It would seem that it’s Mostly Music week here at Collectors Quest, so who am I to break that crackly, 33 RPM stride? Fitting, since there has been a surprising cluster of turntable-related issues that have absorbed me lately. From converting rare 45s to MP3s for a friend, to the odd discovery of unique and bizarre recordings, to that burning desire to press my very own collectible 45 despite the fact that music is not one of my stronger talents. I mean, the two songs that I recorded were complete genius, but I think I petered out around there.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was digging through a sack of mistreated albums and found a rusty old Voice-O-Graph record at the bottom. My entire purpose for hunting down forgotten vinyl is to capture sounds that have been lost to time, and the Voice-O-Graph fits that description perfectly.
The Voice-O-Graph was a machine contained in a booth, made by the Mutoscope Corporation circa the late 1950s and 1960s. While they were mostly known for their bawdy flip-book movie machines, the Voice-O-Graph machine ventured into audible territory. The machine would allow you to record your own unique 45 (or 78) RPM record, reflecting whatever sounds you chose to make in the booth. Audio cassettes wouldn’t really become popular until the late 1970s, so in an era where recording equipment was not as readily available as it is today, these were surely thrilling machines. The idea recording oneself for perpetuity and aural immortality is one that appeals to us all. Of course, these records could only be etched once, so the sounds stored on them were completely unique and existed solely on that singular recording. And this is where I become fascinated at the prospect of hours of lost sounds that still have the potential to be rediscovered.
The Voice-O-Graph that I discovered is fairly rusted and useless, and I’m not even positive that it has anything coherent recorded on it, but it’s led to a hunt for more. For all of their obscurity and beauty, they don’t auction for very much money, and interest in them seems sparse at best. Of course, this means that there’s more for me. I’d venture that the same people interested in the Voice-O-Graph would be the same people who like collecting family photos from families that are very much not their own. There’s a touch of voyeurism, a touch of amateur sociology, but mostly, it’s about finding appreciation for small segments of captured life that might have gone otherwise lost and unappreciated.
The Voice-O-Graph records came with mailing envelopes, should you want to send an audio message to some distant location. These have long since been replaced by booths that burn CDs on demand, and after that, the increasing accessibility of home recording and e-mailing yourself around like some common harlot. The old records remain, though, mostly anonymous voices waiting to be heard again.
[Author's note, 2012 : I've since started a free service to convert voice-o-graphs which people might find in their attics or closets. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!]
The romance of etching your own record is not lost, though. A Japanese company called Gakken produced a technological model kit that will allow you create your own ‘records’ of sorts – mostly for scientifically demonstrative purposes, but that ‘potential immortality’ thing also comes into play. The assembly is fairly simple with the aid of the instructions included (in English, with some releases), and once assembled, the Emile Berliner Turntable allows you to speak or sing loudly into a Styrofoam cone, which in turn vibrates a sewing needle in contact with a smooth, flat disc. The disc in question can be anything with a smooth, impressionable surface, but old CDs come with high recommendations. The days of getting endless AOL signup CDs in the mail was a golden era for the Gakken Turntable. Since AOL has stopped destroying the universe with these discs, I usually pull my supply from ultra-cheap CDRs or nonfunctioning audiobook sets. Once recorded, you can only play back the recording on another Gakken Turntable kit, but not a regular turntable. The process retains the same technology and theory.
While I never tweaked mine enough to get anything more than a tinny, whispery sound out of it, other tinkerers have been more successful than I. Because of this, mine is fairly dusty and forgotten, but it made the fundamental (and surprisingly simple) forces behind what makes records work a bit clearer.
Of course, you can also live in the twenty-first century like a regular person and just hook a mic up to your Powerbook… but seriously, what’s so great about this modern age?