You don’t really see it any more, but: if you downloaded some media player software a couple of decades ago, it’d probably appear in a weird-shaped window, and I’ve never understood
Mostly, these designs are… pretty ugly. And for what? It’s also worth noting that this kind of design can be found in all kinds of
applications, in media players that it was almost ubiquitous.
You might think that they’re an overenthusiastic kind of skeuomorphic design: people trying
to make these players look like their physical analogues. But hardware players were still pretty boxy-looking at this point, either because of the limitations of their data
storage1. By the time flash memory-based
portable MP3 players became commonplace their design was copying software players, not the other way around.
So my best guess is that these players were trying to stand out as highly-visible. Like: they were things you’d want to occupy a disproportionate amount of desktop space. Maybe
other people were listening to music differently than me… but for me, back when screen real estate was at such a premium2,
a music player’s job was to be small, unintrusive, and out-of-the-way.
It’s a mystery to me why anybody would (or still
does) make media player software or skins for them that eat so much screen space, frequently looking ugly while they do so, only to look like a hypothetical hardware device that
wouldn’t actually become commonplace until years after this kind of player design premiered!
Maybe other people listened to music on their computer differently from me: putting it front and centre, not using their computer for other tasks at the same time. And maybe for these
people the choice of player and skin was an important personalisation feature; a fashion statement or a way to show off their personal identity. But me? I didn’t get it then, and I
don’t get it now. I’m glad that this particular trend seems to have died and windows are, for the most part, rounded rectangles once more… even for music player software!
1 A walkman, minidisc player, or hard drive-based digital music device is always going to
look somewhat square because of what’s inside.
2 I “only” had 1600 × 1200 (UXGA) pixels on the very biggest monitor I owned before I went widescreen, and I spent a lot of time on monitors at lower resolutions e.g.
1024 × 768 (XGA); on such screens, wasting space on a music player when you’re mostly going to be listening “in the
background” while you do something else seemed frivolous.
In the Summer of 1995 I bought the CD single of the (still excellent!) Set You
Free by N-Trance.2
I’d heard about this new-fangled “MP3” audio format, so soon afterwards I decided to rip a copy of the song to my PC.
I was using a 66MHz 486SX CPU, and without an embedded FPU I didn’t
quite have the spare processing power to rip-and-encode in a single pass.3
So instead I first ripped to an uncompressed PCM .wav file and then performed the encoding: the former step
was done almost in real-time (I listened to the track as it ripped!), about 7 minutes. The latter step took about 20 minutes.
So… about half an hour in total, to rip a single song.
Creating a (what would now be considered an apalling) 32kHz mono-channel file, this meant that I briefly stored both a 27MB wave file and the final ~4MB MP3 file. 31MB
might not sound huge, but I only had a total of 145MB of hard drive space at the time, so 31MB consumed over a fifth of my entire fixed storage! Even after deleting the intermediary wave file I was left with a single song consuming around 3% of my space,
which is mind-boggling to think about in hindsight.
But it felt like magic. I called my friend Gary to tell him about it. “This is going to be massive!” I said. At the time, I meant for techy
people: I could imagine a future in which, with more hard drive space, I’d keep all my music this way… or else bundle entire artists onto writable CDs in this new format, making albums obsolete. I never considered that over the coming decade or so the format would enter the public consciousness, let
alone that it’d take off like it did.
The MP3 file I produced had a fault. Most of the way through the encoding process, I got bored and ran another program, and this
must’ve interfered with the stream because there was an audible “blip” noise about 30 seconds from the end of the track. You’d have to be listening carefully to hear it, or else know
what you were looking for, but it was there. I didn’t want to go through the whole process again, so I left it.
But that artefact uniquely identified that copy of what was, in the end, a popular song to have in your digital music collection. As the years went by and I traded MP3 files in bulk at LAN parties or on CD-Rs or, on at least one ocassion, on an Iomega Zip disk (remember those?), I’d ocassionally see
N-Trance - (Only Love Can) Set You Free.mp34 being passed around and play it, to see if it was “my”
Sometimes the ID3 tags had been changed because for example the previous owner had decided it deserved to be considered Genre: Dance instead of Genre: Trance5. But I could still identify that file because
of the audio fingerprint, distinct to the first MP3 I ever created.
I still had that file when I went to university (where it occupied a smaller proportion of my hard drive space) and hearing that
distinctive “blip” would remind me about the ordeal that was involved in its creation. I don’t have it any more, but perhaps somebody else still does.
1 I might never have told this story on my blog, but eagle-eyed readers may remember that
I’ve certainly hinted at it before now.
2 Rewatching that music video, I’m struck by a recollection of how crazy popular
crossfades were on 1990s dance music videos. More than just a transition, I’m pretty sure that most of the frames of that video are mid-crossfade: it feels like I’m watching
Kelly Llorenna hanging out of a sunroof but I accidentally left one of my eyeballs in a smoky nightclub and can still see out of it as well.
3 I initially tried to convert directly from red book format to an MP3 file, but the encoding process was
too slow and the CD drive’s buffer filled up and didn’t get drained by the processor, which was still presumably bogged down with
framing or fourier-transforming earlier parts of the track. The CD drive reasonably assumed that it wasn’t actually being used and
spun-down the drive motor, and this caused it to lose its place in the track, killing the whole process and leaving me with about a 40 second recording.
4 Yes, that filename isn’t quite the correct title. I was wrong.