The once and future Walkman. Photo: FaceMePLS.

July 1, 1979: it was thirty years ago today that the Sony Walkman went on sale, launching mobile music for the first time.

Wait – rewind (so to speak). That honor really belongs to the portable transistor radio – and, indeed, part of the reason America already knew and loved Sony by the time 1979 rolled around, having embraced their pocketable radios as early as the 1950s. In fact, if you want to blame a device for degrading audio fidelity, you should again look not to MP3s and iPods but back to — you guessed it — the same transistor radio.

But no matter. The Walkman did popularize carrying your own music collection with you. It was not only about mobility, but mobile music collections free of airwaves, mix tapes and the experience of walking around the city or doing a workout with your own personally-assembled soundtrack. It turned everyone into DJs and made the music something that could easily bounce around inside your head rather than around your living room or a music venue. The Walkman and not the iPod might also have to carry the burden of claims that music was made antisocial – but it also made for a uniquely personal experience.

And do we ever love cassettes, with their ability to accommodate our own mixes and recordings and stack in neat cubes.

Why, back in my day, we had real women in our portable music player ads, not these silhouettes like you iPod-owning brats have. Photo (CC) Abbey Hambright.

True, the link that’s making the rounds on the Web parodies the clueless 13-year-old child of the iPod age:
Giving up my iPod for a Walkman [BBC News]

This comes from a different planet than the one on which we live on CDM. In this world, snarky 13-year-olds have no idea what the metal/normal switch does, and the zinger is “Did my dad, Alan, really ever think this was a credible piece of technology?” Okay, you snot-nosed brat, it’s a good thing global warming will revert us all to a primitive Stone Age existence and you won’t have to suffer the fate of technological advancement. PS – your dad says never to call him Alan again. (I kid, kid, really. Just can’t resist.)

Of course, on our planet some 13-year-old is probably assembling his or her own cassette player out of spare parts and turning it into a circuit-bent DJ machine, and knows the entire history of the Sony Walkman by model number, and can tell you which factory assembled your old broken model based on the serial number. In that demented spirit, I invite readers to share your own Walkman memories, and offer up a selection of my favorite cassette-themed posts from CDM (of which, I was surprised to discover, there are quite a lot).

I won’t even try to summarize the history of the Walkman, because I have no idea what it is, and Wikipedia has beaten me to the punch.

CDM on Cassettes

The best story of all time: Eric Beug on how to make a Mellotron sampler entirely out of Walkmans, as seen at an early Handmade Music with CDM, Make Magazine, and Etsy. See MAKE:blog for the full post.

Photo (CC) J E Smith.

The best-ever cassette quote: from experimental DJ Artjom (DIY machines and Max patches below):

Yes, you can contact with me. But, if you would want that I played on your party on cassettes, then I refuse. I do not play on cassettes any more. In general, I don’t want play in the club, because people come there to drink and to search partner for copulate. This is bad.

The best day for cassettes: when we read RIAA numbers that showed that DVD Audio and SACD combined were still matched by cassette sales. Some new formats catch on. Some do not.

Cassette tapes (and other tape media) as a way of making lo-fi samples:

Free Tape-Recorded Samples of Roland TR-606, 808

Cassettes for uses silly and uses practical alike:

Cassette Change Purse; Choosing Cassette Decks with Pitch Control

In other words, cassettes can be entirely useless and about nostalgia only — or they can remain a useful and inspiring musical tool even for digital users, helping you get out of your rut and approach sound in a new way.

Cassette Jockeys at the 2007 Maker Faire

The work of DJ Artyom, who assembled DIY DJ gear using cassette tapes for a unique sound and mixing techniques:

Homemade Cassette Tape DJ Mixers + Max/MSP PC

An international collective shares mix tapes – the physical tapes, yes, even in the Internet age

Above: Andy Warhol shills for TDK. Video cassette tape, to be sure – but sublime nonetheless. If I had to remember my Japanese lines, I might have to close my eyes, too.

Tape collections:
The brilliant Project C-90
The Obsessive “Tape Jam”

Walkman Sequencer: Tape + Homebrew Sequencer + Nintendo Game Boy

Gijs Gieskes is a master circuit bender, and cassette is a favorite medium. Check out his Tape Seq 02, which varies cassette playback using controllable pots and synchronizes to a Game Boy. It’s an analog result that’s only possible in this way with tape as the playback technology.

Put a cassette deck inside a Windows PC (sadly, this product appears to be discontinued?)

You Tell Us

Nostalgia is one thing. But what to you have the cassette and the Sony Walkman meant for music? And is there anything these youngsters (well, anyone younger than … 20, I guess?) could learn about this technology? Is there a lesson from the Walkman?

Above: You know a technology makes an impact when it has its own graffiti. The cult of the cassette, as captured (CC) hugovk.