Martin Fisher: Historic Audio Collector
by Jim Hornsby
MARTIN FISHER is curator and manager of the audio collections at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. He cares for approximately 180,000 recorded items at the Center, and in addition, he has a private collection of approximately 75,000 items. His most active hobby is field recording. He uses both modern equipment and historic wax cylinder recorders to document the people, music and traditions of the region. He works closely with The Folk Alliance and the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee, and there is talk of a Grammy nomination for his work.
I spoke with Martin in his basement workshop; a remarkable place, crowded with recording and playback equipment that spans 130 years: antique equipment with polished wood and elaborate graphics on finely crafted metal; vintage radios; modern computers; turntables and recorders in various stages of disassembly and restoration; homemade equipment; spare parts; manuals and textbooks; and everywhere—lining the walls, stacked on desktops, sitting in boxes, leaning against the furniture, and spilling out onto the floor—is his collection of recorded music.
When did you start collecting music?
I was given my first record player when I was two and a half years old. I was in the hospital recovering from surgery, and my grandmother brought me a little blue and white GE record player with two seven-inch, 78 rpm Cricket records. I still have one of them somewhere. I was five or so when my father bought me my first wind-up Victrola, the Victor Victrola XVII. It is a beautiful machine, one of the better Victor models of that day.
Are there special things you like to collect?
I’m fairly eclectic; whatever turns me on at the moment. I like pre-1930s formats and music. I have lots of different media. Nothing is taboo, but mainly I collect 78s and cylinders. I’m very interested in early recording techniques and am constantly learning new things about that area.
What were the early recording techniques?
Thomas Edison demonstrated the first reproducible sound media in 1877 utilizing a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a cylindrical drum that was indented with sound vibrations by a stylus. He envisioned a disc version of that, but never put a working model into production. Edison developed the easily-interchangeable, solid-core “wax” cylinder in 1888, and Emile Berliner brought out the first viable disc records about the same time. Edison’s firm was the last to commercially produce music cylinders; they stopped in 1929.
What do you look for in a collectible record?
The physical makeup of the media itself is a big draw. How does it look and feel. There is remarkable variety in pre-1930s records. Early discs tend to have a rough appearance while later ones look more refined and finished. A lot of the physical characteristics I notice are subtle and can’t be explained easily or, at least in my case, briefly. Many had unique labels and packaging that tended to change every few years. There are also other aspects of grooved media that do not easily apply to magnetic and digital formats. I can sometimes tell what’s on a record from looking at the grooves.
You can tell what has been recorded by looking at the grooves?
I can tell quite a bit from grooves. Detailed inspection can reveal whether the groove is V- or U-shaped, whether it is cut laterally (side to side), vertically (up and down), or universally (a combination of lateral and vertical, utilizing an angle of cut that is halfway between the vertical and horizontal axis). In the modern LP era, one can sometimes tell whether the signal is recorded monaurally (both groove walls contain the same waveform) or stereophonically (one groove wall contains information that differs from the other). Sometimes, but not always, I can tell whether there is music or talk on a record. The light reflected off the groove walls makes different patterns depending on volume and frequency. Sustained music and singing look different from short spoken words. There are collectors who say they can tell what a person is saying or singing by looking at the grooves. I doubt it, but with experience, who knows?