Gramophones and Grooves on Radio 4

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 17 September 2004

This week I've been really enjoying a five part series broadcast on Radio 4 - Gramophones and Grooves - an exploration by David Owen Norris of 19th century sound recordings. It is astonishing to think that these sounds have survived on those fragile early formats for over one hundred years now.

The shows included end of the 19th century popular tunes and the spoken word of course, but I also really enjoyed the ethnographical recordings - whether it was the rendition of the British National Anthem by natives of the colony in Papua New Guinea, or an American Indian song sung by He Who Scares The Turtle and Plainly Visible.

One of the highlights was in episode 4, with Norris recording his own homage to Edison's original "Mary Had A Little Lamb" recording - the quality was surprisingly good. It also demonstrated something that was explained in the programme which is difficult for us to now imagine. The crackle and hiss of old Edison wax cylinder's or Berliner Gramophone recordings isn't inherent in the recording technique or the media themselves, it is actually a result of aging. When they were first made the recordings apparently sounded little worse than our present day vinyl albums.

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