Saturday, 31 October 2015

Music Label Soundwave (Spark Blue Version)

Even at the time, Music Label seemed something of a potentially dangerous folly for Takara Tomy. The sorts of consumer electronics involved still tended to be quite expensive, and including them in transforming robot toys, while pretty cool in theory, was perhaps venturing too far into a niche market. Sure enough, over its two year lifetime, Music Label produced only three unique molds, but two were released in several colourschemes.

Like Convoy, Soundwave - or, to give him his full, tautological mouthful of a title 'TransFormers Music Label Soundwave Playing Audio Player' - was originally released in white, back when Apple's attitude toward the colour of their proprietary media player was "you can have any colour you want, as long as it's white". It didn't take long, however, for a G1 homage to turn up...

Alternate Mode:
I'll say straight away that I found the stock 'Spark Blue' Soundwave rather bland in terms of its paint job. The metallic blue is nice, the silver is great... but, as a huge fan of the G1 toy, which has only recently been supplanted by the Masterpiece version in my estimation, even a functioning MP3 player built to resemble Soundwave deserved to resemble him more closely than the basic ML Soundwave Spark Blue version. Thankfully, Reprolabels quickly produced a set of stickers to add in all the G1 details one could want... and so all my photos are fully stickered-up. I almost regret not taking 'before' photos... but not quite.

So, Soundwave - according to his G1 style labelling - is a 'Stereo Micro Cassette Recorder' (or 'dictating machine', in slightly more modern parlance) rather than the normal tape deck he was often depicted as in the associated fiction. The ML version is about 80% of the size of the original, making him nice and compact though there's a distinct lack of the kind of molded detail the G1 model had, possibly as a result of the original ML Soundwave being designed to vaguely resemble the dull, featureless style of the earliest iPods. The absence that really bugs me is the belt clip, which was on the original toy's fake battery compartment. This one has a real battery compartment, but not the belt clip, meaning he has to be kept in a pocket - potentially wearing away the paint - rather than worn proudly out in the open if used as an audio player.

This being a modern electronic device, it runs on a single AAA battery at 1.5v (as opposed to the 9v behemoths required to run just about everything back in the days of G1 toys), making the battery compartment very small. While G1 Soundwave's weapons were designed to transform into batteries, ML Soundwave's weapons look as though they should, but actually don't, so his alternate mode isn't quite so self-contained as his ancestor's.

Like the original, his recorded media is inserted into a spring-loaded door on the front which is operated by a button on top but, obviously, it no longer supports microcassettes. The MiniSD cards required are purportedly the main reason Music Label Soundwave was not released outside of Japan, despite the fact that they're not exactly hard to obtain. I believe that ML Soundwave supports up to a 1Gb card, so that's what I've got, and it's still nowhere near full... However the operation of Soundwave as an MP3 player could be described as 'simplistic' if one wished to be generous. To be honest, it's more 'basic and poorly implemented'. Essentially, the controls on the front, clockwise from top left, are Skip Back, Skip Forward, Increase Volume, Play/Pause and Decrease Volume. There are no playlists, there's not even a 'Shuffle' option: Soundwave will play back the tracks on the MiniSD card in order of filename, meaning you'd have to spend ages adjusting filenames to organise things into albums, and then you'd still have to skip through dozens of tracks if you didn't want to simply start playing from the beginning each time. Then again, Soundwave is a Decepticon MP3 player... you wouldn't expect him to be cooperative, would you?

Robot Mode:
Soundwave was a comparatively large and imposing robot back in the day, having been brought in from a completely different original toyline to the Autobot cars and Decepticon jets. That being the case, I was pleased to find that this more diminutive interpretation scales almost perfectly with the Deluxes from the Classics/Universe/Generations lines, so he immediately joined my G1 update shelves and has remained there ever since.

The stock model was, again, quite plain in robot mode, with the metallic blues and silver broken up only by the bands of red on his wrists. The stickers bring the model more G1-ness, but the altered shapes here and there mean it will never be perfect. The legs in particular benefit from the added detail, even if G1 accuracy did require one sticker to be split either side of the above-the-knee swivel joint.

The model itself is rather more squared off than the G1 version, particularly on the torso and forearms, the latter featuring rather more armour than the original to cover up the thinner - albeit longer and better articulated - bicep section. They're left looking particularly strange from the sides and back because, unless the elbow is bent to some considerable degree, there's no clearance between the shoulder block and the extended elbow plate. That's about the only thing that messes up the proportions of this model - the legs may be quite slim, but they suit the body perfectly.

As mentioned, Soundwave came packaged with representations of his G1 weapons - a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher labelled "Electric Launcher" and a hand-held gun mis-labelled "Wave Bluster". Soundwave's G1 tech specs described it as a 'concussion blaster', but I guess the specific name isn't especially important as long as it looks the part... which it does, even down to the implication that it could transform into a battery. It's a bit of a shame that neither the standard paintjob nor the Reprolabels included anything to emphasise the battery form but, since neither weapon actually transforms, it clearly wasn't deemed important to do so. The rocket launcher plugs into the right shoulder via the standard 3.5mm headphone jack socket, so you can't actually use him as a music player when fully tooled up... but I'm sure some enterprising person could create a miniature speaker to mount there if there was enough demand for one. The handgun requires the use of one specific fixed-position hand from the selection included - there's a right- and left- hand as fist, the 'holding his gun' right hand, and a 'pushing the eject button' left hand. It's disappointing that they went with interchangeable fixed-pose hands when they might have used poseable hands, but it works well enough.

Given the minimal amount of molded detail that becomes visible in robot mode, I was still very disappointed by the head sculpt - it's very cartoonish and doesn't suit the rest of the model especially well. The G1 toy had a very unusual head, seemingly either modelled on the Decepticon insignia, or the inspiration for it. The animation model from the cartoon simplified that, removing much of the detail and changing the rest, and this sculpt seems like a slightly 'puffy' version of that. Of all the more recent interpretations of Soundwave, my favourite is probably still the Galaxy Force one as it pays homage to the original while creating something new and unique. ML Soundwave, to my mind, pays homage to entirely the wrong source.

Aside from the fact that the legs are reversed, ML Soundwave transforms in much the same way as his G1 ancestor. There are other minor differences as a result of the improved articulation, and he now has a heel as well as a toe to fold out of the lower leg. The head is deployed via a spring-loaded mechanism which is released by sliding a plate back on top of the model. Once out, though, it doesn't actually click into place, so the head can be a bit wobbly and sometimes seems to sink slighty back into the shoulders.

The big thing with G1 Soundwave was that his leg articulation was back to front. He was actually one of the most poseable G1 figures, with a rotating neck, rotation (and, technically, some backward swing) at the shoulder, bending elbows, rotation and forward bend at the hip... and then forward bend at the knee due to his transformation. Given the extent of its articulation, it's rather surprising that they didn't think to simply remove some of the plastic at the back of the knee to enable it to bend naturally, but this model solves that particular issue by simply having the legs transform the other way round, so the same one-way joint acts as a more sensible knee joint. He does have odd plates sticking out of his thighs, but they don't affect the range of movement at the hip. The arms feature a combination of pinned joints and ball joints, while the head is on a ball joint. The end result is a figure which has average Classics-level articulation, but without Classics-level detailing.

I would have to say that the Reprolabels set for ML Soundwave is a must-buy as it completes his look perfectly. The only downside is that the chest door sticker obscures the blinking light which is the only visual sign that the MP3 player is switched on (hence the hole rather roughly cut in one corner of mine, widened because I originally cut it in the wrong place). It's true that the leg stickers look a little out of placee because this version of Soundwave has had his legs reversed in service of articulation, but they work more-or-less... they just look extremely odd being visible in his alternate mode.

The obvious thing that needs to be addressed is its function as an MP3 player. Aside from the aforementioned issues with the playback controls, it is a very bare-bones media player, and the quality of sound you get out of it relies very heavily on the headphones or speakers you use. Neither are included in the package - I dread to think what this might have cost had they included even small tweeters in his legs - and the first set of headphones I used with him were pretty crummy. I've since got a much better set and, while hardly a connoisseur of audio equipment, I can confidently report that the sound output is at least reasonable. I would imagine that the Music Label Rumble & Frenzy transforming headphones released shortly after Soundwave were more novelty than quality headphones, and there's no means of connecting him to the Convoy docking station (quite an oversight, in my opinion).

What's quite interesting about ML Soundwave was how quickly his original white form was embraced by the fandom, becoming the basis for the Collectors' Club's Shattered Glass Soundwave, later becoming basically canon when eHobby released both SG Soundwave and SG Blaster, along with a selection of their cassettes, in a G1 'versus' boxed set back in 2013. Naturally, there was also a Soundblaster repaint, in silver and black, because Takara Tomy can't not repaint Soundwave these days. It's still fairly easy to track down all three versions, and they tend to be a reasonable price... so if there's room in your collection for a Soundwave that can actually play music, you need only decided which colourscheme suits your preferences.

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