5 Gadgets That Changed My World, Part 1

Jul 28, 2010

In the spirit of fellow SlashGear columnist Michael Gartenberg, who recently published his own list of "5 Gadgets That Changed The World For Me," I decided to tackle my own version of this list. While Michael's list tended towards gadgets that made a huge impact the gadget world as a whole, these are five gadgets that were not so universally important, but had a significant impact on the way I was shaped as a person, and not just as a gadget fiend.

Scott Dual Cassette Deck

For my thirteenth birthday, back in 1988, my father bought me a real stereo system. It was an upgrade from my older boom box, and it included my first CD player. There was a receiver, a CD player and a dual cassette deck. Of course, CDs would become much more important to me over time, but for more than a decade, the cassette deck got most of my attention.

Like many folks my age, but not many folks younger, I was a mix-tape fanatic. I made mix tapes for every road trip and every special occasion. I made them as keepsakes for friends, and gifts to woo women. I once tasked myself with creating a collection of 24 hours worth of mix tapes. To create the set, I catalogued every interesting song in my possession on index cards, then checked them off one at a time as they were used in my set. 24 hours of mix tapes, no repeats. Most of my taping was from CD to cassette, but some was deck-to-deck dubbing. Even so, I rarely dubbed at high-speed.

Some people miss LP records. Some people miss CDs, and lament the failure of hi-fidelity audio formats, like SACD, to truly catch on. Some people, rightfully so, miss albums, and wonder if the album concept is slowly fading as singles and compilations become the norm. Me? I miss mix tapes.

When I made a 90-minute mix tape on cassette, I listened to 90 minutes of music. I didn't just pick titles from a list and press the "Burn" button. I listened to a song while it recorded to tape. Then, near the end of the song, I started thinking of what would be a perfect next track. What would be unexpected? What could I hear a hundred times and always enjoy? As a good DJ will tell you, you can't create a mix without listening to the music and how it all flows together.

When I was in grad school, I got my first CD burner. It didn't speed the process much, because I wasn't using compressed music files at the time. So, a 700MB CD required that much space on my then-2GB hard disk drive. I didn't have storage for a collection of ripped digital music files, so every time I created a new mix CD, I had to copy then burn. It probably took 30 minutes or so to create a 70-minute disk. Still, something was lost. I had stopped listening to the music.

I don't remember the last mix CD I ever made, but I do remember the first one I didn't make. I had a long distance friend in High School, but we lost touch for a couple years in college. We used to trade mix tapes often. She introduced me to Led Zeppelin. I introduced her to Les Miserables. We both dove into "Achtung Baby" at the same time. My mix tapes were epic. I'm talking about a diverse mix of genres and tempos, some nice classics and a few new tunes on every tape. Dramatic irony and clever use of cover tunes. Her mix tapes were pretty good, too.

We started talking again after she had a major surgery and she sent a blast e-mail from the hospital. She forgot to remove me from her blast e-mail list. I called her, and we reconnected. Our rekindled friendship didn't last. I asked her if she wanted a mix. She said she did, with loads of songs, to make up for lost time. By then, I was on my way to a collection of thousands of digital files. I started to imagine CDs, box sets, even.

But there was no art in it. It was just a collection of tunes I liked. There was no narrative, no flow. Looking at the five hours of music I could have burned for her, it was like looking through a photo album of a trip to Italy, instead of actually taking the trip myself. I dropped the issue; she never brought it up again. The mix tape, as a concept, was over.

Casio SK-1 Keyboard

There were better sampling keyboards on the market at the same time for less money. Yamaha made a keyboard that seemed to do more, maybe sound better, but I picked the Casio SK-1. It was a wise choice. Not because the Casio SK-1 was a better keyboard, but because I had used it before. I knew I wanted it because a friend brought one to camp the past summer, and I had a chance to play around on it. I was familiar, comfortable, and happy with that keyboard.

The salesperson tried to argue with me. I was probably 11 years old at the time, and he argued that my $100 would be better spent on a Yamaha. My father took my side. If I was familiar with it, it was a better choice.

Years later I'd ask a camera guru which camera I should buy. I don't remember who the guru was exactly, and I know the advice wasn't original, but it was the best buying advice I ever heard. He told me that the best camera to own is the one I'll actually use. I could get the one that was smallest, the one with the best quality imaging, the one with the longest zoom lens. But if I didn't like the camera enough to take pictures, what's the point?

I love that advice. I am a proponent of the idea that the emotional component of a buying decision, even in a supposedly pragmatic or analytical decision like a technology purchase, is just as important, perhaps more so, than the logical component.

So, what makes the Casio SK-1 special? It was the first sampling keyboard I'd ever tried. I had no piano ability, but I liked fooling around on a portable keyboard, especially the newer ones with funky beats and automatic chords. The Casio SK-1 included a microphone so you could record a sound, or your own voice, and the keyboard would play it back on a polyphonic scale. You could play a song melody or chords using a recorded sound.

Sure, as an 11 year old, I spent the first year playing burps and fart noises. Then I got creative. The keyboard was small, and I took it everywhere. It showed up in camp skits and singalongs, at youth group slumber parties, and late at night in my dorm room. It sang harmony on folk songs, and it provided sound effects on skit night. I had plenty of toys, but the Casio SK-1 was the first piece of tech gear that opened my eyes to new creative possibilities.

I bought it not because it made sense, but because it made me happy.

Part two of Philip’s “5 Gadgets” column will be published tomorrow

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