Size (speed, amplitude) matters

15 10 2010

How to permanently preserve audio materials is a major concern of archives around the world.  Us included.  After all, isn’t that why we’re here?

But ARC does not migrate, i.e; make a copy of an audio object in another medium, ideally more stable, in order to preserve it.  Increasingly archives are abandoning this route, as large collections would be barely started before a new, better, improved preservation system would supplant it.  The daunting problems of saving our audio heritage are the subject of an important recent report via the Library of Congress, The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age. If that’s daunting there’s a pop summary via the AP wire.

We’ve often joked that we should be taking our CDs and cutting vinyl albums in order to preserve them – a sort of audio reverse osmosis – on the order of a dub plate, that Jamaican genius system of direct cut vinyl one offs.

Lo, the sky’s have parted.  The path has been shown to us.  Vinylrecorder.

This platter cuisinart is available from German vinyl cutting specialists and manufacturers, Fritz & Souri Sourisseau.  Their site is only somewhat illuminating, but hints at wondrous potential.  I learned about it from the WOMEX folks, who will have their annual get together next month in Copenhagen. Now the home enthusiast or indie archivist can work out of the basement, cranking out the latest Lady Gaga MP3s on a disc of their own.  Hey, we could even do it as a 10” 78rpm!

The only logical conclusion is that an ARCangel comes forward with the $10K to donate the machine to the library!  That way when batteries for i-everythings are no longer made, and silicone chips have turned back to sand, we’ll be churning out archival copies of the latest hits in all their vinylized splendor.

We Built This City On…

8 10 2009


It is a little known fact that the ancient Nabataeans were early adaptors of new sound recording technologies.  They began with cylinder discs (called columns) but found them awkward.  Later, around 70 BC, they sliced the cylinders into wafer thin segments, well thin for the time, and began recording on the flat side.  Thwarted by a region-only spindle size and fierce competition from the Hittites (every tune a Hitt!) and the Phoenicians (the original Purple Reign), they were soon forced out of the market.  Not to mention the freight, as these babies were 33 1/3 tons.  Alas, here at Petra, unshipped goods, in a format that defies migration, linger still.


But, I may be mistaken about all this.  What I do know is that the walk through Al-Siq, and the first glimpse of the Treasury through the slice of rock, luminous pink curtained black, is a remarkable thing and well worth a trip through time.


All I can think of is our last administration, and the inability to tackle any problem successfully, and how everything was ‘hard work”   Please.  Have a look at Ajunta, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Petra.  Imagine signing off on 40 years to carve a rock facade and we can’t rebuild twenty rows of wooden shotgun houses in New Orleans!   Disgrace, I mean I digress.

I’ve spent the last 10 days here in Amman Jordan setting up the first stages of Muslim World Music Day (formerly the Muslim Music Crash Course) at Columbia Universities Middle Eastern Research Center.  It has been a whirlwind of meetings, show-and tells, planning, report writing and visits to archives, schools, libraries, embassies, musicians and government offices.  The project director handling things from Jordan – the man with ALL the contacts – is Kareem Talhouni.

If you don’t know, Muslim World Music Day is an attempt to catalog all the relevant recording in the world, in one day, and surround this core database with informational and entertaining content, online.  Read all about it at our pre-website blog

Dr+cassettes_smlOne nice find was a thesis, written in English, but only published in Arabic, on Jordanian music, written by Prof Abdel Hamid Hamam the Dean of the College of Art and Design, University of Jordan.  Written in Wales no less.  We will excerpt it in both languages on the Muslim World Music Day website.

Equally amazing is the work of Dr. Mohammed Taha Ghawanmeh , Music professor and Dean of fine art @ Yarmouk University, Irbid, Jordan.  Dr Ghawanmeh has spent his life collecting the traditional music of Jordan, and the result is a 500 cassette edition, each cassette one hour long and accompanied by a booklet of lyrics, notation and explanatory notes.  This is hard work at its very best.  Only two sets of the series now exist and I can only hope that some scholars or universities that read this could find this work useful for their institution of scholarly pursuits.   Here’s the contact for the fine arts dept : and Arabic speakers can call +962 79 574 3535

By the way on the road to Petra I has coffee, and after a 800 step climb rested in a rock solid tea room overlooking the rose red monestary.  Life used to be so hard…


My favorite reaction to the project was from a woman at the Center who wanted to know if every whore and slut who parades nearly naked on the TV, shaking her stuff, and singing in Arabic would be a part of the website.  She then showed me a few of Nancy Ajram’s videos (mild by my standards) and then exclaimed with a smile, “This is my favorite!”  And shaking her shoulders, “I love to dance to this one.”   Hey, Nancy was on Ophra last month!

With downloading so prevalent and pirating commonplace, music shops have all but disappeared in Jordan – one small chain, The Music Box, holding its own.  Plus the visual versions are very seductive as DVDs and music on TV predominates.  Live music is scarce in formal performance.  This photo is from a concert at Al Hussein Cultural Center taken by Robert Reeder, an ex pro photographer visiting Amman.   Musically, it was the kanoon playing of Tewfik Mirkham (sp?) that was luminous.


My endless search for actual music collections was finally rewarded on the last day of my visit to Amman with a trip to The Jordan Radio and Television Corp.   Our animated host, Ms. Hala Zureiqat, Director of Jordan Television, listened to our pitch, conferred with her Director, then nearly shouted, “We’re in!”   What has made this trip rewarding is that so many people in the region are willing to support the Muslim World Music Day –  a new idea, on first hearing – so enthusiastically.

In one of the rehearsal rooms we were treated to a short concert by 73 year old singer Mohammed Wahib – sweet, toothless and energetic.  The song is, “Slaima.”

The station has saved nearly its entire history since the 60s on reel to reel tape, and it is mostly catalogued.  The recent past is digitized and can be called up inhouse, electronically.   But for me the real fun was to finally see some real vinyl – 45s, LPs and a full shelf unit of approx 4,300 seventy-eights.

Amman45s1better sml

We will work to make sure this material is cataloged for the project and who knows what trash or treasures we will unearth.  Maybe an early Nabataean disc?

The Oldest Playable Phonautogram. Ever.

27 03 2008



The New York Times has a new article about the newly recovered, mid-nineteenth century recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian “tinkerer” who invented a recording device called the Phonautogram YEARS before Edison (that bad bastard) ever even thought about recording.  This phonautogram of “Au Claire de la Lune,” which dates to 1860, is now considered the earliest playable recording in existence:

Scott’s technology – and the technology used to recover it – are amazing.  A really worthwhile read.

ps. the article mentions Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  It’s a fabulous book and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants insight into the history of sound recording and a better understanding of how technology changed the way people listened to the world.  It’s all about the ensoniment, folks!

pps.  the article also mentions Archeophone, an amazing company that preserves, remasters and reissues recordings of the acoustic era of the recording industry.  All of their releases are worth having.  (My favorite is the Billy Murray album, but the Bert Williams releases are mind blowing too.  If you’re into popular music history, this stuff is de rigueur).


19 09 2007

By now you’ve all seen our collection of French pulp paperbacks at,
but did you know we also have pulled together a few of our favorite paperbacks pertaining to music?

Oh sure we have 25,000 old fashioned popular music books here at ARC, but these are ‘special’ – not histories, biographies or discographies, but odds’n’ends featuring musical themes, authored by musicians or the basis for a band name.



Happy Birthday, The CD.

17 08 2007


Today is the 25th anniversary of the compact disc. Although there seems to be some consensus that today is indeed the CD’s silver anniversary, astute readers may note that different sources disagree over which one of the above three CDs was in fact “the first CD ever.” Allow me to untangle: CNN says it was the Strauss via Philips (while their wording is sort of vague, it’s CNN and they’re “the news,” so that’s what everyone’s going to think now – besides, Strauss is classical, so it just SOUNDS right), Philips says it was the ABBA (“the first CD ever manufactured,” a kind of nit-picky claim if you ask me) and Sony claims it was the Billy Joel (the first numbered CD in the first commercially available series of 50 released in Japan; why anyone would want to claim Billy Joel overany of the other 49 that shipped with it, however, is beyond me).

Anyhow, each link makes a c-o-m-p-e-l-l-i-n-g case, but you may just want to pick your favorite version of the story and go with it. Just don’t believe anyone who tells you that “the first” was Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Those people are just plain wrong.

We at the ARChive celebrated this historic and momentous occasion by listening to vinyl. And Max Roach tributes on the radio.

Oh, CDs, we hardly knew ye (except for the 150,000 or so that we have cataloged so far)…



24 07 2007

Wandering around the internets recently I found a really well done blog entitled

Observations On Film, Music & Imagery of the Past

ARChivers, as inveterate fans of antique recording technology (and rabid ukulele heads) will dig these pages to the infinite. There’s tons of art and fabulous sound clips to illustrate the breezy text which focuses on the early days of music in film. Much of the discussion touches on musicals long lost, the existence of which persists only in ephemera such as movie mag articles or sheet music, or on 78rpm sides. The latest post has much to say about the infamous Charleston, a dance craze so dangerous to the mind and bodies of innocent (meaning white) youth that it can only be described as the Dutty Wine of the ‘Twenties. as an aside, the old joke among dancers, Lindy-hoppers especially, was that the Charleston was a dance that black folks did to parody the stiff, spastic movements of white folks trying to dance to the new Hot Jazz! A dis that destroyed Western Civilization.

Anyhoo, when you’re tired of Avril and Paris and Tammy Faye, go check this one out.


Tunes and Beer

23 07 2007



Brian McNamara, Tim Collins* and Michael Rooney 

Yep, the craic was good and the tunes were flying this week at the annual Irish Arts Week in East Durham New York. We were only able to manage a last gap weekend visit, but seeing friends and playing in some nice sessions made the trip worthwhile.

We arrived late on Friday, and immediately popped around to all the interesting looking sessions.  Crowded…difficult.  We eventually linked up with Don Meade, and enjoyed some tunes and beer with him at McGrath’s until about 4:00 am, by which time it seemed that my head couldn’t have hit the pillow fast enough!

Up late on Saturday and headed over to the fairgrounds for the big concert.  A great afternoon of festival madness. Although the pavillion sets were heavily attended and clearly the primary draw, I much preferred being at the smaller sets in the tent.  It was nice to see some familiar and many entirely new faces on the smaller stage doing their thing, but the highlight for me (seeing as how I’m a tenor player) was hearing Angelina Carberry and Martin Quinn perform:


Angelina’s a wonderful banjoist whose playing I greatly admire, and I was glad to hear her in person.  Her and Martin’s set just flew by.

Later that evening, we went to John and Suzanne’s house party for some tunes and “hospitality” (beer and hot dogs).  I was one among many who had a great time; I even came away with a couple of really nice tunes from John, a great flute player from Carmel, NY.  Later, we went to Furlongs for some tunes and beer, and then, all the way over to Stack’s where Mike Rafferty was holding court for a small but appreciative crowd of luminaries (Tim, Brian, Gearoid, Ben, Sean, etc) and sundry.  He was brilliant, as were the tunes and the beer.

We didn’t tuck in until after 4:00am, but it’s not like I had planned to be anywhere on time this morning anyway.  If not for tunes and beer, isn’t that what Sundays are about?

* BTW, Tim (concertina) and Brian (uilleann pipes) have a spectacular new album out called Reed Only.  This is what it sounds like.  Great stuff!


The Anti iPhone Contest.

1 07 2007


Yes, the iPhone’s out and I can’t read anything without having to wade through all sorts of iPhone crap. I’m sure our readers have had enough about the iPhone as well, so in the spirit of antiquated-technology-as resistance, I offer you a contest. If you’re game, read on.

When my wife and I got married in 2004, a friend of ours got us a subscription to Make magazine. Sometime in early 2005, they ran a story about a toy Gramophone made by the Japanese toy company Gakken:

I had to have one, and sensing my existential longing my wife just up and bought one for me (which was cool). It was fun to play with for a day, but we both decided that although it was kind of a neat toy, wasn’t a great one. (One way it COULD be better would be if the groove tracked more consistently, dammit!) For a music nerd, though, it’s a neat if somewhat cheap looking conversation piece that promises more than it delivers. (Let’s just say it doesn’t compare with the totally working Victrola VV-IX a friend gave me.) I’d buy it again, though.
And now I think I have another opportunity in Gakken’s Edison-style cylinder recorder kits. I’m aware of two models. The first is, shall we say, both awesome and beautiful:

The other is similarly awesome, and beautiful in a different way:

They are probably not particularly functional either, but they look as cool as can be. I’m going to order one and when it arrives I’ll put it together and do a little demonstration-review here on the Blogoschmeer. What I love about these kits in particualr is their idea to use plastic cups as the cylinders. The first one uses the kind of cup I’m used to drinking wine out of at graduate school functions. The second one cuts onto the kind of cups I remember drinking out of (and I assume people still do drink out of) at high school “keggahhs” (or “keg parties”) which I think is pretty awesome. I really, REALLY like the way the first one looks (and will probably end up getting that one), but I think the idea of making keg cup into a kind of recording media is hilarious.

Can you imagine going to a party and having the entire thing documented onto the keg cups that were used? I can. I totally can. In fact, I’ll give a case of Moxie soda [that’s 24 cans, kids!] to the first and second person who uses a Gakken cylinder recorder toy to document the sounds and conversations of an entire party on keg cups, and then sends the collection into the ARChive for preservation and documentation. [Update: the contest has been suspended until further notice!]  In order to qualify, we will need a minimum number of cups – let’s say 12 – but I think that a really dedicated entrant will want to exceed the minimum number for documentation’s sake. (I happen to think if this contest is going to work right, a four hour party will need unusually substantial documentation.) For archival purposes, the cups should be numbered chronologically and we will require information about whose voices are on the recordings and what they drank out of the cups. Don’t worry if as the party wears on documentation becomes somewhat “loose” – if it’s as good a party as I would hope, I would expect some laxity in its later stage documentation. (Contest only extends to those living in the lower 48 – shipping Moxie is costly business!)

Great contest? Or Greatest Contest Ever? You be the judge, but I think the latter. I really do.

Do you know what the irony of all this is? It’s that I bet keg cups are more archivally sound than compact discs. Yep, you heard it here first – I think that keg cups can be the wave of music’s archival future. And with your help, we’ll be on that leading edge.


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