spending $500 on a 128mb MP3 player. Compressing Mp3's into tiny WMA's.

For an entity that's waged a multi-decade billion-dollar bloody and bitter war against music piracy, Sony certainly have been instrumental in its proliferation.

That's because the device group is a different entity than the media group. Unfortunately the media group made enough money to start dictating things to the device group which didn't single handedly ruin it, but definitely opened the door to the Korean rivals that weren't bending over backwards to stop consumers from using their devices.

It did ruin the minidisc, when Sony decided you couldn't get digital data from the disc.

IIRC one of the reasons was that the MiniDisc used lossy compression (ATRAC) to store audio onto the disc. So you couldn't actually store music digitally onto it, at least not the amount advertised. This was before MP3 was widespread, I remember people were upset that when they bought MiniDiscs they only got a lossy copy.

Later revisions added higher capacity and digital storage but it was too little too late.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MiniDisc

The thing is that newer MiniDisc players did offer the ability to load tracks digitally from a PC, but it was gratuitously locked down. Not only was there no way to transfer music in the other direction, there was no way to load tracks compressed with the highest quality level either - the only way to take full advantage of MiniDisc's audio quality was to send uncompressed audio data and let the device compress it, and it was barely faster than recording something on there in real time.

Yep - to protect it’s precious ATRAC codec from ending up on filthy unbaptised consumer PCs. Only to see mp3 eat the world.

there's an alternate universe where MiniDisc replaced floppies in the early 90s and became the main storage format.

90mm Magneto-Optical ("MO") was a lot closer to being that future - it was the same tech as MiniDisc, but openly licensed, and actually had really good traction in Japan (on par with Zip drives in the west). 600 MB on a disc the size of a floppy, with random-access read and write. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magneto-optical_drive

Sony actually relased a slightly different MiniDisc for data storage with computers.


ohhh 1993.. I had no idea. I remember late 90s MD-data

Absolutely. I believe it was VIACOM who sued Sony for inventing and mass-producing VCR which obviously allowed you to tape their movies and play them back later on, which was consider piracy ;) someone else can link to the court case as I’m on mobile. Had it been lost we would be able to record ourselves anything that is aired on TV probably a decade or more later.

I was most definitely not cool, but I did have a dual-cassette stereo with a "high-speed dubbing" function that was used regularly.

Thinking back on it, its all that music sharing that really opened my eyes (ears!) to music that was outside the mainstream and would have been otherwise essentially locked away from the opportunity to listen to it long enough to really get it. Complex music.

Who I am today thanks the creators of that subversive technology of yesterday.

In regards to the rats nest of failed tape. A friend of mine and I took a few tapes apart in order to reverse the spools to listen to them backwards. I think we were only able to get one back together well enough to actually work... I remember putting some together which played forwards again because double reversal = forwards...

>>To spending $500 on a 128mb MP3 player. Compressing Mp3's into tiny WMA's.

Haha me and my RIO PMP 300.. I did exactly that.. converted mp3s into 64kb wma files

My first walkman was a WM-22, not that much smaller than the first model. My last was a WM-150, which was just a few mm larger than the actual tape in each direction. It felt amazingly elegant.

(Took me a while to find out the model numbers by looking at image searches... Sony always had the worst product "names".)

I don't know if this is apocryphal or not, but several years ago I read that the original was a little bigger than pocket sized, so Sony had shirts with slightly bigger pockets made to demo it.

It was the 1980s. Everyone had huge hair, huge shoulder pads and huge pockets.

Somehow Sony made a cassette player that was barely bigger than a typical cassette case. You rarely see engineering like that.

Today electronics can be made smaller, thinner and so on, but this was a complex, intrinsically mechanical device. That's the amazing part. That player is like a well-made watch.

It was probably an off-shoot of their camcorder miniaturization efforts. Those got incredibly tiny considering they had to act like a VCR, helical head and all.

The sad thing is that as soon as Sony perfected the cassette player the CD was the popular medium and they had to do it all over again. When they perfected that MP3 showed up.

It's like how they made a perfect CRT and then flat panels hit hard.

Walking with music has completely changed my life. Can't imagine the amount of ideas I've had and steps I've taken listening to music. With music I can cross the entire city on foot and more.

footnote: do you remember when your batteries were running low and the cassette would start slowing down the music? ;)

>>With music I can cross the entire city on foot and more.

I'll play Devil's Advocate here and say that the Walkman marked the beginning of the end for people having spatial awareness and social skills in public places.

You've only got to look at all the people meandering through our city streets today; ears plugged with headphones, faces glued to screens –often walking along with other people but yet completely detached from them, barely conscious of the world around them– to see what the Walkman's legacy is.

Personally I prefer to listen to my music on headphones when I'm alone and at a fixed location, rather than bimbling around, getting in other people's way and with my safety compromised by having my senses plugged up. I've actually seen cyclists riding in traffic with cycling helmets on [y'know, for the safety!] but also wearing headphones. Makes me cringe every time I pass one, knowing they've purposely cutting out the sounds of the traffic around them.

Marillion presciently commented on that with these lyrics:

“Sheathed within the Walkman wearing the halo of distortion

Aural contraceptive aborting pregnant conversation”

> Aural contraceptive aborting pregnant conversation”

Now that is a lyric, goddamn.

And there's more where that came from...

A moment to process the fact that the song has suddenly started playing sloooowly too :)

Oh yeah. I can still hear some songs in my head that always seemed to be playing when the batteries started dying. It’s almost as if the proper speed of those songs is incorrect.

The article links to a very funny video of today's kids trying to figure out a Walkman:


It's surprising to see how challenging the Walkman UI is to a complete novice.

Not many UIs are intuitive.

I once tried to use a clickwheel iPod whilst my collleague was in a shop. I had to give up and revert to the car stereo for music.

The majority of UX enlightenment comes from demonstration.

I remember after they came out with portable CD players, at first lacking any sort of skip protection it was pretty much unusable for any action sports.

At the time I enjoyed snowboarding at a local ski hill and I used my Walkman well into the life cycle of CDs making remixes of all my favorites tracks off CD's onto one cassette to listen to for the snowboarding session.

Best part, no skipping! (This was around 1997)

Some of the later Anti-Skip that was like 45-60 seconds would be doable, unless you are going over some moguls but for cruising without much hopping/tricks I'm sure some Anti-Skip in the 30s range would have sufficed.

>It’s weird to think that, in the years before the Walkman, there was no way to listen to music privately while out in public. There were ways to bring music with you — on transistor radios, on boom boxes, on car stereos — but they forced you to subject everyone around you to that music, as well.

No, the mono earpiece was a common thing with many transistor radios from the 60's. They didn't have stereo, no, so they didn't accomodate 2-ear pods or headphones.

This will probably get buried but does anyone remember having to flip the tape over and the experience associated with the album in doing that? For example, on Metallica's Black Album, it ends on the first side Don't tread on me and then starts on the second side wtih Through the Never. If you dont know about the tape flip, you dont appreciate the beggining of "through the never" IMHO.

The vinyl flip required for Dark Side of the Moon really highlights the fact that the album is kind of split in half. Tracks on the first half smoothly transition to each other, but then have a hard stop before Money on side B. It's a really interesting case of music being composed for the medium.

I found a similar example in digital media only once so far, Pretty Lights Glowing in the Darkest Night. The first half of the EP sounds very distinct from the second, almost as if there is an invisible vinyl flip in the middle.

What is the current state of the art for music?

DVD-Audio was barely a thing ten or so years ago. After buying a B&W Zeppelin Air I was signed me up for their Society of Sound with very high quality 5Gb audio files for an album. My Zeppelin has since died. Is audio quality still improving binaural tracks?

The only time I’ve been really aware of audio quality was playing a Blu-Ray of an episode of Madmen.

Everything since CD audio has been either the same quality or worse. Increasing the sampling rate does nothing but encode ultrasonics which are at best inaudible and at worst introduce additional harmonic distortion into the audible frequencies. 16 bit samples with dithering are well beyond the dynamic range limits of human hearing.

SACD and DVD-A have more than two channels (or 4 if you could get a hold of a quad CD)

Well yes, but the person I replied to was specifically asking about 2 channel audio.

Especially useful if you have more than two ears.

Also this is how we saved batteries: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yk8v9Ijp1So

In high school I worked for Kodak in photo lab doing the processing for all the overnight photos in Oregon and Washington. The nice thing is all disposable cameras had AA batteries in them and we filled up a few 50 gallon garbage cans of disposable cameras a night.

On my breaks I would just sit there ripping the batteries out of the cameras for Walkman batteries for my friends and I. I accidentally touched the capacitor for the flash once when taking out the batteries. Only made that mistake once.

Retrospectively, I'm very impressed by the mechanical quality. I remember the compartment latch failing on some (non-Sony devices), but never the actual core drive, an this is with thousands of hours of usage.

The engineering inside a cassette player (both audio cassettes and video) always intrigued me. There's so much design and manufacturing involved for something that eventually scaled to meet a $50 price point. When I was younger I couldn't fathom how companies could afford to do it.

Man the early Walkman was a magical device. I got a latter one and mine was barely larger than an audio cassette case.

The only access to music I had was from a friend whose older brother copied a seemingly random collection for us to have. Vangelis, The Violent Femmes, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Warren Zevon. I think I listened to the same eight cassettes for most of the following year.

When I was in a record store a couple of months ago, three things occurred to me.

The resurrection of vinyl and the health of that market makes sense to me.

The death spiral of the CD worries me (my preferred format).

The fact that people are still buying cassettes mystifies me. Poor sound quality, low res art, serial access only, and quick degradation?

The vinyl resurrection is mostly due to hipster cred, and a whole mythology that has sprung up around the (imagined) sound quality benefits. The format also has a lot of drawbacks. The records are large and fragile, turntables are relatively large and the whole setup is not very portable. Records are also very much read-only.

The compact cassette is small and rugged, tape players can be small enough that they are barely larger than a cassette tape, and most importantly it's trivially easy to record your own tapes, either as a mix tape from other sources, as a recording from radio or even with your friends in your small-time garage band. There is a damn good reason why the humble cassette tape stuck around in punk/DIY underground circles. For decades, recording to cassette tape and having them duplicated was the absolute cheapest way to get your music out to the world.

My own appreciation for cassette tape comes from growing up in the late 80s/early 90s. I didn't have a CD player of my own, but I had a cheap boombox with a tape deck, and a whole bunch of tapes from my parents. Classics like Deep Purple and the Beatles, but also a whole bunch of stuff they'd recorded from the radio, and various other random things, I had a whole bunch of children's books on tape, as well. My parents eventually gave me a tape deck with a built-in microphone and a bunch of blank tapes, and let my friends and me play around with it.

To me, the cassette tape (and the 3.5" floppy disk) was a cornerstone of my formative years, and I will always appreciate the versatility and possibilities the format has.

Vinyl is/was mostly a format for people with disposable income, it's the Big Serious format. In contrast, cassette tape was the format for the common people, you can play around with it and experiment.

As for the CD, it's just an obsolete physical format for digital audio, which is much easier to distribute online now, rather than stamping and shipping shiny plastic discs. There are quite a few distributers that offer CD-quality downloads.

> The vinyl resurrection is mostly due to hipster cred, and a whole mythology that has sprung up around the (imagined) sound quality benefits.

I think that was the start of it, but at this point it's spread well beyond hipsters. One of my kids bought a turntable and they do the same thing I did when I listened to records 30 years ago - lie on the floor and examine the sleeve and liner.

Aside from the large format artwork, I wouldn't underestimate the appeal of building and having a collection. People collect vinyl toys to sit on a shelf. Is collecting records all that different?

> There are quite a few distributers that offer CD-quality downloads.

Not really and the ones that exist are expensive and have poor selection.

> Not really and the ones that exist are expensive and have poor selection.

- Bandcamp

- Boomkat

- Qobuz

- 7Digital

- Bleep

- Juno Download

I buy everything I like (and it's a lot) in a lossless, digital format and the only time I can't find a legal lossless purchase option is when it's actually a physical-only release.

I just looked on those services for a few CD's I recently bought and Qobuz is the only one that had them. The price for a download from them is more than the price to get Amazon to deliver the physical discs to my door. For now, that doesn't make any sense to me especially since I actually want the physical media. It's what I listen to as I work. If I only wanted the files, then I would be on board.

Ok, I understand. For me it's different - if I have to get the CD (for example if it's a rare, old release - Japan has lots of rare stuff from the 80s on CDs) I only rip it and put it back on the shelf forever. I have no interest in the physical medium.

Admittedly, and somewhat ironically, it's only the most popular mainstream music that seems to be lacking digital lossless purchasing options. Even mainstream music like the stuff that gets featured on Pitchfork seems to be widely available these days.

However when you mention CD prices, you're talking about new/mint offers from Amazon, right? Comparing second-hand prices wouldn't be fair. Since I was surprised about your discovery I just took a recent rather popular, mainstream and widely available album like Cate Le Bon's "Reward" to compare prices. CD was the worst offer at € 16,40:

- Amazon (CD): EUR 16,40

- Qobuz: EUR 15,99

- Boomkat: GBP 7,99

- Bandcamp: USD 9,99

Also, never buy the premium quality at Qobuz. Their standard quality already is lossless 16 Bit / 44,1 KHz (CD quality).

Bandcamp has a huge selection. Maybe not the biggest mainstream artists, but definitely something to satisfy every taste.

There are others who specialize in specific genres, especially within electronic music. And some labels have started offering CD quality downloads, Nuclear Blast is the one I'm most familiar with.

> Bandcamp has a huge selection.

Sure, they win by quantity. But it doesn't matter if they have millions of artists if what I want is a particular Radiohead album.

For now, CD is still the best way to buy mainstream music in a high quality format. It also happens to be pretty inexpensive as well. On top of all that, I'm an old guy that happens to enjoy looking over my collection, picking a CD, and sitting down to listen to it for an hour, giving it the same attention I would if I were watching a movie or reading a book.

I also subscribe to a streaming service and that's how I find a lot of the stuff I want to buy.

Though I remember its introduction well, what struck me was how much copy there was in that ad.

I think of textful ads as having faded out in the 60s (just look at the long essays that were ads from the 40s or 20s!) but really: would you read an ad in a magazine with that wall of text?

I feel it's time for boomboxes to come back. Not purple medicine-pill bluetooth players, but big ol' boxes you can put on your shoulder and Fight the Power with 8" speakers. There was a whole movement around playing music out, now we just inject it into our ear canals.

Nostalgia... or genius?

Personally I'm happy for it to remain as nostalgia.

I was at a campsite recently and the people in the tent next door had a playlist that was execrable. They weren't actually too loud and they adhered to the site's night-time noise cut-off rule, but their choice of music - massively different from mine - really degraded the pleasure of the camping experience that evening.


[Edit] Also, I am perhaps biased here because I am moderately deaf, and thus sensitized to noise pollution. Music makes it very hard to follow conversations, even with my hearing aids. This wasn't actually a problem at the campsite, but is a total conversation killer in enclosed spaces with hard surfaces (like many restaurants).

My opinion on that is about the same as Kirk and Spock's: https://www.wired.com/2016/09/punk-star-trek-iv-vulcan-nerve...

edit: while searching for that, I discovered that Kirk Thatcher is reprising the role in a cameo in the new Spider-man movie: https://www.startrek.com/article/trek-ivs-punk-on-bus-return...

They are back. At least, in my neighbourhood, the kids are walking around with giant bluetooth shoulder-size boomboxes.

Now I feel old, remembering when they came into the scene.

Never got to own one though, just clones.

I have a D6C Walkman Pro -- bought in, I think, 1990 -- that still works (or did last I tried it, anyway, maybe a couple of years ago). Great little deck; with metal tape and Dolby C, did a fine job recording CDs.

I have one too, and I agree it's an amazing device, but a while ago I discovered it had seized up and stopped working - the fast-forward and rewind had been dodgy for a while, but both of them had finally given up, and playback had also failed.

I replaced the belts, which got playback working again (see picture here https://twitter.com/chris_cannam/status/1043961675114840070) but ffwd/rwd appeared to be victims of a seized pivot which I couldn't get moving. So it plays beautifully once more, but still can't wind.

Might be worth checking that yours is still going ok, in case lack of use is a factor.

I found a Discman outside a store bin. It's partially failing but I'll attempt fixing it.

Those go for some serious money these days.

The problem with pioneers is that , they rarely move to next level, may be due to the thinking that "whatever" they have today just rocks and will "probably" rock tomorrow.

Few Examples :

Nokia missing the Android boat - thinking Symbian was great Windows missing the Mobile operating system boat - thinking Windows Phone OS was great Sony missing the iPod boat - thinking , hey we got Walkman , what else you need.

And the list goes on. A truly remarkable product always sees the end , if the visionaries are not ready to foresee whats next.

Nokia never thought that Symbian was great. Meego was being developed for a long time ( I fondly remember my N900). Its very hard for a huge company like nokia to move (As most middle managers are invested in their direction or people might be let go).

Apple with the end of the Mac and iPhone is next? ;)

(What's ahead is not quite predictable. It might be VR, BCI or something entirely different from either.)

If they keep ignoring that usability trumps over thinness , then yeah, they could be next.

I recall my brother coming back from a trip to Japan with a top end Walkman in the early 90's. It was seemed to be all metal and so small. Was a mechanical work of art.

Sony always seemed to be the premium or status brand when it came to consumer electronics, everything from portable music players to televisions and VCR's.

They always had competition from brands like Sharp, Pioneer, RCA, Magnavox, but I think the big hit came when the really cheap brands started to flood the market. Sony had the Discman come down to $99 for $349, but buyers were still going for the $39 units from Craig, Koss, Sanyo and such.

The amount of innovation that has happened in the space in 40 years is just amazing to me.

From having to carry around boxes of cassette tapes that now fit in a small 2mm chip, to the wireless headphones with individual Bluetooth pairing that can recognize speech, to the live streaming of not just songs but music videos while on a moving train, makes me wonder how far we've progressed in such little time.

> There were ways to bring music with you — on transistor radios, on boom boxes, on car stereos — but they forced you to subject everyone around you to that music, as well.

...and thanks to the Bluetooth speaker that era is back. Can't tell you how often I'm hiking or running in the mountains and some group's dreadful taste in music precedes them by a half mile.

And I still have one that works. Big fat latching switches that you can activate blindly in the pocket of your jacket, a output that can actually drive headphones properly, ...

Sometimes I have the feeling we didn’t really move forwards in terms of interface design.

There're many songs I still listen to, that I listened on my walkman-clone. In most of them I can still "hear" the moment where the cassette stopped and I had to turn it around for the remainder of the song.

disclaimer: listening to music using headphones while bike riding, roller-skating or skiing is now strongly discouraged (still acceptable while taking a walk or unglamorously using public transportation however).

sadly I have to admit that riding a bike is not a mindless activity in most places. lack of attention can cause collisions

By who, for what reason?

By the authorities, for the reason of your own physical well-being. In some places, it's even illegal: https://www.quora.com/In-California-is-it-illegal-to-ride-a-...

The same people who demand you drive with your windows down lest you become a hazard to your surroundings when you can't hear them properly.

I loved the RadioShack tape recorder. I used it as a little portable boombox that could play in my backpack and create a little sound bubble that would accompany me and my friends.

Wow. That is really a major milestone. It change the scene. And also our view on Japanese hardware innovate culture (seems not software sadly). I love mini-disc more though.

My first cassette for my first Walkman was "License to Ill". That remained my favorite tape of all time. The Walkman was flawless, too.

Any idea what the hotline feature was like?

There was a lot of concern inside Sony that the Walkman would be perceived as anti-social, that's why it came with two headphone jacks, and the hotline feature which let others talk to you, via microphone, over the music.

Both were essentially gimmicks and never really worked well, and were soon dropped.

I was wondering this too - google found this

> a "hotline" button which activated a small built-in microphone, partially overriding the sound from the cassette, and allowing one user to talk to the other over the music.

and as the other poster remarks

> When the follow-up model, "Walkman II" came out, the "hotline" button was phased out.

Was there ever an actual use case for this, or is it pure gimmick?

Pure gimmick. My Bose QC-20s have this feature and every time I've tried to use it, it's been useless.

The Sony WH-1000XM series (possibly the next segment down as well?) still has this feature and I've found it good enough to be useful.

On planes it's simpler than pausing/removing the headphones to order a drink and the same in the office when you just need a quick yes/no from someone next to you.

There's also a passive mode I use when I'm actually outside with the headphones on. You don't hear engine noise or planes overhead but you can still hear tire noise of nearby cars so you don't get run over. If it's quiet you even hear footsteps.

My colleague has one TPS-L2 on his desk... I have an Atari 2600 game cartridge on mine :)

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