by Art Chantry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
if you were suave and hip and cool and a young bachelor in the post-war period (the early/mid 50’s) you had a Hi-Fidelity music system. that’s where we get the phrase “Hi-Fi” from. it was the state of the art music system of the early popular post war period. it was in mono.
they were usually made form kits purchased in the pages of hi-fi magazines or picked up at shops where specialty systems were sold. a lot of these hi-fi systems were locally produced custom built “shop” manufactured items. it seems every city of any size had local engineer hobbyists building hi-fi’s in their garage and selling them commercially in the music stores along side the records they played. they were sort of “hot rods for geeks.” most common folks and teenagers simply bought ‘record players’ in sears catalogs. those who were serious went hi-fidelity.
what sort of music did hi-fi afficionados play on their turbo charged systems? mostly light classical. the real hep cats listened to jazz. the professionals listened to serious classical music. but the geeky bachelors thought mantovani was the shits. show tunes. dixieland jazz was about as hip as they could handle. apparently they were into seduction music (dixieland being the abberation)
then suddenly, there was stereo. all of those expensive amazing hi-fi systems were obsolete. the recordings in stereo kicked butt on anything played on a hi-fi (at least the way it was sold). almost over night, all those beautiful modern cool hand built systems were replaced with commercial stereo sound record players. it was like when we shifted from 8-track to cassette, or vinyl to cd. it took almost no time at all for everybody to toss out all that beautiful technology and upgrade. for about ten years the thrift stores were clogged with amazing hi-fi systems that cost hundreds – even thousands – for virtually the hauling. nobody wanted them.
so, exactly how was this feat managed? well, one of the prime sales tools was the “stereo sound effects records” and “test records”. it was a genius campaign that sort of erupted entirely unplanned (it seemed) and virtually all record labels produced a stereo test record for it’s catalog. there were even a couple of labels that ended up building their entire catalogs around the test and sound effects record (audio fidelity, for one. they often used a huge scary syringe on the cover and announced it as “doctored for your stereo”).
what did these records sound like? they were usually collections of light symphonic music and popular singers collected together and recorded in stereo using extreme stereo effects. percussion records were so prevalent that they are almost a separate category. imagine a tympani pounding loudly and every beat switches from one speaker to the other and back again over and over. you get the idea. some of the recordings still sound pretty cool. we really don’t use the “novelty’ of stereo in that extreme way any more. it was a exciting way to introduce a new listening public to what stereo can actually do. it was pretty crazy stuff.
the other sort of record that became popular was the ‘sound effects’ record. the classic example s still with us today as the “scary halloween sounds of the haunted house” record. these were collections of sounds gathered together and recorded in the magic of stereo. example: a train comes from the far left and, creating a fake doppler effect, it travels past the front of you and then disappears in the distance out the far right speaker. magic, huh?
these records were amazing collections of everything from breaking glass and bird calls to atomic bomb blasts – all in extraordinarily extreme stereo. often the engineers would get creative and build little stories or scenarios out of the sound effects and (in one case on an lp i found) take you on a stroll through the boulevards of los angeles to the sunny beaches where a nuclear bomb would explode. no joke.
i collected scores of these records. they were easy to find in the thrift store bins (archaic trash records). can’t find them any more – they are collectible on ebay, now. the reason i picked them up was actually because of the covers. if you were a staff designer or a freelancer hired to do a cover for a record like this, what on earth dodo? it’s quite a problem. the solutions i found were often marvelously inventive.
the typical look for one of these records was to create some sort of literal impression of sound waves making the magic of stereo. the results were a sort of early pre-op art look with concentric circles colliding against each other (and into an ear.) or rhythmic patterns intersecting in contrasting colors. or arrows, always with the arrows, the graphic designers’ ultimate last resort.
stereo percussion records would often create a similar sort approach only use shapes and blocks in impacting explosive patterns jumping around to simulate the visual image of percussion beats happily jumping in stereo rhythm. it’s interesting to note that many of these stereo test record covers were designed by young fledgling graphic design gods like ivan chermayeff, joseph albers and robert brownjohn. early in their careers, they could only get the “junk” work like this sort of project. frankly, their solutions were not any better than anybody else’s. you would never have predicted their later careers based on this stuff alone.
so, these covers are worth checking out. mostly done by unknown anonymous house designers. they created some of the most striking and memorable (and often unintentionally hilarious) record covers of all time. they stand as a mute tribute to the ingenuity of the mid-century american designer.
this cover i reproduce is rather a-typical of the genre as it evolved. but, it’s one of my favorites. i wonder who did this stuff?