THERE IS MUSIC OUT OF COPYRIGHT.

For the first time in American history, there are sound recordings that are unambiguously out of copyright.(1) The Hatch-Goodlatte Music Modernization Act puts all recordings from 1922 and before into the public domain, and in the future recordings will pass into the public domain after 100 years.(2) This is an absurdly long time, but until now recordings before 1972 were not covered by federal law at all, meaning that they might or might not be copyrighted according to the whims of your state or township, which—given the grasping nature and unlimited legal budget of the music conglomerates—meant that they were effectively copyrighted forever. Now we have an unambiguous rule.

And it happens that there is a great deal of good music to be heard from before 1923. The great misfortune is that all of it was recorded acoustically, which means that the sound was collected by a big horn and the vibrations transmitted mechanically to the cutting needle. The full range of frequencies could not be preserved. The world would have to wait for the electrical process to have sound recordings that were hard to distinguish from the original performance, and the first electrical recordings were released in 1925. They will not be out of copyright for a few more years.

But—and you may have been wondering why Dr. Boli brought up this subject—we have been making some experiments with those old acoustical recordings. It turns out that much of the sound that seems to be missing is actually recorded, faintly though it may be. If a record is in good shape, it is possible to bring back some of that sound by a process Dr. Boli calls “artificial electrification.” That is a fancy showoffy name for a relatively simple algorithm that involves boosting some frequencies and lowering others, so that the bass notes are not quite so much overwhelmed by the midrange. A good mechanical phonograph naturally does that, which is why acoustical recordings often sound more lifelike on a mechanical phonograph. But the same effect can be achieved electronically.

And here is a demonstration. In 1918, Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra made a lively recording of “Hindustan,” a song in the “oriental” mode by Oliver G. Wallace and Harold Weeks. Here is the original recording, unaltered, as it is preserved at the Library of Congress. Listen to a few seconds, and you will have a good idea of what a well-preserved acoustical recording sounds like:

Now here is the same recording after it has been put through Boli’s Patent Artificial Electrification Process:

You notice right away that the music sounds more alive, more like the real performance. You may also notice that whole instruments have come out that were next to inaudible in the unaltered recording. For example, we can hear that the bass line is provided by a bass clarinet—a very unusual choice, but one that works well with the pseudo-oriental style of the music.

Some obsessive types would also try to eliminate all the surface noise, but invariably the noise carries some of the music with it when it goes. Dr. Boli prefers a moderate approach that leaves some of the surface noise in exchange for keeping more of the original sound.

So we have sound recordings that are in the public domain, and we have a means of resurrecting much of the sound of the original performance. What shall we do with those things?

Readers who have been around for a while may remember that, ten years ago, we abandoned a site called “The Lateral Cut,” which was becoming progressively harder to maintain as file-sharing sites dropped out of the Internet or became more suspicious. We have now revived that site at the same address (the site itself, in fact, had never disappeared). The Internet Archive is as reliable a file-sharing site as anyone could hope for; as we donate recordings to the archive, they will be featured at The Lateral Cut.

By the way, the name “Boli’s Patent Artificial Electrification Process” was Dr. Boli’s idea of a joke. No patent is involved. The process uses open-source software (the remarkably capable audio editor Audacity), and we are happy to share the details with any interested persons.

Footnotes

Comments

  1. Jack Tripper says:

    I was wondering if the good doctor is familiar with ‘Scratchy Grooves’ a radio show from the nineties that featured records from the early days of recording.
    The shows are available for listening or free download at the website scratchygrooves

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Thank you for pointing us to the show’s site (and apologies for the delay in publishing your comment, which got caught in the artificial intelligence of the spam filter for reasons Dr. Boli’s strictly natural intelligence could not work out). Here is a direct link to the site you mentioned:

      https://scratchygrooves.com/

  2. John Salmon says:

    Sounds just like Coltrane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.