Bluetooth Disc Plays Your Digital Music Like a Vinyl Record – Wired
Jesse England has an evocative way of describing record players: He considers them “altars” for music. “There’s no contemporary media environment that I know of in the past 50 years that requires that amount of reverence and that amount of care,” he says.
It’s hard to argue with him. Compared to Spotify and iTunes, playing vinyl is an elaborate process: You have to flip through your collection, select a record and carefully remove it from the sleeve. If you’re really obsessive, you’ll give it a wipe with record brush before placing it on the turntable and delicately lowering the stylus. Listening is similarly involved: You have to be careful not to bump the table, and you’ve got to get up every 15 to 20 minutes or so and flip the disc.
“Universal Record,” England’s latest project, revives that ritual for the modern age. It’s a vibrating plastic disc that lets you play music from any digital source, via Bluetooth, on any record player. It’s a clever hack, but it’s even more interesting as a piece of media archaeology, focusing our attention not on the sound quality of vinyl but on the experience of using it.
England, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and holds a MFA degree from Carnegie Mellon University, is fond of examining media through unlikely technological mash-ups. With “Sincerity Machine,” he modified a vintage typewriter to print text in Comic Sans. He used a laser engraving machine to cut letterforms in acrylic and glued them onto the typewriter’s strikes. Universal Record was even more straightforward: Inside the chunky plastic disc is a transducer—essentially “a speaker without a cone,” England says—which receives audio via Bluetooth. The vibrations from the transducer are picked up by the stylus. Thus, through vibration, the digital music is made analog.
The point isn’t simply to fetishize vinyl. “I am critical of unbridled and unchecked nostalgia as a marker of credibility,” England says. Rather, it’s about exposing folks to different ways of seeing and listening. The project encourages us to consider both what’s lost and gained as we shed old forms of media. I doubt anyone would think to describe iTunes as an “altar” to music (other than a sacrificial one, perhaps).
You don’t have to burn e-books; you just need to get the right person to type a command, and all the copies disappear.
England thinks there’s additional value in reacquainting people with vinyl—a more permanent form of media whose embedded values are increasingly rare in our dematerialized, digital world. “I am concerned about the trend of all media and all information, by extension, only being available through a networked source,” England says. “I think the experience of listening to music today is exponentially richer and more fulfilling in terms of access and the sheer amount of content, but with that there’s an associated volatility.”
With services like Netflix and Spotify, entertainment is built on the ever-shifting tectonics of licensing agreements. For music listeners, it’s easy to imagine rare material falling through those cracks. But the problems are even more profound when you consider societies in which the free flow of information isn’t a given. Networked media is dangerously susceptible to censorship and suppression. You don’t have to burn e-books; you just need to get the right person to type a command, and all the copies disappear. “I’m concerned with people in any part of the world being comfortable with media being redefined from something that you have into something that you have access to,” England says.
Vinyl records, England says, have a built-in reliability. “You can play them back with the most basic of playback tools. You can just take a needle and a paper cone and you’d be able to recall the sound.” And how is the Universal Record’s sound quality? “All in all, it’s listenable,” England says. “But it really exists for the concept.”