A primer on the birth and evolution of recorded sound and the rise of high-fidelity stereo systems…
Cheesy 1990s graphics? Check. Dated approach to documentary TV? Obviously. Woefully America-centric view of stereophonic sound’s evolution? Certainly! Snobbish, mansplaining white-dude talking heads? Of course.
All of this can be true and you can still find much to absorb in the ‘Stereos’ episode of the series Modern Marvels. Filled with information that lays out the basics of stereophonic sound reproduction and the ways in which inventors and sound geeks changed how we listen to music, the 45-minute documentary, which originally aired on the History Channel, offers a primer on the birth and evolution of recorded sound and the rise of high-fidelity stereo systems – at least the Westernized version of this history.
Starting with the birth of the medium, the episode delivers its information in easily digestible chunks, with clunky computer graphics, synth-driven library music, an authoritative, deep voiced narrator and lots of Ken Burns-ian pans of old photos.
Once you get over the dated style, though, it’s got a lot of great data and first-hand recollections, most notably from speaker builder Henry Kloss, whose work with Acoustic Research, KLH, and Advent helped transform enthusiasts such as himself into pioneers of sound reproduction.
‘Stereos’ also lays out the basics of vinyl recording in a way that’s simple to understand; you’ll exit the episode understanding why 45-degree angles play a crucial role in record playback and amplification, and the ways in which the CD revolution transformed, for better and worse, the business of recording. You also might notice the unfortunate truth that, despite the absolute dominance of Japanese audio companies in the 1970s, none are acknowledged in the episode until Sony earns a mention as leading the ascent of the CD. (Hey, it’s the History Channel, what do you want?)
Here’s the episode. Note: Though the clip runs 75 minutes, the doc is about half that in length and repeats twice (probably for some algorithmic reason).
And, just because, below is a YouTube clip of the first ever stereophonic sound recording, which is referenced in the Modern Marvels episode. From the video’s notes:
“This is the first single groove stereo recording, produced at Bell’s Telephone Laboratories in New York City on June 1, 1934. AC Keller and IS Rafuse had already conceived a way of separating high and low frequencies and recording them on parallel tracks on the same record. Later they found a way of recording two complete sound tracks and reproducing both tracks simultaneously using a single pickup. From this came two full-range bands from left and right microphones in the same groove. In this recording you will hear Bell Lab employees Ted R. D. Collins, Harley A. Henning, and the inventor Arthur C. Keller. The stereo technique was patented by Keller and Rafuse in 1938.”
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