An Opportunity to be Better - Sound Files

When Robert Sonkin visited Morganville to record the sound of the pageant play, three audio recording methods were commonly available.

Method 1 - "Cutting" a record involved placing a flat disk with a hole in the center on a rotating platter with a spindle in its center. A cutting head slowly moved from the outside edge toward the spindle, thus producing a single continuous groove in the semi-soft disk material. While cutting progressed, the cutting head moved slightly side-to-side, controlled by the audio signal. Playing the recording involved again rotating the disk at the same speed while a needle rode in the groove. The side-to-side movements of the needle were used to generate small electrical signals, which were amplified and sent to a speaker. This approach produced good results, but required heavy precision-built equipment.

Copies of a recording could be made by a chemical process whereby a mirror image was created in metal from the disk's surface. This metal part was then used to press additional disks made from soft material that later hardened.

Portable machines were also made, but they involved a significant decrease in quality. This was the type of equipment used by Sonkin and his friend Todd in the late 1930s and early 1940s when they were recording American folk music in California and New York.

Records have the disadvantage that they could not be edited, and the standard 10-inch disk of the 1940s rotated at 78 revolutions-per-minute (rpm). The result was they only held about four minutes of sound.

Todd recording songs of California farm workers.

For longer recordings, slower 33 1/3 rpm records were available using disks up to 16 inches in diameter and a narrower groove. Continuous recordings of more than 30 minutes could be made. These transcription disks were widely used to hold radio programs. A half-hour of radio entertainment could be recorded on one side. For one-hour programs, the flip side was used to hold an additional 30 minutes. However, the precision equipment needed to create these records made them unsuitable for use outside the studio.

Method 2 - Wire recording uses a hair-thin filament of magnetic metal wound on a reel. The wire is pulled past a head at a constant rate and magnetized in an amount proportional to the audio signal applied to it. Wire recorders are moderately rugged. When the wire is again pulled past the head, the magnetic field induced a signal in the head that is a duplicate of the original audio. Editing could be performed by cutting the wire and tying pieces together. Recordings as long as 25 minutes were possible.

Method 3 - Tape recording replaced the wire by a thin plastic tape on which a magnetic layer had been deposited. This tape was magnetized and played back much as with the wire recorder.

Freeland discovers a wire recorder in an antique store.

Editing with tape was far easier than with wire. An ordinary scissors and some adhesive tape were sufficient to do the job. Tape recorders were small, rugged and could make recordings of an hour or longer. Copies were created by using two machines - the output from the first playing the original fed a second machine operating in record mode. These advantages meant tape recording quickly replaced wire recording. Unlike records, the wire or tape medium can be reused.

Wire and tape recorders have a supply reel which holds the wire or tape that has yet to be recorded or played. A separate take-up reel holds the medium already processed. Years after the pageant, variations were added to tape recording. Cassettes and cartridge systems placed the tape in a carrier, eliminating the need for the user to handle the tape. Multiple channels were placed side-by-side on tape, allowing stereo recordings to be made or effectively doubling the recording time.

Because of the length of the pageant play, it is unlikely Sonkin recorded it on disks. An hour-long show would have required 15 of them. One source mentions his using a wire recorder, but others suggest it was a tape recorder. No recording of the pageant has been located.

Robert Franc produced a version of the pageant play in French. It was almost certainly a tape recording. No copy of it has been found.

When Elmore McKee arrived in Morganville in the fall of 1950 to capture material for what became A Prairie Noel, he used a tape recorder. A copy of the edited version was presented to Morganville. That copy was in the now rarely-seen transcription-record format and was almost certainly just one of several manufactured to be distributed to radio stations, the Library of Congress, interested parties and various archives.

This player designed for 12-inch records was modified - note plate by arrow - to play this transcription copy of A Prairie Noel owned by the Clay County Historical Society museum.

A recording was also made of the program presented by the people of Féves. It was recorded with the help of a nearby radio station for delivery to the people of Morganville. It is unclear if the recording shipped was of the event as it unfolded or was an edited version with English transcriptions added. It arrived as 15 separate disks. These were apparently transferred to tape before forwarding a copy to Morganville. This recording or a copy has not been located. However, a snippet of the recording is contained in A Prairie Noel.

Pageant Play recording

Robert Franc recording

Message to Morganville