Gino Robair is former editor of EM

What Would Lomax Do?

A friend of mine just became an apprentice in lost-wax bronze casting, a technique that goes back a few millennia. The basic idea is that you create the shape in some form of soft media, which dissolves when you pour the bronze, leaving a metal sculpture. The chemical composition of the materials used in the process may have changed over the years, but the technique itself has remained pretty much unchanged. The same, of course, can be said about many visual arts.

In contrast, the recording arts are still in their infancy. Think of how much music technology has changed within the last couple of decades alone. It often feels like recording and delivery formats are being introduced with increasing frequency as entrepreneurs search for the next monetizable trend. Yet, nothing has been developed that would stand the test of time on the scale of bronze sculpture.

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I was reminded while reading John Szwed’s excellent bio Alan Lomax (Viking; 2010) that the speedy turnover of recording and reproduction technology isn’t a new thing. Almost from the dawn of commercial recording, there were competing playback formats, with manufacturers starting their own labels and distribution organizations to support their products. More recently, Sony took it further by having a hand in every aspect of music, from its mics and recorders, to its CD replication plants, to its playback devices and record label.

The Lomaxes — Alan and his father, John — began archiving audio on cylinders around 1933, just 78 years ago — a blink of an eye in the larger scheme of things. Think of it this way: personal computers have been around 30 of those years, and MIDI just over 25 years. Bob Moog took his first order for synth modules 47 years ago, and tape decks hit the commercial market just after World War II. If you consider the various tape formats, alone, a lot has happened in less than a human lifetime.

Recording technology itself has been around just over 150 years, if you count as the starting point the smoked-paper tracings from Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph in 1857-1860. (Even fewer years, if you begin with Thomas Edison’s invention in 1877.)

In his book, Szwed details the early equipment that Lomax and his father used for field recording, from their first “windup office Ediphone” that used cylinders to a disc-cutting machine, which was at the forefront of audio technology in the U.S. at the time. The disc-cutter weighed 315 lbs, and Lomax would schlep it wherever the action was. Their car was modified to hold the lathe and other components, creating perhaps the first mobile recording rig. The two men also hauled around a tube amplifier, a pair of batteries weighing 75 lbs, a battery charger, a microphone, a mixer, a speaker, spare parts, and, of course, blank media — aluminum and celluloid discs.

Imagine, for a moment, what a box of those discs must have weighed, each of which held only a few minutes of music. For those of you who own LP records, go grab 25 discs and carry them around for a few minutes. Now imagine those are fragile masters that you’ll be carrying in the back of the car for the next few weeks as you drive the dusty backroads of the South during the summer.

Smaller, Yet Bigger
The enormity of their endeavor really hit home when I read Tascam’s recent announcement about its new DP-05 portable digital recorder, which sells for $99 and fits in your pocket. The unit is capable of recording 24-bit, 96kHz WAV files, as well as MP3 files, and it can accept a 32GB microSDHC card for storage. If you were to capture audio at the resolution that the Lomax’s did using something like the DP-05, you could record for months before having to change cards.

So, in the amount of time it takes a married couple to reach their diamond anniversary, recording technology has improved such that the devices have been reduced to a tiny fraction in size, weight and price, while increasing in data storage by several orders of magnitude.

Not only do we take this for granted, it’s not good enough. In fact, it’s never good enough. Not now, and not then. Today’s pocket-sized digital recorders are simply an arbitrary point on a trend that will continue until — when?

Always the Point of No Return
Of course, once they began working with their first disc cutter, the Lomaxes figured out how to improve their recordings, which made them want to go back and re-record the singers they’d met in the preceding months. Most of us have felt that way at one time or another about something important we’ve recorded. Often we can’t go back or do a retake. But just as often, we’re lucky enough to capture a special event on whatever device is handy, despite less-than-optimal sound quality.

In an interview with WashingtonCityPaper.com, Szwed notes that Alan Lomax always used the best equipment he could and, as a result, his audio and visual material has lasted. Now it’s just a matter of sorting through it all.

But where and how will all the information we generate be stored and how long will it last? Although much of what we see and hear online seems expendable, trivial, and of dubious cultural value, no doubt some of it will be considered important in the future, just as the prison songs and field hollers that the Lomaxes recorded are valued today.

Of course we’re all trying to figure out what to do about our music in the long term, especially in this strange time of format transition and the reinvention of the record-business paradigm. Although it’s getting increasingly difficult to sell music, the trend might reverse itself depending on the next series of innovations.

What I find interesting is how earlier audio obsessives navigated the nascent world of music publishing while trying to gain wider distribution of the important sounds they were documenting. And it’s especially eye opening when you examine the choices made in terms of copyright and the developing concepts of authorship and ownership over the last century. (Check out Richard Carlin’s Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways [Collins; 2008], where it’s noted over and over again how label founder Moses Asch had no problem reissuing a record if the original label let it go out of print. Who needs permission?)

There is much debate about how fairly Alan Lomax dealt with the recording artists and everyday people he documented over the course of his career. Interestingly, one can sense parallels between the early recording industry and the issues that have come up today regarding the use of the media we upload to social networking sites, including YouTube; for example, we gladly let someone disseminate our ideas, but don’t necessarily share in the profit. That’s the history of the record biz in a nutshell.

Meanwhile, we hope that our creations will be around long enough for someone else to enjoy, even if commercial potential is not a consideration. Thankfully, storage space continues to drop in price, which makes it easy to re-archive our work as each new format is introduced. Hopefully, one day there will be a format that can stand the test of time as many of the visual arts do.

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