Vinyl in space: Voyager’s Golden Record
2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the Voyager mission, when NASA sent two Golden Records – each holding an audiovisual snapshot of human culture – into space. Owen Bailey finds out how Ozma Records recreated these timeless artefacts for a beautiful boxset tribute, which has earned its creators a Grammy Award…
Somewhere out there – NASA only knows where – two vintage space probes patiently transmit messages back to Earth from around 21 billion kilometres away. Even travelling at the speed of light, their radio signals take 15 hours to reach us. Launched in September 1977, Voyager 1 finally left our solar system for interstellar space in 2012 after completing its grand tour of the planets. Voyager 2 will soon follow its sibling on a journey towards the centre of the Milky Way.
Famously, attached to both probes is a 90-minute ‘Golden Record’ – a gold-plated copper phonograph record sitting in an aluminium container with a stylus and an ‘instruction manual’ to decode their contents. The records (originally titled The Sounds Of Earth) include a sound poem capturing an audio history of Earth, greetings in 55 languages, 116 audio-encoded images of the planet and a heavenly playlist featuring musical excerpts from a wide variety of cultures. Each record’s runout groove is etched with the inscription: “To the makers of music – all worlds, all times.”
These remarkable records – currently travelling away from us at an estimated velocity of around 17km per second – are time capsules that will hurtle through interstellar space for billions of years. Their creators, among them legendary cosmologist Carl Sagan and author Ann Druyan, summarised their significance by saying:
“A billion years from now, when everything on Earth we’ve ever made has crumbled into dust, when the continents are changed beyond recognition and our species is unimaginably altered or extinct, the Voyager record will still speak for us.” If ever there was a competition for ‘longest-lived vinyl’, then we’d definitely have a winner.
The Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition from Ozma Records began as a 2016 Kickstarter project with the aim of releasing the Voyager Golden Record on vinyl, and indeed on Earth, for the first time. It became Kickstarter’s most successful music fundraiser ever, raising over $1.3 million. The project was a co-production by science journalist David Pescovitz, Amoeba Music record-store manager Tim Daly and Lawrence Azerrad of LADdesign. The latter designed the release’s packaging – a limited-edition numbered set for Kickstarter contributors, a three-record gold-vinyl boxset and a two-CD version both featuring a 96-page booklet – and as we went to press, it won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition.
A worthy tribute to the profound significance of the original record, the creators of the 40th Anniversary version realised they saw it through three different lenses: as an exquisitely curated musical compilation; as an objet d’art and design, representing deep insights into the nature of communication and media; and as a scientific artefact raising deep philosophical questions about our place in the universe.
We spoke to the Golden Record project’s co-producer David Pescovitz, also the editor of celebrated tech blog Boing Boing, who set the scene for the Anniversary version by first taking us back to the creation of the original record. “In June of 1977, Timothy Ferris, the producer of the original Voyager Golden Record, holed up in CBS Records’ New York City recording studio to mix the interstellar message. As Carl Sagan wrote in Murmurs Of Earth, CBS Records (now a division of Sony Music) provided the studio and engineering talent ‘entirely as a public service’. The company’s support of the project, he wrote, was ‘truly remarkable’.”
Pescovitz explains how, over the course of a week, Ferris and CBS Records engineer Russ Payne, assisted by producer Jimmy Iovine, mixed the material to Ampex 1/2-inch magnetic tape. Engineer Vladimir Meller used these to cut the lacquer to fabricate the records. After the project was over, CBS Records deposited the original master tapes into a massive underground climate-controlled warehouse managed by a company called Iron Mountain, named for the decommissioned iron mines they’d converted into secure storage facilities.
For the next 40 years, the tapes sat in one or another of those facilities. Back in the present, Pescovitz details the way audio-restoration work was carried out for the Anniversary version. “When we started our project, Tim Ferris urged us to try to locate the original master tapes, now controlled by Sony Music, who had acquired CBS Records many years ago. Thanks to intrepid Sony archivist Matt Kelly, who located those tapes in Sony’s underground storage facility, we were able to source our release from the 1977 masters.”
In December 2016, Daly, Pescovitz and Ferris gathered around a vintage tape deck in Sony Music’s Battery Mastering Studios, as engineer Vic Anesini hit play on the Voyager Golden Record master tapes for the first time since 1977. “Anesini had literally baked the reels to temporarily prevent the iron oxide from shedding off the tape backing, a common problem of magnetic tapes of that vintage,” says Pescovitz, adding: “The sound was breathtaking.”
PLANET OF SOUND
Joined by aforementioned archivist Kelly and Ferris’s son Patrick (an archival music researcher himself and member of roots-rockers The Americans), the team spent the day listening intently to the original recording. As The Sounds Of Earth audio montage filled the studio, the group closed their eyes and listened to its curated soundscape, ranging from Chuck Berry and Bach to bagpipes and gamelan music. “The greetings in 55 languages sounded crisper than we’d ever heard them, as if the individuals behind those voices were in the room with us,” says Pescovitz.
After a pulsar’s beeps brought The Sounds Of Earth to a close, Ferris told Pescovitz about the four days he spent in the studio in 1977 producing the composition. He explained that the process required several people to operate the mixing desk’s faders simultaneously, while he “conducted” an orchestra of sounds such as dogs howling, volcanic eruptions, frogs, a jet plane, and, famously, a kiss.
The remastering of the audio was carried out with Grammy-winning audio engineer Bernie Grundman (Purple Rain, Thriller, The Chronic and more) at the console. Ferris, the producer of the original record, and his son joined the session. Pescovitz says: “As Grundman explained to us, watching the meters only takes you so far. The real breakthroughs come from listening very carefully for what may be hidden in the recording, and uncovering that magic for the listener. Remastering wasn’t a case of ‘set the dials and sit back’. After all, Ferris and the original Voyager Record committee had compiled the material 40 years previously, from a variety of sources – master tapes from the record labels’ vaults, 1/4-inch reels from portable tape records, and, in the case of a few very obscure tracks, scarce LPs.”
Pescovitz recalls how Grundman manipulated his custom-built audio console “like a musical instrument”, bringing out highlights such as “the exquisite detail of the rain within The Sounds Of Earth audio montage, the haunting moans of Blind Willie Johnson in Dark Was The Night, the expansive beauty of Bach’s Gavotte En Rondeaux performed by Arthur Grumiaux, and so much more.”
SEND MORE CHUCK BERRY
The Golden Record’s place in the popular imagination is assured and, since its launch, it has become a trope of science fiction – appearing in shows ranging from documentaries to The X Files, referenced in music and chronicled in books such as Carl Sagan et al’s Murmurs Of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, released back in 1978.
Perhaps alien vinyl enthusiasts will never play its contents. Yet you only have to pause for a second to imagine what would happen down here if we discovered a similar artefact from an interstellar civilisation, to realise that the cosmic significance of the original Golden Record is almost impossible to adequately summarise.
So what does the team think about what it means to have contributed to such a historic project? “We feel deeply honoured and fortunate to have the opportunity to share such a magnificent artifact in this way and help tell its story to the world,” says Pescovitz. “The Voyager Golden Record sparks the imagination. It provokes us to think about the future and our civilisation’s place in it. It exudes a sense of hope for a better tomorrow. We’ll probably never know whether an extraterrestrial civilisation ever listens to the Golden Record. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The Voyager record is a gift from humanity to the cosmos. But it is also a gift to humanity. It’s a stunning manifestation of what our civilisation can accomplish through creativity, passion and science.”
The original vinyl records for the Voyager missions were curated back in 1977. What changes does Pescovitz think there would be to the content of the Golden Record, if it was being compiled anew today?
“We think the Voyager record as it is will stand the test of time for the next few billion years,” he concludes. “That said, the technology to record, store and transmit such a message has obviously evolved quite a bit over the last 40 years. And each person has their own opinion about what should represent humanity to the cosmos. It’s actually a very powerful exercise to think about the future in that way. I think it connects us to our humanity and reminds us what we can achieve when we are at our best. If there are other civilisations out there, and I think there are, it would be nice to say ‘hello’.”
Music Of The Spheres: Imagining the galaxy we inhabit as a vinyl disc…
Tim Ferris, the Golden Record’s producer, has a helpful and eloquent analogy for imagining where we are in the universe: “We inhabit a small planet orbiting a medium-sized star two-thirds of the way from the centre to the edge of the Milky Way galaxy’s visible disc – about where Track Two might be on an LP record. The disc measures 100,000 light years in diameter (meaning light takes 100,000 years to cross it) by only a few-hundred-light-years thick. The sun and all the stars we see at night orbit the centre of the galactic disc at velocities of approximately 250km per second. The galaxy resembles a spinning record.”