Audio Engineering Society

Chicago Section

Meeting Review, November 20, 2008


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11/20/08 Meeting Highlights
by Ryan Scott

Patrick Feaster presented the Quest for the World's Oldest Recording at the Chicago section's November meeting. The FirstSounds team has pioneered the recovery of sound from phonautograms, many of which were recorded before Edison invented the phonogram in 1877. Patrick began by giving a brief history of recording and reproducing sound and speech. Relevant newspaper clippings, advertisements and patents were used to set the stage for Leon Scott's patent application for the phonautograph (1857). The phonautograph consists of a membrane that transfers acoustical vibrations to a needle which then inscribes the oscillations on a rotating sheet of paper. Patrick explained the exciting hunt for a readable copy of one of these recordings. Leon Scott's original patent application was eventually tracked down yielding a very promising set of recordings. These traces were converted to digital audio signals using the IRENE system at Berkley (used to optically read records). A major improvement to the quality of the playbacks occurred when a second "channel" was discovered adjacent to the main waveform trace. This secondary waveform was created by a tuning fork of known pitch that allowed the FirstSounds team to correct for the unsteady time-stretching that was a result of the phonautograph being hand cranked. Throughout the presentation Patrick played various stages of the 1860 recording "Au Clair de la Lune French folk song" that was recovered from Scott's patent application. These listening demonstrations showed how each new discovery in their search yielded an ever improving recording. Gorge Gouraud's recording in 1888 previously held the record for the world's oldest recording, which was beaten by the FirstSounds discovery by 28 years! Patrick finished the presentation by showing the progression of Leon Scott's phonautograph design and discussed some of the technical difficulties with converting the waveform traces to digital audio.

The discussion ended with a jump to the present day, explaining how Leon Scott's great-great-grandson is campaigning to give credit to his grandfather's discovery, a fact which has largely been ignored in the shadow of Thomas Edison's celebrity. The Chicago chapter would like to thank Patrick for a wonderful and entertaining presentation. For more information and a chance to listen to the world's oldest recording, please visit www.FirstSounds.org