“A Voice From the Past” by Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker, 5/19/2014
Many archived recordings of early speeches and music are deteriorating, not only those from recording studios, but those of chants and songs recorded in the field of aboriginal tribes now gone. The hard wax and aluminum disks have become so fragile that the tiny pressure of the stylus could destroy them forever. Some are already cracked or broken. An experimental physicist, Carl Haber, a member of the group that discovered the Higgs boson, has designed a camera that digitally photographs the groves and wrote computer software that analyzes them and reproduces the sound. It can put broken segments back in the proper order and eliminate the pop of a crack. This “optical metrology” is similar to techniques he developed for the CERN detectors of atomic particles.
The photography and analysis has to be done in three dimensions. The groves in the old 78 rpm records we knew wiggled side-to-side, as we could see, but the groves in the Edison cylinders primarily moved up-and-down. Still, all dimensions have to be analyzed in each type of recording to get the true fidelity.
The oldest music recovered is from a French proofreader of medical texts, Edouard-Leon Scott, who recorded himself singing a folk song in 1860, well before Edison. He recorded it as a line on soot-covered paper scratched in by a moving pig bristle, but had no way to reproduce it. That was not his goal. He expected people would learn to read the vibration patterns well enough to interpret the sound in their minds, much as we read the printed text of a speech. In most of his recordings, Scott is simply speaking, very slowly and precisely, trying to get the clearest visual record possible.
Sitting here at my desk, I cannot recall the sound of my parent’s voices who died about twenty years ago, but they are only a few clicks away on my computer. When they moved to a Florida retirement home in the 1970s, my mother bought a small tape recorder and mailed us a 3-inch reel of tape about every two weeks. This was before tape cassettes were developed. I had a conventional tape recorder that could use those small reels, so after we received one, we would record our news on it and send it back. The system worked well. Long distance phone calls were expensive, and my mother liked to re-listen to her grandchildren’s voices. We exchanged these tapes for many years.
When she died, I found several of the reels in the back of a drawer, still with their recorded messages. I am puzzled why the tapes have their voices and not ours, but I suspect she picked up them up when they came north for the summer to stay with my grandfather in East Lansdowne. She sent more than I returned, and these were the extra reels she retrieved from me.
My tape recorder was long gone by the time she died, but I managed to get her’s to work by replacing broken and stretched belts inside with O-rings from a hardware store. I then digitally recorded the sounds onto my computer. My parent’s voices on the recordings are instantly recognizable, and the years melt away as I listen to them. They talk about mundane daily activities—bridge night, exercise classes, and my father’s fishing—but the subject does not matter. Only the tone of their voices are important, and I am thrilled to have them.
My aunt worked at RCA in Camden, NJ, home of the original Victrola Talking Machine Company, and she had a 78 rpm shellac record with a handwritten paper label made at someone’s office retirement party, probably in the 1940s. Just as on our tapes, the people start out fairly well-organized and purposeful, then deteriorate as they ran out of things to say but still felt the need to fill the remaining time. The microphone would be suddenly handed to some unsuspecting participant who would mumble some congratulatory message and hand it off to the next unprepared participant.
“Any more words, Joe?”
“Uh, no. Guess not. How ’bout you, Sally.”
“Let me think. Noooo.”
Finally, someone mercifully ended the torture with, “Well . . . I guess that’s about all!”
You can almost hear everyone’s sigh of relief.