If we look back over the last 140 years of sound recording, it seems that formats come and formats...come back. I've written many times in these newsletters about nearly dead technologies that seemingly get resurrected out of nowhere, such as the vinyl record, the cassette, and AM radio. The younger generations are partly responsible for breathing new life into these old formats, but most stand on their own merits.
Vinyl records have an aesthetic appeal. It can be held in your hand. If you look closely at the grooves, you can literally see the sound. Loud, busy sections are very compact, while slow, legato passages are spaced far apart. It's like stepping in close to a Rembrandt painting to see the brush marks. When you play a record, you take an active part in listening. You must clean the surface, place the needle in the groove, and turn the record over to hear the other side. The sound of a record played on a good audio system has a distinct purity to it. Apart from the scratches (which sometimes add character and flavor), the sound can be less harsh than a digital version. The continuous sound of the stylus' friction in the bottom of the groove brings warmth. Plus, records are like animals presumed to be extinct, roaming the earth until someone rediscovers their existence. There are thousands and thousands of recordings that never made the transition to a digital format. They're hiding in some basement, yard sale, or record bin just waiting to be found.
The new fascination with cassettes is a bit curious to me. This was a format born for convenience, not quality. As reel-to-reel recorders shrunk in the 1950s and 60s, the play time of an audio reel did too. For the home user, 5- and 7-inch reels became popular over the larger 10-inch reels. The diminutive 5-inch reel usually held 30-45 minutes per side (or 60-90 minutes if an ultra-slow speed was available), but most of these consumer-oriented units only recorded mono sound. They were great for documenting family events or to send "audio letters" across the country (see my article "Audio Letters to Home" about families and GIs during the Vietnam War). But having to thread a fidgety tape onto a plastic reel just to listen to music was cumbersome.
The small compact cassette was the ideal replacement for open reels when it came along in the mid-1960s. It could be quickly loaded in a player and started. It held up to 90-minutes of stereo music (later 120-minutes with thinner tape), but the sound quality was inferior to reel-to-reel. No matter, consumers loved the portability and economics of cassettes. By the time cassette technology matured and the quality of recordings got better, they couldn'tcompete with the new kid on the block: the audio CD. This newfound interest in cassettes, especially by bands that release their music on them, has me flummoxed. There is only one manufacturer of cassette tape in the world, which leads enthusiasts on the hunt for NOS (new old stock), there are no high-quality recorders being made anymore, and nobody really loved the sound of cassettes when they were ubiquitous. We just accepted them as a convenient shuttle format to get from point A to point B. The only reasons I can come up with for their renewed popularity are: It can be held in the hand; It's a unique calling card; The "mixtape" is a hands-on love letter to music; And the discovery of NOS is intoxicating. If those are the only reasons, then I get it. But if it's for the sound...
More recent formats that may or may not be poised for a comeback someday are the audio CD and the mp3. Invented in the 1960s and brought to market in the 80s, the CD is currently on life support. I'm not sure it will have as large of a comeback as the LP, but it is a physical format that can be held in the hand. The mp3 file is a stubborn format that won't go away despite many superior alternatives. They are to a CD what cassettes were to reel-to-reels: convenient, compact, but woefully inferior. Maybe twenty-years from now it will be "cool" to "email" an mp3 to friends that have a "desktop" computer with Windows 95 and "speakers" to hear it on.
As if we are downgrading our expectations even more, the latest format that is getting some new attention is the wax cylinder. Are you cringing at the thought of having to go find an Edison Gem phonograph player to hear the latest Billie Eilish single? Don't worry, most of the effort at raising the dead is for preservation, although there is one band that has released new music on wax cylinder. Nameless Dreamers is a collaboration between Equip and R23X. Their music is reminiscent of a video game, maybe because they're both game music composers. Even their website is an homage to retro games. In 2021, they released two songs on 4-minute wax cylinders. YouTube vintage audio guru Matt Taylor (Techmoan) recently demonstrated an Edison Gem phonograph player by playing one of the songs.
But Nameless Dreamers' tunes aren't the first to be released since the early 20th century. In 2013, Justin Martell and Benjamin Canady released 50 cylinders of Tiny Tim's 1979 performance of "Nobody Else Can Love Me (Like My Old Tomato Can)." The release fit right in with Tiny Tim's style of performing tunes from the early days of the phonograph. Others have been trying it as well, like this heavy metal band recording in 2018 (shouldn't that be heavy wax?). If you want to release a new tune on wax, or buy century-old tunes re-recorded onto new wax cylinders, there are still a few companies providing this service. The Vulcan Cylinder Record Company in Sheffield, England has a catalog of old recordings that you can impress your friends with on your renovated player.
Early phonograph recordings are the target for digital restoration by the New York Public Library. It had digitized only 6% of its 2,700 cylinder collection before it recently received the Endpoint Audio Labs cylinder playback machine. Designed by Nicholas Bergh, the machine reads the grooves on the outside of the cylinder with a laser, rather than a traditional needle and modulator. The software smooths out the imperfections of the cylinder rotation that cause "wow," and cleans up surface noise and scratches. The usual erosion of the groove is avoided since no mechanical device actually touches the surface. You can hear a restored recording on this SoundCloud link. Another option for historians is a modern phonograph player from Mechanical Concepts. With an electric motor (instead of a hand-cranked spring motor on the original), it allows the use of a modern cartridge and stylus.
Why preserve these old recordings? Why not! These first recordings are a part of human history. We can hear the voices of important people, long-forgotten musical styles, and incredible performances. We can study the material to better understand how this new media influenced society, and how it helped shape future recordings. And you never know, we might discover a new recording star, a hundred years in the making!
The year '22 ushers in an exciting new technology. Here's what has been said about it:
"The newspaper that comes through your walls."
"Anyone with common sense can readily grasp the elementary principles and begin receiving at once."
"It will become as necessary as transportation. It will be communication personalized. There will be no limit to its use."
Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away"
Peter Wilhousky / Mykola Leontovich
This time of year can be joyous, especially for holiday music lovers. Christmas tunes flow out of stores and TV sets, and holiday concerts fill December's weekends. But one carol, "Carol of the Bells," may be based on a centuries-old doom and gloom song.
"A hospital is no place to be sick."
Buford T. Justice: Breaker, breaker for the Bandit.
Bandit: Come on back, breaker.
Buford T. Justice: Bandit I got a smokey report for you. Come on!
Bandit: Well, talk to me good buddy.
Buford T. Justice: You got trouble comin...
Bandit: Well what's your handle son, and what's your twenty?
Buford T. Justice: My handle's Smokey Bear and I'm tail-grabbin yo ass right now!
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Just when you thought CB radio was dead, the Federal Communication Commission passed a rule that might have every "Smokey and the Bandit" fan yearning for another sequel. The FCC is allowing FM transmission on CB radio!
Mickey Mouse: Mr. Stokowski. Mr. Stokowski! Ha! My congratulations, sir.
Leopold Stokowski: Congratulations to you, Mickey.
Mickey Mouse: Gee, thanks. Well, so long. I'll be seein' ya!
Leopold Stokowski: Goodbye.
In 1940, before the world would be plunged into a half decade of devastating conflict, a larger-than-life cartoon creator teamed up with a wild-haired orchestra conductor and unleashed a fantastical film that would forever change the way we experience movies. The morning after the gala event at the Broadway Theater in New York City, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, "The music comes not simply from the screen, but from everywhere; it is as if a hearer were in the midst of the music." Even with all the wondrous characters, vivid animation, and whimsical storytelling of this new film, it was the sound that stole the show.
"There is no reason that function should not be beautiful. In fact beauty usually makes it more effective."
Function and beauty can coexist, especially in headphone design.
"If our condition were truly happy, we would not seek diversion from it in order to make ourselves happy."
French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian
Are you working in a job that you love? Are you doing a skill that comes naturally to you? Can you imagine doing anything else? If you answered Yes, Yes, and...Yes, then you must be insanely happy. It could be healthy to daydream of doing something else, or even partake in different kinds of productive activities that are wildly different from your career. Studies of scientists have shown that the more varied their hobbies, activities, and other professional pursuits are, the more important and numerous their breakthroughs may be. Performing the same task over and over again becomes drudgery, no matter if you're a widget stamper in a factory or a recombinant DNA engineer in a lab. Our minds need diversion in order to focus when it's important.
"Music's always been at the heart of Apple. It's deep in our DNA. We've sold Macs to musicians since the beginning of Macs."
Twenty years ago this month, Apple officially launched OS X. Apple finally had a legitimate PC killer that would kick the Mac vs. Windows debate into overdrive. In 2001, many studios and video editing companies were already using Macs as the foundation for their digital production systems when OS X dropped, but it literally changed the game.
"Simplicity makes me happy."
Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a classic gut-busting routine about Hot Pockets. After expounding on the unsophistication of eating them, he envisions the meeting with the jingle writer:
Do love that jangle.
Do you think they worked hard on that song?
"What do you got so far, Bill?"
"Uh... uh... (sings) hot pocket?"
"Thats good, thats very good.
The jingle is almost as good as your "By Mennen"
Our daily life has us ingesting "jangles" and other ear worms that have become part of our subconscious. Maybe you've heard these simple sounds over and over again:
"Liberty, Liberty, Li-berty, Liberty"
"Nationwide is on your side"
"Double-A, TOOT-TOOT, M C O"
These sounds are almost as familiar as a logo like the Facebook F, the Micheline Tire man, or the Disney mouse ears. These are all trademarked logos and visual advertising devices. Sounds can also be trademarked as well.
"Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."
Martin Farquhar Tupper
For the first century of our nation's existence, a very select few ever heard their president speak. 130 years ago, technology changed that.
"It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new."
Which name will stick to a new technology? It's usually not the one given to it by the inventor.Read More...
- Lt. Werner: What's going on? Why are we diving?
- 2nd Lieutenant: Hydrophone check. At sea, even in a storm you can hear more down here than you can see up there.”
In the near future, submarines might be using sound waves to communicate through ocean waves.
"Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I'm old-fashioned, say I'm over the hill
Today' music ain't got the same soul
I like that old time rock 'n' roll."
Digital media is doomed to disappear at some point. Records may outlast hard drives, CDs, tapes, and other formats we haven't dreamt up yet. But what about stone tablets? I take a look at some of the oldest surviving forms of written music. You might be surprised what some of them contain.
"I got a chain letter by fax. It's very simple. You just fax a dollar bill to everybody on the list."
William G.H. Finch had a crazy idea. He liked efficiency, and he liked news. He imagined a future that would merge those together for the average American. Americans like Joe and Jane. When they woke up in the morning, this crazy idea goes, a box in their parlor had just printed out the latest news onto paper with stories and pictures, ready to be poured over while eating their breakfast. Wait – that kinda sounds like the here and now. What's crazy is that this brainchild was born in 1933.
"Well, folks, now we've got free baseball!"
Baseball announcer Skip Caray whenever a game went into extra innings
We're so used to living in a litigious society that when someone says "free," But now there are two exciting web sites for music lovers to explore that are...wait for it...free!Read More...
"In radio, you have two tools. Sound and silence."
As the world holes up in their houses during this coronavirus, as we absorb media like never before, as we listen to the news coming out of our television and radio speakers, we see and hear just how serious most of us are taking this. Journalists are broadcasting from their backyards, their sources are interviewed over Skype or Zoom, and the news now looks and sounds less-than-polished. It's like Sunday afternoons on FaceTime with the family three states away. These are the choices we are having to make these days: quality of content over quality of sound and video. But we don't know how good we got it.
In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.
Should documentary sound be real? Manipulated? Fake? We dig into the controversy.Read More...
"Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water."
W. C. Fields
100 years ago, a restrictive law popularized a new American art form. PLUS, find out what's been going on in the studios of Dynamix Productions.
"I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man
who could ask for anything more?"
George and Ira Gershwin
Researchers have been wondering for a long time if animals understand music. Specifically – can animals follow a beat? We dive into the beasts that rock a beat.
"These fellows blow their horns just to see the people jump, I believe."
Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, 1902
At the turn of last century, the automobile was poised to overtake the horse as the preferred mode of personal transportation. But there were detractors to the coming sea change. Much as we see driverless cars as a potential danger today, "horseless carriage" opponents saw the drivers themselves as dangerous.Read More...
"All that's to come
and everything under
the sun is in tune
but the sun
is eclipsed by the moon."
from "Eclipse" on the 1973 LP release "Dark Side of the Moon"
For generations, humans have been trying to link sound and light together. We have succeeded.
"It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it."
Astronaut Neil Armstrong commenting about the moon
Every time I hear the timeless phrase Neil Armstrong uttered while stepping on the moon, I can't help but remember the first time I heard it. It was 50 years ago at about 11:00 PM on July 20, 1969. I was eight-years-old and had fallen asleep waiting for them to get out of their strange looking space craft. Our family was vacationing in a cabin on a lake in southern Ohio, and Dad had hauled our portable black-and-white TV from home. We had a lot of trouble getting any TV stations out in the country on that little box. I seem to remember him fiddling with the rabbit ear antennas and positioning all of us at different places in the room like chess pieces so the picture wouldn't flutter.
"Radio is a hungry monster that eats very fast."
Everything today seems to be sped up. We speed to work, we speed to pick up the kids, we speed home. And as if on cue, much of what we watch and listen to is also sped up. Find out more as well as what's been going on at Dynamix recently.
"It was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight."
Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk
Long Binh Post, Vietnam, 1969
Back when it was expensive, or impossible, to call someone long distance, friends and family members would send messages on records and tapes to each other through the mail. Not only was it more affordable, it was a more personal way to stay in touch with each other and have some fun doing it. When I digitize some of these audio letters for customers, and feel like I'm transported back in time that a way that a letter can't take me.
"Nostalgia is not what it used to be."
Record stores all over America will be opening their doors on April 13th for National Record Store Day. But cassettes are sneaking in through the back. These portable petite plastic packs from the past now have their own Cassette Store Day each year in October, and they're winning over some fans that also shop for vinyl. In fact, annual sales of music cassettes were up 23% in 2018, and 70% since 2016. Artists and studios are rethinking this ancient format and not only re-releasing albums popular during cassette's halcyon days, but new music as well. What's with the retro rewind?
"TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains."
The recent presidential elections in Nigeria and Senegal stirred fond memories of my childhood. Specifically the "sounds" of Africa I remember growing up with. I haven't had the good fortune to go to Africa, but I've listened to it from afar. In the 1960s and 70s, radio was perhaps at its peak. AM radio stations played the hits, FM radio played the albums, and CB radios were in kitchens and cars. A lot of homes also had a shortwave radio. Today it's the internet that ties us all together. Back then, CBs connected us with our friends, AM and FM connected us with the country, and shortwave connected us with the world.
My favorite saying is, 'If it's too loud, turn it up.'
You often hear the phrase "The shot heard 'round the world," referring to the first shot fired of the American Revolution in Lexington, Massachusetts. Or for us baseball fans, Bobby Thompson's dramatic game-winning home run when the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for a trip to the 1951 World Series. Both of these pale in comparison to the 1883 explosion of the Krakatoa volcano. Dubbed as the loudest sound in history, it was also the farthest traveled.
10:40 p.m. “I got about 2,000 college students coming from Walnut Street to 30th to Center City.”
10:46 p.m. “It’s endless, chief. Endless.”
11:11 p.m. “They’re on top of trash trucks. There is to be no one on top of trash trucks, guys.”
11:14 p.m. “We have multiple people on Broad Street swinging on light poles.”
11:20 p.m. “Climbing the trash trucks at 13th and Market.”
11:25 p.m. “I need to get the fire extinguisher out of my trunk. I got a fire on Broad Street just south of South. Someone lit a Christmas tree on fire.”
Philadelphia Police radio transcripts after the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl
Do you remember the old movies from the 1930s when a radio in a police car would blare out "Calling all cars! Calling all cars!" The diligent policemen would zoom away in their car with the siren screaming. The dispatcher had no idea if the radio cars heard the frantic call because two-way radios were uncommon and expensive. So from the late 1920s until after World War II, most police departments relied on their cruisers having radio receivers only. Today, police use digital radio systems that carry data, video, and other information.
"I bought a Dutch barge and turned it into a recording studio. My plan was to go to Paris and record rolling down the Seine."
Pete Townshend, The Who
I'm conflicted on the topic of recording music at home. The business part of me frets about studios losing out on billable hours. The musician part of me relishes creating art in a non-pressure environment. But the history of artists recording radio-ready songs in their humble abodes goes back further than you might imagine. Let's explore how affordable home music recording for the masses came to be, but also look back at the origins of this revolution in recording.
"Hostilities will cease along the whole front from 11 November at 11 o'clock."
Marshal Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces via radio atop the Eiffel Tower.
This week marks 100 years since the end of the war to end all wars, known today as World War One. In 1918, on the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1,500 days of fighting came to an end. The armistice was agreed upon just six hours earlier in a railway car halfway between Paris and the Western Front. What's remarkable is the speed at which most troops were informed of the impending armistice. This war, like in so many other ways, forever changed the world of communication.Read More...
"Hello from the children of Planet Earth"
From the gold records aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft
Vinyl is the format that won't die. It'll probably still be around after humans are extinct and our sun has gone supernova. Perhaps in eons, Voyager spacecraft with the golden records aboard will meet distant stars and future vinyl lovers. But in this eon, people will not stop pushing vinyl to its limits. Mad scientists and crazy artists like putting something other than music on it - or in it. More on that later.Read More...
"Treat the recording studio as a laboratory for conceptual thinking — rather than as a mere tool."
When I was young in the...cough...60s and 70s, the only real glimpses I got inside a recording studio was through television and movies. There was a smattering of documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage of studios and radio stations. I was always straining to see the control board and tape machines, or marveling at the cavernous studio on the other side of the glass. It was absolutely riveting to peek inside them and see how a record was made. The 8-foot long mixing console was often shot through a fisheye lens. Long-haired musicians were sunk down into a couch smoking cigarettes (?) and listening to their masterpiece. And there were close-up shots of that big fat 2-inch tape rolling past the heads of the recorder.
“The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.”
Writer, peace activist, former CIA Clandestine Service officer
These days, it seems nothing is secret. We can't talk on the phone, cruise the internet, or walk down the street without being snooped on electronically. Enemy anxiety, especially since 9/11, has driven governments to monitor everything being said. Think it's bad now? During World War II it was even worse. Everyone had to be careful about what they were saying and who was listening because "loose lips sink ships." There wasn't the level of electronic communications in the 1940s as today, but the groundwork was being laid for modern tech that we use every day. Even snooping technology.
"I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."
Thomas Edison, 1920
What if you nonchalantly recorded something around your house, let's say a music practice session. Then when you played it back, you clearly hear someone whispering. You didn't hear it when you recorded it, so what was it? Many unfamiliar sounds throughout history can be attributed to nature, machinery, and even hoaxes. As our post-industrial society grows, so does the list of unexplained sounds, like trumpet sounds from the sky, humming cities, and ocean whistles. The proliferation of audio and video technology has generated its own tally of the strange. Specifically, weird voices that have been inadvertently and unknowingly captured. These recordings and transmissions sound eerie but have a very unsexy-sounding name: "Electronic Voice Phenomenon," or EVP.
"I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am."
Dynamix turns fifteen years old this month. Well technically sixteen, because I incorporated a year earlier and did small jobs out of my basement until I could step out on my own. When I did, I couldn't have timed it better.Read More...
"Cooking is like music: you can tell when someone puts love into it.”
The transition from mono to stereo music recordings in the late 1950s had its challenges. Find out how Rudy Van Gelder and other recording engineers worked out the details.Read More...
"I used to judge the quality of music by whether I could make a 90-minute cassette and not repeat any artists."
What? Another old audio format is making a comeback? Yessiree! If you want to be hip, then dust off your old Sony Walkman. But like me, you've probably dumped all your old cassettes along with your floppy disks and Trivial Pursuit. These days, my pocket can carry the same amount of music that drawers and drawers of cassettes can.Read More...
"I hate modern car radios. In my car, I don't even have a push-button radio. It's just got a dial and two knobs. Just AM."
Maybe you haven't noticed, but AM radio has pretty much sucked the last twenty years or so. Maybe you didn't notice because you weren't listening. A lot of people aren't, and the FCC is out to change that. The FCC? You bet – this isn't your father's FCC. We're so used to hearing "FCC" and "restrictions" in the same breath, that broadcasters were pleasantly surprised last October when the FCC announced an "AM Revitalization" initiative.
"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."
Alexander Graham Bell
Ring in the Old YearA new year always brings excitement and great expectations. What will happen? Will there be a big event that will shape the world for generations? What new technology will come? The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) has already promised us a 3D-printed titanium bicycle, super thin 4K TV sets, realistic robots, and a plethora of miniature drones with cameras. And everybody's wanting to lay eyes on the first Apple Watch. One hundred years ago, people were just as intrigued with the promise of new technology. Read More...
"Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!"
Echo, reverb, delay, and ambience. There's a difference between them (see "Tech Notes" below) and they're often confused with each other or used incorrectly. But each one has an important place in recording with technology often dictating their use.
Aaron Copland, 1970
WIth the recent news that the Library of Congress is inducting 25 entries into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, I was excited to see U2, Linda Ronstadt, and Isaac Hayes get their due. Perusing the list, I saw a very influential (at least personally) album - Copland Conducts Copland: Appalachian Spring (1974).
I was a music major in college and always found Aaron Copland to be the quintessential American composer. He seemed to capture what Americans idolize about America: hope, boldness, charm, intrepidness, looking forward but not forgetting the past.
The Birth of Recording
Dreamers in the 19th century seemed to be driven by the need to capture things. Animals were captured and put into the first American zoos In Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York. Light was captured by Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre in France. And sound was captured in France by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Scott? De Martin--who? I always thought Thomas Edison had been the first. Read More...
When commercial radio really took off in the 1920's and 30's, it was fueled by advances in recording. You could even say that each drove the other. Early music recordings were mostly documents of what was already being played to live audiences - classical, early jazz, folk, etc. As bands got bigger and louder, the music got more exciting. Dixieland was new, records were all the rage, and radio was just beginning to transport the new sounds across the country, just like the transcontinental railway brought the ideas of the gilded age to America a half-century earlier.
How Things Work
Inside an Engineer's Mind
- Thomas Edison
- Alan Parson
- Am radio
- Am Radio
- Amateur radio
- Amy Winehouse
- Angels on Stage
- Artificial intelligence
- ATR Magnetics
- Audio engineer
- Bell Labs
- Big Bang
- Book on tape
- Brown noise
- Carrier pigeon
- CB Radio
- Civil War
- Dies irae
- dorian mode
- Dynamix Productions
- ear training
- Film Sound
- Fleetwood Mac
- Fritz Lang
- George Clooney
- Guinness World Record
- Hearing aid
- Jack White
- John Mellancamp
- John Williams
- Ken Burns
- Led Belly
- Lenny Kravitz
- Les Paul
- Mary Ford
- Morse code
- mykola Leontovych
- Noise reduction
- Oculus Rift
- Peter J. Wilhousky
- Pink noise
- Ray Bradbury
- Recording arts
- Recording school
- Reel to reel
- Richard Wagner
- Rudy Van Gelder
- Rupp Arena
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Smokey and the Bandit
- sony walkman
- sound effects
- sound level
- sound pressure level
- Star Wars
- surround sound
- Taylor Swift
- Thomas Edison
- Time travel
- US Navy
- virtual reality
- Wax cylinder
- White noise