The Shellac Factor

A Short Story Outline by Gus Frederick

With all the hoop-la flying about regarding the viability of vinyl vs. CDs, I was forced back to a short story that I have been working on over the last several months. Here is an excerpt from a work in progress I call "The Shellac Factor," for my fellow shellac addicts. The material and concept were developed by me, so distrubution is allowed as long as the text remains unaltered. I retain full rights, (© Copyright 1995, R.D."Gus" Frederick), while you folks get a sneak preview of my latest story. Enjoy!

During the annual meeting of the Wolverine Ancient Music Society, Chief Historian Waxie Beeschniff recaps the events leading up to the formation of the present society. What follows is the prepared text of his address held on October 4, 2478 in the historic W.A.M.S. library and Ancient Music Museum.

"It has been several hundred years since the great plastic zap.. This intense burst of radiation from an unknown source flooded the Earth for several days, but rendered no direct physical harm to any of the living beings of our planet. Instead it had the effect of breaking down complex synthetic polymer plastics. So while it passed through the bodies of our ancestors like neutrinos, it rendered every synthetic plastic item everywhere at that time into a fine molecular powder.

As hard to imagine as it is now, in those days almost everything was constructed of these plastics in a wide range of textures and uses. Probably the greatest tragedy is the loss of most of the recorded musical performances of this period. After the first half century of recorded sound and images, plastics came into widespread use as a media substrait. Synthetic vinyl replaced the biological shellac for a mass marketed sound recording media.

So aside from this first fifty years of shellac disks, we have lost over a hundred years of recorded performances. The written accounts from this period speak in glowing terms of such obscure artists as Elvis Presley, and of course recordings featuring the actual performances by the song writing team of Lennon & McCartney with their "Beatles" band. One could only imagine what such traditional tunes as "Yesterday" or "Elenor Rigby" sounded like performed by the very artists that wrote them. It was said they sold hundreds of millions of these recordings. On vinyl disks or mylar magnetic tapes. They were mastered on tape of course, and ALL of these were reduced to dust. So their performances are as unheard today as Beethoven playing his own piano concertos.

A very few metal "stamper" masters of course survived, the bulk of the originals having been melted back and recycled once the plastic compact digital disk came into widespread use around the turn of the twenty-first century. It was logically assumed that fresh metal masters could be easily created from tape masters if need be. But since CDs did not require a metal stamper as the original phonographics systems did, no one felt a need to maintain them. These five disks are all that survives from the all but forgotten "Long Play 33 rpm" period, and although the artist isn't mentioned much in the writings of that era, the music of Slim Whitman is "interesting."

But fortunately, we do have a substantial collection from the first fifty years, having been released on disks made from shellac, a material collected from the secretions of the Southeast Asian scale insect Coccus Lacca. These recordings were as impervious to the burst as the Whitman metal masters, and a great deal more plentiful and diverse.

It was through the gallant efforts of our ancestral organization, The Wolverine ANTIQUE Music Society that even these twenty thousand sides even exist. The first of the now massive shellac-disk record collection was started just a few decades after this material was no longer utilized. The vinyl records, even those few 78s recorded on the media, had much less surface noise than the shellac disks. This as well as the convenience of the LP, caused used shellac 78s to appear in second hand stores for pennies. As the years went on, the prices increased as the once-plentiful shellac records became scarcer and scarcer.

But the W.A.M.S. library expanded. The organization grew as well including eventually two full-time staff persons who over the course of several years, completely cataloged the entire collection. Fortunately, the bulk of the electronic files were stored on metal-cored hard disks, as well as the traditional plastic-based emergency backup tapes. And several hard copy printouts survived also. After Reconstruction, the data was retreived in full.

Of course the W.A.M.S. library was not the only collection of these shellac recordings. At the time of the Plastic Zap in the middle of the twenty-first century, there were at least five large libraries of shellac 78s, as well as a number of good-sized private collections. The thing they all had in common, except for one, was a unique storage shelf system designed specifically for these heavy records. Like most utilitarian furnishings of the day, the shelf system was constructed of auto-injection molded PVC.

HyperModel Markup Language was a computer controlled manufacturing system that came into wide use in the early 21st century. It did for plastics manufacturing what HTML did for Internet access. HMML systems were in effect, three dimentional printers. Computer generated renderings were entered in, and thesystem "printed" out the item, much the same as with our modern molecular assembler units. Only the end product was the same plastic that went in . . . remolded into a new shape. Design a new kind of plastic chair, and print out hundreds electronically. The systems spread globally to the point that creating finished products was as easy as going to the store to buy food. Naturally, the HMML systems used traditional plastics as a the raw material. This also created a ready market for recycled plastics. Throw in a bunch of used plastic containers at one end, and out pops the new coffee table at the other!

A record collector and computer buff living in what was then California wrote a configuration file for phonograph record storage shelves, and put it on the Web. Soon most every record collector on the planet had switched over to this unique shelving system.

So when the Zap hit, tons of old shellac records cascaded to destruction as their shelves suddenly turned to dust. Several 78 librarians were lost that day, having been crushed beneath tons of ancient music.

Being the oldest established collection, the W.A.M.S. library was fleshed out before the advent of the HMML shelving, and relied upon a massive construction of wood, handcrafted by an early society member. Ironically enough, the W.A.M.S. LP and "Big Hole" 45 rpm libraries did make use of the HMML shelves, and these disks added their dust to the collection after the Zap. W.A.M.S. does however maintain the largest collection of cardboard LP album jackets and sleeves in the known universe.

The other stoke of luck that had occurred was the annual W.A.M.S. campout for 2046 was the same weekend as the Zap, and all but one person was out of the building at the time. The security guard on duty, Mr. Joe Schliz was knocked unconscious when the plastic chair he was sitting in dusted, and he hit his head on the marble floor of the library. He died shortly after from dust inhalation. If the Zap had occurred just one day earlier, the entire staff and dozens of researchers would have parished. As it was, many survived by virtue of the fact that the W.A.M.S. campout was in a wilderness area far from the ElektroPlastik culture of the times.

When their vehicles and supplies dusted, they were forced to live off the land for several months, until they were able to make it back to the ruins of 21st century civilization. By then, all the free molecular plastic dust had stabilized, and reconstruction was underway. Needless to say, the W.A.M.S. library was the least of their worries, and it was several years later that any effort was made to salvage what was left.

As a new society literally rose from the dust, it soon became apparent that W.A.M.S. library represented the largest single collection of recorded sound in the world. To the music starved survivors, it offered the only means of entertainment aside from actual performances, (which were also now much more common). In fact, for a while before suitable replacement materials could be developed, there was a brief resurgence in the use of the old acoustic recording and playback technologies, made obsolete a hundred years earlier by the advent of electronics and plastics.

In a society that was still trying to recover from the Zap, the re-creation of a plastic culture was not very popular. A "retro" pre-plastic mindset prevailed. For a quarter century, technology went in reverse. So without television, CDs and tapes, the 78 rpm phonograph and the crystal AM radio seemed natural if not almost sacred forms of entertainment. From the ashes of the global ElektroPlastik culture now embraced the golden years of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was expressed not only in technology, but in fashions and the romantically perceived lifestyles of the period. And of course the music.

W.A.M.S. was at the forefront of this new enterprise. With plenty of examples of ancient acoustic sound recording systems in their Museum, it was simple task to reproduce ancient technology. Victrolas, Edisons and other units had been cloned for sale by W.A.M.S. for close to fifteen years prior to the Zap. They had proven to be quite popular among a relatively small, but well endowed group of collectors. Disk reproduction was the natural follow through, with the famous "W.A.M.S. 78 Disk Of The Month Club." offered subscribers repressed 78 rpm records for playback on cloned period machines.

And being period clones, only period materials and methods had been used in the manufacturing: With no plastics. After reconstruction had gotten underway, these W.A.M.S. Clones turned out to be the best available method for sound reproduction. Soon a demand arose for the distribution of newly recorded material. And almost overnight simple acoustic recording studios sprang into operation. This in turn boosted yet another industry, that of the bee keepers. Under the circumstances, beeswax was the best mastering medium available. From these, metal stampers were electroplated using tradition techniques.

The metal stampers were pressed into special clays, which were kiln-fired into the "new" 21st century ceramic 78s. These records played back on any period units, clone or original. And were much more durable than shellac had been. All without electronics or plastics.

Eventually, materials were developed that worked as well as the old plastics, but were not of the same material. And as the children of the survivors matured with a dimming memory of the Zap, the convenience of the instant plastic world again became popular. Television and digital audio returned. Only this time, more natural materials were cloned and used. Materials, it was hoped that would not succome to future Zaps. But the music remained quite popular.

Once new data processing equipment became more common, digital techniques were incorporated into the new acoustic recordings. This was how the acoustic holography phenomenon was discovered. It began when a part time musician and graduate student theorized in his Master's Thesis that it might be possible to create holographic images with focused sound waves instead of laser light. Bryce Lynch tested his theory in one of the numerous, now obsolete acoustic beeswax studios.

Various sources of sound were used with stationary solid objects of differing densities positioned in different locations throughout the room. The twenty beeswax masters were transferred to holographic computer memory crystals for processing. And sure enough, distinct images were resolved in amazing detail on all but a couple of the cuts. The process required steady reference "hum" over the length of several minutes to obtain enough data to resolve the image of an object, which of course had to remain motionless for that entire period.

The process turned out to have little practical use since better holographic images could be obtained in a fraction of a second with optical means. It was just another scientific curiosity, like acoustically recorded sound.

Then Lynch tried the process on one of the acoustically recorded ceramic 78s. The record, one of many from the post-Zap retro-period featured a five-piece jazz combo playing a popular tune of the 1920s, with period brass and woodwind instruments. He obtained his reference hum from the natural ambiance of the original recording studio created by the reflected sounds from the instruments that were not absorbed by the acoustic tiling of the studio with the computer compensating for slight pitch variations

A bizarre image of the band in the session was resolved. The musicians of course were hazy cloud-like blurs that became more dense the closer to the ground they were. Music stands, instrument cases and the drum set all were in reasonably sharp focus, floating in miniature over the holographic monitor.

After several other sonic holograms were created from other ceramic recordings with similar results, Mr. Lynch approached W.A.M.S. with a proposal to try the process on original acoustic recordings from the W.A.M.S. library. The results of the subsequent imaging project will forever live on as one by one sonic holograms from the old masters were resolved.

More sophisticated image processing technics eventually allowed for the imaging almost in real time of the recording artists as they played. The appearance was like that of a bad print of an oldtime jerky-looking movie. But they were none the less recognizable for what they were. And when played back in synchronization with the original sound, they proved to be like ghostly dream-like windows into ancient music's glorious past.

The legendary tenor, Enrico Caruso singing his arias as if someone had placed a movie camera in front of him instead of a recording horn. The facial expressions of Jelly Roll Morton, as he pluncked out his music on the Starr piano in the Gennett studios of 1924 Illinois. Or the cornet antics of the great Bix Beiderbecke in the same studio with the original Wolverine Orchestra.

These images, unfortunately were only obtainable from records recorded acoustically. Most everything after 1928 was unresolvable, owing to the advent of electrical recording methods. But the ones that were created, fueled the retro culture already hungry for the identity it lost to the Zap. As the new holovision systems came back on line, these sonic holograms began to fill the new screens of post-Zap homes.

Ironically, if the Zap had not occurred, it is doubtful that the sonic hologram would ever had been invented.

And to this day, the first fifty years of recorded music lives on as the only reminder of those glorious naive days before the Great Plastic Zap.

The preceeding is the partial outline to a short story in progress. If anyone has any comments, gripes, and(or) critques, drop me a line at Hope you enjoyed it!

© 1995 by R. D. "Gus" Frederick

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