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1st August 2005 by Tim Jarman

Imagine if you could read but not write. Most of the time it would make surprisingly little difference to what you do, you could still be reading this for example. However, there would definitely be something “missing” if you felt you did not have mastery over the complete process. You may also feel restricted if you could not originate your own material.

In audio-visual terms, recording is the equivalent of writing. B&O have, until recently, been at the forefront of offering recording machines, so why has this part of the range begun to lapse?

B&O were one of the first manufacturers to offer a magnetic recording machine for general sale after the Second World War. The wire recorder of 1948 allowed simple recordings to be made and replayed (magnetic tape had been invented but was not yet in general use). Recordings to be erased so that the media could be re-used, and recordings made on one machine could be replayed on any similar machine: this set the pattern of use for all useful domestic recording machines.

Despite B&O’s limited resources, their development of recording machines continued. By the mid 1960s this yielded, in the Beocord 2000 De Luxe, a machine that offered the home user the chance to produce recordings that were of a comparable quality to those that were possible in a studio. All in a compact package and at a price that was high, but not foolishly so.

A few years later B&O even added a video recorder to the range, but little credit can be taken for the Beocord 4000 (as it was known), for it was simply a Sony machine in a nice B&O wooden box, fitted with B&O metal knobs.

The Philips Compact Cassette, introduced in 1964, expanded home recording into a truly mainstream activity. Already a change was noticeable in the design of the recording machines, as it became clear that they would be used more for recording LP records and radio broadcasts than original material. The most noticeable causality of this change was that the microphone amplifier stages became less elaborate, and in some cases disappeared altogether. B&O expanded the usefulness of cassette technology by finding it a new role, time-shifting of radio programmes. Models such as the Beocenter 7000 of 1980 could make unattended timed recordings of pre-set radio programmes in much the same way that a video cassette recorder could record television. This was only possible in a straightforward and understandable way because of B&O’s expertise at integrating the timer, radio and recorder functions. This idea was perfected less than 10 years later with the Beocenter 9000, which could record many different programmes from a choice of stations for up to two hours without attention, but remained easy to program and operate.

The complexity of video recording meant that a small company like B&O were able to make less of an impact, though they offered a sensible and practical choice of machines from the early 1980s onwards. The initial adoption of the Philips Video 2000 system in the Beocord 8800 V may seem like a mistake in retrospect but the combination of technical superiority, operator convenience and the fact that it was a completely European format meant that at the time the decision was completely logical. A later change to VHS brought B&O in line with the trend the majority of the industry was following. With Beocord VX 5000, B&O showed that even if they lacked the resources to completely design and manufacture a machine themselves they certainly could specify to another manufacturer (Hitachi in this case) exactly what was required.

The situation today is somewhat different. The two currently available recording machines are the BeoSound 3200 and the HDR 1. The most important thing that they have in common is that their recording media is fixed, making recorder and recordings are inseparable. Compared to the pattern of domestic use set by the wire recorder of 1948, a deficiency is immediately clear. In addition, the BeoSound 3200, which includes a radio, can only record from compact disc. The possibilities of a hard disc based radio recorder are so great and so useful that they cannot have simply have been overlooked, more likely they have been blocked, but by who, or for what reason is unclear.

The HDR 1 seems more useful. Instant TV recording without tapes is indeed a boon, and when used in combination with the matching DVD 1 player all bases seem to be covered. However, while the HDR 1 offers greater storage capacity than a single video tape, once it is full the media cannot be removed and changed by the user. Archiving of favourite material using this device is therefore impractical, and programmes that the user may wish to have a permanent copy of then need to be bought on DVD, should the copyright owners wish to make them available.

Recordable DVD seems to be the recordable format of the moment, but at present it seems to be mired in a “format war” - a depressingly familiar occurrence. The technology itself is unsatisfactory, too. For example, playback of recordings is seldom (if ever) guaranteed in other machines. The useful life of the recorded discs is open to question too, and given the “all or nothing” nature of digital playback even the slightest deterioration is of serious concern.

Computer-based storage systems have no natural place in the B&O range either. The cumbersome nature of the requisite operating systems and the user interfaces required to control them are completely at odds with the design ideals behind previous B&O products. While it’s fairly straightforward to style a computer to look like a B&O product, it’s as good as impossible to give it a user interface as simple, smooth and slick as B&O’s customers expect.

The blame for the somewhat miserable situation that currently exists with home recording cannot be pinned on B&O. The company is far too small to influence the direction of the industry as a whole, and it is of course courting commercial disaster to attempt to introduce a format of its own. Even giants like Philips (with LaserVision, V2000, DCC and CDi) and Sony (with Elcaset, Betamax and to a lesser extent, Minidisc) have failed to bend the market in their direction.

Home recording stops when the companies who have the clout to introduce and sustain formats also own the studios and artists who generate the material. That is the case now.