In many ways, New Jersey is the birthplace of recorded sound.
Although there were a few machines that could record sound prior to 1877, it was Thomas Edison’s phonograph, invented in Menlo Park, New Jersey, that reproduced sound for public audiences. The ability to reproduce sound through cylinder recordings (see Fig 1), which were recorded and then circulated around the world, brought new publics together and helped to document their histories in the same way the printing press did with newspapers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. That is, the phonograph inspired new kinds of communities, cultures, and spaces that consumed sound in ways that affected both the sound machines and the people who used them.
At first these new devices brought people together in public listening arcades and parlors (see Fig. 2), but eventually, companies sought to make the phonograph more accessible, widely-distributed, and marketable, trying to get them straight into middle-class homes.
Because cylinders were cumbersome and more expensive to reproduce, the disc format, invented by German-American Emile Berliner in 1894, became a more popular medium. It was mass-produced by Berliner and a Delaware native named E.R. Johnson at Victor Talking Machine Company. Victor was headquartered in the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey, where many famous classical, jazz, and blues artists recorded their songs both acoustically and electrically in the early part of the 20th century (see Fig 3).
Victor, and later RCA, were behind the design of the Victrola, one of the first phonograph devices designed to be used in everyday homes. Indeed, Victor played an essential role in the popularization of music consumption, selling millions of units in the early part of the 20th century; and, thanks to RCA and its timing as a radio company, went on to become some of the biggest electronics companies in the world.
(As a side note, nearby Pitman, NJ also was home to one of Columbia Record’s pressing plants.)
So what does this history of recorded sound have to do with the future of writing?
In “‘Convince me!’ Valuing Multimodal Literacies and Composing Public Service Announcements,” Selfe and Selfe provide four compelling reasons why writing in the 21st century requires authors to go beyond composing sentences, paragraphs, and pages. Increasingly, as Selfe and Selfe argue, writers are multimodal (literally “many + modes”), drawing from a range of communicative resources — including sound and video — as they design, craft, and share compositions across various forms of media, both in person and through digital networks. This is especially true for writers who are offering up their work to public audiences, audiences who are also increasingly consuming information using these multiple modes; as Selfe and Selfe put it, “we learn about, act in, and understand the world using multiple channels of communication” (84).
One of those modes or channels is online radio. According to Edison Research (also based in New Jersey), 61% of all Americans listen to online radio, which includes streaming services like Spotify, at least once per month; moreover, 83% of 12-24 year-olds listen at least once each week. In addition to streaming music services, serialized radio programs like WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, WXPN’s World Cafe, KUTX’s This Song, or Radiotopia’s Song Exploder allow listeners to play them from their computer or on-the-go from a mobile device. Moreover, podcasts are reaching younger audiences. As Edison Research notes, 24% of those 12 or older say they’ve listened to a podcast in the past month — an increase of 21% since 2016.
And yet, the ubiquity of digital media has also led consumers to also turn to analog media, buying print books and vinyl records. According to Nielson Music’s 2017 Year-End Music Report, record sales increased 9% last year — the LP’s 12th consecutive year of growth and the largest since 1991. As Victor historian and musician Graham Alexander puts it, the resurgence of vinyl is a message from consumers to a music industry that has been slowly dying. Although record sales slowed down in the 1980s and 90s as music companies introduced cassettes, CDs, and mp3s, vinyl recordings carry a historical weight that isn’t so easily ignored. Streaming radio and vinyl records are the state of the art for the music industry.
Enter The Phono Project. In this four-week assignment, I’m asking you to draw from multiple modes — text, sound, html — and several tools, to create a very short demonstration of soundwriting (“demo,” in music industry parlance): a 90-second mp3 file that is a recording of you speaking over a sample of sound that was reproduced by a phonograph. These collected demos will then be published at The Phono Project, a website that approximates the ways in which radio programs, like the NPR-syndicated show, Sound Beat, isolates tracks and discusses them, all in the span of a minute and a half.
In this context, a phonograph recording is a digital recording of a vinyl record — as in, someone hooked their phonograph (i.e. record player) up to their computer and recorded the sounds using particular software. As you’ll learn more in this unit, phonograph recordings have existed in a variety of formats since the beginning of recorded sound more than 140 years ago — first as cylinders, then as discs, which gradually changed sizes and slowed their rotation from 78 RPMs to 45 and finally, the most common, the long-playing record (LP for short) at 331/3.
As I see it, this assignment has two challenges: first, you’ll need to obtain a phonograph recording that “speaks” to you. That is, not only do you need to get a digital version of a physical recording, but you will also have to find an aspect of that recording worth writing about. Although you’ll only write about 125-150 words of copy for your script, you’ll need to do quite a lot of research to make those words worthy of a public audience. Second, you’ll need to learn how to use an audio recording program, called Audacity, to record your voice and mix it successfully with the recording. This is essentially what 21st century composing is all about.
Cylinders and 78s: Exploring Digital Archives of Sound
Where can you obtain your recording? This depends on two things: your personal interest and level of access. Generally speaking, an archive is a collection of materials — real or digital — collected and gathered for a particular reason. In a traditional sense, archives organize a range of artifacts from the past and usually include documents, photographs, creative works, or recordings. Some archives live in actual geographical spaces, like the one in our university library’s special collections; others exist online and are accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection. In a broader sense, though, even a torrent community, garage sale, or personal record collection can be an archive since they collect items that have historical value to someone. If those spaces speak to you, and you have access to them, I encourage you to find, borrow, or purchase phonographs that you want to write about. If you take this option, I’m going to insist that you find a record that was produced before you were born, if only to retain a historical aspect to this project. You will also have to digitize your recording (which is not hard to do).
If that doesn’t sound possible or appealing, rest assured. I’ll introduce you to more traditional, accessible archives on the web where you can download tens of thousands of digitized phonograph recordings. These include:
- The Great 78 Project. Hosted at archive.org, the Great 78 Project has 50,000 78s (3+ minute records that spin at 78 rpms) that were recorded mostly from 1898 to the 1950s. A variety of digital audio formats (mp3, FLACs, OGG, and more) can be downloaded directly from the site.
- The Smithsonian — This archive includes more than 3,700 digitized recordings, but you have to search for them specifically (use the phrase “sound recordings”) and look for phonograph-specific sources. Mp3s are available for download.
- The Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection. Hosted by Syracuse University, this collection consists of over 1,600 digitized cylinders (a cylinder was an early recording format originally invented by Thomas Edison). Mp3s are available for each.
- Edison Sound Recordings — Likewise, the National Park Service hosts over 100 early cylinder recordings from Thomas Edison’s archive in New Jersey.
- National Jukebox — This Library of Congress archive was launched in 2011 and hosts over 10,000 digitized recordings most of which came from the Victor Talking Machine Company (that’s right — the same company that was founded in Camden, NJ). However, these records are stream-only and not available to download, so you might have to find the files elsewhere or record them yourself from your computer.
Finding the Story: Researching Recordings
Since these archives contain tens of thousands of digitized recordings, how do you go about finding one that speaks to you? In class, we will talk about several ways you might both search and browse them, but mainly what you should keep in mind is that this process takes time. First, you’ll want to spend some time browsing these archives, noticing how they use genre, topic, language, and dates to organize themselves. Of course, you can also search them, experimenting with certain keywords that reflect your own learning goals and interests. But most of all, you’ll want to listen to them. What do they sound like? What do you notice? What instruments, lyrics, or voices, or noises jump out at you? What questions does this recording raise for you? Once you’ve narrowed your interests down to 2 or 3 recordings, it’s time to do some research.
Whether it’s a feature on NPR or a soundbite on Sound Beat, much of what you hear on public radio is a story — a narrative that audiences remember and appreciate. But in order to find a compelling story, and tell it with the kind of efficiency this project requires, you need to know as much about it as possible. In class, we’ll talk about strategies for getting started and mapping the various ways you can talk about the recording, whether in terms of the artist or speaker, the format or genre, the exigence or culture at the time, etc. For example, while the name “Vernon Dalhart” is barely recognizable to most people in 2017, he was a household name in 1926 with the recording of “The Wreck of the Old 97” and forged a lucrative path for the entire genre of country music. While this is interesting, it doesn’t really tell a story, so you could keep pushing to find more out by reading about Dalhart, the music scenes he belonged to in the early 20th century, the history of country music, the lyrics and genre of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” and more until you get to a story that is interesting and works for the project.
Scripting and soundwriting
While you research, you’ll be taking notes and drafting your scripts. Since it’s difficult to stick to 125 words in your first script, you’ll instead work with a limit of 250 words at first, citing sources as you go. We’ll workshop these in class and try to cut your draft down to a few shorter possibilities that are still faithful to the narrative you’re trying to share with the world.
Meanwhile, you’ll also begin to record your voice, reading drafts of your script and mixing it over your chosen recording using a free, open-source program called Audacity. We’ll read about writing for sound and workshop some of these demos in class using Soundcloud, looking at aspects such as timing, volume, and sampling, and using effects like amplification, normalization, and fading in and out.
Finally, you’ll include a reflection wherein you introduce me to your project — why you chose your cylinder, the processes you went through during the selection, research, writing and revision phases of the project, noteworthy successes and challenges you faced, what you learned, and what could be improved.
What’s due by the end of this module?
Over the course of the next four weeks, you’ll submit several different compositions that you created to various digital spaces that I will gradually introduce you to. These include:
- Your blog [40% of module grade]. This includes your 5 blog posts that document your progress on the project/module. These posts include:
- writing about a podcast of your choice
- a track review
- 2-3 possible recordings for The Phono Project
- research/source findings on 1 recording for The Phono Project
- 250-word version of your script for The Phono Project
- Rowan Google Drive [10%]. In the shared folder made for you (i.e. “Lastname, Firstname [IWA]”), make a folder called “Phono Project” and put these in there:
- bibliography [as a gdoc] — these are the works you consulted to write your script, formatted in MLA 8
- your exported WAV or mp3
- a 500-word reflection as a Google Doc; this should describe your writing process throughout the project, assess your successes, and make recommendations to me for possible ways I could make your learning experience better.
- Your post on The Phonograph Project website [50%]. This is the public, shared space we will use to publish your final product. Your post will include:
- your recording (as a WAV or mp3 file)
- your transcript (a word-for-word script in the body of the post)
- a featured image (something related to your recording that catches the eye)
- a by-line (a brief bio that will show up)
You can review the rubric for this by clicking the image above.
Required texts and materials
- Selected readings provided via Google Drive
- WordPress, a free blogging platform
- Audacity, a free, open-source audio recording program
Writing Arts values
Because writing is a powerful mechanism for creating meaning, implicit within this mechanism are power, responsibility, and deliberate choice. Intro to Writing Arts serves as an introduction to these implications through nine values that shape our major. Over the course of the three modules as well as our whole-group meetings, you will have been introduced to all of these; however, those that apply most explicitly in this particular module have been rendered in bold brown text.
1. Writing Arts students will demonstrate an understanding of a variety of genre conventions and exhibit rhetorical adaptability in applying those conventions.
2. Writing Arts students will understand theories of writing and reading and be able to apply them to their own writing.
3. Writing Arts students will demonstrate the ability to critically read complex and sophisticated texts in a variety of subjects.
4. Writing Arts students will be able to investigate, discover, evaluate and incorporate material into the creation of text.
5. Writing Arts students will demonstrate self-critical awareness of their writing.
6. Writing Arts students will understand the impact evolving technologies have on the creation of written texts.
7. Writing Arts students will show an understanding of the power of the written word and that such power requires ethical responsibilities in its application.
8. Writing Arts students will understand the rhetorical nature of style in writing, including the dynamics of usage, mechanics, and grammar, dependent as they are on context, purpose, and audience.
9. Writing Arts students will have knowledge of the professions available to them or will be able to articulate how they will apply their understanding of writing in their future career, or both.
General course policies
Please refer to the Intro to Writing Arts course syllabus for policies on attendance, cancellations, grades, late work, participation, preparation, plagiarism, etiquette, and Rowan resources.
In this course, you are asked to create accounts and generate content to circulate across digital publics. For a variety of excellent reasons, you may feel uneasy about personal risk in sharing digital content and in being identified with/by that content. The public nature of the course encourages a kind of composing situation that serves our learning outcomes, and thus cannot be altered. However, you’re welcome to take steps to ensure relative anonymity for your coursework, while still ensuring the valuable experience of public circulation. These steps include: using pen names, disabling location services on mobile devices, and using decoy or throwaway accounts on digital platforms. All work created for the course is required to remain published until you’ve received your final grade. Once final grades are submitted, you’re free to permanently delete anything you’ve created for the course. I’m happy to further discuss reservations with students individually or during class discussion.
I encourage you to bring to class any devices that will benefit your learning and composing throughout the course. That said, I hope you will develop and practice a mindful workflow that allows you to integrate your smart technologies while being as present as possible in class activities. I may on occasion assist individuals or the class as a whole in this practice, depending on how well attention is being managed.
Further, you can expect technology to fail in plenty of ways throughout the semester. To avoid disaster, please be sure to save all of your materials in three ways: (1) to your device’s hard drive, (2) to a physical external drive, and (3) to a cloud-based storage system. I have used this system for several years and can attest to its effectiveness! I have never lost, deleted, or suffered a loss from a corrupted file.
Also note Rowan’s partnership with Google Apps for Education, and that this grants you lots of Google Drive space — a space that we will make use of throughout the course.