Year2004

Mp3 Repositories I Have Been Frequenting

  • There’s an archive of live Elliott Smith shows available in mp3 format at the Elliott Smith Mini-Repository. A long time ago (Sometime in 2000) I downloaded a solo Elliott show recorded somewhere in France that was really great. I’ve since lost it. Anyone know if it’s still up somewhere? Also: The guy who runs the site has a nice mini-tutorial on recording shows using a minidisc or dat recorder.
  • There’s a remarkably thorough page collecting Evan Dando B-sides, guest appearances and live mp3’s here. Recommended: the cover of Big Star’s “Ballad of El Goodo,” and “Brain Damage,” from the last Blake Babies record. Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield really need to do a whole album of song like this – their voices just work so well together. It would be like a poppier Ida with harder drugs. Also of note, but not necessarily recommended, as they’re pretty bad: covers of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” Oasis’ “Live Forever,” and REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You.”
  • An epic collection of live Lilys performances, ranging in date from 1996 to 2003 can be found here. Recommended: the 11.08.96 VPRO session, recorded in Amsterdam. All sorts of studio goodness to be had. Also: any of the shows where they play “3 Way” material, as they’ve been ignoring that album almost completely in every set I’ve seen lately. They’ve also got the “Nanny in Manhattan” video for download.
  • If you’re feelin’ historical: there’s a nice collection of public domain mp3’s available for download here, and the American Memory Historical Collections for the National Digital Library has a pretty amazing series of historical essays annotated with mp3’s here. Topics range from the early recording industry to recordings of slave narratives. Amazing stuff.

Maintain momentum at all costs

     In a post last week, I mentioned that I sometimes remove entire sections from song when putting a mix together. A few people emailed asking for examples of songs I removed parts from. I usually do this because I feel a certain section of the song is ruining my attempts at ‘momentum.’ Ridiculous, I know. I decided to post two of the edited mp3’s here. Try to find the edit first, and then if you can’t find it, highlight the text below for the answer. I can’t decide whether this game works better if you know the songs well or if you don’t. Either way, have at it.

Ben Folds Five – Don’t Change Your Plans – (Edited mp3)

Answer:The edit comes at about 2:15. I removed the bridge, about 37 seconds of music. This part always annoyed me – it just sounded like a bad tape edit. I like my version better.

Spoon – Chips & Dip – (Edited mp3)

Answer:
The edit comes at 1:34. I removed about a minute and 30 seconds of momentum-killing ‘atmospheric build’. I also made the ending a little neater.

     Yes, I realize this makes me officially insane.

The Fourth Chime

     I somehow stumbled across a bit of questionable trivia regarding NBC’s audio “logo” – that the three familiar notes are “G-E-C”, in honor of the initials of NBC’s one-time parent corporation, General Electric Company. I also found a mention of the tones in a newsgroup posting that added: “Back when NBC was more of a radio operation, a four-note version (with a higher note at the end) meant “all news people to their stations; breaking story coming in.” Looking into this opened up a whole can of internet worms that I got way too involved in.

     Consulting Google reveals that a guy named Bill Harris has written two of the most ‘authoritative’ essays on the subject, available online here and here. His introduction to the earlier article betrays the fact that he’s just as easily obsessed as I am:

     “I became interested in the history of the chimes after discovering a book at the library titled ‘The Fourth Chime’ by NBC, printed in 1944. I had never heard of a “fourth” chime and my curiosity was aroused. I checked out the book to find out more about this extra chime, but the book told me very little, dealing mainly with the role NBC played in the reporting of special world-wide news events, primarily during World War II.”

     “I began to seek more information on this fourth chime. Was it a different note from the other three or maybe a repeat of one of the others? Where could I get a recording of this fourth chime?”

     Harris recieved this response to an early article mentioning the chimes, from an 87 year old former employee of Atlanta radio station WSB:

     “I read in your Jan. 17 Action column that NBC officials said the chimes used for network identification are the musical notes G, E, and C and originally stood for General Electric Corporation which was part owner of NBC. I think if you research this a little further you will find that the chimes really originated in Atlanta, GA., at radio station WSB”.

     “In the late 1920’s, WSB station manager Lambdin Kay began using a miniature xylophone to hit those same three notes to signal station breaks. Later, when WSB joined the NBC network, WSB cut in one day during a Georgia Tech football game with the chimes. NBC liked it so well that it got permission to use the chimes for its own identification.”

     This story was later confirmed by a former manager of WSB. Harris elaborates on where the notes came from in the first place:

     “The notes used by WSB were the first three notes of the World War I song Over There, which are the notes E-G-C. This becomes important when discussing the fourth chime as I will clarify later. NBC rearranged the notes to G-E-C. Station WSB went on the air in 1922 and became an affiliate of NBC on January 9, 1927 shortly after the formation of NBC.”

     In the wake of Harris’ first article on the subject, several other radio stations came forward to claim credit for the origination of the chimes. WGY in Schenectady and KFI in Los Angeles reported stories similar to the WSB story. Harris wrote about this conundrum in his more comprehensive follow-up essay.

     His further research uncovered an additional story of how the chimes were developed internally at NBC:

     “At the end of a program the NBC announcer would read the call letters of all the NBC stations carrying the program. As the network added more stations this became impractical and would cause some confusion among the affiliates as to the conclusion of network programming and when the station break should occur on the hour and half-hour. Some sort of coordinating signal was needed to signal the affiliates for these breaks and allow each affiliate to identify. Three men at NBC were given the task of finding a solution to the problem and coming up with such a coordinating signal. These men were; Oscar Hanson, from NBC engineering, Earnest LaPrada, an NBC orchestra leader, and Phillips Carlin, an NBC announcer.”

     “A set of hand dinner chimes was purchased from the Lesch Silver Co. of Manhattan for 48.50 and during the years 1927 and 1928 these men experimented with a seven note sequence of chimes, G-C-G-E-G-C-E, which proved too complicated for the announcers to consistently strike in the correct order, so the sequence was reduced to four notes G-G-G-E. Sometime later two Gs were dropped and a C added to become the three notes G-E-C. These three notes were first broadcast on November 29, 1929, the notes were struck at 59 minutes 30 seconds, and 29 minutes 30 seconds past the hour.”

     The purpose of the fourth chime was to notify NBC staff of breaking news. In his article, Harris reports that “it was first heard on the air with the crash of the dirigible Hindenburg, in 1937 at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and during the Munich crisis in 1938. It was next heard with the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.” Harris also reports he was surprised to find, while reviewing NBC news broadcasts of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe, that the sequence of notes was B-D-G-G, in the key of G. He continues:

“If you sound this sequence in the key of C, they become E-G-C-C. As stated in an earlier paragraph the note arrangement of E-G-C are the notes as originally used by radio station WSB, and the first three notes of the World War I song Over There.”

     I hypothosize that this is all due to inconsistency in the playback speed of the original source recordings, which I imagine is why Harris thought to transpose the notes he heard to the key of G. The subject is not addressed in the article. I looked into the song ‘Over There’ a bit – those of you with an interest in hearing it can do so in either the lifeless midi format or the craptastic realaudio format, which offers both vocal and instrumental versions. The lyrics are available here.

     The method by which the NBC notes were sounded changed over the years – the early chimes were simply three note bars mounted on a wooden box, struck by the announcer. Beginning in 1932 the chimes were generated automatically by a music-box-like machine that functioned at the push of a button. While Harris’ article doesn’t spend much time on the inner workings of the machines, I was pretty excited to discover that NBC had built electro-mechanical devices simply to play three notes. This was presumably done to ensure the uniformity and accurate reproduction of the chimes – almost a rudimentary sampler.Harris explains how the machines came to be known as Ranger chimes machines:

     “In 1932, two NBC engineers, Robert M. Morris, and O. B. Hanson visited a Captain Richard H. Ranger at his home in Newark, New Jersey. The purpose of this visit was to see an electronic organ Captain Ranger had invented. Morris describes the organ as “quite complex, and had many features of the pipe organ but the equipment consisting of countless tubes, relays, oscillators, amplifiers, filters, modulators, etc., occupied all of a two car garage.”

     “After their inspection of the electronic organ was complete, Captain Ranger accompanied Morris and Hanson to the Robert Treat Hotel for some refreshments. It was here that the subject of a possible electronic version of the NBC Chimes arose. It was suggested that Captain Ranger design such a unit and present it as a proposal to NBC. Approximately a month and a half later Captain Ranger had a working model.”

     A bit more digging turned up Brian Wickham’s short article on a salvaged Ranger chimes machine, recued from the trash by an NBC engineer:

     “The chimes are now used to herald “The Ticker” on NBC football games and have been doing so since sometime in the 1994 football season (possibly 1993, it’s not something you write down and remember). The actual sound used is a recording of a restored “Electric Chimes Machine” that was found in the garbage at NBC in 1977. The machine, from about 1930, was rescued by a radio engineer and given to me, as I was known to have an interest in these things. It was later returned to NBC and restored by Radio Net Maintenance to good working order and even modified so that it gave a clean ring off.”

     “My understanding is that it was Dick Ebersol’s idea to use the chimes at a low playback level to alert the viewers to the “Ticker” which gives the current scores in all games. I thought it was a lame idea but when I heard it on the air I had to admit that it sounded pretty good and that it worked as intended. Besides, it’s nice to hear the original chimes on the air on a regular basis.”

     You can view the schematic and inner workings of an NBC chimes machine here.

     Like any great cultural icon, NBC’s chimes worked their way into popular culture:

     “There have been many songs written about the chimes and even concerts performed around the famous three notes. In 1935 Paul Whitman’s band performed Announcers Blues that uses the chimes in a jazz arrangement. The tune was written by Frank Trumbauer, the bands saxophonist, and Harold Stokes. Composer Kurt Maier wrote a composition titled “The NBC Polka”, around the three notes. The selection was first played on NBC-TV in 1949. For the 25th anniversary of NBC in 1951, a tribute to the chimes was written by Meredith Willson, The Three Chimes of Silver.

Audio Links:

  • You can listen to the NBC chimes in .wav format here, or in the vastly inferior realaudio format here.
  • You can view a vintage station identification animation (also with sound!) here.
  • A recording of the NBC chimes with the fourth chime intact can be heard in .wav format here.
  • You can listen to a recording of a song about the chimes called ‘I Love You,’ here.
  • Several other audio clips are available here.

References / further reading:

Stagolee

     A year or so ago my girlfriend Sarah asked me to ‘acquire’ some songs for her with the aid of the internet. One of these songs was ‘Stagger Lee’ by Lloyd Price (mp3). When I heard the song I liked it a lot, but I was immediately struck by how the violent imagery of the lyrics contrasted the cheery uptempo music behind it (And I wasn’t even a liberal arts major!).

A few months later, while watching the movie ‘Shag,’ Lloyd Price’s version of Stagger Lee began to play during the climactic dance scene. At first I was surprised that such a violent song would be used in such a squeaky clean 50’s dance scene, but once the first verse was underway, it became apparent that the song had been altered – the backing track was identical and it was obviously Lloyd Price singing, but the lyrics described a completely different interaction between Stagger Lee and Billy. I’ve posted the two variations on the lyrics below:

Original:

The night was clear

and the moon was yellow

And the leaves came

tumbling down

I was standing on the corner

when I heard my bulldog bark

He was barkin’ at the two men

who were gamblin’ in the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,

two men who gambled late

Stagger Lee threw seven,

Billy swore that he threw eight

Stagger Lee told Billy,

“I can’t let you go with that”

“You have won all my money

and my brand new stetson hat”

Stagger Lee started off

goin’ down that railroad track

He said “I can’t get you Billy

but don’t be here when I come back”

Stagger Lee went home

and he got his forty-four

Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom

just to pay that debt I owe”

Stagger Lee went to the barroom

and he stood across the barroom door

He said “Nobody move”

and he pulled his forty-four

Stagger Lee shot Billy,

oh he shot that poor boy so bad

Till the bullet came through Billy

and it broke the bartender’s glass

‘Clean:’

The night was clear

and the moon was yellow

And the leaves came

tumbling down

I was standin’ on the corner

When I heard my bulldog bark

He was barking at the two men

who were arguing in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy

Billy took ol stacker’s date

he said ya did me wrong billy

and that’s one thing that I hate.

Stagger lee told billy

I can’t let you go with that

Because I loaned you my money

and my girl I want her back.

Stager Lee went home

and he fell down on the floor

He said billy did me wrong and

I don’t wanna see him no more

ol billy felt bad

’cause he hurt his poor friend stag

I’m gonna give him his girlfriend

and everything that I have

Stagger Lee and Billy

never fussed or fight no more

because he got back his girlfriend and

stagger lee was no more sore

     As is my habit, I made note of this and then promptly forgot about it. A few months later, I accidentally found a copy of ‘Stagolee Shot Billy,’ by
Cecil Brown at the Ann Arbor District Library, and was reminded of the song, so I checked it out.

stagolee shot billy

     I ended up really enjoying the book – it combines painstakingly researched musical history with a great examination of the power of a single song, and it opened my eyes to the fact that ‘Stagger Lee’ has been recorded in hundreds of different variations, under dozens of different titles (Most based on different spellings: Stagger Lee / Stagolee / Stag Lee / Stackalee / etc). The most interesting aspect of the book is the research Brown has done into the origins of the song, isolating the exact incident that the song is based on – Billy Lyons’ death at the hands of Lee Shelton, after an altercation involving Shelton’s white Stetson hat on December 26th, 1895. The first half of the book examines the past and ultimate fate of the major players in the infamous murder – Lee Shelton, Billy Lyons, and the friends and family tangentially involved in the story. Brown contextualizes the events with excerpts from courtroom records and newspaper articles of the day, and examines the permutations of specific facts and non-facts that made their way into different early versions of the song.

     I spent some time collecting versions of the song on soulseek, and reviewing an overflowing iTunes playlist reveals a wide range of variation in interpretations by an impressive array of artists both classic and contemporary, including the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Duke Ellington, Beck, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Woody Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, Fats Domino, the Clash, and hundreds of others. The second half of Brown’s book traces the evolution of Stagolee in song – recollections of those alive in St. Louis during the period in question support a theory that the song was born when one of Lee Shelton’s associates, a ragtime pianist named Tom Turpin, infused the facts of his friend’s altercation into a popular song of the day – variously known as “Looking for the bully” and “The Bully of the town.” From there, Brown examines the intracacies of the many mutations of the song – after the murder, plotlines diverge in hundreds of directions, ranging from Stagger Lee’s untimely demise (In a version popular while Lee Shelton was alive and out of prison), to the version in which Billy Lyons’ son is instructed to kill Lee in vengeance, most recently popularized by the Grateful Dead. Some versions of the song are pretty ribald – for an easy to find example, see Nick Cave’s version, available on his ‘Murder Ballads‘ album – the amazon folks did well to find a 30 second stretch with no obscenity (Note that these lyrics aren’t Nick’s innovations, this was just the most readily available example).

     Brown also spends a lot of time examining the reflection of the black community in the song’s changes over time and what these changes represent – extrapolating his observations into present-day popular culture. It was apparently this bit that rubbed the reviewer for the New York Times the wrong way, as the published review takes a bizarre, aggressive stance against the book, defending the modern hip-hop community from any comparison to the violence and status symbolism portrayed in ‘Stagolee Shot Billy.’ Reviewer Todd Boyd argues: “if Stagolee is this important, why is it that no one born after the assassination of Malcolm X, much less someone born into the hip-hop generation, has much knowledge of this supposedly transcendent archetype?” Boyd’s question is rather effectively rebutted in this thread on the message boards at hiphopmusic.com:

     “If you look–and ask–closely, most people born after Malcom X’s death
don’t know about a LOT of things.”

     While poking around on the web for links regarding the song, I found the answer to my original question in Price’s Allmusic bio: the origin of the ‘Clean’ version of ‘Stagger Lee:’

     “Stagger Lee,” Price’s adaptation of the old Crescent City lament
“Stack-A-Lee,” topped both the R&B and pop lists in 1958. By now, his
sound was taking on more of a cosmopolitan bent, with massive horn
sections and prominent pop background singers. Dick Clark insisted on
toning down the violence inherent to the song’s story line for the
squeaky-clean American Bandstand audience, accounting for the two
different versions of the song you’re likely to encounter on various
reissues.”

Related Links:

  • A good essay on the topic, in annoying blue type: Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend
  • There’s an entire geocities site dedicated to the Stagger Lee ouvre here.
  • Other good discussions here, here and here.
  • Cecil Brown attributes the ‘stag’ of ‘stagolee to slang – Lee Shelton was apparently a pimp of sorts. The house which he operated this business in is still standing, and there’s an epinions article on it here.
  • An epic listing of known Stagolee recordings is kept here. There are 206 listed so far.
  • Lyrics to other versions of the Stagolee song are here, here and here.
  • If you’re into the idea of an entire book focused on the intracacies and nuances of a single song, a similar title is Dave Marsh’s ‘Louie Louie,’ which covers the origins of the song of the same name and the FBI investigations that surrounded it.

Sweeter than the honey, to the honey bee

     The Weezer DVD: Video Capture Device was released on Tuesday, and having watched all three hours or so of footage over the past two days I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Weezer has always been a big deal to me, the Detroit stop of the blue album tour was one of my first unaccompanied concerts at the tender age of 14 (Bonus: Archers of Loaf opened the bill). I bought all their import singles on my grocery-bagger’s wages, and saw them every time they came through town – I’ve written here before about how their reunion tour in 2000 played a weird role in my life:

     “The morning of the show was my grandmother’s funeral in Buffalo, New York. After the funeral and the following lunch with extended family, my brother and I set off across Canada towards Detroit, while my parents remained in Buffalo. I had no idea that two months later I would be attending his funeral, and though it may have seemed slightly crass at the time to leave a funeral for a rock concert, I’ve been grateful ever since that we had that last little excursion together.”

     If you were a fan in the pre-comeback years, you’ll love what Weezer documentarian Karl Koch has put together: a very thorough, chronological portrait of the development of the band. Coming from someone who is obsessed with all things archival, that’s high praise.

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     There are some really great moments on the DVD, including GREAT documentary footage on the making of each album (except Maladroit… what gives?), and a touching Rivers solo performance of ‘Mykel and Carli’ at the memorial held in honor of Weezer fanclub mavens Mykel and Carli Allan (Mykel is the voice you hear in the second verse of ‘Undone’ – Mykel, Carli, and their sister Trysta passed away in an auto accident en route to a Weezer show).

     Unsurprisingly, I do have a few complaints.

1.) Content choice:

     When I first got on the internet, I was all about tape trading, especially music video, and one of the first tapes I traded for was a 6 hour VHS tape of assorted Weezer footage. It had all sorts of stuff: all the blue album videos, tons of TV appearances, live footage, public access cable shows that they had hosted, etc etc. Because of this tape, I’m something of an afficianado of Weezer video footage. My main complaint is that the only TV appearance they included was the not-so-hot Letterman performance of ‘Say it Ain’t So.’ They did ‘Undone’ on several Television shows (120 Minutes, the original Jon Stewart show, and at least one other) and the improv spoken word bits they did on each performance would have made a nice montage. Also included on the DVD is MTV fluff like the Buddy Holly MTV News story, but the classic Kenendy / Rivers standoff on the MTV top ten video countdown is nowhere to be found.

2.) Audio:

     A lot of the ‘B-roll’ segments feature behind-the-scenes footage edited together with the original audio replaced by a weezer song. I would have rather had the audio to go with all that raw footage, but I’m insane like that.

     These are minor concerns – the finished product is truly impressive, a whopping three hours of footage, much of it with optional commentary. The DVD is $9.99 at Best Buy this week, so it’s a no brainer.

Ridiculous Mix CD Packaging

     When I make a mix CD, it’s always a ridiculous production, which is probably why I’m so behind on CD’s owed. In addition to agonizing over the selection of enough songs to completely fill an 80 minute CD, sequencing them to my satisfaction, and editing out silence at the beginning and end of each track, I usually focus a disproportionate amount of my energy on the packaging. (Yes, I actually edit out silence. In some cases I actually re-edit songs to take out parts I don’t like or arrange them differently. I am aware that this is insane, but it makes totally unmixworthy songs mixworthy. In my insane brain, at least.) I finished a Valentine’s mix this year, and in the spirit of Craftster, I documented the process and am posting it here. Without further ado, here’s how to make some wicked hand-made mix-cd packaging.

     Supplies (In order of appearance):

  • Thin, rigid cardboard (I used bad LP covers)
  • duct tape
  • kraft paper
  • gluestick
  • razor knife
  • spraypaint
  • patience
  • paper cutter (Not pictured)

     The hard part is planning out what you’re after in your head beforehand. I’m bad at that so I just jump right in and start cutting out basic CD-case-sized shapes to mess around with.

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     I usually cut one piece extra long so a ‘flap’ can be folded over to form the CD ‘pouch.’Please excuse the terminology.

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     Once you’ve decided what you’re going to do, you can start taping the cardboard bits togetherwith duct tape. When taping two of the larger bits together, its a good idea to put a little strip of cardboard between the two large pieces to make a sort of ‘hinge’ and add some vertical room for the CD to occupy.

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     Leave some space between the large pieces and the strip for cheating room – this lets the’hinge’ bend. Fold the ends of the tape over, and in the spaces between the cardboard stick the tape to itself. That way the duct tape areas will be doing all the bending. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.

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     Go ahead and get everything taped together. The good part about this part is you can mess around and untape and redo things until you end up with something you like. You can kind of make it up as you go along.

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     Before moving on, make sure that everything folds up how you want it relatively easily, because once you add paper everything will be thicker and less willing to fit. I got a little fancy on this one: its four flaps that fold up into a little box.

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     Once you’ve got your cardboard and duct-tape skeleton assembled, you can start covering it. I’m OCD and insane, so I try and do the outside with one large, continuous piece of brown kraft paper (you can buy it in rolls). I lay the cardboard skeleton out on the paper and mark off cut and fold points with a pencil, as seen below.

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     Next is the cutting and gluing. This is the most work-intensive part of the whole process. I start at one end and cut and glue as I go – if you try and make all the cuts from one end to the other without gluing, the angles will get all messed up.

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     Once you’ve got the outside covered up, you can start covering the inside. There’s a bunch of
ways to do it, but as you might have guessed I’ve devised an appropriately ridiculous and obsessive method. With the folds layed flat, I glue a little rectangle of Kraft paper over the ‘hinge’ part, and then cut a square for each larger flap, to overlap the ‘hinge’ piece. Then I bend it while the glue is still wet to force a few creases into the paper. If you let it dry flat it won’t fold up like you want it to. I forgot to take pictures of this part, so you’re on your own.

     Next you have to decorate it. In this case I found an image via google image search and
jacked up the contrast in photoshop:

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     Next, I printed out a black & white blowup of the heavily contrasted image on cardstock, and used a razorknife to cut it into a stencil.

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     With healthy doses of spraypaint and warholian repetition, I put the finishing touches on the case.

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     I recycled the same image and printed it on a sticker for the on-CD artwork.

CD art

     The end result of this whole process is a bunch of little bits of paper and cardboard everywhere.

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     …and the finished product:

The finished product, folded up.
The finished product, unfolded.

Good times!

Oh! The Joy of Reproducing Pianos!

     I recently started reading ‘Playback: From the Victrola to Mp3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money‘ by Mark Coleman. As the
title implies, it covers the innovations that have allowed us to record
and playback sound over the last 100 years. In researching another
essay that I haven’t posted here yet, I stumbled across a technology
that isn’t mentioned in the book, but purports to be one of the
earliest methods for recording a musical performance. This technology is the
Reproducing Piano.

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     It’s important to make a
distinction between the reproducing piano and its more famous cousin the player piano, as they
are very different beasts. The player piano’s rolls are cut by hand to
play notes at a fixed dynamic with little if any expression or
variation. The resulting playback sounds stiff and mechanical,
fittingly. The reproducing piano used a much more complicated system
involving a mechanism that punched the actions of a human player into a blank roll as they played, effectively recording the performance by not only punching a hole according to the note being played, but also by recording the
velocity with which the performer struck the keys, their expression,
and pedaling. This innovation was developed by the German
Welte piano Company:

     “In 1895 the Welte firm developed a
successful paper roll operated
player piano, one of the first such devices to be made on a commercial
basis. This early player piano was entirely mechanical. The paper was
punched out by hand using a piece of printed sheet music as a guide.
There was no attempt at expression other than maximum or minimum
loudness. What the pianos lacked in subtlety of dynamics they
compensated for in volume. But the Weltes were true artists; they were
convinced that the public would buy better reproduction if it could be
perfected.”

     “So, in the early 1900’s, Edwin Welte and
his associate Karl Bockisch
developed a machine known as a ‘Vorsetzer.’ This complex device had
felt covered ‘fingers,’ one for each piano key. It was placed in front
of a piano’s keyboard (The name ‘Vorsetzer’ means ‘Sitter in front of’
in German), the same position occupied by the pianist. [When a roll
was played], it actuated the mechanisms within the Vorsetzer in such a
way that these ‘fingers’ came down and depressed the keys with the same
dynamics and in the same order as the original artist’s performance.
The mechanism also faithfully reproduced the artist’s use of piano
pedals. By this method, a performance could actually be played back
from a master roll, much as we do with our modern tape recorders
today.”

     “Every precaution was taken to get
conditions as nearly equal as
possible to the original performance. The wooden fingers of the
Vorsetzer were made the same length as a man’s fingers from the pivot
of his wrist to the tips, so that the same power of touch would produce
the same dynamic strength on the piano as the artist when he struck the
keys during the making of the master roll.”

     I’ll be quoting liberally from pages
324-327 of ‘Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments‘ by Q. David Bowers, a 1600 page tome that documents all manner of turn-of-the-century mechanized music. The book is overflowing with
black and white photographs of instruments you never knew existed, and
is punctuated with surprisingly engaging narrative passages. I liked it
so much that I bought myself a copy.

     A photo of several ‘recorded’ Welte rolls is shown below:

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     To produce these rolls, four different pianists were asked to play the same piece to illustrate the Welte’s ability to capture variation and nuance. Once their invention was perfected, the Welte company contracted many famous players to record rolls. I am ignorant of which among the laundry list of pianists to have been recorded are important, but the fact that even I recognized several names says something, I suppose. Bowers’ encyclopedia collects correspondance and recollections of those attending these earliest ‘recording sessions.’ Debussy was reportedly very tempermental at his session, declaring that “There have only been produced so far in the world two great musicians: Beethoven and me!”

     The importance of the Welte rolls is easily seen – they allow us to experience the performances of composers and pianists, many who never lived to be recorded by other means.

     The most interesting part of this story is how the rolls came to be heard again. The rolls were in Germany during World War II, not exactly the safest place for fragile, rare art. The following is a passage by Richard C. Simonten:

     “As soon as hostilities ended after World War II, I sent a letter to
the last known address of the [Welte] firm in Freiburg, Germany. I eagerly awaited the developments.

     “After some months I recieved a despondent reply from Edwin Welte who
told me that the factory had been destroyed and that there were no
rolls available, but that he had in his posession, in his home, about
sixteen organ rolls which he would be glad to send to me in exchange
for food. They were literally starving and would be most happy to
convert these rolls into some form that they could eat. I was equally
happy to send them food for the rolls. In due course the rolls were
shipped, and I recieved them. I was so touched by their plight that I
continued to send food, and from that humble beginning a warm
friendship developed.”

     “After many months Edwin Welte told me of the work done in gathering
together the vast library of the playing of famous pianists, and he
impressed upon me the great value of the unique master roll library
which was wrapped in mothballs and put away. Both he and Karl bockisch
were elderly men, there were no heirs to the business, the plant was
totally destroyed, and it looked as if future generations would be
forever denied the privelege of hearing the great artists they had
recorded. Few people on this side of the ATlantic knew that thee
master rolls existed. In fact, the era of the reproducing piano had
been largely forgotten.”

     “Edwin Welte sent me sone old literature which contained photographs of
the artists and signed testimonials to the fact that the artists
themselves had actually recorded and commented on the faithful
reproduction of the Welte instruments. It presented a very imposing
roster of famous artists and composers and showed promises of being
musically important. I realized immediately that these recordings had
commercial possibilities. However, I first needed the answer to one
major question: Was the artistry, even after being recorded on these
specially prepared master rolls, worthy of the men who performed, or
was it lacking in subtlety and reminiscent of the old parlor player
piano?”

     “Proving this point was not simple. The only conclusive means was to be
able to hear the actual reproduction of some of the masters and let
experts decide. The only place I knew of where they could be heard was
in Germany, and then only under very difficult conditions.”

Reproducing Piano Espionage!

     The following is an extensive passage describing the recovery of the Welte master rolls in post-war Germany. This is probably of interest to no one but myself, but I was really excited when I found it. Rife with suspense and intrigue!

     “There followed a furious exchange of letters across the atlantic. In
searching for a solution the fact came to light that the local radio
broadcasting station in Friedburg had a magnetophon, or the original
prewar German magnetic tape recorder which was later copied very widely
by American manufacturers. But there was no recording tape available
in all of Germany. The answer was to mail some tape from here and pray
that it would fit. The Magnetophon, however, was in the broadcasting
station as a permanent fixture, and the piano with its associated
reproducing apparatus was in Edwin Welte’s home. This impasse was
solved by suggesting that a telephone line connect the two, and not
meeting with any apparent opposition from the French occupation
officials, it was done on a temporary basis.”

     “Soon all arrangements were completed and, after many exasperating
delays, the day set for the demonstration recording arrived. Fourteen
selections were reproduced on the Welte apparatus, sent over the
telephone line to the Magnetophon in the station and recorded in a form
that could be sent to the United States to serve as a listening test to
evaluate the musical performance. All that remained was to get the
tapes from the station inot my hands.”

     “The next day Edwin Welte called on the French Commandant to ask for the
tapes so he could send them to his American friend who was eagerly
awaiting them. He was told that the French government had officially
seized the tapes, and that they never intended that he should have
them, much less send them to America – of all places.”

     “Of great assistance at this time was a young Ukranian displaced person
who had been a German prisoner of war. After his capture on the
Russian front, he was sent to Friedburg to teach languages at Friedburg
University. Mr. Welte met him there – where both had been assigned
duties by Hitler’s government. Since the war this young man had been
employed by the Radio station. The French officer evidently was not
aware that he and Edwin Welte had been good friends. The young
Ukranian was the first to tell Welte that the French officer was not
going to release the recorded tapes as they appeared to have value and
the officer hoped to sell them.”

     “One night the tapes in a wrapped package were left on the officer’s
desk, and at closing time our friend hid himself in a closet so as to
be inside after the French civilian supervisors had locked the door
behind them.”

     “With only the dim moonlight filtering in, he opened the package on
the commandant’s desk, carefully preserving the cord and paper. With
some other rolls of magnetic tape that I had sent by regular mail, he
set about recording duplicates. There was only time to record five of
the selections as his friend, a fellow displaced person, was waiting to
take the 2:40 a.m. train back to Frankfurt and had agreed to take the
package into the American zone and airmail it to me.”

     “He worked up until the last minute, magnetically spoiled the recordings
on the originals so they could’nt be used, and then he carefully
repacked them so as to make it appear as if [the spoiling] had happened
in transit. With tape hidden in a rag under his shirt, he climbed over
the transom, kept out of sight by staying in the back alleys until he
got where his friend was waiting, and together they went to the railway
station. In a dark section along the way they transferred the package
into the other man’s clothing. THere were always occupation officials
at the train station to open all baggage and examine travel documents.
It wouldn’t do to have the tape in evidence, as too many questions
would be asked. As it was, the tape got to Frankfurt, in the U.S.
Zone, without further incident. It was soon across the Atlantic and in
my hands.”

     “Almost without pausing I had the tapes reproduced and conventional
acetate records made from them. The instant I heard the first
reproduction I realized that the artistry was excellent, even though
the multiple re-recording had introduced some pitch variation and
distortion. This didn’t matter as it meant the master rolls were good,
and I could go back to them, and with proper recording apparatus, get
good records. This would be as good as the actual playing of the great
composers and artists themselves.”

     “The next step was to plan a trip to Europe and seek permission to enter
the occupied zones. My wife and I arranged for the care of our two
small children, and on September 28th we sailed on the Queen Elizabeth.”

     “Our first sight of Freiburg was one which we shall never forget. The
vista of a demolished city is one which an American cannot concieve of
unless he has seen it firsthand. The first thig we saw from the
railroad station was the twisted wreckage of the once awesome Welte factory. While our bags were being taken through customs and subjected to inspection by the French officials I strolled over to the edge of the platform and saw the remains of the many buildings which had once been the stronghold of the Welte empire, virtually a dynasty in the musical history of the world. All that remained were heaps of brick, twisted steel, and shells of buildings that could never be used again.”

     “In the latter part of World War II when the allies bombed freiburg (Freiburg was not a strategic target; it was a university town that was bombed in retaliation for an earlier German raid on the English university town of Coventry) the Welte factory and 65% of the city was reduced to nothing but useless piles of smoking rubble. One of the machines for playing the Welte master rolls was destroyed in the factory, but fortunately the other had been dismantled and stored in a safe place. There was only one man alive who knew how it was constructed and how it should be operated. This man was Karl Bockisch, who at this time was in his 70’s. Because of the proximity of the Welte factory to the railroad station, a prime target, the priceless master rolls had been transferred to a parsonage in the Black Forest and had been hidden in a barn. There they remained until October, 1948, when we came to Germany.”

     “Once we were set up and recording we worked tirelessly many hours a day. Often we would do a recording as many as five or six times because somehting had interrupted usor because a noise had ruined the sound. One time the distraction might be an airplane, another time the crackling of the wood fire in the little stove in the corner of the room. Of course, all of the beautiful homes like Edwin Weltes had central heating, but during the postwar hardship there was no caol available. They were allowed a few cords of wood to last all winter. To use the small supply sparingly, Welte and others set up little stoves in one or two selected rooms and fashioned makeshift chimneys. We had to keep the stoves going because it was the only way we could keep the piano in tune. Sometimes in the middle of a recording the power would suddenly fail for a few seconds, or else the frequency would shift and change the speed of our machine. Often we did a recording over and over until it was as near to perfection as possible.”

How does it work?

     I’m glad you asked! The key ingredient is Mercury. The piano used to record the performances was unique in that it had a trough of mercury beneath its keyboard and pedals. Attached to each key and pedal was a carbon rod. The mercury and rod were used as an electric switch, and depending on the depth the carbon was plunged into the mercury, the electrical current was varied. This current was used to actuate inked rubber wheels (one for each key / pedal) onto a master roll. These master rolls were used to cut rolls for Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos, an example of which is shown below (Clicking the image will open a higher quality .pdf document):

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     The piece is Chopin’s Etude in F Major. The key and expression information on these playback rolls were read using a pneumatic system similar to conventional player pianos. Anyone who has ever sequenced MIDI will see a striking similarity to these almost 100 year-old rolls.

     As with any technological invention, the reproducing piano is not without its naysayers. L. Douglas Henderson has written a summary of his complaints with the reproducing piano here. His central complaint is that player pianos or pionolas, which were typically foot-pumped, were capable of expression as long as they were operated by a skilled interpreter, or ‘pianolist:’

     “Essentially, a pedal player action required one to use the treadles and the hand controls — which were levers or buttons — to INTERPRET the perforated rolls. The accomplished intepreter was called a “Player-Pianist”, “Playerist” and most frequently a “Pianolist”.

     “A “Pianolist” can modify and otherwise influence the tempo and pedal shadings of a perforated arrangement, but he/she is working within limits established by the music roll Arranger, who defines the striking by the control of the perforation lengths … and who also establishes the paper travel speed limits for the performance.”

     “A “Reproducing” piano merely uses marginal perforations to imitate in a generalized manner the SAME DYNAMICS which a human interpreter would add to the Player-Piano’s performance. It’s not unlike the automatic transmission of an automobile, such as Hydra-Matic™, which “does the shifting of gears” as one operates the accelerator pedal.”

     Clearly Mr. Henderson misses the point that a player piano roll with the addition of a human interpreter – whose relative skill effects the resultant playback – hardly constitutes a recorded performance. Much of the other criticism directed at reproducing pianos can be attributed to the many imitators who marketed reproducing pianos in the wake of Welte’s innovation. They payed a royalty for the ‘Welte Mechanism’ on each piano they produced, but used it only in theory, constructing their own mechanism by which to record and reproduce the performances. A further explanation for the ill will directed at these instruments may stem from their relative scarcity in working order – discovering a completely working original instrument is so unlikely that collectors classify them only as restored or unrestored.

     Recordings of these rolls being reproduced on a well-maintained Reproducing piano are now available on CD. This is obviously a niche market, so they tend to be rather expensive. You can listen to samples from two cds, representing two types of reproducing piano rolls on Amazon.com:

Paderewski on Welte-Mignon Rolls.’

Gershwin plays Gershwin,’ recorded using Duo-Art rolls.

Related Links

  • Histories of the Welte Mignon in the U.S. are available here and here.
  • There are photos of Welte recording sessions and a wealth of other related information here.

Insanely Proficient Video Gamers

     One REALLY COOL trend in the video game world right now is to record yourself completing a game in the fastest time possible and then post the resultant video file on the internet. The best sites to visit to truly immerse yourself in this ‘time attack’ penomenon are NES Superplays (Alternate link), Nintendo Entertainment System Superplays, and Speed Demo Archives.

     The first of these speed runs to come to my attention was the 11 minute run through of Super Mario Bros. 3 (alternate link 1, alternate link 2) that made the rounds a few months ago, performed by ‘Morimoto,’ who appears to be the Mick Jagger of internet video game time attack movies. Morimoto revealed on his website (in Japanese) that he had taken advantage of the greater control afforded a player who is using emulation software. Current emulation technology allows the player to control the speed of the game, and to save their progress at any given point in case they make a mistake. Morimoto dropped the speed down and saved often, and the resulting file, when played back at normal speed is hypnotically ridiculous.

     For some reason, I thought that this would be frowned upon in the internet video game time attack movie community, but I was wrong. The webmaster of Nintendo Entertainment System Superplays justifies the ‘feature abuse’ as follows:

     “Perfection is not easy. Yes, using the above-mentioned tools makes playing easy – but we’re not just playing here. We’re attempting to perfect the games to godly level of precision… Players are not perfect, yet we try to make perfect plays. For this reason, it’s necessary that we can undo mistakes and retry until we succeed. – Imperfection isn’t entertaining to watch… We’re searching for perfection.

     To reach that goal, using the features provided by an emulator is irrelevant, as long as the “world” – the game – is unmodified.”

     I’ll admit that the prospect of someone repeatedly saving and redoing levels of a video game until they get it just so is even MORE ridiculous, but the final product loses some of the romance now that I know that it’s not ‘real.’

     Among the most impressive movies which have been circulating are the absolutely inhuman Tetris (link) and Pop N’ Music (link, link) videos. These are unaltered and need to be seen to be believed.

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     While poking around on the internet for more sites like this, I happened upon the official site for ‘Bang the Machine,’ an extremely well-reviewed documentary on the U.S. vs. Japan world Street Fighter Championship. The trailer is available here. The site doesn’t appear to have been updated in ages, and I’ve been unable to find any mention of a DVD release, so if anyone knows what’s going on with it, feel free to let me know.

     “Bang the Machine is the rare documentary that’s about more than just its subject: the all-male world of Street Fighter tournaments. Tamara Katepoo’s debut expands into a fast-paced, first-rate, shimmering piece of youth culture reportage and illuminates a world few of us know, and when it morphs into a totally suspenseful battle — you just can’t help it: you get completely sucked in. Beautifully photographed and edited, with a dynamic, propulsive score.” – Bret Easton Ellis

Holy Crap

     The ‘Vinyl Data‘ post got linked over at slashdot and boingboing, so useful information is coming out of the woodwork. Most significantly, a few people have pointed out Joey Headen’s site. Headen was the guy who wrote the code for the program on former Buzzcock Pete Shelley’s ‘XL-1′ album. Headen provides the backstory of the program, and a gallery of screenshots.

     In an effort to get people to read the other bits in that ‘series’ of writings, I’m posting the links:

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

     On March 20th, The Charles M.
Schulz Museum
will be unveiling its newest exhibit: ‘Mad about Peanuts,’ showing some of the many Mad Magazine parodies of Schulz’s work that were published over the years. I just thought people should know this, because that’s pretty great.

     This exhibit will coexist with the permanent exhibits at the Schulz Museum, including a black & white mosaic of Peanuts characters composed entirely of black & white Peanuts panels by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani; and a wall, painted by Schulz, that was removed from a home where he and his young family lived in 1951. There are photo documentaries on the making of the mosaic here, and of the wall removal here.

Twins

     Anyone with a passing interest in comics history has probably heard that indie publisher Fantagraphics Books has scored the license to reprint every Peanuts strip, ever, in chronological order. For the next 12.5 years, Fantagraphics will be releasing two volumes a year, each containing two years worth of strips. The first volume, due on April 1st, is of particular note to collectors:

     “Although there have been literally hundreds of PEANUTS books published, many of the strips from the seriesí first two or three years have never been collected before, in large part because they showed a young Schulz working out the kinks in his new strip and include some characterizations and designs that are quite different from the cast weíre all familiar with. Thus The Complete Peanuts offers a unique chance to see a master of the artform refine his skills and solidify his universe, day by day…”

Twins

     Those interested in the intracacies of Schulz’s development will also be thrilled to learn that the Schulz Museum has gone ahead and published a collection of Mr. Schulz’ pre-Peanuts strip: ‘Lil’ folks. ‘Lil’ Folks – Charles M. Schulz: Li’l Beginnings‘ is available exclusively from the Schulz Museum. The first printing is already sold out, but they expect more copies in April.

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