“The Curse of Oak Island”

Television today is populated with reality shows of various types, including those featuring (mostly wealthy) people who, for reasons most of us simply cannot fathom, get to star in their own weekly TV series, for which camera crews follow them in their daily lives as they indulge in prepared, yet still inane conversations, manufactured crises, uneventful shopping sprees, etc. Most of what is presented as “reality” in these programs is not nearly what it seems. In any case, I don’t watch them. The 30-second promos for this sub-genre of programs are enough to keep me from wasting my time following these nobodies pretending to be somebodies–or, “celebrities without portfolio,” if you will.

However, there is one reality program that my wife Karen and I have been following devotedly for the past few years that is unlike the others. It is compelling, dramatic, educational, and actually real!  It’s The Curse of Oak Island, airing Tuesdays at 9:00p.m. Eastern time, on the History Channel (episodes from the previous two weeks air earlier in the evening, leading up to each week’s newest episode).

Marty and Rick.

The series has been following brothers Rick and Marty Lagina, of Michigan, as they lead the latest, most thorough, and most expensive project ever in search for the legendary treasure buried on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. As the story goes, a mysterious treasure of possibly untold wealth and/or historical importance has been buried on the island for hundreds of years, possibly since the mid-1600s. Theories have speculated that it could be either a trove of gold from the Aztec civilization, the original works of Shakespeare, the Holy Grail, or even the Ark of the Covenant. Some say the Knights of Templar sailed from Scotland to the island with the treasure or artifact in order to hide it and protect it. Others speculate Spanish pirates were responsible, or even Captain Kidd himself.

The Oak Island story is a long one. Several major undertakings to find the treasure have been made in the past 220 years. The first explorations led to the discovery of a series of underground wooden log platforms, spaced about 10 feet apart, descending over 100 feet into the Earth. But expansive flood tunnels were also constructed, to serve as a booby traps designed to flood the “Money Pit,” as it is known, with sea water, thus preventing attempts

Diagram of the Money Pit’s wooden platforms and flood tunnel that has frustrated so many expeditions.

to reach whatever lay at the bottom. Six men have died in the past century during expeditions to find the treasure, four of whom were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a gasoline engine used at the Money Pit during a 1965 excavation. It has led some to conclude that there is a curse on the island, and legend has it that a seventh person must die attempting to recover the treasure before it will actually be found.

As kids, Rick and Marty Lagina first read about Oak Island in the January, 1965 issue of  Reader’s Digest, and became obsessed with the legend and the attempts to retrieve whatever might be hiding in the Money Pit, or elsewhere on the island. They eventually bought controlling interest in Oak Island Tours, which owned most of the island, and began their efforts to uncover the mystery. With a team of partners, the approval of the Canadian government, and a considerable budget (they’ve spent over 2 million dollars so far), the brothers have been calling upon a variety of hi-tech equipment and industrial-sized drilling and earth-moving vehicles to try to literally get to the bottom of the mystery.

The Money Pit, with its state-of-the-art equipment at the ready.

Prometheus Entertainment has been recording the project on film for airing on the History Channel every step of the way, as a population of historians, archeologists, geologists, divers, and metal detection experts have passed through to lend their knowledge and specialties to the cause. Setbacks have occurred, of course, at each of the major locations deemed vital to the search, but each has been met with even greater determination by the brothers and their partners to continue on. Several intriguing clues have indeed been found, ranging from English and Spanish coins hundreds of years old, to a small gold chain, to various organic samples that seem out of place for the island’s geography, to man-made crawlspaces, and boulders with strange carvings on them, located on and near the island.

The Laginas have often expressed their deference to those Oak Island explorers who have come before them, and in some cases lost their lives, to solve the mystery. Even in these times, when it is so easy to allow cynicism to cast doubt on the motives of people striving to achieve a goal, these brothers have kept their laser focus on the mission at hand, knowing that both their own money, and the historical record of this mystery, is at stake.

If you’re interested in tuning in, but might be wary that you’ve missed too much of the story so far, it is briefly recapped at the opening of each episode, with other reminders and flashbacks provided throughout as necessary, to keep new viewers up to date (this is done via voice-overs brilliantly read by narrator Robert Clotworthy).

So, you can keep your wealthy, pampered, self-indulgent egomaniacs who have somehow had their own TV series handed to them, and who don’t seem to know how to live without a camera following their every move, no matter how pointless their self-absorbed frolics may be. I’ll continue to follow the Laginas and their crew in their treasure-hunting quest, as long as it takes. Take a tip from me and join the search on Tuesday nights, even if it’s from the comfort of your TV room sofa.

Until next time…

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP — Part 2

As we continue our look at the current revival of vinyl LP records, a brief review…

The many formats with which the public has listened to music have gone through a fascinating progression in the past century. Edison’s popular wax cylinders eventually gave way to the 78 rpm record platters, which in turn led to 33 1/3 LPs, and 45 singles (in addition to reel-to-reel, 8-track, and cassette tapes). Between 1948 and 1958–the year stereo recordings were first ready for mass consumption–sales of records increased 20 to 25 per cent every year. Not least among the factors was the rock & roll revolution, which led millions of teenagers to seek out their favorite songs in record stores, after hearing the latest hits on radio.

However, it took a full decade for stereo records to secure their place in the recording world, before surpassing mono (except for classical music, 90 per cent of which was being recorded in stereo by 1967). Not every consumer was willing to run out and purchase a new stereo system to replace their trusty hi-fi set. And, not every recording artist placed a priority on stereo recording right away. The Beatles famously mixed their landmark 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in mono first, taking great care in doing so, along with their producer George Martin. But when it came time to work on the stereo version, the group wasn’t as interested, leaving that work to Martin, who devoted to it a fraction of the time he had to the stereo mix.

Interestingly, in an August, 1967 issue of Saturday Review, George R. Marek predicted the arrival of a new medium for playing music, in a piece he wrote regarding what records might be like in 1987: “The physical characteristics of a record may be further improved…It may be possible to stamp them from material which cannot be scratched or warped. An electronic device or a laser beam may scan the grooves to assure listeners of getting records without any ‘typographical errors,’ meaning ticks and pops…Perhaps there will be no needle, no mechanical contact of any kind, the sound being picked up by a light beam.”

In hindsight, Marek’s accuracy was astounding, especially considering that research and development of the CD didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid-1970s, when audio engineers for both the Philips Corporation in the Netherlands, and Sony in Japan, began designing working prototypes for a laser-read audio disk.  In 1979, the companies joined forces, pooling their respective resources and advances in development of the technology, and arrived at a standardized set of specifications, including disk size, which were initially approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1980 (and, at some point during the birth of the CD, the spelling of “disk” mysteriously became “disc”).

Meanwhile, audiophiles continued searching for still greater improvements to the sonic quality of their vinyl records. In America, imported pressings and premium Original Master recordings issued on high-quality vinyl had mavens salivating. As for stereo equipment, a myriad of high-end turntables, speakers, equalizers, and other components, when used in the right combination, did the best they could to heighten the aural experience for those seeking perfection.

But the hype, interest, and genuine excitement preceding the arrival of CDs in American music retail stores gained momentum leading to the first releases. The first test CD, pressed at the world’s first CD pressing plant (owned by Polydor at the time) near Hannover, Germany, was Richard Strauss’s Enie Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

In August of 1982, the factory was ready to begin mass production. The first CD to be manufactured there was the 1981 ABBA album The Visitors. However, the first album to be commercially released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. It was released–initially in Japan only–on October 1, 1982.

 

Of course, a CD would be useless without something to play it on. Accompanying the release of 52nd Street was Sony’s CDP-101 player, as unveiled for the public in this ad. Six months later, on March 2, 1983, CBS records released 16 titles on CD in the U.S. and elsewhere, essentially opening the floodgates for the new format. By the end of the year, over a thousand different titles were available.

 

In the next few years, improved availability across all musical genres allowed CD prices to drop. The first to sell one million copies was the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, while another major event took place in 1987, with the release of the Beatles’ catalogue of albums.

What did this mean for the LP? The vinyl platter wasn’t in danger of obsolescence just yet, but record stores had already been clearing room in their bins, originally designed for 12″ albums, to make way for CDs (conveniently enough, the packaging for discs in those days was deliberately sized so that 2 units could fit neatly across a bin already sized for LPs).

The pristine sound of the CD proved too-tough competition for vinyl records, which had always been susceptible to scratches, ticks, pops, and skipping needles. There were diehards, however, who preferred what was often described as the “warmer” sound of LPs, and who resisted the cold perfection of the CD sound.

In recent years, even the CD has shown to be vulnerable, in the digital age of downloading and streaming music from various ethereal sources online. Still, the satisfaction of actually holding an artist’s creative work, complete with cover art and liner notes, has persisted among many listeners throughout the past few decades (myself included).

Which brings us to 2017. This past June, Sony Music Entertainment announced that it will begin pressing vinyl records again in March 2018, for the first time in nearly three decades. A factory near Tokyo is being fitted with new record-cutting and pressing machines. CNN reports that this is a direct reaction to the growing demand for LPs, from both older and younger generations–some of whom have grown up never having used records. Vinyl now comprises about 18% of all “physical music revenue,” which might not sound like much, but the number is growing.

So, feel free to indulge here in any number of clichés…Past is present, everything old is new again, Viva la Vinyl, etc.!

Until next time…

 

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP

The music aficionados among you may have noticed how the LP record has been making a comeback of sorts in recent years. I’ve personally seen evidence of this at my local Barnes & Noble music department, which has cleared out rows of CD shelves to make room for new pressings of both classic LPs and new recordings by top artists. How ironic: a slice of our popular culture is taking a deliberate technological step backwards, forsaking mp3 players and CDs, in favor of the humble, grooved (and groovy) LP record.

It behooves us, therefore (or, at least, it behooves me), to review the history of the LP. Here then, is a very truncated version:

Like most modern inventions, the long-playing record is part of an evolution, in which improvements, both big and small, took place as part of an ongoing timeline.  We’ve all been taught since childhood to look to Thomas Edison and his 1877 invention. By the early 1880s, Edison had hit upon the idea of using hard wax cylinders to record and play sounds, voices, and music. The cylinders, played at 160 rpm, had their limitations–not the least of which was their short playing time of about two minutes–but proved popular with the public.

Edison was not without his competitors. Other inventors began introducing their own formats of playing back sound and music, including on disk records. “Gramophone” was actually the name given to the first flat recording disks, invented by Emile Berliner in 1889, and necessary improvements led to the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company. A decade later, 10-inch and 12-inch discs appeared on the market, with the 12-inch records still only able to play about four minutes of music. Edison responded with a new, improved cylinder that could play for about the same time.

Disks that could play longer, at 78 rpm, were initially developed to accompany motion picture films, serving as a their soundtracks, before sound was integrated onto the film itself. When music 78s were sold to the public, longer classical pieces and pop song collections had to be sold as multi-disk packages, with the record sleeves bound together to create a book-like “album”–a term that we still use today.

In September of 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first long-laying 33 1/3 records for home use,  as described in this ad for a disk-changing player. Both 10-inch and 12-inch records were offered, usually for light classical and popular music, and the 12-inch disks boasted a 15-minute capacity on each side (the first release was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).

But there was a catch. Turntables that accommodated both the 78 and 33 1/3 playing speeds, or special adaptors offered for other players, were expensive, especially during the Depression. Record sales began plunging. RCA was also sluggish in producing and marketing new titles, and ceased production of the LP format altogether before mid-decade.

Now comes the part of the story that you probably haven’t heard. One of the greatest of modern day inventors, who has been relegated to virtual obscurity for the past 70 years, can be credited with inventing stereo for records and films in the 1930s. His name was Alan Blumlein, a London-born audio engineer who, while working for EMI in 1931, first proposed and developed a “binaural” recording system for records and film , in which sound could be separated into two distinct audio channels. In 1933, he cut the first stereo disk, containing two such channels, and received its patent that year. The following year, working at the brand new EMI studios on Abbey Road in London, Blumlein and his team continued their experimental work.

Blumlein’s team demonstrates stereo’s potential for films (you can see this clip on YouTube).

By the following year, however, EMI shelved further work on stereo, citing its limited commercial potential(!). Blumlein, being the genius he was, then went to work on the fledgling medium of television. In 1936, EMI presented the world’s first electronic TV system, which was chosen by the BBC over the groundbreaking but inferior mechanical system developed by the legendary John Logie Baird.

At the outbreak of World War II, Blumlein turned his attention to the highly secret development of radar for the RAF, where he pioneered a technology called H2S, enabling bombers to find their targets through thick cloud cover. Unfortunately, during a 1942 flight intended to continue testing the H2S system, Blumlein’s plane crashed in Scotland, killing all onboard. The top secret nature of his work even prevented his own obituary from being printed in newspapers at the time. He was only 38.

The war years saw continued of dominance by 78 rpm records, but in June of 1948, Columbia records held a well-publicized press conference in New York to announce the new long-playing, 33 1/3 rpm record, capable of holding over twenty minutes of music on each side. This new, improved version of the original LP helped spur a tremendous resurgence of record sales throughout he U.S. between 1948 and 1958.  And, Blumlein’s invention of stereo was revived in the mid-’50s in the U.K. and U.S., by both big American record companies (RCA), and small (Remington Records), and Decca Records in the U.K.  Ironically, these companies began to record high-end music, such as classical symphonies, on stereo tape. Before long, it was stereo reel-to-reel tapes, first released by RCA in 1954, that began to attract the attention of audiophiles. For some time, it looked as if stereo tapes would be the next Big Thing. It would be another three years before stereo records would finally hit the mass market.

In December of 1957, the first public demonstration of a stereo record for consumers took place, at the Times Auditorium in New York City. The disk, produced by Audio Fidelity Records, presented the Dukes of Dixieland on side A, while side B offered railroad sound effects. The accompanying publicity campaign spurred other labels to play catch-up in their pursuit of mass producing their own stereo releases.  March of 1958 saw the first major stereo releases on records, including Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang, Vol. 1, and Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra.

And, yes, that’s the short version. We haven’t even gotten to the arrival of the CD, which we will…soon!