Thursday, March 27, 2008

Whoa.

Today's Times contains an amazing article about the reconstruction of a sound recording made in 1860.

Yes, you read that right: 1860, seventeen years before Thomas Edison received his phonograph patent. The catch here is that the recording, in the form of a phonautogram, was never intended for playback. It's a visual record of sound, made by a device called a phonautograph. Here's how the Times describes the phonautograph, which is illustrated in the article:
[The] device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley Labs figured out how to interpret the sounds thus recorded - a fragment of the song "Au Claire de la Lune." The article includes an mp3 version of the phonautogram, which is about on par with the Mapleson cylinders for audio quality, as well as a perfectly lovely 1931 rendition by an unidentified soprano.

The oldest phonautograms known are from 1853 and 1854!

If you're interested in old recordings - and who isn't? - the Association for Recorded Sound Collections is having its annual convention at Stanford this year, starting, uh, today - and there will be a session devoted to the phonautograph and phonautograms. I wish someone had told me about this a month ago, because I would have planned to attend some of the sessions.

In any event, read, and enjoy, the thrilling detective story that is the Times article.

11 comments:

Miss Mussel said...

Just a note to say that the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Society is located at UC@Santa Barbara as as on the intertubes. If it's lo-fi archived sound your into, there's enough here to last for weeks.

Miss Mussel said...

I've just spotted a horrific number of spelling and grammar mistakes in that last comment. It's appalling, not to mention more that a little embarrassing. I'm going to blame it on this.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks for posting that - I have spent hours at the Cylinder Preservation site, indeed. The link, though, is to a purveyer of, ah, baby bags. :) I think you meant this.

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Ha, your second comment was posted while I was writing, searching, etc.)

Henry Holland said...

I can't wait for the voice queens to get a hold of this stuff so they can sniff "Well, her middle register is weak, the passiago isn't negotiated cleanly and the less said about her fioture, the better" and the like. :-D

Amazing discovery, I can't believe that technology produced something listenable.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It is astonishing!

Saint Russell said...

I wonder why they didn't identify the soprano in the 1931 recording? It's Yvonne Printemps.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you so much! I might have that recording; I have some Printemps on a Club 99 CD I've never listened to.

Anonymous said...

I recall that 10 years or so ago one of the record mags -- probably BBC Music, with the cover CD -- ran an April issue hoax article (with sound snippet) about the purported discovery and audible decipherment of Chopin playing his Minute Waltz, as preserved on a phonoautograph, described as in the Times article!

Art Scott

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's funny! You only wish it were true, given the written descriptions of his playing.

Bryan said...

Science Friday had a segment on this (haven't listened yet). You can download it from sciencefriday.com.