A Toy Record Player That Doesn't Need Records
By Jonathan Poet
Paging through the Sunday ad circulars recently, I was stunned to see Target selling a brand-new Fisher Price Music Box Record Player. (You can also get it at Urban Outfitters, natch.) Most of today's kids are unlikely to understand the concept of music being purchased on physical media — let alone the concept of vinyl records. Nonetheless, it seemed like a potentially cool gift for someone who doesn't want to go trolling through flea markets or online auction sites for an original.
Alas, today's model is not the analog marvel of the old one. The original had you cranking up the record to play notes on a music box that was crammed into the "tone arm."
The new version requires batteries. The new records don't have the nubs to activate the notes, they have smooth rings around the whole disc. (Target's own product shots actually show both the "old" and "new" style records, confusingly enough. The Christmas toy catalog stuffed in my Sunday paper, however, clearly shows the new style.) A helpful Amazon commenter named iSkyscraper explains why the records look different:
Evidently someone realized that it was far less expensive to use a 25 cent memory chip and a speaker instead of all those mechanical parts (sturdy though they were), so the new player works as follows:
The record head has four pressable buttons which line up with four ridge positions on the discs. Each disc no longer has "bumps" for notes, but instead simply has a combination of four continuous ridges. The memory chip identifies which disc is being played by the ridges depressing the buttons. The wind-up still turns the disc manually, but all it does is tell the speaker to play while turning. ... You don't really need the disc at alls - just wind it up (so the chip knows the music is "on"), and press the buttons under the head with your fingers to activate different songs.
The phrase "you don't really need the disc at all" is what really struck me. This new record player is merely an illusion.
The original Fisher Price Music Box was artificial, sure, but it at least was a sensible abstraction of a real LP. Its modern namesake isn't an abstraction at all. It's a push-button music toy with a slightly more complicated button scheme. It's a record player in which you don't really need the record at all.