Basement tapes: phone messages

In conjunction with this year’s virtual Basement Tapes Day celebrations on October 17th, we’d like to share a glimpse into the more esoteric side of the history of recorded audio by looking at two strange and yet commonplace recordings we’ve managed to dredge up. These recordings are from two different eras of telecommunication. The first is a video from an accidental pocket dial. It was discovered while engaged in the transfer of media from one cellphone to another.

Pocket dial

There are several points of interest in this recording from a found audio/ amateur recording perspective. The person speaking is one of the authors of this piece–that’s me, Simon Rogers–and I believe I am discussing note-taking in a randomized notebook and neighbourhood construction, which is hilarious that that was captured on a pocket dial video. I wouldn’t have remembered the conversation except for the accidental documentation.

I also like the audio in a video format. When I was a radio DJ in high school, we used to keep the radio logs on VHS tapes on slow play format, as a way of documenting the broadcasts for the CRTC [The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission]. In the case of the pocket dial the video is merely obscured but I remember being told the audio quality of the VHS tape was better than on standard audio cassette. People also used to use VHS for recording audio at Ed Video, a Guelph multimedia arts centre, for mixing short artist videos. It makes me wonder about the audio quality of various digital formats. Also, though the media format in this case is born digital, the issue of transferring files from one device to another is not entirely dissimilar to transfer from analog to digital. I would not have discovered this audio artefact if I hadn’t been transferring my files from a cloud storage to a physically more stable storage environment.

The second recording is from a typical home phone answering machine, in use towards the end of the 90s in various houses that I (Curtis) was living in. I was going through some old boxes of media and suchlike at my parents’ house a while back and stumbled across these two tapes:

I had absolutely no memory of keeping these, nor what was on them, but I did recall having one of these units in play for many years across a wide variety of student houses and living arrangements:

SANYO TAS345 TELEPHONE ANSWERING SYSTEM

For those of us not old enough to remember, one of these units functioned as our planning logistics hub in the days before ubiquitous cellular technology took hold. Out of curiosity, I digitized the tapes using a relatively straightforward rig with a Marantz cassette deck connected to a desktop terminal (and its rather limited built in sound card) via a basic audio converter with a USB interface. I used the free open source software Audacity to generate the mp3 file I’ve shared here, and also to amplify the sound a bit as the sound quality on the source tapes had become quite compromised over time given the fact these tapes were recorded over many hundreds of times with incoming messages. I also edited the clip for brevity and to focus on the more interesting messages I discovered to share. The resulting rescued audio in part documents some relatively mundane interactions, but also manages to partially capture a view of what it was like planning for the ins and outs of event attendance without a smartphone.

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