Oldest recorded voice
June 1, 2009 4:34 PM   Subscribe

Last year we discussed a recently discovered 10-second audio recording from 1860 that was thought to be the oldest known recorded human voice, a girl or woman singing the 18th century French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune”. Turns out, it was being played too fast - slow it down and it's the voice of the inventor himself. As well, a number of other recordings have been found, pushing back the oldest recording to 1857. Hear it all on NPR (5-min). posted by stbalbach (24 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't think it sounded right. It didn't sound timed correctly, emphasized correctly. Even a poor singer will imitate a rhythm recognizably. Of course this idea has no particular authority to it, so I didn't suppose it wasn't right.

It all sounds terribly like EVP, anyway.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:45 PM on June 1, 2009

I heard this piece on NPR this evening and was fascinated by it. Though, I have to say that, to my ears, the Au Clair de la Lune recording actually sounded more correct in the too-fast version than the supposedly correct slower version.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:46 PM on June 1, 2009

Are you telling me I have to throw out all my 78s and replace them with phonautograms?!
posted by The White Hat at 4:48 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

1857... wow. They could have recorded Chief Justice Taney handing down the Dred Scott decision.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:51 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

I find these discoveries fascinating. At the same time, it's heartbreaking to think that this man's accomplishment, which he would have (presumably) been tremendously excited for, was swept under the rug for so long.

It's also fascinating that 19th century humans spoke in the manner of a muted trumpet. Evolution!
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:53 PM on June 1, 2009

Oh cool. Here's a clip of the actual phonautogram.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:05 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

*Possibly lying. This is really cool.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:12 PM on June 1, 2009

I don't know, I thought there was something beautiful about this young woman's voice tenuously reaching out to us from 150 years ago. Almost like the sonic equivalent of the faded first self-portrait daguerreotype staring back at us through time...
posted by Sova at 5:31 PM on June 1, 2009

Durn Bronzefist, that makes me laugh every time.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:39 PM on June 1, 2009

Sova: "I don't know, I thought there was something beautiful about this young woman's voice tenuously reaching out to us from 150 years ago."

They were playing it at 2x speed; it was a dude.
posted by The White Hat at 5:40 PM on June 1, 2009

More than a hundred years before Alvin and the Chipmunks!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:46 PM on June 1, 2009

If you play it backward it sounds like: "There's no-one except the sheik that remembered we had the mumps"
posted by Smedleyman at 5:51 PM on June 1, 2009

I actually just heard David Giovannoni and Patrick Feaster present this at the ARSC (Association of Recorded Sound Collections) conference last week. Their presentation was easily the highlight of the conference, covering not just the recordings, but the work that they've been doing to track down the recordings in a variety of French archives and to create usable audio from some scratches on sooty paper.

One cool aspect of the recordings that they don't go into in the NPR report is that Leon Scott actually recorded a tuning fork on a parallel track on the phonautograms. This is what allowed the researchers to stabilize the playback speed - the garbled clip that they play at the end of the NPR piece was an earlier one which didn't have the tuning fork. The speed discrepancy arose because the notation on the recording read "500 simple vibrations per second," which they interpreted as 500 Hz. When they did more research, they found out that in the scientific understanding of that time, a "simple vibration" was half of what we now consider a full vibration, therefore the tuning fork was actually vibrating at 250 Hz.

Another highlight: as part of this project, Giovannoni met and befriended Scott's great-grandson. When the great-grandson was interviewed about the discovery (possibly for an earlier NPR report, I don't remember), he was asked if the entire history of recorded sound would now have to be rewritten. He replied, "No, only a few sentences. But key ones."

More info, including more photautogram recordings, available at the First Sounds website.
posted by Awkward Philip at 5:59 PM on June 1, 2009 [14 favorites]

turn me on, dead man, turn me on, dead man...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:01 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

That's really pretty amazing.
posted by oddman at 6:44 PM on June 1, 2009

I have to add that the first time I ever heard this recording was in this context.
posted by Dia Nomou Nomo Apethanon at 9:39 PM on June 1, 2009

I had the unexpected pleasure of having dinner with David Giovannoni last year after he presented at an audiovisual archiving symposium, where his presentation was definitely the highlight of an otherwise dryly technical day. If I remember correctly, we were among the first people who got to hear this recording, and the palpable thrill of being there to hear this voice, traveling improbably across time to reach out to us through a humble little song, is one of the reasons why I got into this field.

He also had some great (and greatly needed) advice to give me and my colleagues, over bowls of cheap ramen, about not being afraid to follow your passions, even you have to go down a path that diverges wildly from where you feel you should be headed (something he'd done himself, in order to follow his passion and do the work he's doing now). All in all an inspiring encounter.

Thanks very much for this update!
posted by estherbester at 11:54 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by LobsterMitten at 12:51 AM on June 2, 2009

These are the same guys who released a collection of early dirty recordings. Wiki:
Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s is a compilation of jokes and stories recorded to wax cylinders during the 1890s. At the time the recordings were made, they were considered indecent, and nearly all similar recordings from this era have been destroyed, often by law. The compilation was assembled by Patrick Feaster and David Giovannoni, and released on Archeophone Records, an archival reissue label, in 2007. It received two Grammy Award nominations. [...]
Back then, the seven words you couldn't say in a recording included "bum" and ".
posted by pracowity at 3:51 AM on June 2, 2009

Oh, dear. I thought about adding a lame joke, changed my mind half way through, and then must have clicked Post with it anyway. Eh.
posted by pracowity at 4:13 AM on June 2, 2009

Bum and bustle?
posted by loquacious at 7:49 AM on June 2, 2009

The thing about this that really gets to me is the materials used: soot, paper, and quill. In theory some unknown Roman or Egyptian could have accomplished the same feat. Wouldn't that be something, to hear Antony or Amon-Ra? Or even some shlub in a hovel down by the river?
posted by mwhybark at 12:50 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I'm not mistaken, the copyright on these recordings expires in only 99 years.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:50 PM on June 2, 2009

stbalbach: Turns out, it was being played too fast - slow it down and it's the voice of the inventor himself.

See, that happens to me all the time—he probably just had the sampling rate on the recording channel out of sync with sampling rate on the playback channel. He should've just opened "preferences" and made sure that they both were set together.

Unless, of course, he was recording it as an .flv file, in which case good luck—I swear, flash video files are the most primitive audio/video medium available. They're always out of sync for me.
posted by koeselitz at 5:25 PM on June 2, 2009

« Older Miracle Cure or Risky Business?   |   Daikichi Amano Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments