Monday, April 21, 2008

Gimme Some o' That Technology!

I've been snuffling around at Wikipedia, trying to figure out the answer to a conundrum for my book. Not to quote it or anything (oooh, you naughty boy!) but just to understand the thing.

I've "known" as a matter of received knowledge that these old Victor 78s I've been listening to rather obsessively could be no longer than three minutes, because that's how much a 78 side could contain. But as I look at the timings of these things in digital format (because, pout pout, my editor won't buy me a Victrola and a stack of eyewateringly rare and expensive 78s, the catchpenny swine), many of them are quite a bit longer than that. In particular, "Darlin' Cora," recorded by B. F. Shelton with Ralph Peer in 1927, is 3:50 long, according to iTunes.

At any rate. My problem to solve. But reading a Wiki article on the history of recording technology, I came across this paragraph, which elicited a hearty guffaw. Also, I laughed.
In the 1930s radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi developed a system of magnetic sound recording using steel tape. This was the same material used to make razor blades, and not surprisingly the fearsome Marconi-Stille recorders were considered so dangerous that technicians had to operate them from another room for safety. Because of the high recording speeds required, they used enormous reels about one metre in diameter, and the thin tape frequently broke, sending jagged lengths of razor steel flying around the studio.
Yes, I can see why it didn't catch on....

George Martin, on the talkback mic: I'm afraid we've a spot of trouble, lads.

John Lennon: What is it, Georgie?

Martin: Well, you see, we've had to call an ambulance for Geoff Emerick; I'm afraid there's a spot of blood on the tape op's chair. And on the ceiling, too, now that I look. Oh, dear, and splashed about the studio walls, too, rather higgledy-piggledy. It's going to take ever so long for EMI to have the cleaners in.

Paul McCartney: It's that bloody Marconi machine again, innit? That's the fourth tape op we've lost this week!

Martin: Yes, the razor-sharp, high-tension recording medium wrapped itself around his head and torso a right treat. Rather looked like a Chinaman undergoing the Death of a Thousand Cuts three months in. Well, bright spot: Geoff's screams of agony have died away somewhat. Don't know if that's because it's stopped being quite so dreadfully painful, or because he's weakened from loss of blood. Blessing for the rest of us, at any rate. Shall we run though that new one, then? What is it? "You Should Know Your Mother"?


Simon (Homefront Radio) said...

Emerick: "Compared to the presence of Chris Thomas and Yoko Ono, this is rather nice actually."


(spitting blood) "Take One, Third remake of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Life Goes On... No, it doesn't!"

Larry Jones said...

Thus the question "How many cuts on your new LP, boys?"

Also, if some 78's were 3:50 in length, may I suggest that, contrary to your received knowledge, the effective limit was not three minutes?

noblesavage said...

Play those screams backwards and they say, "Dammit, the wrong Beatle will die!"


Roger D. Parish said...

My parents had an album of Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite on 78's. The discs were larger in diameter than normal 78's; they were about the size of LP's of 33 1/3 RPM. I guess you could call them EP's.

bobby lightfoot said...

Somebody's gotta do it:



"rather higgledy-piggledy"


Neddie said...

Ah. Here we go.

"Because a 10-inch 78 rpm record could hold around three minutes of sound per side and the 10-inch size was the standard size for popular music, almost all popular recordings were limited to around three minutes in length.The maximum length seems to have been about three minutes, thirty seconds."

Also, the mechanism used to power the recording device was often imprecise and/or miscalibrated, so recordings were speeded up or slowed down at their inception. (Thanks to Carlos for this link.)

Neddie said...

Roger, the linked Wikipedia article mentions those larger records.

Dave said...

Yeah, but why bother makin' 'em longer when radio wouldn't play anything over 3 minutes?

Not that there WAS radio for the first couple of decades of shellac discs...