Formats

Sound, pictures, data… how many media formats do you have lying around?

Don’t laugh, but I’ve always wanted my own record label.

Okay, stop now. Just stop, please. Now.

As a child records were all we had, and the myriad of labels (and catalogue numbers, of course) I always found fascinating, as much for their history as their design.

Our record player could play 16 and 78 rpm records as well as 33⅓s and 45s. I’ve never come across a 16 rpm in my life, and wouldn’t have a way to play it now, of course… I don’t even have a way of playing the records I actually have.

So big an influence were records on my growing-up that instead of the 40th birthday I actually had I was planning on having a 45th birthday party. For the invitations I was going to get a random batch of 7” singles from Leeds Market and replace the labels with the invitation. Who says I have no imagination?

Reformatted

As well as vinyl, we eventually got compact cassettes to go alongside the Grundig reel-to-reel recorder. Then I got my own 110 camera to go with my dad’s 35 mm half-frame, then my own full-frame 35 mm SLR; and suddenly we needed lots more boxes of different sizes to store the various negatives, prints and music.

After that it got really complicated as the home computer revolution got underway. Programs could be stored on ordinary cassettes, but magazines sometimes gave away programs on 7” flexidiscs, which was only of any use if you could hook up your record layer to your BBC Micro. Or to a tape recorder, of course.

When I went to St Michael’s College the first computer I ever used had twin 8” floppy drives, although the BBC Micros all had 5¼” drives. By the turn of the decade we were on 3.5” drives. And that’s where we stayed for a long time, until SD cards and USB drives became the norm at the start of the century.

A thought exercise

All of this came crashing together in typical Gary fashion while I was doing some reboxing. Everything media item I don’t have something to read them with is safely stored in one box (plus the two boxes of LPs, singles and similar).

My imaginary record label would, of course, publish in different formats so I would need a set of glyphs representing every conceivable format. Then I thought about all the formats they could be in, but unlikely to be. Then there’s the previously-common formats that no-one has around anymore, unless you trawl eBay1.

I have sounds, pictures or data in these formats:

  • audio: vinyl, cassette, minidisc, reel-to-reel
  • video: VHS, DVD, Bluray, DV tape
  • photos: 35 mm negatives, 35 mm transparencies, 110, SD cards
  • data: cassette, flexidisc, 51/4” disc, 3.5” disc, SD card, CD

So that’s 16 different formats in my flat alone.

I only threw out my developed APS film in 2018 – after I scanned in the photos I wanted, of course – and I used to have a Super 8mm projector with a couple of films when I was a kid (the projector was still in the attic at mum’s when we were clearing it out, but I didn’t look inside the box). That makes 18.

That’s a lot of glyphs.

There are truly dead formats such as 8-track and Betamax, and semi-dead formats such as Polaroids and U-Matic video. There are more modern, generic download formats such as podcasts (although I was doing those 15 years ago, so not perhaps all that modern), so possibly also a music player. At least two of those would need a glyph. And we might want to differentiate between different sizes of vinyl or moving picture formats. How about some generic iconography for stereo or mono sound?

You could really go to town with this. I can’t, because I have no design skills or software to practice with. But it would be interesting to know if anyone can beat my tally of 16 formats. Bet you can’t.

  1. Must. Resist. Temptation. []