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A Sound Education

Crank Up the Old Gramo-Grapho-iPhone-a-Graph


"It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new."

Tony Visconti

Which name will stick to a new technology? It's usually not the one given to it by the inventor.


It's For the Birds

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“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
Robert Lynd

Though we may seem as different as night and day, avians and humans may be more connected to each other than you think.


Recycling Audio Cycles


"I think reincarnation is possible. Hopefully, we all get recycled."

Christina Ricci

We all should recycle. A look at repurposing old audio gear into funky new uses. Plus find out the latest news from Dynamix Productions.


Messages From the Deeps

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- Lt. Werner: What's going on? Why are we diving?
- 2nd Lieutenant: Hydrophone check. At sea, even in a storm you can hear more down here than you can see up there.”

Das Boot

Everybody knows Popeye the Sailor Man, right? I worshipped that cartoon when I was a little kid. I even went around with a little spinach-packed container tucked into my waste-band and picked fights, just so I could eat the spinach before throwing punches - true story. There were many impossible feats beyond my spinach-fueled superpowers that only Popeye could do, and one of them was to yell for help while trapped under the sea. In one cartoon, Bluto (who else but that disgustipatin' brute) traps Popeye on the sea bottom with nothing but the air in his lungs. When Popeye yells for help, a large bubble comes out of his mouth, floats to the surface, and his "Help!" is then heard coming out of the water.

Funny stuff, but now there's a hint of reality in that scene. In the near future, submarines might be using sound waves to communicate through ocean waves. Intriguing, but let's first look at the history of how submarines communicate, problems they face, and why this emerging technology may be the new wave of submerged communications.

The early advancement of submarines almost parallels the advancement of radio. In fact, submarines helped advance early two-way radio communications by taking part in trials of shore-to-ship radio communications. Interesting side note: In World War One my great-uncle George Cassidy served on one of these submarines, the USS Snapper, that had conducted those early radio trials before the war. At the time of the experiments, the Snapper was commanded by Lieutenant Chester W. Nimitz (yes, that Nimitz, the WWII Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief).

Back in the early days of submarines and radio, transmitters could only manage to broadcast low frequency radio waves which required massive antennas and enormous amounts of power. Only large naval ships could accommodate the bulky compliment of radio broadcasting equipment, so submarines could "receive" only. As radio technology improved, radio frequencies got higher, shorter, and had more fidelity. The Navy soon found out that when submarines were deeper than a few hundred feet, saltwater limited transmitting and receiving these higher and smaller radio waves, so submarines stuck with the older-style VLF (Very Low Frequencies, 3 to 30,000 Hz) band for receiving only. A land-based transmitter might signal a "come to the surface" message for submarines, then use traditional radio bands for two-way communication, which can be risky if they want to remain undetected.

Later technology allowed submarines to monitor yet a lower radio band, ELF (Extremely Low Frequencies, 3 to 300 Hz), that penetrated the water even deeper, and from farther away. ELF radio waves can easily travel the globe, either by direct wave or by skipping off the upper atmosphere. The problem with ELF is the real estate and power needed to send such a signal. Any radio wave lower than 30,000 Hz has a ginormous wavelength of 10 kilometers or larger. During World War Two, the Nazis built the Goliath Antenna network in northwestern Germany that could signal any U-boat 20 meters deep, no matter where they were in the world. The system used three 688-foot antennas (half as tall as the Empire State Building) and more than 200 miles of cable (the distance from Lexington to Nashville). The transmitter sucked up 1,000 Kilowatts (the same power that 500 modern households use). After the war, the Soviets dismantled Goliath and installed it near Moscow. The U.S., Britain, and other naval powers had or are still using similar technology. China, which has the world's largest submarine fleet (at last count 111 subs vs 67 American subs) has a New York City-sized ELF transmitter that also triples as a deep earth ore locator for mining, and as an earthquake warning system.

But this technology is very limited for raw communications. VLF has a digital transmission speed of about 200 bits per second (bps) and ELF about 2 bps. For comparison, old-style dial-up internet was about 28,800 bps. That's just barely fast enough for Popeye to Morse-code "SOS." Always looking for an edge, the military developed a type of laser communications in the 1980s. The submarine would direct a weak optical laser beam containing data upwards through the water to an overhead aircraft. Recent experiments show even more promise using adapted fiber technology called Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) that allows subs to be even deeper and stealthier, transmit to satellite, and have full quantum-level encryption at no loss of data speed. Another interesting program has placed underwater modems operating in the 900 to 60,000 Hz band for relaying data between ships and headquarters, though saltwater limits these to a range of 17 miles.

The next submarine technology that will make a big splash is: TARF!!! Or more mundanely: Translational Acoustic-RF Communication. When an acoustic signal is generated under water, it travels as a pressure wave. In fact, sound travels more efficiently in liquids than it does in air, simply because the molecules are closer together and bump into each other more easily. Comparing sound waves moving in water to those in air is kind of like a big crowd at a ballgame doing the wave, versus the same people trying it while social-distancing a hundred feet apart - awkward and inefficient. Anyway, this acoustic wave travels to the surface where the water meets air. At that water-air boundary, tiny displacements occur. These are essentially very tiny ripples that are smaller than typical ocean waves.

These small vibrations or ripples are then detected by very sensitive airborne radar that scans the surface of the water. So far, experiments have been successful with waves as high as 6 1/2 inches and 100,000 times larger than the acoustical ripples. The 400 bps data rate is pretty slow, but a lot faster than current VLF and ELF. Will this be the next big thing for the Navy? It's still in the experimental stage right now, so I defer to the wise old salty sailor Popeye for his opinion. He would probably say, “Leave us not jump to seclusions.” Well blow me down!

I Like That Old Time Rock 'n' Scroll

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"Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I'm old-fashioned, say I'm over the hill
Today' music ain't got the same soul
I like that old time rock 'n' roll."

Bob Seger

Digital media is doomed to disappear at some point. Records may outlast hard drives, CDs, tapes, and other formats we haven't dreamt up yet. But what about stone tablets? I take a look at some of the oldest surviving forms of written music. You might be surprised what some of them contain.


Finch's FAX

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"I got a chain letter by fax. It's very simple. You just fax a dollar bill to everybody on the list."

Steven Wright

William G.H. Finch had a crazy idea. He liked efficiency, and he liked news. He imagined a future that would merge those together for the average American. Americans like Joe and Jane. When they woke up in the morning, this crazy idea goes, a box in their parlor had just printed out the latest news onto paper with stories and pictures, ready to be poured over while eating their breakfast. Wait – that kinda sounds like the here and now. What's crazy is that this brainchild was born in 1933. William Finch saw a gap in the way Joe and Jane got their news. Newspapers, once the dominant source of news just a dozen years before, were relatively slow getting stories out compared to radio. Radio was instantaneous, but didn't have pictures like the newspapers. So he combined the two into a "radio facsimile" machine, or as they called it in the press, "radio printing."

Overnight, while Joe snored and Jane tossed and turned, radio stations transmitted data over their airwaves that sounded a lot like a fax machine does over a telephone line. A radio receiver was attached to a printer with a stylus that etched words, graphs, maps, comics, and pictures onto a roll of paper. These radiofax machines were small enough, light enough, and somewhat cheap enough to live in a family home. At least that was the plan.

The idea of printing electronic signals onto paper is not a new one. That endeavor goes all the way back to the 1840s with the telegraph etching a dot or dash onto paper. Crude pictures were being transmitted over wires in the 1890s. The first radio facsimile was patented in 1905 and was soon being used to transmit weather maps to ships at sea. By the early 1920s news services and amateur radio operators were transmitting pictures. In 1926 RCA was sending and receiving radio facsimiles between New York, London, San Fancisco, Berlin, and Buenos Aires by shortwave. Moving pictures, or television as we know it now, began to be developed in the 1920s as well. So maybe Finch's idea wasn't so crazy after all.

In the early 1930s, papers and radio stations were getting their news from such services as Transradio News Service that employed the teleprinter (similar to a teletype) and shortwave. Because phone lines were very expensive to lease during these days, news services were pushing the fairly new and rapidly advancing radio technology to the edge. Finch was part of this push while he worked for the International News Service. While he was building the first teletype service between New York, Chicago, and Havanna for INS, he was also experimenting with facsimile machines. He even invented a "talking newspaper" that printed a sound track on newsprint (like a movie's optical print) that played back as audio on a device in one's home. His patents would eventually number in the hundreds.

Finch quit the INS in 1935 and formed his own company, Finch Telecommunications Laboratories. He saw how large and complicated, not to mention costly, the facsimiles from big companies like RCA were. While they were commercially oriented, Finch was aiming at consumers. He focused on downsizing the technology while making it affordable and easy to operate.

The Finch radiofax

When Finch introduced his first model, it cost $125, about the same as a top-of-the-line iMac would today. Not an easy purchase for a family in the middle of a depression, but Finch was able to convince radio stations to buy the receivers in bulk for the earliest experiments in 1937. Finch hoped that positive press from the experiments and demonstrations like those during the 1938 NAB Conference would create demand.

RCA sure noticed and scrambled to produce a consumer version of their machines. They spearheaded the first regular transmissions of newspaper by radio by 1939 in St. Louis. RCA's receivers were double the size and price of Finch's but printed standard-sized newspaper font. General Electric and Western Electric also took notice and started development of their own versions. By the end of that year, nine stations in the U.S. would be regularly broadcasting radiofaxes. The new technology would receive even more attention at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Then the king of affordable radio, appliances, and cars got in on the act. Powel Crosley, Jr. owned "The Nation's Station," WLW, and built radios to listen to his Cincinnati Reds on (if you weren't driving there in a Crosley automobile), so naturally he was interested in capitalizing on another crossover technology. Crosley licensed the technology from Finch and figured out how to make it even more affordable at $80 each. He called his radiofax the Reado. It was marketed as "Radio for the Eyes as well as the Ears."

A Reado printout

The momentum seemed to be building as more newspapers and radio stations began "radio printing" the news. A 1940 ad for the Crosley Reado, giddily predicts:

The art of transmitting pictures and other printed material by radio will advance. Nothing shall hamper its growth. Pictures of world events, cartoons, comic strips, news flashes weather maps, market reports, everything of a visual nature will soon be coming over the air. It is not anticipated that facsimile will directly compete with the newspapers. It will unquestionably be and continue to be a source of flash news rather than detailed mass printed material which can only be supplied by the newspapers and periodicals. Facsimile does not directly compete with sound broadcasting. On a separate channel, it will unquestionably be available as an augmenting service, providing a visual record of material other than music and sound being produced for your perusal whether you are present or absent.

But with all the hype, there were too many forces working against Finch, Crosley, and RCA. The first was that the Finch and RCA models were incompatible – exactly like the VHS/Betamax war several decades later. The AM radio signal had to be nearly perfect or else whole pages of content would not print, and those that did took too long. FM radio was gaining ground, and television was capturing the public's imagination. And last but not least, the country was still in a depression. By the end of 1940, only three facsimile stations were still transmitting. After World War Two, Finch and others tried reviving and improving the technology, even getting part of the new FM broadcast band reserved for facsimile transmissions for a short time. But television was on a fast track to America's hearts and wallets.

William Finch continued to develop facsimile technology after the war, envisioning news and information being delivered directly to consumers over standard telephone lines. He invented a color fax device. But none of these ideas took hold and his company went bankrupt in 1952. To add insult to injury, RCA took over many of its patents. William G.H. Finch died in 1990 at the ripe old age of 93, still working on inventions. His relentless push to improve and miniaturize facsimile technology led to what we now know as the FAX machine.

Today, radiofax is still alive. NOAA and other international weather services still supply weather charts via shortwave radio to sailors. Typically broadcast daily on four frequencies, a ship out of satellite or internet range can tune a portable shortwave radio to a given frequency, send the earphone output to a computer's audio input (or a purpose-built marine fax machine), and receive weather charts and other vital navigation information. It's amazing to think that a sailor's safety today can be credited to William Finch's crazy idea nearly 90 years ago.

Free Music!


"Well, folks, now we've got free baseball!"

Baseball announcer Skip Caray whenever a game went into extra innings

We're so used to living in a litigious society that when someone says "free," But now there are two exciting web sites for music lovers to explore that are...wait for it...free!


The Sound of a Lockdown


"In radio, you have two tools. Sound and silence."

Ira Glass

As the world holes up in their houses during this coronavirus, as we absorb media like never before, as we listen to the news coming out of our television and radio speakers, we see and hear just how serious most of us are taking this. Journalists are broadcasting from their backyards, their sources are interviewed over Skype or Zoom, and the news now looks and sounds less-than-polished. It's like Sunday afternoons on FaceTime with the family three states away. These are the choices we are having to make these days: quality of content over quality of sound and video. But we don't know how good we got it.


Piracy on the Hi-Res

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“There comes a time in a man's life when he hears the call of the sea. If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately.”
Dave Barry

Something people have been overpaying for since forever are music knockoffs. In the 1800s hucksters would blatantly rip-off sheet music; early records were either re-recorded or re-pressed from originals; and illegally replicated compact discs filled up warehouses for decades. Savvy consumers usually know fake from fact, but in this digital only world, it's getting harder to tell. But help is on the way.


The Documentary Sound Quandary

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In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.
Alfred Hitchcock

Should documentary sound be real? Manipulated? Fake? We dig into the controversy.