Retrotechtacular: Examining Music in 1950’s Russia

If you had told 12-year-old me that one day I would be able to listen to pretty much any song I wanted to on demand and also pull up the lyrics as fast as I could type the artist’s name and part of the title into a text box, I would have a) really hoped you weren’t kidding and b) would have wanted to grow up even faster than I already did.

The availability of music today, especially in any place with first world Internet access is really kind of astounding. While the technology to make this possible has come about only recently, the freedom of music listening has been fairly wide open in the US. The closest we’ve come to governmental censorship is the parental advisory sticker, and those are just warnings. The only thing that really stands between kids’ ears and the music they want to listen to is parental awareness and/or consent.

However, the landscape of musical freedom and discovery has been quite different in other corners of the world, especially during the early years of rock ‘n roll. While American teens roller skated and sock-hopped to the new and feverish sounds of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, the kids in Soviet Russia were stuck in a kind of sonic isolation. Stalin’s government had a choke hold on the influx of culture and greatly restricted the music that went out over the airwaves. They viewed Western and other music as a threat, and considered the musicians to be enemies of the USSR.

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Getting great bootlegs with the bootlegMIC

Go to any concert, show, or basement band practice, and you’ll find someone recording a bootleg. While these live recordings are sometimes fairly high quality, bootlegs recorded with a cell phone usually sound terrible. The guys over at Open Music Labs have a great solution to these poor quality recordings that only needs a few dollars worth of parts.

The project is called bootlegMIC. It’s a simple modification of an electret microphone – the same type of mic found in cellphones and bluetooth headsets – that allows for some very high quality recording in very noisy environments. According to the open music labs wiki, the modification is as simple as cutting a few traces on the PCB in an electret mic and soldering on a cap and a few resistors.

An electret mic contains a small JFET to amplify the signal coming from the microphone diaphragm; the specific JFET is selected by the manufacturer to ensure the microphone has the right gain and response. Usually these JFETs are chosen with the expectation of a relatively quiet environment, and trying to record a concert only results in a ton of distortion. By putting a resistor between the source of the JFET and ground of the microphone, it’s possible to reduce this distortion.

The circuit is easy enough to solder deadbug style, and should work with most cellphones. The guys at Open Music Lab were able to get their mic working with an iPhone, but they’re still working on figuring out the Android mic input. There’s a great demo video showing the improvement in audio quality; you can check that out after the break.

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