The floor-box at the Nenuph station house was an older model, and quite dusty, but it seemed to be in working order. Toreo pushed it next to the clutch plate on the wall and linked its power-shaft, and with a hard lurch, the gears in the floor-box began to turn. No music came out, but that was to be expected; the playback card slot was empty, and the instruments inside the floor-box were merely waiting for a signal. The marshal opened the back of the floor-box with a frown, pulling out a stack of even dustier playback cards. He waved one in the air and blew on it, with clumps of dust falling away from the punched hole patterning. He looked at the printed title of the card and frowned. "'Lady Koenig's Regret'? When was the last time this thing was used?" That song had come into fashion twenty years ago and had come out of fashion nineteen years ago; while the instrumentation was fine, the horrid lyrics about a forlorn love were found to be grating. He went through the stack of cards with a grimace. "Time and Timeliness. This isn't a manufactory." "The March of the Princeps. Classic, but not in the mood." "The Racing of the Wagons was awful." At last, Toreo found the card he was looking for, and smiled. "Black and White. Now this is a rare find." He inspected the playback card carefully, before feeding it into the floor-box. The card began to move into the gears slowly, and from the floor-box, the strings of the song began to hum. This was a song that had been the favored composition of the famed troubadour Tianna, one that she had steadfastly refused to teach others, leaving only a hapless power-engineer to attempt to recreate the song in card format from memory. Whoever they were, they had done a good job of it, and Toreo remembered the elderly troubadour of his youth fiddling and dancing in the town square. He opened his eyes. The music had come to a sudden stop, and the playback card was bent at an angle in the machine. The floor-box had jammed. "Maybe Tianna is having her revenge after all."
Playback cards are small, sturdy cardboard rectangles with a large grid of holes punched into them. These cards are meant to be fed into compatible music floor-boxes in order to play back music, depending on the hole pattern.
Origin & Source
The advances in Power technology led to several refinements in precision gearing, a boon for the producers of music-boxes. The common handheld music box was a simple implement, playing off the tines of a steel comb; thanks to miniaturized gearing, the new floor-boxes could implement a standard range of instruments and substitutes into a unit the size of a small wardrobe. This meant that the troubadour was no longer strictly necessary to play music in an area, the floor-box could substitute in a pinch, playing songs with mechanical perfection as long as it was connected to a Power source in some way. Manufactories and other places of work began to install floor-boxes both as a way to make the workplace more pleasant, as well as help establish a rhythm for work, important on the powered assembly lines. The earliest floor-boxes came from the manufactory only able to play specific tracks (the most common being the 'March of the Princeps'), and their repetition was ill-received. In response, the Unified Trade Consortium developed a model of floor-box able to play arbitrary music tracks by being fed a pattern imprinted on a piece of paper. The pattern determined the song played, with engineers at the Consortium constructing patterns based off the popular troubadour songs of the season. While the earliest playback cards were flimsy and fragile, the next generation standardized the form into the familiar cards of today.
Life & Expiration
While durable, playback cards do wear out, and must generally be replaced after roughly sixty to seventy playbacks. This is a vast improvement over the original patterned paper, which was good for two or three playbacks at most.
History & Usage
Cultural Significance and Usage
Playback cards and floor-boxes are of particular importance in the Principality of Etoile due to the shift in populations in the last century; cities grew by leaps and bounds, with the new Powered manufactories attracting farmers and villagers to work on the production lines. One common lament was the loss of music; the farmhand's chant, the troubadour's village songs, the fisher's sea shanties were replaced with the clacking of gears and reciprocating flatrods. While musicians are common in cities, music was a large part of village life in the days prior to The War of Unification, and a comparatively tiny part of the urban life. As such, the floor-box was built to fulfill a desire of the people to keep music in their lives, even in the comparatively cold and mechanical perfection of machine music. While none would prefer a floor-box over a live troubadour, many are oddly fond of the floor-box at their workplace, or their cafe, or their estate, and playback cards of popular songs are always in high demand.
Playback cards that encode songs with strong, regular rhythms are commonly fed into floor-boxes in manufactories. Rhythmic music improves the concentration of line production workers, increasing output and reducing defect rates.
The process of encoding a song into a playback card is laborious. A power-engineer must carefully listen to a troubadour's performance of a song and inscribe the song as best they are able. The musical implements of a floor-box are not identical to the instruments of a troubadour (and of course no instrument can replicate the human singing voice), so no performance can be transcribed perfectly, only adapted. Typically, the troubadour being transcribed will work closely with the engineer over the course of half a season, refining the hole pattern until the resulting song is acceptable.
Trade & Market
Playback cards are ubiquitous, and popular song cards may be purchased at any market. Rare cards, those produced by hand by independent troubadours, are far more difficult to acquire.
Most floor-boxes have a cut-out panel where playback cards may be stored. Some enthusiasts maintain personal playback folios of high quality cards, carefully maintained and repaired after playback.