Jagged Little Tapes

These transitional audio recording formats were briefly dominant—then, quickly grew obscure. The further back you go, the more obscure they get.

Today in Tedium: A lot has happened in the past few months, and it can all blend together. One heartwarming story you may have missed in this morass of bad news is the tale of Wheatus, the band behind 2000 one-hit wonder “Teenage Dirtbag.” As Rolling Stone reported in April, the band essentially re-recorded its big hit, JoJo style, because it lost its masters in the gaping maw of the behemoth that is Sony. Re-recording the song (whose roots are darker than you might think) was incredibly difficult, in part because they were trying to re-create the sound of the 2000 track exactly, so the song could appear on services like Spotify and Pandora without throwing off the listener. But even if they still had the masters, odds are high that it would have been a challenge to salvage a copy, because the song was recorded on ADAT format—essentially, a VHS tape for recording audio, something that hasn’t been in common use for 20 years. That small bit of data got me thinking about obscure media formats that only had value for a handful of years—a stepping stone on the way to something better. Today’s Tedium ponders unusual transitional media formats. Consider reading with “Teenage Dirtbag” as your soundtrack. — Ernie @ Tedium

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100k

The number of units the studio technology firm Alesis sold of its ADAT technology by 1999, according to Billboard. (That’s a hugely impressive level, given how niche studio recording tech tends to be.) The technology, besides being used in Wheatus songs, was hugely popular with musicians during the ’90s looking for a lightweight way to do digital multitrack recording.

VHS tape

A VHS tape, of the kind that Alanis Morissette recorded “You Oughta Know” on. (Gabriel Petry/Unsplash)

Why VHS tape found surprising popularity in music studios in the 1990s

It seems weird to consider, but there was a time that video tape, a format infamous among cinema fans for somewhat muddy video quality, was considered a gold standard for recording high-quality digital multitrack audio.

Developed by the studio technology company Alesis and released to the public in 1992, the technology, known as ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) reflected a reputation by its manufacturer of producing relatively advanced technology that was in reach of home studios.

If you’ve ever used a Super VHS tape to record anything on TV, you know that such tapes have different modes. Most people tended to choose the long-play modes, which allowed for a maximum amount of content on a single tape in exchange for lower recording quality. As you might guess, studio recorders are focused on quality, and ADAT was a way to bring digital recording innovations within reach of musicians and studios with limited resources. SVHS tapes were of course incredibly common at the time, and each one could hold 40 minutes of multitrack audio in 16-bit quality. Each tape held eight tracks, and up to 16 ADAT machines could be synced together, allowing up to 128 tracks of audio to be played together at once.

ADAT Tape Recorder

An ADAT tape recorder cost a few thousand dollars, which was significantly cheaper than many multitrack recording solutions of the era. (knothole eyes/Flickr)

(Think Sgt. Pepper’s mixed with Be Kind Rewind.)

Perhaps reflecting its low cost and democratizing approach, one of ADAT’s biggest success stories involved an unsigned artist scoring a chart-topping hit using ADAT, less than three years after the recording technology first went on sale.

The artist was Lisa Loeb, who recorded “Stay” using two linked ADAT recorders. It was essentially recorded as a demo, but the equipment was high enough in quality that the song easily passed for a radio tune when that time came. A bit of luck, of course, played a role in that song’s success (Loeb’s big break, famously, came due to a friendship with then-neighbor Ethan Hawke, who recommended the song to Reality Bites director Ben Stiller), but ADAT’s use on the song highlighted the democratizing nature of the format.

“The fact that this single happened at all is a tribute to the ADAT,” noted Juan Patino, the song’s producer, in a Billboard interview from 1994. “What began as a dismissible demo—a ‘Hey, let’s get the band together’ thing—ended up in a major-label bidding war. It’s really a fairytale made possible through technology—an affordable, easy-to-use digital system that is expandable.”

Loeb’s success with ADAT was only further underlined the next year with an even bigger hit was recorded with ADAT’s help—Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, one of the defining albums of that entire decade, also was recorded on ADAT, in part due to the songwriting process Morissette and producer Glen Ballard used. Ballard, a former protege of Quincy Jones, who already had credits on two Michael Jackson albums to his name, was skilled with more traditional studio equipment, but used ADAT in his home studio in part because of the spontaneity it inspired—which can be heard on tracks like “You Oughta Know,” a song whose guitar and bass parts were (fun fact) played by one half of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the time—Dave Navarro and Flea—in an overdub.

It was by no means a perfect format, and syncing all those tape recorders together could be a challenge. Alesis itself moved away from Super VHS tapes as a format by 2002, choosing a more flexible hard-drive-based format for recording gear. Many pro audio heads look down on ADAT tapes these days, but it’s hard to argue with its success during its heyday.

“You respected the medium because it was tangible, much more so than bits on a hard drive,” writer and musician Will Betts wrote on MusicTech last year in a retrospective of the format. “You would consider what you were going to record before laying it down. That’s not always the case when hard-drive space is virtually unlimited.”

ADAT is the ultimate transitional format—filling a gap between analog and digital at a time when the gap made a huge difference.

1888

The year that Oberlin Smith, a 19th-century engineer, wrote a work titled “Some Possible Forms of the Phonograph” for the British journal Electrical World. The work suggested the idea of storing sound in a form of permanent magnetic data, suggesting in his case the mixture of steel dust into cotton thread. While his concepts were sound, he didn’t actually produce such a device himself, due to the amount of time it would have taken to build it. A decade later, another inventor, Valdemar Poulsen, would develop many of Smith’s ideas independently when building the first magnetic wire recorder.

Blattnerphone machine Canada

A Blattnerphone owned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Canada Science and Technology Museum/Flickr)

Steel wheel: One of the first magnetic tape formats used literal steel as a recording medium

In many ways, most magnetic tape is something of a symphony of metal and plastic, with magnetic materials on the tape interacting with a tape head, which amplifies the materials into sounds.

That symphony, which I wrote about last fall, largely emerged after World War II—an invention that emerged from Nazi Germany that was perfected by the United States.

But it wasn’t the first magnetic recording format. For decades, the concept of recordable magnetized wire, first developed by Danish telephone engineer Valdemar Poulsen as the telegraphone, was something of an indirect competitor to the more common mechanical recording devices of the time, in part because there was no simple way to amplify the sound that the early device created. The resulting noise was loud enough that it could be head over headphones or replayed over a telephone wire, however.

At the 1900 Paris World Exhibition, Poulsen recorded the voice of a world leader, Emperor Franz Josef, on magnetic wire—which is likely the oldest surviving magnetic recording in world history.

The basis of Poulsen’s formats would eventually evolve into magnetic tape thanks to a series of inventors who further improved on his basic ideas. One such figure, German engineer Dr. Curt Stille, took advantage of the expiration of Poulsen’s patents to further develop the technology, which would eventually benefit from the invention of vacuum tube amplifiers. Stille’s work, per Old BBC Radio Broadcasting Equipment and Memories, was good enough for voice dictation, but not for, say, playing on the radio.

In a 1983 article for Cinema Journal, writer William Lafferty explained that market realities—particularly, the fact that it was more cost-effective to hire a stenographer than to record on wire in the 1920s—forced Stille to change that. He developed the wire concept into a flattened steel tape, which was around 6mm wide, half a millimeter thick, and held into place with sprocketed holes to ensure synchronization. The target audience for this technology was the cinema, where demand for “talkies” necessitated a focus on audio quality.

Accordingly, Stille’s work attracted the interest of a onetime cinema owner and budding entertainment industry impresario named Ludwig Blattner, who expanded on Stille’s ideas and further developed them, eventually giving them his name—the rolls-off-the-tongue term that is the Blattnerphone. Blattner, a German-born UK resident who was in the most of launching film studio, came to the technology after having a falling out with the manufacturer of a disc-based sound-on-film system.

It was a complex system, having to keep pace with the film that was playing despite the fact that the recording on steel had to travel 60 percent faster than the film did.

Blattner had tried to launch a studio with experimental proprietary technologies—his studio also licensed out the Keller-Dorian color cinematography technique, developed in France in the 1920s—but the technologies failed to gain marketshare in the film industry. As Lafferty noted, contemporary takes on the Blattnerphone were not kind:

The Blattner demonstration of his system of electromagnetic sound re-cording on wire has created surprisingly little stir … The demonstration came in for quite a lot of criticism, without any imaginative appreciation of the latent possibilities of the system. It must have been rather disheartening for Blattner.

It didn’t help that the technology had a number of technical flaws. As you might guess, replicating audio from a giant machine is likely to be tough, the film synchronization process complex, and the steel tape was only manufactured by a handful of companies.

On top of that, if there was an error in the audio, fixing it required spot welding (and the spots where the steel was welded were noticeable), and because we’re talking about magnetically charged steel here, obviously it’s going to face issues if there are magnets nearby. And given the fast playback speeds, if something breaks, it likely means that a sharp piece of metal is going to whip across the room, causing safety issues.

Blattnerphone machine

A later model of Blattnerphone. (via Old BBC Radio Broadcasting Equipment and Memories)

However, all was not lost for the strands of steel tape. The Blattnerphone was simply focused on the wrong industry. In the 1930s, major radio producers such as the BBC were looking for ways to record audio basically in real time, so that they could record without delay. The Blattnerphone, for all its gigantic faults, offered that.

Per Old BBC Radio Broadcasting Equipment and Memories, the broadcaster paid £500 for access to the first machine, plus £1,000 per year after that and £250 for each additional machine. With inflation considered as well as conversion rates, that’s tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, each, for recording devices that were effectively obsolete a decade later.

It was not a perfect solution, mostly a good enough one, explains the site’s Roger Beckwith, with the solution not considered good enough for music, just spoken word, due to issues with tape speed inconsistency. Ultimately, it was not heavily used in BBC productions.

“At the end of 1932 a programme called ‘Pieces of Tape’ was produced in the Blattnerphone room, being a compilation of several tapes recorded that year,” he wrote. “However, the mechanics of the editing process were too laborious for regular productions using the technique.”

By 1935, the machines had been replaced with a new Blattnerphone made by the firm Marconi-Stille, which solved many of the inconsistency problems. While smaller than the initial machines, they still fairly huge, though, roughly the size of a washer and dryer combined—and kind of looking like one.

These machines are incredibly rare, and have barely, if ever, seen the light of day since the 1930. However, in 1992, one of the devices emerged on Australian television due in part to a requirement by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation to play their Blattnerphone devices. So the giant reels were sent to Australia, where a player was still located. You can see the surreal results above.

Lafferty noted that the innovation of the Blattnerphone highlighted how innovation from the film industry was something of a two-way street.

“The technology of practical sound motion pictures may have arisen out of the international radio and telephone companies, but the case of the Ludwig Blattner Picture Corp. Ltd. shows that, in turn, the international communications industry found within the fledgling sound film industry an innovative technology to exploit,” he said.

It’s strange to consider, but a lot of niche formats like the Blattnerphone have basically never been in the hands of consumers, and basically exist as museum pieces of sorts.

For example, in the 1920s, a photographic audio recording device called the pallophotophone, which was essentially an early version of the 35mm film recording medium I highlighted in my tape-hiss article.

The General Electric-built technology, used intermittently by the radio industry, later directly inspired the movie industry, which integrated the basic concept to add sound to films—basically the opposite of what happened with the Blattnerphone. The film could actually hold multiple music tracks at once, making it a multitrack tape recording medium of sorts, much like the later ADAT, though it only played one track at a time.

It’s extremely rare, but examples of this transitional tech in the wild—most notably when New York’s Schenectady Museum uncovered 12 canisters of this film format a little over a decade ago. Soon after, a playback device then recreated just to play these canisters.

The biggest surprise they found? A 1929 speech by Thomas Edison on the 50th anniversary of inventing the light bulb, which must have been a thrill to hear for the first time.

Like Wheatus, Thomas Edison benefited from a recreation.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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