©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
"With the present fervor to record every kind of sound imaginable for the satisfaction of hi-fi fans, it's to be expected that railroad sound would not be overlooked." – Model Railroader, April 1957.
Fast forward to more than sixty-two years later. Colleen and I were at an "Indoor Sidewalk Sale" at a local record store. Yes, I do mean "record store," at a time when music not only isn't sold much in physical form any more, but is mostly not sold at all. Why purchase when you can stream? Well, because streaming provides almost no income to the artists.
But I digress... somewhat. Before online streaming decimated the sales of recorded sound of all kinds, from downloads on backwards, the resale of records didn't add to the income of artists either. Akin to that is the "cutout" record, a reference to a small chunk of the album cover literally being "cut out," which denotes that the record is out of the standard sales channel. There were plenty of copies of the infamous "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" double album with that marking, and by that I mean the movie soundtrack released in 1978, not the legendary release by the Beatles in 1967. The Beatles LP sold 32 million copies at least. The movie soundtrack "did quadruple platinum in returns" (look it up, kids). That's a lot of "cutouts."
So I suppose it wasn't fair at all to the artists that made the recording industry what it is that Colleen and I would be shopping for used records or compact discs. The possible exception to that would be if I liked a pre-enjoyed album I bought and then sought out the entire catalog of an artist based on that initial purchase. My favorite example of this is the solo work of Bill Champlin, whose Runaway LP was attractive to me simply because Champlin was posing on a Southern Pacific diesel locomotive—and it was worth a couple of bucks to find out what was inside. I loved that album, bought it for real on CD as soon as I could find it, and accumulated several other records by him, including direct from his website which bypassed all of the middlemen. When I went to a Chicago concert while Champlin was part of the lineup. I was absolutely floored when they did a knockout version of the song Champlin's song "Satisfaction" (not to be confused with a similarly titled selection by some blokes known as the Rolling Stones).
Most of the time, a perusal through a record sale at a store, local or otherwise, leads to my coming across a lot of albums I already have. I never did let go of my record collection, and I'm glad of that since replacing it now with reissued "180 gram vinyl" versions would cost many times more than what I originally paid. (And for the record-- pun not intended-- I weighed my standard issue copy of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album; it checked in at a mere 138 grams. It also didn't have a $34.99 price sticker on it when I bought it.)
But every so often, there is an exception to finding nothing special. I had a couple of CDs and at least one LP in my hand already when I spotted something I didn't see often: a ten-inch record.
That wouldn't have been unusual in the earlier part of the history of recorded music. Once the transition was made from cylinders to discs, the first popular size for these discs was ten inches across, and the first speed, as you might know, was 78 revolutions per minute on a turntable. Over time, these gave way to 7 inch records played at 45 rpm, introduced in 1949, and 12 inch records played at 33 1/3 rpm, introduced in 1948. That pushed 78's out of the market, as well as 10 inch records played at 33 1/3 rpm.
But then there was this record which defied the trend toward the other formats. Furthermore, it wasn't of music. Called Rail Dynamics, it was a collection of recordings made in 1950 in and around the New York Central railroad station in Peekskill, New York, along the line's famous "Water Level Route." Peekskill played host to both commuter and intercity traffic—it still does—which made it an ideal place to capture the sounds of trains.
Given the price of one entire dollar, an immediate purchase resulted.
Back home, I needed to make sure that the turntable was properly hooked up to the stereo system in the basement. It had been that low of a priority since moving into the house to get that done that I wasn't sure that task had been completed. I then carefully removed the record from its well-worn sleeve and the intact plastic inner protective liner. This disc was heavier than the 12 inch records I'd bought, I noticed. Onto the turntable it went.
On Side A, I was treated to about a fourteen minute audio documentary of being aboard a moving train, complete with the familiar clickety-clack of wheels on rails, the sounds of a steam locomotive starting up and pulling away, the loud clatter of a train passing in the opposite direction on a parallel track, and the "doppler effect" of speeding by railroad crossing warning bells. Side B was a compendium of steam whistles, yard noises, diesel horns announcing the passage of trains, and passenger train stops at the station, concluding with a steam train and its mournful, lonesome whistle that has become the stuff of legend and literature.
In short, this was no ordinary record, nor was it intended to be according to the notes on the cardboard sleeve. "SOUNDS of our TIMES collects for you authentic originals of sounds which are off the beaten path of records. They are not studio productions, but are made on the road, on location in their natural habitat... [and] actually transmit a fuller frequency range than ever before on long playing records. Their superior recording quality is due to the fact that all recordings are engineered exclusively by Cook Laboratories, manufacturers of feedback disc recording cutters and fine recording equipment."
The album was further marked, "Cook Laboratories, Stamford, Conn." I had never heard of this company, so I did some online research. Rail Dynamics wasn't the only Sounds of the Times recording. And Sounds of the Times weren't the only records produced, engineered, and sometimes directly marketed by one Emory Cook, the founder of Cook Laboratories. He was a talented audio engineer who wanted to bring better sound to records. His "microfusion pressing" technique was considered superior to production methods used by other manufacturers, including the big record labels. More importantly in general, his process could be used in local record shops, especially in the Caribbean Islands where local musicians were recorded by Cook and others. It was a precursor of today's "print on demand" protocol, decades before that became a viable option in publishing. Perhaps even more importantly, he developed "binaural records," a forerunner of stereo sound. Imagine a record with two separate grooves and a tone arm with two styluses ("needles" as we called them) spaced some distance apart, and you have the general idea.
Rail Dynamics was also something else that surprised me: a genuine hit. Audiophiles were very impressed with the, well, dynamics of the record when they heard it as a demonstration. This disc gave them ability to show off their high-end equipment. And so something around one hundred thousand copies were purchased! At least one of them survives now, in my basement. There are other copies out there, including on blue vinyl.
Before their passing, Emory Cook and his wife donated much of their original work to the Smithsonian Institution, which has reissued Rail Dynamics and other Cook Laboratories product. This time, though, you'll have to settle for a compact disc or a direct digital download... just a bit ironic, I would think, considering that vinyl, when done right as by Emory Cook, actually does sound better.