Seventh-grader Lauren Tapper is about to record an original poem on a decades-old portable recording machine, the only one in the world, and she’s nervous.
If she were recording on a smartphone, Lauren could record with a click of a button, easily stop the recording and start over. But once the recording starts on this machine, she has one shot to record onto a vinyl disc.
This machine, known as a recording lathe, was like the smartphone of its era. It allowed ordinary Americans in the 1920s to record themselves for the first time, giving musicians in remote parts of the country a national platform and democratizing music distribution so that anyone could record and sell records.
It looks like a complex turntable.
A 100-pound gold cylinder weight hangs by a white rope next to the machine. A vinyl disc sits on the turntable. As an audio engineer starts to spin the disc, the weight very slowly starts to drop, turning the record. A needle pushes down on the record and scratches into the vinyl, recording audio that comes from an old microphone connected to the lathe.
Lauren stands in front of the microphone. An audio engineer points at her and she takes a breath:
“Call me ‘Chi,’ by Lauren Tapper. I am from the deep dish pizza, from the whirlwind and Wrigley’s chewing gum, built from the limestone bedrock. I am from the wooden sidewalks and the terribly great fire.”
Lauren is one of dozens of students at the University of Chicago Lab School who got to record on this machine as part of a yearlong partnership with documentarians Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty. They created the American Epic documentary about the machine, which changed the way audio was collected and shared across the country. It aired on PBS and the BBC in 2017.
They visited the school throughout the year periodically, screening the documentary with students and giving lectures. On this visit, they brought the machine to the school so students could learn by directly recording on it.
Giving ordinary people a voice
As radios became popular in the 20th century, people stopped listening to records. Looking to find new audiences, record companies started sending this machine to poorer, rural areas of the country to record music. It allowed ordinary people to record music for the first time and to share their personal histories and stories through music.
“This is the first time America heard itself,” MacMahon said. “This machine created the first social network we know of. This essentially allowed thousands of records, some made in the most remote regions of the country, to be distributed across the nation.”
The machine introduced the country to Cajun music, African-American songs in the South, bluegrass and Hawaiian music, the documentary filmmakers said. And the time it takes for that weight to drop — 3 1/2 minutes — that’s why the modern pop song is around the same length.
The machine democratized music production and distribution in America.
“We now take it for granted that someone can come from the projects, the poorest part of the land, and become a major recording star,” MacMahon said. “At this time, and prior, that was unheard of.”
Rebuilding the lathe
The filmmakers said they discovered through their research that all the original recording lathes had been destroyed. To recreate one, they partnered with Nicholas Bergh, an audio engineer, and together, they traveled the country to find original pieces. They found a major part of the machine in the basement of the family of the original inventor of the recording lathe. They found another piece in an old warehouse in New Jersey.
Once the lathe was usable, famous musicians like Elton John, Jack White, and Alabama Shakes recorded on it.
The Lab School students in Hyde Park were the next to record on this machine.
“When you see a machine that can do the same thing as your smartphone, but has so many different components and a lot more difficulty, you have to just sit back and appreciate it, and admire how everything has evolved from the past,” said Sara Charles Waterstraat, a Lab seventh-grader.
While the students said they enjoyed going back in time for a day, student Lauren Tapper said she still prefers modern technology.
“If you're a recording artist and you're trying to get a sound or music and keep re-recording and re-cleaning the machine and re-setting it up and lifting up the weights and things like that, I think that could get annoying,” Lauren said.
As the documentarians wrap up their year at the Lab School, they’re working with teachers there to develop a curriculum around the recording machine. That way, other students across the country can learn about, and possibly record on this trailblazing machine, too.