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The Price of Progress

From the Editor

In this issue’s review of the Metaxas & Sins Tourbillon open-reel tape machine, Jonathan Valin speaks eloquently about the visceral pleasure of operating mechanical devices, specifically the Metaxas tape deck. He writes: “As anyone seriously interested in cameras or cars can tell you, being compelled to lay hands on an object to make it work breeds a connection that goes a lot deeper (and is a lot more intensely satisfying) than merely pressing a button on a DAC or a virtual button on a computer tablet. It not only gives you a sense of proprietorship, but of active participation. The thing literally can’t do its job without you.” 

The advent of digital audio has without question been a boon for music lovers, but its rise has also rendered audio less of a hands-on hobby than it once was. Selecting music from an app is a very different experience than getting an LP out of jacket, putting it on the turntable, starting the platter rotating, and dropping the stylus in the groove. Don’t get me wrong; I love the convenience of sitting in my listening seat with a Roon-enabled tablet, but as with so many technological advances, there’s a price to be paid for that convenience. The new technology’s virtues are so compelling that we forget what’s been lost. 

 As Jonathan notes, the connection between man and machine extends to a wide range of products, passions, and hobbies beyond audio. In his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, author David Sax documents and explores the resurgence of film cameras, board games, printed books, and vinyl records, particularly among young people who have not previously known the analog equivalents of digital cameras, computer games, ebooks, and music streaming. For some reason, the older generation who made the transition from the analog version of a thing to the digital are more accepting of the digital. Other books trumpet the same message—Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital World and The New Analog: Listening and Connecting in a Digital World, to name two.

But the allure and romance of hands-on connection with mechanical objects is most powerfully expressed in Matthew B. Crawford’s Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road. Crawford asserts that modern automobiles are designed to isolate the driver not just from the outside environment, but also from the automobile itself. The increasing inclusion of features such as lane-departure warning, automatic braking, and adaptive cruise control progressively diminish the driver’s role in operating the vehicle. Navigation systems obviate our need to orient ourselves in space and plot a course of our own making; instead, we mindlessly follow instructions from a computer. The driver becomes disengaged from the machine and the act of driving, and consequently is robbed of the powerful human need for a sense of agency. A large portion of Why We Drive is a jeremiad against fully autonomous vehicles, the ultimate realization of the automobile industry’s (and Big Tech’s) push to isolate humans from the act of attentive driving. 

But some of us want to feel the connection to the road, sensing through the steering wheel the chassis and tire behavior. We become acutely attuned to the engine’s sound and respond through precisely timed shifts of a manual transmission, left foot and right hand moving in perfectly coordinated synchrony with the machine. It’s a thing of beauty. The car becomes an extension of the driver, heightening the senses rather than dulling them. Piloting a driver-focused car creates a feeling of self-direction, in which the machine is at your service rather than the other way around.

Setting up a turntable and tonearm, adjusting VTA, cleaning and playing an LP, swapping tubes and biasing them, threading tape through the exquisitely machined parts of a tape deck’s transport—these are the audio equivalents of piloting a driver-focused automobile. They put you in intimate physical contact with the machines that bring you music. They foster a mindful awareness of those machines, as well as a greater appreciation for them and how they work.

I’m not a Luddite who advocates building your own tube amp and listening to nothing but vinyl. I listen primarily to digital accessed through a tablet, and greatly value spending more time listening to and less time hunting for music. Rather, I’m pointing out that the miracle of such progress comes at a price. Getting your hands on some real hardware is a vivid reminder. 


Robert Harley

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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