Guest Speaker, Robert Millis: 78 Rpm Records (& A lot More Info & Insight)

Guest Speaker, Robert Millis: 78 Rpm Records (& A lot More Info & Insight)

Guest Speaker, Robert Millis: 78 Rpm Records (& A lot More Info & Insight)

Robert Millis is a founding Member of the 1993 Experimental Sound Art Group; Climax Golden Twins. He is a composer of various film soundtracks, both long and short, and a Co-Creator of “Victrola Favorites: Artifacts from Bygone Days” released by Dust-to-Digital in 2008. At a very young age, Rob was interested in exploring the world of sound and sound effects, and was exposed to an attic full of old 78 Rpm records. These memories opened him up to a world full of auditory investigation; A search into the antique world of early recording technology.

Thanks to Youtube, we can check out the history of the Gramophone:

Rob recently returned from a journey to India where he was able to immerse himself in the old music collecting and recording community. He researched the country’s early recording industry, and both studied and created music in its culturally enriched environment. Rob was able to accumulate an enjoyable amount of unique old records and wax cylinders from the Gramophone era, and share his collection with our Listening & Analysis class.

I learned quite a bit from Rob’s presentation, and figured I would recap the highlights. Much of this information was covered in my previous post: (Brief History: Highlights in Music Recording)

~Thomas Edison invented recording in 1877. He built the player.

~Also at this time, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (Leon Scott) created the phonogram to capture sound waves visually. He wrote down what was needed, expanded upon Edison’s invention, and patented it in the 1860s.

~Edison looked for a way to improve the telephone, and also eventually figured out a way to deepen the grooves on wax cylinders in order to play back audio with an up and down needle.

Here’s a super cool video of a 1902 Cylinder Phonograph playing a song that was written in 1912 (“It’s a long way to Tipperary”). This song was probably recorded shortly after.

~Thomas Edison then invented the lightbulb.

~At this time, everyone was thinking, “How can we capitalize on these inventions?” Edison never thought about making music…

~1890’s- Emile Berliner didn’t get directly involved with previous recording inventions right away because there were a number of lawsuits regarding who and when things were invented. He understood that there was no way to reproduce the wax cylinders that were being used as a medium for recording. He figured out that you could move the needle side to side, and up and down with the groove. With this knowledge, Berliner invented records that could be stamped, and hence, easier to reproduce.

~In England in 1898, Frederick Gaisberg worked on Berliner’s flat records, and served as an accompanist for The Gramophone Company as the first recording engineer. Gaisberg embarked on a trip around Europe with the intention of recording music. Some of the highlighted countries for Gaisberg were Spain, France, Italy, and The Soviet Union. It was in Italy that he discovered the first recording star; Enrico Caruso, who quickly became the Opera Tenor of the century.

~Because India was a British Colony, they realized that they could be selling Gramophone’s. Gaisberg recorded through out India in 1902, and mass produced media could now be materialized. Commercial recordings were now a way to make money, and India served as a huge importance. People were understanding that you could now record to supplement your income.

~Gaisberg and his team than traveled to Burma, Asia, and Japan, and then mass produced the records in Germany. The records were pressed by Victor Records & The Gramophone Co. Each record at the time could only hold about 2 minutes, so the music had to be shortened many times.

The Victor Talking Machine Co. was founded by Eldridge R. Johnson who had made Emile Berliner’s Berliner Gramophone Records.


~For a long time it was understood that wax was the best material to inscribe. A performer or musician had to sing or play loudly into a horn, and the sound would go through a diaphragm and vibrate a needle that would create grooves. Eventually, shellac was discovered in both Asia and India, and it quickly became the favored medium.

Here’s a picture of a large orchestra playing closely together to ensure that the horn could “hear” all the different players.


Here’s an example of a press for 16 inch transcription discs

~1925/26- The electric microphone was invented.


The first record that we heard was from Japan, and recorded in 1902. The record quality was quite pleasing considering how old it was, and the instruments were still completely detectable. The vocalist was quieter/further away from the horn during the recording, and the flute and the shamisen were seemingly closer. The overall experience of hearing this record made my heart drop into my stomach. I have never heard anything like this in my life. Everything that we were hearing was exactly the way that it was. There was no editing, processing, or anything to alter the performance from the reality of the performance. This was incredibly inspiring for me because I find solace in my field recordings. Any sound that is projected in the environment is then picked up by my recorder. These recordings are intended to be as natural as possible, which is the blooming theme of my development as an artist: “EarthPop.” 

The second record that we heard  was recorded in India, also in 1902. Gauhar Jaan was the 1st Indian superstar that could sing in a lot of different languages. In this recording, I could detect a Harmonium, Sarangi, Tabla, and vocals from the diva herself.

Here’s a picture of Gauhar Jaan from Gaisberg’s Grand Tour to India


Third, we listened to a song that was written in the 1890’s, and recorded by George W. Johnson in 1902. It was called “The Laughing Song,” because at the time, laughing records were very popular and served as good party music. This recording was a big pop hit in America and consisted of piano and voice.

Throughout the rest of the time we shared with Rob, we sunk our ears into early recordings from all over the world. An Indian drum solo called “Tabla Turong,” which means “Circle of Tuned Drums,” Jelly Roll Morton who recorded some New Orleans Jazz in the mid/late 20’s, Chinese Opera from Peking in 1919, Ethnographic field recordings from Africa in the 1930’s, A late 20’s recording of a Theremin, A Middle Eastern Turkish/Arabic recording from 1912/1915, Argentinean Jazz by Oscar Alemán recorded with an electric microphone, and a classic American 50’s hit- “Fever” by Little Willy John.

Here’s a great track by Oscar Alemán- Besame Mucho

& Another one of my favorites by Little Willy John- I’m Shakin’


I wanted to share a trailer  from the musical documentary filmed by Millis titled “Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts from Isan.” “[Phi Ta Khon] documents a traditional Buddhist Ghost festival that overflows with gorgeous costumes and masks, ceremony, alcohol, phallic charms, and endless music. [It is a] psychedelic and mysterious bacchanal in an obscure corner of Thailand’s Isan Province” (Quoted from the Phi Ta Khon trailer below). My gut level reaction to this kind of work is none other than pure joy, thrill, and excitement because let’s face it, Rob is out there doing the work of my dreams. He will most definitely serve as a beacon of light to guide me through the rest of my journey within the Audio Design Technology program at AIS. The next step is for me to follow the Sublime Frequencies record label, which “is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently…” (