Formats on the Fringe - Electronic Music’s Forary Beyond The 12 Inch
Wednesday, July 26, 2023
Whatever DJ or dance music forum you spend your time on, no doubt you will have come across a post which divides opinion more than anything else; vinyl versus digital. Do not worry, we are not going to go down that shady avenue but instead leave those two giants to continue their ongoing fight for justice. Instead, we thought it would be interesting to look at some of the fringe and forgotten formats that have hosted electronic music over the last few decades. There is of course the CD and in more recent years the revival of the tape cassette which both have their important part to play in dance music’s rich history. Instead, let us look at the other formats that have stubbornly continued to exist or have been brought back to life, even though most manufacturing centres long closed their doors.
There is something to be said about ‘novelty’ formats and it says a lot about the artists and labels in that they do not want to do things like everyone else. It might be that they want to tip their hat to nostalgia or a childhood memory. It could be that they associate a format with a particular sound and no mastering can replicate. In the case of CPSmith who runs CPU Recordings, he has long championed the Mini Disc as a format and the testament to that is captured in this article. In an age where digital dominates, the physical artefact is an important part of what it means to be human. It transcends sound and is something tangible that you can hold, interact with and to a large extent is a piece of art. We look at a few artists and labels that have produced these labours of love. How you play some of these formats is the question, perhaps a trip to Ebay to track down a classic wax cylinder player. And yes, you can still buy them.
Tim Koch - Spiniflex (2018) - Central Processing Unit - Mini Disc
Starting with a format regarded highly for its sound quality, a couple of those that follow cannot claim that when the mini disc was developed by Sony and first appeared in 1992. Aptly titled in relation to the larger CD format, it never truly captured widespread appeal despite shipping over 20 million players. By 2013, Sony had ceased manufacturing it as it was ultimately killed off by a variety of factors, most notably the rise of the mp3 player. Spiniflex dropped in 2018 and contains 17 tracks of high quality electronica and electro. This was not the only time Koch released on this format, his subsequent Scordatura album on DataDoor and then a 2022 release Volpaning on CPU was also available on the tiny, portable format.
Rude 66 - Secret Treaties II: Echoes From A Dark Empire (2017) Speedster Records - Reel-To-Reel
It really is hard not to be won over by the beauty of a Reel-To-Reel player. A few years ago I gave a friend a CD of a disco mix I did and he recorded it onto his impressive reel player and sent me a video of it playing, it made the CD look rather pathetic in comparison. The Reel-To-Reel player is without doubt a labour of love and something that harks back to a time when we digested music differently. It is not rushed, it is hypnotic and the sound is quite special. Amsterdam based producer Ruud Lekx AKA Rude 66 self-released Secret Treaties I and II on Reel-To-Reel, which is hardly doing things the easy way. Volume II is a limited edition of 42 hand numbered packages that also contain a hand painted box, master Reel-To-Reel, CD and insert. Again, the CD might be convenient but compared to the tape, there is only one format you are going to play to your friends when they visit. Brooding ambience, leftfield electronics and trippy soundscapes are contained within.
Jeff Mills - Sequence: A Retrospective Of Axis Records (2112) Axis - Memory Stick
USB drives might be commonplace but they have never really been adopted by music as a common way to release music. They are cheap to produce and they can be printed and engraved, although the surface space makes it quite limited as to what can be achieved. Mills’ Axis imprints foray into memory sticks with Sequence was so popular that it received a second repress. Not cheap at $130, it contains a 12 inch sized hard cover book with 320 pages that document the label’s history and then there is the USB stick which has 30 releases from the label’s previous three decades. Without doubt, as with anything Axis, it is a thing of beauty.
Red Martian - ett vykort (2017) Bughit Records - Wax Cylinder
You might be forgiven for thinking that we were joking about the wax cylinder release but it does exist. Released by the band Red Martian on Bughlt Records based in Seattle, it is one of a few single track releases you can pick up by the artist on that format. The track is a lush, low fi, instrumental synth-pop number. The fact that they have managed to produce so many releases in this format is impressive in itself. The actual cylinder design is simply quite lovely with an attention to detail that just adds a whole layer of authenticity to the release. It is a reminder of how we used to listen to music before vinyl and that alone makes it a worthy piece of art, even if you do not have the means to play it.
Mort Garson - Mother Earth’s Plantasia (2020) Sacred Bones Records - 8-Track Cartridge
For those of you at a certain age, you might recall the back end of the 8-Track era, especially on long car journeys. My brother-in-law had one in his car, which he would blast The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix as we made our way to Skegness for the day. They appeared in the mid 1960s until the early 1980s and were ultimately replaced by the much more compact tape cassette format that is going through its own indie revival right now. Mort Garson was a Canadian composer and electronic artist and one of the first to champion the classic Moog synthesiser. In 1976 he released Mother Earth's Plantasia, a cosmic trip that very much captures the vibe of that exciting and progressive time in music. It only appeared on vinyl back then, so the 8-Track is a wholly new addition alongside a wealth of other formats on the Sacred Bones Records label. Manufactured by KTS Productions who specialise in the 8-Track format. With only 30 copies produced of this pioneering album, it is feels like this is how the album should be heard, in the car, on a journey. As the label states on their website: ‘If you purchased a snake plant, asparagus fern, peace lily, or what have you from Mother Earth on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles (or bought a Simmons mattress from Sears), you also took home Plantasia, an album recorded especially for plants. Subtitled “warm earth music for plants…and the people that love them,” it was full of bucolic, charming, stoner-friendly, decidedly unscientific tunes enacted on the new-fangled device called the Moog”. Really, what’s not to like?
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