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