Inventor of Stereo Sound Alan Dower Blumlein to be Honoured with Posthumous Grammy®

Pioneering British Engineer and Inventor of Stereo, Alan Dower Blumlein to be Posthumously Honoured with the Recording Academy® Technical Grammy® Award

The ground-breaking work of British engineer Alan Dower Blumlein, inventor of stereo sound recording, is to be posthumously honoured by The Recording Academy® with the Technical Grammy® award at a special ceremony to be held later this year.

Alan Dower Blumlein (1903-1942) photo courtesy of THE EMI Group Archive Trust

Alan Dower Blumlein (1903-1942) photo courtesy of The EMI Group Archive Trust

The news of Alan Dower Blumlein’s posthumous Grammy® received widespread interest from mainstream media outlets including Sky News, BBC Radio 4, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.

Born in Hampstead, London on 29th June 1903, Alan Dower Blumlein was one of the most prolific inventors of the twentieth century who transformed the worlds of audio and recording technology, television and airborne radar. In March 1929, aged 25, he joined Columbia Graphophone, one of the forerunners of EMI. During his time at Columbia and EMI he thrived as an incredibly inventive and innovative engineer, filing 128 patents in the space of 13 years.

On 14 December 1931, Blumlein filed a patent for a two-channel audio system, or stereo as we call it now. It included a “shuffling” circuit to preserve directional sound, an orthogonal “Blumlein Pair” of velocity microphones, the recording of two orthogonal channels in a single groove, stereo disc-cutting head, and hybrid transformer to mix directional signals. Blumlein brought his equipment to Abbey Road Studios in 1934 and recorded the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was honoured in 2015 with a commemorative plaque by the IEEE for his work in advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.

Tragically on 7th June 1942 during World War II, aged just 38, Blumlein’s life was cut short in an aircraft accident, whilst testing the H2S airborne radar system that the team he was leading had developed and which was soon deployed throughout the RAF’s fleet. Given the top secret nature of H2S his death was never officially acknowledged and so despite this major contribution to the Allied war effort, as well as his ground breaking work in sound recording and television, his accomplishments are not widely known.

Alan Dower Blumlein is one of the great unsung heroes of British science and technology in the 20th century.

The life and work of Alan Dower Blumlein is currently being developed into an as-yet untitled film project by Universal Music Group, which also supports and maintains The EMI Group Archive Trust.

Found out more about the work of Alan Dower Blumlein on the EMI Archive Trust Blog.

Watch and listen to Alan Dower Blumlein’s early stereo sound recordings

‘Trains at Hayes Station’ – Universal Music Group YouTube Channel

‘Walking and Talking’ – Abbey Road Studios YouTube Channel

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50th Anniversary of the Moog Modular Synthesizer

October 12, 2014 marks the 50 Year anniversary of the unveiling of the Moog modular synthesizer at the Audio Engineering Society’s (AES) New York convention. On that day in 1964, Dr. Robert Moog introduced the world to a completely new type of instrument that would go on to change the course of music history and influence decades of future instrument design. Told by a Moog engineer, Moog Historian, and Bob Moog himself, this mini-documentary explores Moog Music’s quest to resurrect the original methods, materials and designs used in the foundational modular synths. Through recreating Keith Emerson’s modular system, Moog Music rediscovers the power, elegance, and enduring legacy of its first instruments.

Find out more at http://www.moogmusic.com/products/mod…

Footage of Keith Emerson from the film “Isle Of Wight” used with permission of Murray Lerner.

Photo of Keith Emerson & Bob Moog at by Mark Hockman

 

Mystery Object # 3 Answer

Full points to Rob, Andy and Russell who deftly identified last weeks Mystery Object of the Week as an early Tin Foil Phonograph.

Mystery Object # 3 Answer Tin Foil Phonograph Courtesy of  EMI  Archive Trust

Mystery Object # 3 Answer
Tin Foil Phonograph
Courtesy of EMI Archive Trust

Object: Modified Tin Foil Phonograph Maker Archibald H.Irvine, 1877

This is a rare hand-driven modified Edison tin foil phonograph on a heavy mahogany base with mahogany trunnions and speaker/reproducer mounts (one with diaphragm). It has brass fittings and an iron mandrel on a shaft threaded at each end, with a spoked hand-wheel. It has now been raised on wooden supports for angled display. It was constructed by Archibald H. Irvine (M.Inst. C.E.) for the first Phonograph demonstration and lecture, and exhibited before the Royal Institute by Sir William Priestly in December 1877. It was presented to the Gramophone Company by Sir Francis Fox (M. Inst. C.E.) in December 1912. Sir Francis Fox also donated some original tin foil strips to The Gramophone Company.”

Mystery Object # 3 Answer  Tin Foil Phonograph Copyright courtesy of  EMI  Archive Trust

Mystery Object # 3 Answer
Tin Foil Phonograph
Copyright courtesy of EMI Archive Trust

This is a sample of original tin foil for recording and reproducing on early phonographs. The tinfoil is stored between two heavy glass sides to ensure it remains flat. The paper covering the glass sides is written on in ink and reads “The Manager of The Gramophone Co Hayes Middlesex. Tin Foil for “Records” – for the original Phonograph made in the year 1876. With compliments Sir Francis Fox.

Sir Francis Fox also donated a Tin foil phonograph to The Gramophone Company.

Mystery Object # 3 Answer Phonograph Tin Foil Copyright courtesy of  EMI  Archive Trust

Mystery Object # 3 Answer
Phonograph Tin Foil
Copyright courtesy of EMI Archive Trust

The Hound thought you’d enjoy this clip of Michael Wolf demonstrating his own Tin Foil Phonograph.

Thank you to our friends at the EMI Archive Trust for allowing us to share their archive through Mystery Object of the Week.

Century of Spinning Plastic Discs

By Wayne Shevlin

Opening salvo of the 21st century: announcing the end of the copy economy – sunset on the century of spinning plastic discs.
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Viktor Vasnetsov – Grave-digger (1848 modified by WS) – Public Domain   

The Byrds once advised aspiring rock n’ roll stars: “Sell your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic-ware”.  The goal was crystal clear: multi-platinum.  “The name of the game, boy – we call it riding the gravy train”. That meant millions of copies. Copies of plastic discs.  Plastic discs that must be pressed, be warehoused, be shipped, unpacked & racked, sold and be played.  Millions upon millions of plastic discs – they formed the basis of my personal existence and shaped the culture of my generation for many decades.  They were also the foundation of an entire industry.  An industry based on the unquestioned premise that copies had value.  And now they don’t.

Running a record section in late 1970s New York City we knew all these plastic discs by their catalogue numbers – it was a matter of pride:  Billy Joel’s The Stranger, the first Boston album, Frampton Comes Alive and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.  You may wrinkle your nose, but these were monsters.  They arrived by the truckload.  The boxes lined the walls and filled every available corner of the shop.  We ran out of room.  I threw my back out lifting them all.  Records had weight, let me tell you.  When an album hit it big, you knew about it – physically.   Queues stretched out the door and around the block.  In the surreal rush of a hot new release we were the shamans. We had the mojo everyone was desperate for.  We had gravitas and impact because we were the source – the only source – of the plastic discs.

You could see the sense of awe in peoples’ faces as they held the latest big album in their hands for the first time.  We felt real pride in getting the hot new music to the people.  My father queued up at midnight for the release of The Beatles White Album.  And now, strange as it seems, these once ubiquitous plastic discs are now nothing more than the artefacts of a bygone culture – mine.  They are now relegated to curios that might be dug up by an archaeologist.  Once upon a time, in a place far away, these things really mattered.  How sweet.  How sad.

Once, a serious music collection made a design statement: ceiling high spines of vinyl LP album sleeves replacing the need for wallpaper.  Alan P’s entire flat was wall to wall coloured cardboard in milk crates.  Nowadays, this personal statement of his intense commitment to music would fit in his shirt pocket.  Kind of loses its impact.  Hard to point at it with pride and impress your date by saying “that’s mine”.  (Probably didn’t impress your date back then either, but we always hoped for the best.)  A thousand vinyl albums against a wall had gravitas.   Sharing your space with them proved that you really cared.  It said something about you personally.

Vinyl was superseded by the CD – the new, modern plastic disc.  The CD heralded a new age and an extraordinary renaissance where, for over a decade,  music spanning the entire 20th century was dusted off and given a new lease on life.  New music continued to be created and thrive while, simultaneously, three older generations re-purchased the music of their youth.  I kept an eagle-eye out for über niche artists, waiting for them to make their way to the top of the re-issue schedule: Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, Passport’s Cross Collateral, Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House, and hundreds of others equally obscure. And they all appeared eventually. And then, when the concept of re-mastering became the rage, we waited and bought many of them all again.  How many industries can convince their customers to buy the same thing three times in this way?  The 90s music industry wallowed in sheer mania of it all.  Boy – that was a gravy train.  And now it’s over.  And it won’t happen again.

It won’t happen again because the CD was not just another kind of plastic disc like the 78, the 45 and the LP before it.  The CD was – as it turned out – a Trojan horse.  The CD had – hidden within its friendly, familiar plastic disc persona – the razor sharp teeth of digital bits.  Shiny and round, it masked the truth about itself.  It was not just a copy.  It was a clone. What it contained could be set free from the plastic, every bit as good as the bits that originally made it – the music was not bound to the media. The CD put a digital production-master of its content into the hands of anyone who held it.  Ironically, its very power made it valueless.  The media was no longer the message.  The media was superfluous and the copy had no value.  If CD began the process, then the online digital file completed it: from media is the message to media superfluous to media non-existent.  MP3 killed the value of the copy and signalled the death of the artefact.

Are artefacts important at all to this new generation?  For these digital natives, is there any value in stuff – or does mere access to content trump ownership?  Music is now just bits in the ether.  A 60GB MP3 player may contain the same content, but it is not the equivalent of Alan P’s ceiling high wall of vinyl.  How do we now show our intense, personal commitment to music?  Do we have one?   Somewhere we lost the gravitas.  We lost the mojo.  We lost the love of the artefacts.

Spinning plastic discs: they’re so 20th century, really.

A Whisper That Roars

By Wayne Shevlin

I’d like to celebrate the microphone and the revolutionary impact it has had on music.

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As technology, the microphone is a marvel: converting into electricity the invisible, minute air pressure waves – what we in our mind’s ear perceive as sound – so that the very essence of sound can be captured and AMPLIFIED.   Yet, however fascinating the technology, history and development of the microphone; however crucial its role in the very existence of audio recording, these are not the aspects I want to explore here.  What I am interested in is the fundamental way in which the microphone has changed music in artistry, aesthetics and style.

In the beginning, the microphone was used merely as an extension of the ear.  It was placed where an ear would normally be, essentially hearing on the ear’s behalf.  But soon, microphones became pioneers, exploring sonic landscapes – going where ears could not go, capturing sound from unusual perspectives and contexts.  From these unique vantage points the microphone creates new sounds and new ways of hearing sound.  It allows unnatural sonic relationships to exist.  With a microphone, the most delicately quiet sound can be highlighted, isolated and elevated to soar above the loudest cacophony.   The microphone allows a whisper to roar.

Without the microphone, naturally quiet sounds require turning down the volume of the surrounding soundscape to be heard.  This directly affected the way music was composed prior to its invention.  In a Mozart flute concerto, the orchestra must lower its volume when the flute plays lest the flute be drowned out.  Mozart deliberately arranges the instruments so that the flute will be heard.  Perhaps the brass cease playing and the violins go pizzicato – maybe it’s a good time for a harpsichord accompaniment.  Flute themes in classical music are seldom set against a thunderous accompaniment because the physics are simply against it.

Even on one leg, Ian Anderson suffers no such impediment because he plays his flute through a microphone.  His lone flute can soar above the bludgeoning onslaught of 120 decibels of electric guitars and drums (which are also amplified using microphones with a resulting change in musical impact) .  With a microphone, Ian Anderson can write music for flute, not as a sweet sound set against light accompaniment, but as a screaming banshee wailing through a maelstrom.  The microphone gives his flute a new character, elevates its sonic relationship with the rest of the band and he writes a different style of music as a result.

Singing has been even more profoundly impacted by the microphone.  In the past, when the fat lady sang, she was attempting to reach the upper stalls of the opera house on the strength of her natural vocal power alone.  This requires a style of singing that, by necessity, must have a high degree of concern for projection.  That’s why opera singers sing that way: larynx wide open, deep from the diaphragm.  They need to reach the gallery.  Power, volume, projection: to be heard above the orchestra (which, must still tone down) – these are the key qualities for opera singing.  And the operatic style reflects this.  It is instantly recognisable. Nuance and delicacy are, to a great extent, sacrificed for power and volume.

And before a clutch of opera buffs huff and puff that, “damn it, opera is full of nuance and delicacy”, please consider the singing style of Billie Holiday.  That’s the kind of delicacy I’m talking about:  a whisper – a vocal teardrop – a sigh that shimmers above the hot brass.   The microphone allows the most intimate vocal style – normally only appropriate for the smallest of spaces – to fill the grandest hall.

When a mother sings a whispered lullaby in her baby’s ear, it has a particular sonic impact.  The relationship between the sound and the baby – the distance between mother’s mouth and baby’s ear – is natural and appropriate.  Filling Wembley Arena with exactly the same sound, but at the volume of a jet engine, changes the sonic impact on the listener and the meaning of the lullaby. The medium is the message.  A whisper heard as a roar acquires new meaning – and becomes a new kind of music.

The microphone creates an unnatural relationship between the listener and the original source of sound. If the microphone is considered an extension of the listener’s ear then it is worth noting that the microphone may be less than an inch from the singer’s mouth and captures the nuance of the voice in that aural space.  Sound is air pressure waves in motion and the sound emanating immediately from a singer’s mouth is high pressure indeed.  Other than babies listening to their mothers’ lullabies, we do not typically listen to singers at such a close proximity.

Singers are aware of the unnatural relationship between their voices and the listener and have developed specific techniques to avoid – and take advantage of – the sonic peculiarities resulting from, effectively, placing the listener’s ear directly in front of their mouths.  Good singers play their microphones like an instrument.  They take advantage of the increased bass when the microphone is close but avoid sibilance (ssssssss’s). They use the detail the microphone captures for dramatic effect.  They vary the distance of the microphone from their mouth to achieve consistency in volume – so that belting out the chorus and humming the softest verse are equally loud.  The microphone has created a new style of singing that is as demanding and specific as that of the opera singer, but completely different in perspective and technique.

A sonic impossibility that we have all come to take for granted is the sound of the drum set.  Today, drums are routinely amplified by placing microphones directly against cymbals and inside the drums.  Though these are mixed to create a holistic drum set, nonetheless the actual sound is completely artificial.  We do not normally listen to drums by simultaneously sticking our heads directly next to the crash cymbal and inside the bass drum.  However, nowadays, this is what we expect drums to sound like.  A drum set mic-ed as we would normally listen with ears – at least 10 feet in front – would sound empty and hollow.  Without the artificial mic-ing technique, heavy metal would simply not have the requisite weight to satisfy the righteous head banger.

Music has always been a reflection of and an adaptation to the available sound producing technology of the time.  The evolution of musical instruments from hollow logs to brass tubes to digital synthesisers has, on the one hand, been a response to the needs of musicians and yet, on the other, has set the limitations on the sounds they could create.  This, in turn, defines the style of music created.  This is a quality not generally associated with the microphone; that it is not merely a passive receiver, but creates sound as much as does a saxophone; that it has changed the course and style of music.  That it is an instrument in its own right.

Daphne Oram’s 1960’s Optical Synthesizer Oramics Machine – Electronic Music Pioneer

In the early ’60s, pioneering British composer Daphne Oram set out to create a synthesizer unlike any other, she called it the Oramics machine

Commissioned by The Science Museum, London. Directed, Produced, Filmed and Edited by Nick Street and Jen Fearnley.

Science Museum Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music  Until Saturday 01 December 12  oramics.aspx

The New Sound Of Music 1979

The New Sound of Music is a fascinating BBC historical documentary from the year 1979. It charts the development of recorded music from the first barrel organs, pianolas, the phonograph, the magnetic tape recorder and onto the concepts of musique concrete and electronic music development with voltage-controlled oscillators making up the analogue synthesizers of the day.

 

Electronic Music Studios (EMS) EMS Synthesizers and equipment are a heavily featured technology resource in this film, with the show’s host, Michael Rodd, demonstrating the EMS VCS3 synthesizer and it’s waveform output. Other EMS products include the incredible Synthi 100 modular console system, the EMS AKS, the Poly Synthi and the EMS Vocoder. Most of the location shots are filmed within the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop studios as they were in 1979.

The oldest-known EMI recording desk

By Brain Kehew

This mixer is the oldest-known EMI recording desk in existence. It was a bespoke design made for Abbey Road studios (then called the EMI Recording Studios Ltd.) When the studio complex was young, there was very little commercially-made studio equipment; so studios built their own. This desk is an early example of almost 50 years of EMI desk designs. (It is likely there were at least two more of these desks, as the studio had three main studios in operation.)

The desk has two “scenes” which are level settings for 5 microphones; one scene on the Left and one on the Right. The engineer would fade from one pre-set scene to the other using the centre fade control. This allowed quick transitions between microphone setups, as linear controls (now called faders) were not yet common.

Below each of the 5 level controls are on/off switches, with corresponding green and red lamps above to indicate the on/off setting for each input.

This photo shows the desk in use at Abbey Road in the 1940s, with staff engineers Laurie Bamber and Chick Fowler.