CSP 64 - Spring 2019

From the Phonograph to Auto-Tune...

Author: brendenmc18

The Menace of Mechanical Music

    Sousa’s opposition to mechanical music is due almost exclusively to unfair copyright practice, as evidenced through his extensive meditation on the issue. He is right to demand compensation, but I find that his anecdotal fear-mongering does little to advance his cause. He says that “the boy with the penny whistle…may give an excellent imitation [of song], but…he is sent to bed as a nuisance” (279). Sousa was trying to associate mechanical music with “imitation” and “nuisance”, but in doing so he trivializes the boy’s musical talent. This seems to directly contradict his case against the phonograph on the basis that it threatens musical skill, something that should be preserved for artistic continuity. Sousa seems to contradict himself yet another time when he defends sheet music as protected intellectual property because “they are only one form of recording…newly fashioned work” (284). He goes on to reasonably say that sheet music and audio recordings are not the same thing, but I take issue with his larger use of skill as an argument against the phonograph. If recordings will cause the end of technical ability, the same logic suggests that the advent of sheet music would have ended creative performances or original compositions. Sousa would likely disagree with this claim himself, logically arguing that sheet music is simply a distribution tool that the highly-skilled composer uses to share original music with the creatively-disinclined recitation player. It follows that recordings are a distribution tool which skilled recitation players can use to share music with the artistically-disinclined masses. There will be fewer original composers if sheet music can record and share songs, and there will be fewer recitation players if audio recordings can record and share music. Sousa’s demands for “fair play” are warranted, but his shallow defense of musical skill implies that he does not view music as an art, simply as a means for his personal profit.

Radio Transcription Technology and the Rise of Mass Music

The recorded sound industry has historically struggled with a lack of technological advancements to support its growth and commercialization. The rise of radio in the 1920s was one such point, wherein entertainers and engineers had to develop new technology that could create high-quality, affordable, and transportable recordings which could be broadcast live at a later date (Museum). The radio transcription disc was created for this purpose, and although the mechanism of recording was similar to the one originally used in the Edison phonograph, its new format would be the foundation of recording technology throughout the twentieth century.  The transcription disc’s ease of use and replication, combined with the radio’s ability to broadcast its contents to larger populations than ever before, revolutionized music consumption and established the infrastructure for the contemporary mass music market.

The transcription disc’s flattened and circular form is perhaps its most distinctive contribution to sound. Although discs were not new in the late 1920s (early resin-based 10” and 12” disc recordings were introduced in 1901 and 1903, respectively), the transcription disc was the first new recording technology since Alexander Bell’s1888 release of wax phonograph cylinders to have a dramatic capacity increase (Wikipedia, Johnson). The transcription disc may have been unwieldy, in large part because of its heavyweight resin and 16” diameter, but its 15 to 20 minute recording time dwarfed the capacity of phonograph cylinders and early LPs, which could rarely record anything longer than a ~3 minute song (Museum). This larger capacity allowed radio broadcasters to efficiently store large quantities of music and to create continuous playback between songs, which vastly diversified and improved the listening experience (Special Collections). The flat, circular shape of the discs meant that a single master disc could produce hundreds of duplicates quickly and accurately (Museum). It is reasonable to say that the transcription disc made the music industry more efficient and cost effective end-to-end, helping to establish the technological infrastructure and large scale demand that would  become the foundation of commercial music sales. 

Transcription discs were built to last, but their role in the growth of the radio industry and American media justifies their intentional conservation. Initially made out of a heavy resin, and then, beginning in the 1950s, vinyl, transcription discs are not particularly fragile (Museum). In addition, the analog recording technology creates a lasting and tangible expression of sound, which means that the discs’ contents are safer than they would be in an easily-corruptible magnetic or digital format (Johnson). The main challenge will not be structural preservation, but more likely maintaining playback quality and having the necessary equipment for playback. Although the transcription disc is similar to vinyl records in appearance and function, such as the 33 1/3 rpm standard rotation speed, its playback process is unique (Museum). Whereas most records are no bigger than 12” and start playback on the outer edge of the disc, the 16” transcription disc recording begins in the center of the disc (Special Collections). As such, systems which can read and  accommodate the large disc size and playback direction should be maintained. These may be difficult to find, operate/repair, and maintain, and their obscurity today will surely hamper preservation efforts in the future. Although the transcription disc are similar to classic vinyl records in both shape and sound, its unique origins, critical role in the growing music industry, and influence on future recording formats warrants its preservation as a major milestone in manipulating sound. 

The entertainment technologies pioneered by the radio transcription disc are a critical part of American history and offer insight into how the recording industry has changed in the past and in what ways it can be improved in the future. In addition to its cultural significance, the sheer scale of the transcription disc can only be conveyed in person, and a physical examination reveals the way in which it both inspired and differed from the disc formats that were to follow. Transcription discs may be an outdated artifact by today’s recording standards, but they recount the birth of the music industry, memorialize the age of radio, and commemorate American innovation. Transcription discs solidified the presence of music in our economy and in our culture, and it has more than earned a dutiful preservation.

Works Cited

Johnson, Edmond. “CSP 64 Lecture Series”, 2019. 

“Electrical Transcription Disc (late 1920s – 1980s)”. Museum of Obsolete Media, https://obsoletemedia.org. 5 February 2019.

“Timeline of audio formats”. Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org. 5 January 2019. 

“Special Collections Department”, Occidental College. 4 February 2019. 

The Openeer Papers

    While the value of preserved voices can be extended into the fields of political or religious oration and musical entertainment, the practice has its greatest importance in remembering loved ones. Although portraits and early photographs e could capture the likeness of a person, the phonograph allowed for the preservation of a much more comprehensive record, which could include their emotions, their unique speaking style, and a more personalized message. There is more sentimental value in a recording versus an image because a recording seems much more lifelike – one would interact with an image in a different way than one would interact with a person, but one could listen to a recording and interact with it in a very similar way to how they would with the actual speaker. As the novelty of recordings wears off and as recording technologies become a more omnipresent factor in society, it seems almost as if there is less of an intention to record important moments. Whereas in the recent past when people were limited to bulky and discrete recording equipment – tape recorders, camcorders, cameras, etc. – the same tasks are accomplished today by a smartphone. It seems as if by making technology more capable and more accessible, it has become less novel and lacks intentional use. In the past, one might have intentionally recorded home videos to remember and make a comprehensive representation their child’s youth or a major life event, but today, when every person has a device and every device has a camera and microphone, we rely on making shorter and less comprehensive records as an effortless by-product of communication or social media posts.