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Digital age thoughts on gramophones

Thanks to Adobe Photoshop and such other software, we now have photos being touched up and creatively modified in so many ways. N Madhavan writes.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2013 23:20 IST
N Madhavan

I spent the last three days at the Jaipur Literature Festival. I thought I might stumble on something to do with digital-age e-books but there was not much on it. But it was the past, rather than the future, that led me into some digital thoughts.

Vikram Sampath, a young Bangalore-based musician and culture historian, spoke about his work, “My Name is Gauhar Jaan” — about an Armenian-born courtesan who served in Mysore and even impressed Mahatma Gandhi and raised money for the Congress during the Independence movement.

As Vikram spoke about how recordings were made those days, some things fell into place. Apparently, the old recordings were such that singers were asked to sing into a wide-mouthed machine as loud as they could. This would cause vibrations that were recorded on shellac that would go into eventually into the records.

Now, that explains how some old singers of the 1930s sounded shrill. If you record in a voice at a level that is not natural, it will not be authentic. The same principle applies to pictures, where old photos of those age clearly seemed to have been shot in low-light conditions, whereas the fault may have been with the limitations of the cameras of those times.

Thanks to Adobe Photoshop and such other software, we now have photos being touched up and creatively modified in so many ways. Even old black-and-white classic movies like Mughal-e-Azam have been re-released in colour.

But the same cannot be quite said of music though it is true that records are being digitally remastered, and converted from analog to digital formats like MP3. Even Mughal-e-Azam songs were digitally re-mastered for the colour release.

Following a quick research on the Internet, I have found experts offering remastering and restoration services to preserve old records and cassette recordings. But I am keen to learn if there are software applications and processes that help old audio recordings in some sort of a reverse engineering process so that artificially changed voices can be readjusted so that we get an idea of how these old singers really sounded to those who admired them in their small gatherings. Do let me know if you know of such software apps with creative capabilities. Or, is the current state of re-mastering good enough? I am still learning.