During our last DTU skills training we experimented with the phonograph as a form of media ethnography. Simulating the learning-by-doing teaching technique that Kirsten Haring introduced we didn’t waste much time reflecting and got hands-on immediately during the second day of the training. The one thing we did reflect on the day before was what we wanted to record. Both Marleen and I were keen on combining our hobbies and work, so we decided on recording live music. I was particularly motivated to try out the violin because Dr. Stefan Krebs mentioned that at the time they couldn’t record the violin with the Edison phonograph because it wasn’t loud enough. Ever the historian I wanted to put that finding to the test (perhaps driven to prove it wrong).
When I got home that evening I got my dusty violin out of its case and started looking through my stack of sheet music for a piece that was easy to play and did not exceed the 2-minute wax cylinder limit. Eventually I decided on the Carnival of Venice because it is such a recognizable tune. I practiced for about an hour the night before the second training day and packed my violin and the sheet music before heading to the skills training. Although we were given a copy of the original user manual the night before, I only took a brief look at it. I generally don’t bother with user manuals too long unless I have to put together IKEA furniture, so this manual didn’t help me much either. That morning the first thing we did was take a long hard look at the Edison Phonograph and figure out what each component did. In order to understand the recording process, we watched a YouTube instruction video and after a presentation on video-reflexive ethnography by professor Jessica Mesman attempted our first recording.
Instead of sticking to the original schedule and having one group observing the other, we all gathered around for the recording. First I had to tune the violin while Marleen was also warming up the flute she brought. Jessica held the sheet music for me, Kaarel announced the title of the music, Stefan started the recording and measured the decibels with his phone, and the others were either recording the first try with their phone or observing the procedure. At the end of the first recording, I stopped the phonograph on time so that there was a part of the cylinder left for Marleen and then she recorded the song she knew by heart.
While listening to the recording afterwards the violin was indeed hard to hear, whereas the sound of the flute was slightly easier to pick up, so we decided to try out a few different techniques. First, we added a piece of carton board around the recording horn in order to capture the sound better. That didn’t work because the carton board absorbed the sound rather than expanding the reach of the horn. Furthermore, the piece of carton made it harder to stand close enough to the recording horn. Next, we heated the wax cylinder right before our final test and that improved the recording much better than the cardboard addition.
In order to listen to the recordings we had to change the horn and the ‘reproducer’, and both of these elements influenced the quality of playback. As I was visiting the Heinz-Nixdorf museumsForum a month later in Paderborn, the Dictaphone caught my attention. This device that otherwise looks very similar to the Phonograph, seemed to use headphones instead of a reproducer-horn.
The Phonograph was used at home, whereas the Dictaphone was used in the office. While I was looking at the images accompanying the display, two thoughts popped into my head. First, I realised that this constellation of a manager speaking into the Dictaphone and a secretary afterwards transcribing the recording must have inspired Vannevar Bush while he was describing certain features of the ‘memex’ in As We May Think. Second, transcribing speech to text – whether by typewriter or modern day computer – requires absolute concentration and noise-cancelling headphones. The headphones from this Dictaphone must have been inspired by the stethoscope because the metal part that you would expect to go over the head of the secretary hung below her chin. Whether for entertaining or professional purposes, this analogue media has influenced our experience of listening to music profoundly. To the point where modern songs usually only last between 2 and 4 minutes, the maximum length of a recording on a wax cylinder.