Tonehammer Phonautograms (a free and historic mini library)
I figured I'd share this cool little project with you guys. We've made a small little playable sample instrument from one of the first recordings ever made by mankind, originally captured back in 1860.
The non-profit organization First Sounds (www.firstsounds.org), with the help of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has been able to restore a collection of Phonautograms to a listenable state. Invented in the 1850s by French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, Phonautograms actually predate Thomas Edisons earliest recordings by nearly two decades.
The sounds were captured by projecting the voice and other sounds into a cylindrical horn attached to a stylus, which in transferred the vibration into lines over the surface of oil lamp soot-blackened sheets of paper. Essentially, these recordings were purely optical and no device existed which could translate the recorded acoustic information back into sound, until the First Sounds organization acquired the preserved papers in France and brought them to scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, who devised a method of scanning and deciphering the images.
According to the First Sounds website, the phonautograms are secured under a Creative Commons license and they seem to absolutely encourage sharing, reuse and adaptation of this historic material. So here it is, for anybody who's interested in physically playing a piece of history, courtesy of www.firstsounds.org . If you happen to make any cool music with this instrument, consider sharing it with the folks at First Sounds. They say they're very interested in hearing how people use the Phonautograms in creative ways.
We chose the D Major scale recording titled "Gamme de la Voix - Vocal Scale (May 17, 1860)", since it made for the most direct and flexible instrument. We've looped the tones and split off the ends as release triggers, along with some other programming love to make the whole thing a little more playable. The original capture left the pitch one octave too high, giving the resulting timbre a female vocal quality. The newer version was translated at the proper original pitch, revealing the singer to have been a man. We used both audio files to give us a full two octave range of notes to work with.
You'll notice that the distortion of pitch, tone and general lack of preserved acoustic information yields a smeared and crackling quality, somewhere between a voice and some sort of woodwind and possessing a frail and innocent affect. The end result has a very Mellotron-like sound, somewhere between warm fuzzy woodwind of some indeterminate origin and a washed-out, frail and warbly voice. I think it actually sounds kind of beautiful. It really reminds me of the humble beginnings that our modern audio-visual media has grown from and the power to share and explore music and sound that our technology has given us.
We've made it in Kontakt, EXS24 and SFZ formats. It's a small little set, made of 30 samples (15 sustaining notes, plus release triggers for each). The download is under 3MB. You will need the full version of Kontakt to use the .nki patches for any extended period of time. The free Kontakt Player will only allow you to play it for 30 minutes.
In the Kontakt version, the modwheel controls subtle vibrato and tremolo, just for fun. Value of 0 = none, 127 = full.
Here's a short demo so you can hear it in action a bit. All of the flute/organ/choral sounds are the Phonautogram instrument. The "drums" are actually made from heavy manipulations of the Phonautogram source audio itself, but they're not part of the library.