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FAREWELL TO THE “78”, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 23rd April 1955

More and more music is becoming no more than a background noise; less and less is anyone prepared to make the effort required to listen to it. One more milestone on this road to the loss of our ears will shortly be passed. We are to lose the 78 r.p.m. record. Its manufacture is to be discontinued—we shall be told—in the name of progress. But one wonders if this is the whole of the story. Have there not been cases in the past when manufacturers with a similar plea have either suppressed inventions or deliberately lessened the quality or durability of their goods for their own ends? On this score one hears of this latest proposal with some fears. Does the end of the “78” mean that enthusiasts will now have no choice but long-playing records, and that later—at the manufacturers’ convenience, and to their profit—we shall all be told that they, in turn, have been superceded [sic] by tape recordings?

Certainly at present the 33 has serious drawbacks. It has an astonishing rate of deterioration; the initial quality at purchase is by no means assured, and a single accidental scratch may ruin 20 minutes of playing. And there are other considerations which its monopoly of the market makes it undesirable. What, for example, of the convenience of the gramophile? If he can buy no other, gone will be the days of charming excerpts, of jazz numbers, and of countless musical works which fit so conveniently on “78” records. Gone will be that four minutes of entertainment or pleasure which is so psychologically satisfying and right. A person wanting one operatic number will now have to buy a whole opera. Those little gems of Gigli or Marlene Dietrich will no longer be available. We must all toe the mass-production line.

I am not being merely sentimental or conservative. Schools are also affected. In classes of musical appreciation, illustrations are most efficiently supplied from “78” records, where short excerpts are easily found, and a greater variety of performance is available. If, as we fear, the next two years witness the eclipse of the “78,” the teaching of music will be seriously prejudiced. Representations have been made on the subject, but appeals to the head are of no avail where the pocket weighs heavier. Soon a school wishing to demonstrate a single Chopin Nocturne will have to purchase the whole works of Chopin, recorded by one arbitrarily chosen pianist. Selection and variety will be denied.

But the disadvantages of the “33” record are nothing to those of the tape-machine. With this egregious engine it is not only possible to delete by accident whole sections of a recording, but the tape is very easily torn. The magnetism of tape does not appear to last very long and, in storage, the magnetism may imprint itself into adjacent strands of tape, thus ruining the whole.

But most boring of all is the time it takes to find the place on the tape. I have witnessed many performances with tape-machines and the time spent in recording and playing was a mere nothing compared with the hours of searching for the required piece, winding the tape back and forth. The exhaustion and irritation occasioned by this operation nullified any enjoyment there might have been.

Peter Tranchell