Records without the record

I had an idea the other night. My boyfriend has recently gotten into records—yes, they still make records for new music. In the past six months he’s probably bought a hundred records. They’re taking up a lot of room in the living room.

His argument is that the sound quality is better. I didn’t believe him at first, mainly because I didn’t know or care anything about sound quality. Then he put on a band I knew, songs I’ve heard a millions times. I thought I was familiar with every squeak of a finger slide, every sucked in breath—basically all the side noises that come with making music. Then I listened to the record. There was so much going on. Background loops I’ve never heard. Music under the music. He was right, there is no comparison to record quality.

They just take up so much room. They scratch easily. They sell out quickly, and then they get expensive. Hundreds of dollars expensive. I thought of a better way to get record quality without, well, the records.

Imagine you have stimuli-responsive polymer, which is exactly what it sounds like. Now let the stimulus be an electrical pulse and the response be a volume change (it bulks up when you zap it with electricity). This is commonly called a piezoelectric material. Now line the grooves of a traditional record with small squares of electrodes and coat it in the polymer. That’s our new and improved record. You only need one.

Now to get music out of it. Records work by a needle running over little bumps and divots in the spiral grooves, kind of like this road in Lancaster, CA, except in that case the car is the needle. In our system, when you apply an electrical signal to a specific electrode on the imagined record, it would zap the polymer around it and puff up. There’s the bump the needle needs to read music.

All over our record we have electrodes controlled by a computer sending in information on where and how much to electricity to apply (so the position and size of the bump can be controlled). The music file would be stored on a computer in coordinates and electrical strengths (where and how much). The files would be small. Small enough to store all that extra information digital coding cuts out. Small enough for record quality.

In essence, the digital files would be converted to analog. You wouldn’t need a collection of physical records. And they wouldn’t be junking up my living room, Tim.

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