BBC Archive Hour – Walls Of Sound

I happened to put the radio on for five minutes yesterday afternoon and came across this extraordinary documentary on Radio 4. I would heavily recommend it to anybody interested in the history of recorded sound. Its still available on the BBC Iplayer here until part way through Saturday 2nd April.

This is how the BBC described the programme:

When Nelson Mandela was tried 1964 he famously said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Without the British Library’s sound conservation work we would never have heard this. The trial was recorded using a Dictabelt system. The recordings soon became unplayable. The Dictabelts were brought to the British Library where digital transfers were made, allowing us to hear what Mandela said, and how.

In 1924, in Paris, James Joyce was recorded reading from ‘Ulysses’ and the British Library’s disc is as highly prized as its Blake, Hardy and Lawrence manuscripts. Alas, we’ll never hear how they read their work.

These are just two of recordings of immense importance that without the work of the Sound Conservation Centre would be lost. And what a loss that would be. The British Library has invested millions in the Centre and appointed its first ever Curator of Radio. Audio is being accorded the conservation effort usually devoted manuscripts and old masters. All this, the radio historian Sean Street argues in this programme, reflects a fundamental change in attitude to sound itself.

In a massive undertaking our sound archives are being saved, restored, digitised, catalogued and opened to all. Street observes all this and talks to curators, technicians and users. Throughout we hear amazing recordings from the libraries walls of sound that, until this change in thinking about sound, few knew about, and fewer could listen to. We listen as these recordings find their rightful place in the documentary heritage of the nation.

Gathering sounds out of the air. Charles Cros dawdles. Edison dawdles less.

Paris was clearly the centre of the world in the early days of sound recording. It was there that Leon Scott de Martinville invented his  Phonautograph to capture sound onto paper in 1857 and 20 years later Charles Cros took the process forward by working out how to record sound onto a cylinder by tracing oscillations using a screw. In April 1877 he wrote a paper describing his thesis and submitted it in a sealed envelope to the Academy of Science in Paris. Before he got a chance to build a prototype, a hard working inventor by the name of Thomas Edison living thousands of miles away in the USA beat him to it. Edison had been independently considering the same problem and in late 1877 he built a machine that recorded and played back sound which he called a Phonograph. Edison became world famous whilst Charles Cros is largely forgotten. Cros died 11 years later at the age of 46.

Portrait of Charles Cros

Bizarrely this was the second time that Cros had failed to gain recognition for a significant invention by being slow on the draw. In 1869 he had invented a way of taking colour photographs for the first time but took several months to submit his ideas to Société française de photographie. When he did get around to it, he discovered that a rival called Ducos de Hauron who had been developing his own method of taking colour photographs had submitted his own ideas that very day. And although De Hauron had discovered his method several months after Cros, the rival had built a device that could take colour snaps and  produced examples whereas Cros’s ideas remained only theory. And like Edison in sound, De Hauron is now widely remembered as the inventor of colour photography….

 Perhaps Cros was an ideas man who was less gifted at executing them or perhaps the reason that Cros never got round to building his imagined recording machine (which when he eventually did he would call the Paleophone) until some time later was that he was living a pretty full on rock and roll lifestyle.  Paris was the cultural capital of the world in the 1860’s and 1870’s and Cros was a significant player in artistic circles. He was a poet who wrote strange and proto-surrealistic poems (his best known is The Kippered Herring), ran around town with Verlaine and Manet and even shared an apartment with Rimbaud for a while. Cros was fond of a good drink and Absinthe was his tipple of preference; a choice that may have contributed to his early death.  He was a member of a group of artists who called themselves the Hydropathes and published a newspaper of that name. They were precursors to the Surrealists. The newspaper featured an illustration of Cros on one of their covers in which (looking spookily like Bob Dylan) he rides a fish (presumably a herring) carrying a bag of inventions over his shoulder as he hunts ideas with a butterfly. Seems to sum the man up! 

Cros also had some crazy ideas about interplanetary communication which you can read about in this interesting blog article .

Apple sues Amazon over App stores. History goes round and round..like a record.

Apple, who for years was in dispute with The Beatles’ Apple Corps over name and logo usage, is now taking the lead and suing Amazon for use of the term ‘App Store’ according to the Daily Telegraph.  It’s a problem that over the years has upset the likes of Hoover, Biro and………….The Gramophone Company.

Thomas Edison’s original phonograph was a 3″ diameter cylinder designed to enable businessmen to dictate letters which their secretaries would then transfer to paper using the also newly invented typewriter. Emile Berliner, a German who emigrated to America in 1870 and whose technological genius turned Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone from a concept into commercial reality, saw the potential in Edison’s machine, but realised that a cylinder was useless for duplication and sound quality. So he took the idea, replaced the cylinder with a flat disc and called it the Gramophone.

Berliner, in inventing the word ‘gramophone’ to describe his new machine, provided his company with a unique trademark and company name. “The Gramophone Company” was until 1910, exclusive user of the word ‘gramophone’ to describe its machine and records. It vigorously protected its patent of the word in the British courts, as the wonderfully titled ‘Talking Machine News’ noted

“Gramophone is not a generic term. Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd intend for the protection of the public to institute proceedings against any person applying the word ‘gramophone’ to any Talking Machine, Talking Machine Record or Talking Machine needle sold or offered for sale, not the manufacture of the Company.”

And so they did, until in July 1910, the Company’s latest attempt to continue registration of the word failed. In a long statement Justice Parker ends:

”Popularly, gramophone was coming to denote a disc machine, and phonograph a cylinder machine. The word ‘graphophone’ was never widely used….(There is) no reason for allowing one trader to register and secure a monopoly in what already is the name of the article…..I have come to the conclusion therefore that the application to register the word ‘gramophone’ ought not to be allowed to proceed.”

The same issue of ‘Talking Machine News’ immediately featured advertisements from rival companies and retailers using the word “gramophone” to describe any flat disc or flat disc machine.

However, chance was to play its hand once again. The Gramophone Company regsitered the His Masters Voice name and logo in response to losing control of “gramaphone” and so by losing rights to one word, they gained rights to a dog!

The History of Recorded Music trailer. Is this going to be the Forest Gump of documentaries?

The History of Recorded Music is a major documentary series that has had a long and eventful gestation and has been “in post production” for some time; a description which can cover a multiple of sins from a stage in the production process through to the shelving of a project for whatever reason. It aims to tell the story of both the evolution of technology and the industry. I was involved a little bit on a couple of occasions and I got to see what a complicated process it is to make this kind of television series especially as it required many many rights clearances. I also know just how much hard work – and money – a number of people have put into the project. I wish them luck in completing the series.
I do have a concern after watching the trailer (below) which I would like the producers to consider as they complete the work. The trailer presents the history of recorded music to be an almost entirely American story. I appreciate that trailers are made for specific audiences, but this one shows no interviews with people from outside the US, I spotted one clip of a UK act (The Beatles) and an Irish act (U2) and a couple of UK acts (Led Zeppelin, Radiohead) mentioned by the talking heads. And that’s it. 95%++ US only. It even says that Edison invented recording, a fact disputed by the story of the Phonautograph covered on this very site this very week! The USA did play the prominent part in the history of recorded sound, but there is a big world out there beyond their national borders and a lot of interesting and significant stories in the history of recorded music; from Gaisberg to Blumlein to George Martin to Sex Pistols to Kraftwerk to Techno Music to Classical Music (which drove a lot of recording technology innovation) to mention just a few Euro-centric tales. I hope the documentary finds time to include some of them. My biggest frustration with Forest Gump is that the music back drop chosen to represent the 60’s and 70’s included very little if any non-American music. It irritates me so much that I can’t watch the movie because of its one-eyed approach. I hope the documentary itself when it gets completed does not repeat that mistake.

The first recording in the history of recorded sound: 17 years before Edison. By a Frenchman!

Twenty years before Edison invented the recording process, Frenchman Leon Scott de Martinville invented a device for recording sound. He called it the Phonautograph and patented it on March 25, 1857. It did what it said on the tin and recorded sound, tracing the shape of sound waves as undulations or other deviations in a line traced on smoke-blackened paper or glass. What it didn’t do was play sound back which may be why history is silent about the Phonautograph…….until 2008.

In 2008 a group of US researchers from the First Sounds collective digitally converted the phonautograph recording of Au Clair de la Lune that de Martinville made on April 9, 1860 and it is the earliest recognisable record of the human voice and the earliest recognisable record of music. The momentous recording can be heard here:

You can find out a lot more about this recording and other very early recordings at the First Sounds website. Their site tells us that “First Sounds is an informal collaborative of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists, other individuals, and organizations who aim to make mankind’s earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time”.

3 late addedum:

  1. David Giovannoni, who is one of the First Sound guys, explains his project on this video clip.
  2. The Au Clair de la Lune recording won a grammy in 2008
  3. As David says in his video they have found a recording of cornet playing that was recorded 3 years earlier in 1857 – making it the oldest recording of music ever.

I’d love to get in touch with David and First Sounds but it looks like their email is currently broken. If you have a way of contacting them please let me know.

How to make a hit record in 1979

I found this piece of film on youtube. Its a wonderful period piece shot in Australia that shows how EMI Australia recorded, manufactured and released a record in those days when vinyl ruled the world.

I think that recording was made in EMI’s Studios 301 that is now part of Tom Meisner’s SAE empire. Can anybody confirm that? Please let me know if you think it was a different studio.

The band in the film are The Australian Crawl. This was their first single on EMI called “Beautiful People” and it reached #22 in the Australian charts. they would go on to become the 4th most successful Aussie band on their domestic albums chart of all time by the mid-1980’s when they split up.

Jet Harris passes on

It is very sad to learn of the death of Jet Harris who was early bass guitarist with Cliff Richard and The Shadows. He’s been credited with both introducing the first electric bass guitar into the UK and with coming up with the name of The Shadows when Cliff’s band had to change their name from The Drifters because there was an American band with the same name. He left the group in 1962 citing both musical and personal differences with other members of The Shadows but went on to make some extraordinary sounding and extremely popular records including this one “Diamonds” which sat atop the UK charts for 6 weeks in 1963.

Jet lived a very rock’n’roll lifestyle and suffered well documented battles with depression and alcohol. He continued to tour and make records until recently and in 2010 was recently awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to music. Jet Harris was 71 years old.

Nellie Melba. Born 150 years ago, buried 70 years ago.

Nellie Melba is one of those huge musical stars from the turn of the last century whose name remains very familiar today – although sadly her music is less well known. She died just over 80 years go on February 23rd 1931 and you can see how significant she was at the time from this clip of film taken at her state funeral in Melbourne. The service was mobbed by thousands of fans and the motorcade that took her from service to burial was almost a mile long. Her death made front page headlines around the globe as billboards simply announced “Melba is dead”.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Melba is this endpoint. She was an Australian girl born Helen Porter Mitchell who rose from relatively humble beginnings to be granted a state funeral.

En route to the magificent send off her life blazed. Like many stars before and since she reinvented herself (as Nellie Melba; her new surname was a shortening of her home city of Melbourne). Unlike most other stars she was made a Dame of the Order Of The British Empire. Bizarrely she is probably now best known for the pudding she had named after her called a “Peach Melba ” and also thin toasts for pate called Melba toast ” that were created in her honour by the celebrity chef of the 1890’s and and Nellie-fan Auguste Escoffier.

She could also sing a little…..

Obituary for Peter Andry

Peter Andry, who ran EMI Classics for many years, has sadly passed away. Peter was an important EMI executive from the 1950’s to the late 1980’s who retained close links to EMI’s archives even after moving to Warner Classics and then later retiring. Our thoughts go out to Peter’s family.

The Daily Telegraph has published a full obituary which you can see here.

More royal microphones

Following on from our first blog item below about the microphone used in the new film The Kings Speech and in response to the huge correspondence that the blog item stirred up (well I had one email about it), here are some more of the royal microphones held by the EMI Group Archive Trust. Two of them were also used in the film. Here are the royal beauties one by one (and I must thank world famous microphone meister Lester Smith for writing the technical descriptions of these pieces):

This is the HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother microphone (1936) which is the same as the KGVI one in the original blog item, apart from the silver gilt front with the Silver Marks of G.& S.Co.Ltd. and the Lion and Leopard’s Head but no date letter. On the top is also the Royal Coat of Arms. This was used in the film.

The above microphone is the HM King George V piece. Its is a 1925 Marconi-Reisz carbon microphone with marble body made by the Marconi company (a company taken over by the Gramophone Company in 1928). and was used at Silver Jubilee Celebrations in Westminster Hall, May 9th, 1935. This was the third and final microphone owned by the EMI Group Archive Trust that was used in recording the soundtrack of The Kings Speech.

This microphone was built for George VI’s father, HM King George V  in 1923 and is a Marconi-Sykes design – very heavy and impressive with marble body

The final royal microphone in this part of the collection is the HM Queen Mary microphone which is a 1925 Marconi-Reisz carbon microphone.

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