A sound media historian at Indiana University recently made a remarkable discovery. Patrick Feaster was reading an article on early recording studios to help with a study he was doing on early Thomas Edison recordings. In a German magazine dating from 1890, Über Land und Meer, he stumbled on a paper print image of a recording by Emile Berliner, father of the gramophone. The recording was created in 1889, and was Berliner’s voice reciting Friedrich Schiller's ballad "Der Handschuh." And Feaster meant to hear it.
But how the heck does someone recreate a recording from a photograph? Lucky for Feaster, he had already developed the necessary technology. Using a scan of the image, he unwound the data into a continuous strand of data, and then used software he created to build a sound file from the images contained in the print.
Feaster, in an interview with Reuters, said “That format originated with the gramophone of Emile Berliner and this recording, "Der Handschuh," appears to be the oldest gramophone recording we can listen to today. So in that sense it is the oldest ancestor of vintage vinyl that anybody has ever tried to play."
He’s used this technique before in other recordings by Berliner, including one of a conversation between Berliner and Louis Rosenthal, who was interested in photographic duplication. "After weighing the evidence, my colleague and I conclude Berliner must have demonstrated the recording process for Rosenthal and then sent him home with the record they'd made together, plus a few others Berliner had prepared previously," Feaster said. "If we’re right, the 'Der Handschuh' recording must be the older of the two recordings, making it the oldest gramophone recording available anywhere for listening today — the earliest audible progenitor of the world's vintage vinyl."
Feaster’s software might use the oldest analog technology around, but he certainly seems to have developed quite a sophisticated analog to digital converter. I wonder what could he do with my original release of The White Album that's gotten played about 200 times too many?
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.