Category: Vinyl

My Top 1 books of 2010: Touchable Sound

The short version

     If you are an aging, slightly art-damaged music nerd with a penchant for the 90’s and vinyl, you need to buy this book. If you have ever self-released music, or helped assemble a run of hand-made packaging: you need to buy this book. If the words “Fest band” conjure up vivid imagery for you, you especially need to buy this book.

Touchable Sound.  Get it.

     If you know someone who meets any of these descriptions, and you are looking for a Christmas gift for them: you need to buy this book for them. This is the book my brain has been silently willing someone to compile for years.

Ok, now the long version

     Earlier this year, I wrote an article discussing the various capabilities unique to the vinyl record as a format. It ran in the July / August issue of The Believer, and while it focused on the oddities that can be pressed into the physical record itself, I’m pretty sure I managed to clumsily allude to the concept of the “record as an artifact” somewhere in there.

     A few months back, at the end of a random chain of links I’d clicked through, I stumbled across a book called Touchable Sound – A Collection of 7-inch records from the USA, published by Soundscreen Design. An entire book focused on the concept of the 7″ record as a physical artifact?! And it was already available?!

     I broke my current ‘Try not to acquire so damn many books’ embargo (It isn’t working anyway) and ordered it immediately, hoping for the best.

     I should say here that like any book-oriented music nerd, I have been burned by my fair share of ‘Album art’ books in the past. There is no shortage of books on the subject, and the bulk of them treat the artwork as a flat, square visual experience – completely divorced from the physical object onto which it is printed. Furthermore, the covers included in such collections often seem to have been selected based on the names of the artists on the records they were created to package (Try to find an album art retrospective with no Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Pink Floyd). I couldn’t be happier to report that this book is the exact opposite of those books – the content was seemingly selected with absolutely no attention payed to the audio component of the artifact at all. All records that are included are painstaking, tactile creations, photographed as objects.

     Obviously, a big part of why this book connected so strongly with me is because the years during which I was personally immersed in record nerdery fall within the window of time it covers – Troubleman Unlimited owner Mike Simonetti perfectly summarrizes a few of my formative teenage years in one brief sentence:

     “The process involved scouring zines for advertisements or reviews, sending “well-concealed cash” to the label (whose owner hopefully hadn’t moved in the time it took the ad to reach the reader), and checking the mail every day for up to a year while waiting for the record to arrive-if it actually showed up at all.”

     I think there’s a lot more to the book than simple nostalgia or designy navel-gazing, though. Beyond getting the selection process right, the editors have added several additional layers of context to the records they present: the collection is broken down by region, and by label within each region. These regional sections are punctuated with essays written from the unique perspective of the label owners that facilitated many of the records pictured elsewhere in the book.

     Much of the sneaky dual-function I see in this book lies in these essays. Themes that don’t often appear in ‘Business of music’ books are covered from a number of viewpoints, and the wheathered tone of experience runs through all of them. Discussed: the economic necessity that often informs aesthetics or design choices, the romanticism and ritual of production-line record assembly (The first section of Chunklet Editor Henry Owings’ introduction is titled “I’ve spent months of my life assembling records. No Joke.”), and the weird mix of futility and passion inherent in pouring hours of manual labor into a musical artifact aimed at a limited audience (A refrain of “What were we thinking?” echoes throughout the book).

(An aside: if you are currently involved in producing vinyl in any way, it is worth paging through this book solely to marvel at the ridiculous press runs some of these 90’s records had.)

     Perhaps the most striking section of the book is the afterward – an interview with Sam McPheeters, one-time singer in Born Against and helmsman of Vermiform records. Though making and selling music were both central elements of his life at one time, he now spends the bulk of his time as a writer. This distance has seemingly put some of the DIY revolution he lived through into perspective, and he isn’t shy about cutting through the romanticism:

     “Throughout the 1990’s, the disincentives to identify with underground music (violence, ridicule) plummetted at the same rate that the cost of production (CD pressing, online distribution) plummetted. But the subculture’s core message – anyone can do this! – remained constant. So bands and fanzines and record labels became the default pursuits of a generation. A lot of people think this is a good thing. I don’t. I know too many folks who plod along with their bands or record labels purely due to inertia, because underground creativity is a tradition that extends just far enough past their own life span that it seems like an enduring lifestyle. That was certainly my sorry state for a few years.”

     “I understand this is an elitest sentiment, but consider the big picture. The specific era covered in your book-megawealthy post-Cold War America-is an anomoly in human history. Not everyone should make art. Not everyone should be in a band. Some people have to farm, and repair bridges, and make socks. I certainly wish I’d learned some practical trade 20 years ago.”

     Whether you agree with his sentiments or not, the five-page interview serves as a perfect coda to the conflicted narrative built up by the arrangement of the book: full-color sections celebrating these artifacts, sandwiched between the often melancholy conversations with the people responsible for creating them.



     So: I cannot stress how much I loved this book, and how much I would love for further volumes to someday be assembled. But! Sometimes, reading about the production of nerdy things (in this case, records) just isn’t quite enough – sometimes I want to read about the production of nerdy things (books) that are themselves about the production of nerdy things (records). Luckily, Mike Treff, one of the editors of the book, was kind enough to answer some questions I had about how the book was put together. Book nerd alert.

Co-Editor Mike Treff

Me: What’s the story behind the book? Did all of the editors have a background in running labels?

     “When I started Soundscreen, the idea for this book was something I had been kicking around for a long time. I was already working with Brian Roettinger (my co-editor and the book’s designer) on our company’s identity, and his background running Hand Held Heart, both a record label and design shop, was perfect for this project. We talked about this book and just dove right in. Diego Hadis (co-editor) and I were working together on a few projects, and he had previously worked at what was my favorite NY record store, Sound and Fury, for years.”

     “I have always been fascinated with the 7-inch as a format, and further by the amount of labor that went into so many of the records I bought growing up at hardcore shows. Often a record clearly took months to make, with the band or label screen printing, embossing, die-cutting, and using just about every other mode of production known to hand to make a record, that they ended up selling for $3. While that effort alone is enough to fill the 412 pages of Touchable Sound, we also wanted to highlight the exceptional design and packaging that was resulting from this approach. It’s a vital part of the story of underground music that is rarely told. Just like poster books, there are many books on record design that focus singularly on the cover image, which in the case of Touchable Sound is only a fraction of the story. It’s that story we wanted to capture.”

Me: How did the work break down amongst the various contributors?

     “It was a total team effort, all the way around. We all were involved in the selection process, we all did research, we all collected information for the records. When it got tactical, we each played to our strengths. Brian took the lead on design, and Diego took the lead on actual text editing. As editor and publisher, I handled much of everything else, from production to content creation to sales and marketing.”

     “It was a near 2 year process from start to finish, which given the fact we reviewed almost 30,000 records, doesn’t seem that bad!”

Me: What was the selection process like? Were there any tough decisions as far as what to include and what not to include?

     “The selection process was endless, literally. We would be prepared to review the next 500 records for consideration, we’d discover a new label or band or collection to mine that we had not previously included, and so it began again. We probably had at least 20 review sessions where we went record by record to determine the final set, and that’s after we each reviewed countless records to bring our recommendations to the selection reviews.”

     “There were a ton of heated discussions about why a particular record needed to be included or discarded, but that was actually a really fun part of the process. We each had our own sensibilities and ideas for what the final set should include, and I think we found a nice balance in the end. I do feel like its a well rounded collection, that is representative of all the different aspects of our general theme, exceptionally packaged, labor-intensive 7-inch records.”

Me: Do you have a personal favorite among the records featured?

     “YES! SO MANY, too many to list. While there are certainly bodies of work that stand out to me as exceptional, such as all the Melvins records and the Gravity Records included, but there are just so many singular records that are among my favorites, and for a variety of reasons, that I couldn’t really single one out.”

Pages are printed on a variety of papers at three different widths...

Me: The presentation of the book itself echoes the appreciation for unique tactile experiences that seems to have inspired the book in the first place. Were there any crazy hoops you had to jump through to get a book with several sections of half-pages bound?

     “For sure, but we wanted the book to be representative of the content contained within. The book had to be just as much an impressive object as the records showcased are. We did jump through many hoops to finally get the design we wanted, including many many budget revisions, but fortunately we had a great partner in Shapco, who handled the books production. We’re very thankful for their effort in helping to make this book as we dreamed it.”


Deleted Scenes

     The last question I asked was for an example of a record that barely missed inclusion in the book – a “deleted scene” of sorts. Mike conferred with his fellow editors, and came back with a whole list of near-misses. I’ve assembled them below. These are records that didn’t make the final cut for inclusion – so that should speak to the quality of the collection while simultaneously serving as a teaser for what else is out there.

Mike: “Ok, here goes, these are records that ALMOST made it…lots of deals made very late at night surrounding these records…”

High Places – s/t (Ancient Almanac, 2007)

All sleeve artwork was hand plated and pressed by Rob & Mary of High Places.

V/A – 3/12/93 (Ebullition, 1993)

“On 3/12/93, Sinker, John Henry West, Manumission and Not For The Lack of Trying played a show at the Anaconda in Goleta, CA. The idea was that all four bands would play a show together and then release a 7″ comp based on that show. Everyone that attended the show wrote their name and address down in a notebook and when the record came out they recieved a copy with a hand screened cover. The cover can be folded to display any of four covers. All of the photos were taken at the show on 3/12/93.” [link]

Three Mile Pilot – Piano Minus, Piano Plus (Pennyfarthing Records, 1996)

[I couldn’t find any information about the packaging to this one. Help me, internet…]

Poison 13 – Ain’t Superstitious (Estrus, 1995)

Double 7″ pressed on clear and red vinyl. Includes gatefold jacket with pop-up glow-in-the-dark skeleton, paper OBI band.

Agna Moraine’s Autobiography – s/t (Anima, 199?)

Hand-made packaging with lyrics silkscreened on four seperate colored cloth patches.

Lake of Dracula / Monitor Radio – split (The Carcrash Label, 1998)

White Vinyl & die-cut sleeve with an actual dental x-ray individually glued in.

Bastard Noise – Our Earth’s Blood Part III (Rhetoric, 1996)

[Another one for which I couldn’t find any specifics about the packaging.]

Commenter “Housepig” adds: “This was designed by WT Nelson of Thumbprint Press / Unicorn / Bastard Noise, including the design of the custom font on the lower right cover and insert.”

Cherubs – Carjack Fairy (Trance Syndicate, 1993)

Each with unique, hand-cut wallpaper sleeves and vinyl lettering.

Candy Machine – “History of a Bourgeois Revolution” (Desoto, 1992)

Record was issued in a hand-stamped and screened corrugated cardboard sleeve. “Hard to describe, but the sleeve had to be destroyed to open.”

Wingtip Sloat – s/t (Sweet Portable Junket, 1991)

Numbered edition of 500 copies, each copy has two entirely different cover slats and many (dozens) of inserts and pieces of ephemera.

Judas Iscariot – Harrison Bergeron Bound (Mountain, 1997)

[Design apes Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz design, but I couldn’t find any specifics on the production of the packaging.]

The Go Team – Series (K records, 1989)

Series of monthly releases in 1989. Each record comes bagged in a clear plastic sleeve, with two songs on one side and a custom-silkscreened design on the other. In true Go Team spirit, no two in a row sport the same personnel: Tobi and Calvin play on all of them, and their musician friends stop by to sing or play. [link]


Moving Pictures

     Mike Treff and Henry Owings recently did a lecture of sorts to promote the book, and it’s available on Youtube in three parts. Highly recommended to get a flavor for what the book is all about:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

OS X Gramophone emulator

     This isn’t a life-changing application or anything, but I was pretty thrilled to discover RetroPlayer – an OS X gramophone emulator. Launch the program and you get a top-down view of a gramophone, sans record. Drag any audio file into the Retroplayer window, and a record appears and begins to play.

     Playback is infused with user-configurable quantities of vinyl crackle, skippage, and warping / speed distortion. You can advance the track by dragging the tone arm to the desired relative radial position on the record, and the ‘reject’ (stop) and speed adjustment controls on the graphical gramophone are functional as well. If you’re immune to quickly expiring novelty and make it through a whole track, the tone arm will spin and crackle in a pseudo lockgroove until you either hit the stop lever or quit the application. Two emphatically nerdy, impractical thumbs up.

Playing a Platinum Record

     Valentine Hellman checked in today with easily the best email I’ve received in a long time. Valentine, you see, OWNS a platinum record. He’s taken it upon himself to play it and determine what exactly the grooves of a default platinum record contain.

Clearly, this is awesome. Here’s his email:

     “I have a story I thought you might be interested in. Long story short is that I used to be in a cheesy Christian band, and we had a single that was on a double-CD compilation. This comp sold 250,000 copies and since it contained two CDs the RIAA certified it platinum. I have possessed a platinum record for the past six or seven years. I had it hanging over the toilet in my bathroom. Anyways, last Saturday my friends and I busted it out of the frame and put it on a turntable.

You might be interested to know these facts about the record:

  • The hole in the middle was the size of the hole in the middle of a CD.
  • There is extra space around the outside of the record that gets covered by the matting which makes it larger than a standard 12″ LP.
  • There is only information on one side of the “record.”
  • The thing is extremely thin as well. Like tin can thin. Thinner even.
  • The strangest thing is that when I played it, everything was backwards. I ended up spinning it backwards to hear the recording.

     Anyways, the record always looked like it only had two tracks, and it turns out it did. The tracks were not what the same as the ones that are on the compilation record. After some research I think that the tracks are from a Salsoul Orchestra 12″ single. I don’t know who they are, but I downloaded a snippet of one of their songs from the single and I think it is a match. One of my friends taped the whole experience and hopefully I will post this somewhere if you are ever interested.

     Here is my full write up if you are interested, which is also where I will eventually let people know where to find the video footage.”

Platinum Record

     There’s more backstory at the link. Hooray for Mr. Hellman’s inquisitive nature — we now have EVEN MORE useless vinyl-related knowledge!

Tiny Update:

     Many people have suggested that this item was in fact a factory mold, not a record. This would explain why it played in reverse. Since audio information on vinyl is represented by lateral variation in the groove (Not vertical, as I thought until very recently), it’s entirely possible that playing a factory mold would yield the results described. This, of course, begs the question, are all platinum records made from discarded factory molds? One way to find out would be to play another one

Red Raven Carousel in action!

     Shortly after posting my round up of vinyl video implementations, the eBay market price for the carousels used to view Red Raven Animation records dropped significantly, and I was able to pick one up for far cheaper than they were selling a year ago. In the course of researching the previous article, I’d found plenty of visuals of the animation contained on the records, but no footage of the actual records themselves in action, which is really where the appeal lies. So, without further ado, here is a short video clip – just click on the image below. The record is playing at 45 RPM since my turntable doesn’t do 78.

Great Essay on Anti-Records

     I have about 30 emails which date back to February rotting in my inbox, under the pretense that I’m somehow going to find the time to ‘properly’ research and present the information contained therein. Since it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I need to finish the things I’ve started and not let new projects accumulate in my inbox, I’m going to attempt to jettison some of these links over the next few days.

     The first volley in this barrage of nerdy crap is a link to a great Essay/Timeline called “A Brief history of Anti-Records and Conceptual Records” by Ron Rice. This was sent to me by Bill at Housepig, on February 3rd of this year, and it is exactly the kind of thing I LOVE.

     I read it that day, saved the email so I could write about it when I “got caught up,” and it promptly got buried under all the other “important” email I get (Comment spam, fake paypal announcements, musicbox restoration discussion digests, etc).

     Without further ado, here are some highlights:

1963 Milan Knizak: “in 1963-64 I used to play records both too slowly and too fast and thus changed the quality of the music, thereby, creating new compositions. In 1965 I started to destroy records: scratch them, punch holes in them, break them. By playing them over and over again (which destroyed the needle and often the record player too) an entirely new music was created – unexpected, nerve-racking and aggressive. Compositions lasting one second or almost infinitely long (as when the needle got stuck in a deep groove and played the same phrase over and over). I developed this system further. I began sticking tape on top of records, painting over them, burning them, cutting them up and gluing different parts of records back together, etc. to achieve the widest possible variety of sounds. A glued joint created a rhythmic element separating contrasting melodic phrases… Since music that results from playing ruined gramophone records cannot be transcribed to notes or to another language (or if so, only with great difficulty), the records themselves may be considered as notations at the same time.”

1964 Robert Watts (phono records): “…I made a series of spray-painted records for a Fluxus performance at the Fluxstore on Canal Street. These were played by the audience, and as the paint wore off, gradually the music was revealed.” (From Extended Play – see bibliography).

1982 Martin Turner creates “Ekliptizs-cher Rhythmus”, a plexiglass record with one groove in which certain markings are made. Says Turner, “The constellation of the stars of the date of birth is applied … by means of scratching or hatching, marked as an acoustic event. When played on a record player, a certain rhythm results, which, in itself cyclic recurrent, varies with each person.”

1983 Die Todliche Doris releases “Chore and Soli” in an attempt to liberate their work from the typical pattern of critical comparison to past work- a box set of eight mini-records playable only with an enclosed, battery-operated player (in actuality a device used to reproduce sound in talking dolls). Each album contains perhaps thirty seconds of sound, about the same amount of time it takes to insert the disc in the apparatus. A thousand copies were made.

     …and the list goes on. Many people hate shit like this, but I bear the eternal curse of loving the concept and invariably being disappointed by the result. I’ve done a little digging for a book that appears in the works cited of this article and that I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere: “Broken Music: Artists’ recordworks.” There are reviews on the web, but I’ve thus far not found an affordable copy (The “best deal” so far: the used copy currently on Amazon. A mere $565 and it’s yours. Fetchbook finds copies as high as $1317). This appears to be a sort of online representation of the exhibit that the book details.

P.S. Curse you Sting, for complicating my search!

Vinyl Video

     Based on the obsessive-compulsive nature of my previous postings on all aspects of vinyl technology, several people have recommended that I check out Vinyl Video, an artistic venture by a collective of European artists, who encode black and white video data into the grooves of vinyl records, and play them back through a custom-built set-top box. The box, which decodes the video data and transmits the signal to an ordinary television set, is available from the Vinyl Video website for approximately $2500.


     The collective has commissioned video and animation from a wide variety of artists, whose submissions have been encoded into the proprietary format and pressed onto vinyl in extremely limited runs. You can view a gallery of the video playback produced by the artists here, and listen to samples of what encoded images sound like when played back on an ordinary turntable here. The product of all this work has toured as an installation through a number of galleries around the world. Below is an excerpt from French animator Cecile Babiole’s contribution to the series – ‘100 Loops,’ which consists of 100 loops of tiny skeletons dancing.

     The most interesting thing I discovered while looking around for the Vinyl Video website is that it isn’t the first technology used to encode video data into the grooves of records. In fact, there was a ‘format war’ of sorts that broke out amongst companies encoding video onto grooved discs, well before the VHS / Beta wars were waged. CED’s appear to have been the dominant iteration of this technology, though I’ve found reference to a number of similarly imagined formats, including
VHD videodisc system, Magnavision/DiscoVision, phonovid, and teldec.

     CED’s (Capacitance Electronic Discs) were produced by RCA. The actual discs were housed in plastic ‘caddies,’ which were inserted into the player. Once inserted, the player automatically extracted the disc from the caddy and began playback. To remove the disc from the player, the caddy was reinserted. There are some handy video clips depicting this process in a variety of formats available courtesy of the CED magic website.

Some great quotes I stumbled upon in my browsing:

     “Why Collect RCA VideoDiscs?
American Technology. The CED system was envisioned and manufactured (all discs and the RCA players) entirely in the U.S.A., and it was the last major electronic entertainment format to have this distinction. It was also RCA’s splashiest product introduction, and the last major thing the company did before its disposition by GE in 1986.”

     Some people embrace the CED format for the very reason others have deplored it – the grooved, stylus-read media. CED represents the final chapter in grooved media that began with the Edison Cylinder in the 19th century. In an odd twist of history, LaserDisc and Audio CD were cool back in the early 1980’s due to the newness of lasers in consumer products. But with the passage of time, the unusual capacitance pickup in the CED system has a retro appeal lacking in the commonplace laser pickups of today.”

     I decided I needed a closer look at one of these discs, so I spent $3.99 of my hard-earned wages on a copy of (the un-altered cut of) Star Wars. The caddy is easily opened with a pencil, and the disc can then be examined. Below is a side-by-side comparison photo of a de-caddied CED and a regular LP.

     There’s a good explanation of the actual mechanics involved in this technology here.

     “One of the great misunderstandings about the CED’s is around this point. The “needle” stylus rides in a groove. The information is is recorded in pits beneath the groove and varies the capacitance in the pickup. The groove was nothing more than a way to guide the stylus. It is NOT at all similar to LP’s. The stylus would move in the track, an angle change in the stylus carrying mechanism was sensed, and a motor would move the arm. Very similar
to tangetial arm phono pickups.”

     “The plus side of using the groove to guide is that you had to only have an information track, and the physical groove replaced a servo track. The other capacitance system, the JVC VHD system, used a flat disk (no grooves). Two capacitance tracks were underneath the surface of the disk. One to guide the “sled” as it it was called, the other picked up the information. JVC was able to get 1 hour per side on 10″ disks. While it enjoyed success in Japan it was never introduced here. I saw a JVC demo of the unit about 1980 or so.”

     As I find a way to relate nearly everything to videogames in some way, it should come as no surprise that I have sniffed out just such a connection in the case of CED’s. While there was a spate of Laserdisc-based games in the 80’s that are revered as classics and actively emulated (See the daphne project), it turns out there was one lonesome arcade game that was developed to use CED technology: NFL Football.

Bonus trivia:

  • NFL Football was the first arcade game to accept $1 and $5 bills
  • The CED portion of the NFL Football contained two commercials for Miller Beer, which would play randomly while the machine was in ‘attract’ mode. Videogames advertising beer. Awesome.
  • Audio and video samples of the game can be found on this page, part of a larger repository of data on this particular game.
  • This page on the CED Magic site discusses the CED aspects in depth.

The Doors

     A decidedly less technologically advanced coupling of moving pictures with records can be found built into the liner notes to the Doors’ first post-Morrison album: ‘Full Circle.’ The record’s cover contains cardstock punch-outs that allow the listener to assemble a zeotrope depicting the evolution of man.

     The idea is that the ardent Doors fan (ie Bruce McCullogh) will assemble the zoetrope, place it atop their copy of ‘Full Circle’ as it spins, and have their MIND BLOWN by the resultant animation of the human life cycle (…and presumably, its synchronicity with the music). The function of a zoetrope is slightly beyond the scope of this glorified weblog installment, but as is custom, I provide the following link to further information so that you may sate your curiosity (link). In short: light shines through circles punched out of the top of the device, and observers watch the evolution come to life through the spaces on the side.

     I took it upon myself to track down an affordable copy of this record with the zeotrope intact and assemble it. Thankfully, they appear quite frequently on eBay, so I didn’t feel bad about taking one off the market for the express purpose of mutilating it.

     As the photos below depict, I assembled my zoetrope, and tested it out for myself. My findings were that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You can get a faint glimpse of the motion occurring, but I wasn’t able to discern enough detail to tell what exactly was going on. This may have a lot to do with the fact that I have horrendous vision and the lighting of the room in which I conducted my ‘experiment,’ so your mileage may vary.

     You might be wondering how the CD reissue of ‘Full Circle’ deals with the reduced ability to blow minds caused by the limitations of the CD format. My research into the matter has proven inconclusive, and by ‘inconclusive,’ I mean that my experiences with the LP copy I own did not instill in me the desire to purchase the same music in another format. In the event that Elektra’s marketing department saw fit to prune the zoetrope from the CD edition, I offer the following digital version of the animation, so that a new generation of overly-devoted Doors fans can have their minds adequately blown.

Red Raven

     While doing the research for my initial spate of vinyl articles, I happened upon a few references to records that could be played back with an animation effect. No label name or title information was given in these references, so I thought I had hit a dead end. A few weeks ago, while shopping at Stormy Records, Co-owner Windy showed me a Red Raven release, which I immediately recognized was an example of what I had been looking for. Subsequent consultation of eBay and Google have yielded a wealth of information on the label and its products.

     It turns out that there are two varieties of Red Raven records. The earliest were small picture discs, with the frames of animation visible beneath transparent grooves. An example of an early Red Raven picyure disc can be seen here. These picture discs, in my opinion, are flimsier and less visually interesting than the later Red Raven releases, which are unique in that only the outer half of the surface area that is typically used for storing audio data is grooved. The inner half consists of 16 frames of looping animation, printed on an oversized label. When the record is placed on a turntable, a special 16-sided mirrored carousel is placed on the spindle. The rotating frames of animation are reflected up into the faces of the mirror, and an animation effect is achieved.

     As is often the case with toys that induce fond childhood memories, the functionality hinges upon a piece that is easily lost, broken, or both – the mirrored carousel. While Red Raven records can still be purchased relatively cheaply, the real obstacle to examining this phenomenon first hand is acquiring one of the custom-made 16-sided mirrors, which usually go for around $150.00 when they surface on eBay.

     Through the magic of the internet, we can see several examples of the (surprisingly high-quality!) animation loops used on Red Raven releases. Four of these animations can be seen below (Click each image to view the page from which they were taken, with further information):


     In all, 16 records were released, making for a total of 32 unique animations, each containing the titular Red Raven in some way. Each record was pressed on vivid color vinyl (at 78 rpm), so they’re pretty fun conversation pieces even without the mirror (If you like dorky conversations, that is). A complete listing of all known Red Raven sides is available here. It’s also worth noting that these 78’s were released in Sweden under a different name – “Film-Karusell”. More information on these alternate versions is available here.

Nasa’s grooved video

     Even NASA got in on the grooved-video-encoding action, developing their own proprietary format for sending video of the Earth up into space. In this case it was still images, but whatever, it counts.

     “Grooved records containing images and sounds of Earth were placed on the two NASA Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The Voyager Interstellar Records were not CED’s, but gold-plated Audio LP mothers made of copper, which normally would be used to make stamping molds for vinyl LP’s. The records were specially mastered to spin at just 16 2/3 RPM and needed several seconds to play back each still image. Playback directions and a stylus cartridge were included with the records. RCA was involved with the production of the Voyager records, and the image reconstruction uses multiple scan lines similar to television.”

     Below is a photograph of the gold-plated aluminium case for the Voyager records. The images on this ‘sleeve’ are pictogram instructions for playback. To me this is the most interesting part of the whole package, but I’m obsessed with usability and boring shit like that. For maximum appreciation, I suggest you play a little game: imagine you found the case pictured below. Click the image to view a close-up, and try to decipher the significance of each image. Then visit this (non-NASA) Voyager Record site and read the solution (About half-way down the page). Puzzle-rific! Hint: It’s WAY more complicated than you think. Come on, this is NASA. You’ll either see the solution and go: “BLAH BLAH BLAH BORING,” or you’ll be like “Dude. DUDE.” Yep. I know you, and I’m pretty confident it’ll be one of those two reactions.

     Just when you thought this record couldn’t get any better, there’s this:

     “The cover of the Voyager record also contains an ultra-pure source of Uranium-238 to serve as a radioactive clock for determining the record’s age.”

It’s official: Best liner notes ever.

     NASA has an official page on the “Golden Record” here. From this site, you can hear samples of the audio we chose to send into space (highlights include “A Tame Dog is Barking,” “Agricultural Sounds Including a Tractor,” “The Voice of a Chimpanzee is Heard Above the Others,” “A Horse and Cart Starting on a Dirt Road and Progressing to a Paved Area,” and “The Sounds of a Bus;” along with greetings in 55 of Earth’s languages), as well as samples of the images encoded.

     Below you’ll see one of these images, carefully chosen as the most likely to appear bizarre out of context (The NASA site explains that the photo’s purpose is to illustrate how “the mouth performs a variety of functions in eating and drinking”). The full listing of the musical compositions included can be found here, and of images here. The story of the collection of the audio greetings in 55 languages is here.

John Baird

     Finally, there’s John Baird. For some reason, this was the last bit of Vinyl Video triviality I managed to unearth, but it’s turning out to be the most interesting. Baird recorded 30 line video onto 78rpm records in 1928. He also demonstrated a 600 line HDTV colour system in 1941. Mindblowing? Yes.

     The best starting point for learning about Baird and his accomplishments seems to be his wikipedia entry. For those looking to delve into the intracacies of Baird’s experimentation with video recording, has lots of great information on Baird’s efforts here, including “a results summary for tired executives“, a summary of which discs have survived the decades, and images recovered from phonovision discs.

     There is a pricey ($55) book on the actual process of restoring the video recorded by Baird, which seems IMPOSSIBLY interesting to me. It’s called Restoring Baird’s Image, and it’s on my amazon wishlist should any independently-wealthy well-wisher wish to wish me well. There’s a .PDF of a September 2000 article that led to the publication of the book available for perusal here.

Here’s a pull-quote from the .PDF – RIFE with intrigue:

     “In 1996, a privately recorded aluminium disc, with just the cryptic words “Television 1933” written on the label, was discovered to contain the earliest-known recording of a television broadcast – in fact, a television special (Figure 5). Featuring the Paramount Astoria Girls, the
recorded fragment was discovered by the author to be from the first television revue broadcast on 21 April 1933, just eight months after the start of the BBC Television Service. The non-stop action on the disc overturns the established views on the 30-line BBC programmes of staid amateurish performances. The camera
technique, lighting technique and production features are all unusual, unique and professional. The rapid pace of the performance is stunning and provides us today with a true measure of Britain’s heritage of television programme making.

     In early 1998, another discovery was made. A set of unmarked privately recorded aluminium discs has been revealed to contain high quality original 30-line vision recordings from the BBC’s 30-line service. One of the singers on the discs is almost certainly Betty Bolton (Figure 6), a well-known contralto, who performed over a dozen times in front of the 30-line cameras. Her vision-only performance on disc is exceptional. After 1500 programmes, the BBC 30-line service closed on 11 September 1935. In November 1936, the BBC re-opened its Television Service with high-definition television. The massive technology leap that television had made left recording technology far behind. It would be nearly 20 years before direct video recording could catch up.”

     For those who would rather watch television about television than read about television, there is a lecture based on the book available for download in the (hopefully) soon-to-be antiquated realvideo format here.

Things I’m looking for:

  • Cheap, functional CED Player.
  • Non-$150 Red Raven Carrousel

Parallel Groove Mail

Vincent Marquardt writes:

     “When I was about 10 years old, someone gave me a bunch of 45’s, all lousy no-name performers; No wonder they were giving them away!”

     “Anyhow, one of them was a female singer singing a song called “Thomas, Richard and Harold”. It was a kind of torch song about this girls’ inability to choose from among the three boyfriends mentioned in the title (And they say men can’t commit!).”

     “At the end of the song, she reveals that, although she’s somewhat fond of this trio of losers, that “Whenever I hear those wedding bells, I always think of…” and then she passionately mentions a fourth name. Well, after about twenty spinnings of the disc, I noticed that the name at the end seemed to change each time. Needless to say, it freaked me out. I thought the record was possessed or something. Someone in my family (my older sister, possibly) figured out, or already knew, that multiple grooves were possible. Up until then, the coolest thing I ever heard on record was the B-side of Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Ha!” (“!aH aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT!”).

     This is all in reference to my article thingy on parallel-grooved records. If you remember this record, and know the name of the artist, please let me know. Googling the title with a few select search terms didn’t help much.

Totally Gakken!

     I finally got my hands on that functional japanese gramophone model kit thing that I wrote about here. What follows is my review! Get excited!

     I’d previously been thwarted in my efforts to order it through Amazon Japan. A few weeks later, the kit showed up in an issue of Readymade Magazine, and they were apparently flooded with requests for further information. Several importers have since picked up the kit for distribution in the U.S. If you contact Readymade about where to purchase the kit, they refer you to, which is currently selling the kit for a ridiculous $70 US. Their page for the kit does offer this link to a pdf the English version of the instruction Manual. If you’re feeling thrifty, you can get it for ~ $30.00 (depending on the exchange rate) through Hobby Link Japan by clicking here. Both importers are awaiting November restock shipments.

     Once you tear into the box, this is what you’re left with – a bunch of plastic, some styrofoam, a motor, a thumb tack, two sewing needles, and a bunch of tiny screws encased in a blister pack. You also get instructions in both English and Japanese. If you’re the sort of music nerd who thinks this is the greatest thing ever, but you’re hesitant to order because of past issues with language incompatibility, rest assured that the translation of the English instructions is actually really, really good. I flew through the assembly in about an hour.

     Below is an image of the model after assembly. In short, you swing a weight into place above the needle, turn on the motor, and Speak into the horn. As the motor turns the platter, the sound vibrations striking the horn are transmitted to the needle, which scratches a linear representation of these vibrations into the surface of the media (In this case a CD-ROM, though several soft, white plastic discs are also included). For playback, the weight above the needle is reduced, and the needle rides in the grooves it had previously scratched out. The vibrations of the needle are in turn transmitted to the horn, producing the audible playback. Woo, science!

     I’ve only tested it once, but it works and that’s good enough for me. The audio is predictably thin and warbly, as should be expected when using a rickety plastic turntable and a sewing needle to cut grooves into a CD-ROM. This seemed like as good a reason as any to start figuring out iMovie, so without further ado, the reason you’re all here: A video of the model playing back audio of me singing a bit of ‘Young At Heart’ in a warbly Muppet voice.

Gakken Berliner Gramophone Model – “Young At Heart”
From: My Diningroom Table

     The most interesting bit of information I can add to all of this is that this particular model is part of a series of ‘adult education’ models – called Otona no Kagaku. On a whim, I searched the hobby link Japan website for the rest of the models in the series, and was rewarded with the following totally great news:

There’s an Edison Cylinder kit.


     Oh, hottest of damns! Somehow I missed this when looking at the Japanese Gakken Website (It could have something to do with it all being in Japanese). It appears to be similar in abstraction to the gramophone kit, constructed of interlocking wood pieces, and the recording is scratched into a plastic cup. Some of the other kits aren’t too shabby either. Here are twoautomaton‘ kits in the same series.

Clumsy conclusion: Four Stars!

The Future: Theft

     Kim Stahr, the person whose copy of Shellac’s ‘The Futurist’ LP recently sold on EBay for $810 emailed me the other day. You can read about the reasons this was percieved as significant in my previous post. Kim wrote:

     “Found out on Sunday night that my Futurist LP was stolen and sold on ebay for 810.00 and afterwards found all these websites discussing the sale and “how dare she” type comments. Just thought the fact that it was taken from me and sold might add a little spice to your archives.

Kim Stahr”

     Vindicated! More in the Electrical Audio thread.