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The Voyager Golden Record Finally Finds An Earthly Audience

Sep 30, 2017
Originally published on October 1, 2017 2:04 pm

The Golden Record is basically a 90-minute interstellar mixtape — a message of goodwill from the people of Earth to any extraterrestrial passersby who might stumble upon one of the two Voyager spaceships at some point over the next couple billion years.

But since it was made 40 years ago, the sounds etched into those golden grooves have gone mostly unheard, by alien audiences or those closer to home.

"The Voyager records are the farthest flung objects that humans have ever created," says Timothy Ferris, a veteran science and music journalist and the producer of the Golden Record. "And they're likely to be the longest lasting, at least in the 20th century."

In the late 1970s, Ferris was recruited by his friend, astronomer Carl Sagan, to join a team of scientists, artists and engineers to help create two engraved golden records to accompany NASA's Voyager mission — which would eventually send a pair of human spacecraft beyond the outer rings of the solar system for the first time in history.

Ferris was tasked with the technical aspects of getting the various media onto the physical LP, and with helping to select the music. In addition to greetings in dozens of languages and messages from leading statesmen, the records also contained a sonic history of planet Earth and photographs encoded into the record's grooves. But mostly, it was music.

"We were gathering a representation of the music of the entire earth," Ferris says. "That's an incredible wealth of great stuff."

Ferris and his colleagues worked together to sift through Earth's enormous discography to decide which pieces of sound would best represent our planet. They really only had two criteria: "One was: Let's cast a wide net. Let's try to get music from all over the planet," he says. "And secondly: Let's make a good record."

That meant late nights of listening sessions while "almost physically drowning in records," Ferris says.

The final selection, which was engraved in copper and plated in gold, included opera, rock 'n' roll, blues, classical music and field recordings selected by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

Ferris says that from the very start, many people on the production team expected and hoped for the record to be commercially released soon after the launch of Voyager.

"Carl Sagan tried to interest labels in releasing Voyager," Ferris says. "It never worked."

Ferris says that's likely because the music rights were owned by several different record labels who were hesitant to share the bill. So — except for a limited CD-ROM release in the early 1990s — the record went largely unheard by the wider world.

David Pescovitz, an editor at technology news website Boing Boing and a research director at the nonprofit Institute for the Future, was seven years old when the Voyager spacecraft launched.

"When you're seven years old and you hear that a group of people created a phonograph record as a message for possible extraterrestrials and launched it on a grand tour of the solar system," says Pescovitz, "it sparks the imagination."

A couple years ago, Pescovitz and his friend Tim Daly, a record store manager at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, decided to collaborate on bringing the Golden Record to an earthbound audience.

Pescovitz approached his former graduate school professor — none other than Ferris, the Golden Record's original producer — about the project, and Ferris gave his blessing, with one important caveat.

"You can't release a record without remastering it," says Ferris. "And you can't remaster without locating the master."

That turned out to be a taller order than expected. The original records were mastered in a CBS studio, which was later acquired by Sony — and the master tapes had descended into Sony's vaults.

Pescovitz enlisted the company's help in searching for the master tapes; in the meantime, he and Daly got to work acquiring the rights for the music and photographs that comprised the original. They also reached out to surviving musicians whose work had been featured on the record to update incomplete track information.

Finally, Pescovitz and Daly got word that one of Sony's archivists had found the master tapes.

Pescovitz remembers the moment he, Daly and Ferris traveled to Sony's Battery Studios in New York City to hear the tapes for the first time.

"They hit play, and the sounds of the Solomon Islands pan pipes and Bach and Chuck Berry and the blues washed over us," Pescovitz says. "It was a very moving and sublime experience."

Daly says that, in remastering the album, the team decided not to clean up the analog artifacts that had made their way onto the original master tapes, in order to preserve the record's authenticity down to its imperfections.

"We wanted it to be a true representation of what went up," Daly says.

Pescovitz and Daly teamed up with Lawrence Azerrad, a graphic designer who has made record packaging for the likes of Sting and Wilco, to design a luxuriant box set, complete with a coffee table book of photographs and, of course, tinted vinyl.

"I mean, if you do a golden record box set, you have to do it on gold vinyl," Daly says.

They put the project on Kickstarter and expected to sell it mostly to vinyl collectors, space nerds and audiophiles — but they underestimated the appeal.

"The internet was just on fire, talking about this thing," Daly says.

They blew past their initial funding goal in two days, eventually raising more than $1.3 million dollars, making it the most successful musical Kickstarter campaign ever. Among the initial 11,000 contributors were family members of NASA's original Voyager mission team.

Last week, Ferris got his box set in the mail. He says that his friend, the late Carl Sagan, would be delighted by what they made.

"I think this record exceeds Carl's — not only his expectations, but probably his highest hopes for a release of the Voyager record," Ferris says. "I'm glad these folks were finally able to make it happen."

Pescovitz says he's just glad to have returned the Golden Record to the world that created it.

At a moment of political division and media oversaturation, Pescovitz and Daly say they hope that their Golden Record can offer a chance for people to slow down for a moment; to gather around the turntable and bask in the crackly sounds of what Sagan called the "pale blue dot" that we call home.

"As much as it was a gift from humanity to the cosmos, it was really a gift to humanity as well," Pescovitz says. "It's a reminder of what we can accomplish when we're at our best."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today a reason to open your mail. Over the past few weeks, more than 10,000 people around the world have been receiving a special delivery. It's a box set of golden records modeled after the one sent into space aboard NASA's Voyager spacecraft 40 years ago. The new terrestrial set was funded through Kickstarter, and as NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, it is the first time the Voyager's Golden Record is being released on vinyl to the public.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: The Golden Record is basically a 90-minute interstellar mixtape - a message from the people of Earth to any extraterrestrial passersby who might stumble upon one of the two Voyager spaceships at some point over the next couple billion years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM "VOYAGER GOLDEN RECORD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hello from the children of planet Earth.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In addition to greetings, the records also contain sounds from nature and photographs encoded into the record's grooves, but mostly it was music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "MELANCHOLY BLUES")

TIMOTHY FERRIS: We were gathering a representation of the music of the entire Earth. That's an incredible wealth of great stuff.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's Timothy Ferris, veteran science writer and music journalist and the original producer of the Voyager record.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "MELANCHOLY BLUES")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In the late 1970s, Ferris was recruited by his friend, Carl Sagan, to help create the records and select the music.

FERRIS: I really had only two criteria. One was let's cast a wide net. Let's try to get music from all over the planet. And secondly, let's make a good record.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That meant weeks of late-night listening sessions amidst towering stacks of vinyl LPs.

FERRIS: Yeah, we were almost physically drowning in records.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM "VOYAGER GOLDEN RECORD")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The final selection, which was engraved in copper and plated and gold, included opera, rock and roll, blues, classical music and field recordings selected by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM "VOYAGER GOLDEN RECORD")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Timothy Ferris says that many on the Voyager team expected and hoped for the record to be commercially released after the spacecraft left Earth.

FERRIS: Carl Sagan many times tried to interest record labels in releasing Voyager. It never worked.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Because the music was owned by several different record labels, and except for a CD-ROM released in the early '90s, the record went largely unheard by the wider world.

DAVID PESCOVITZ: I was 7 years old when the Voyagers launched.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: David Pescovitz is a technologist and journalist.

PESCOVITZ: When you're 7 years old and you hear that a group of people created a phonograph record as a message for possible extraterrestrials, it sparks the imagination.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Pescovitz eventually set his sights on making the Golden Record available to an Earthly audience. He teamed up with Tim Daly, a record store manager at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and approached his former graduate school professor - the very same Timothy Ferris who gave his blessing with one important caveat.

FERRIS: You can't release a record without remastering it, and you can't remaster it without locating the master.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That turned out to be a taller order than expected. The original records were mastered in a CBS studio, which was later acquired by Sony, and the master tapes descended into Sony's vaults. After months of waiting, Pescovitz and Daly finally got word that one of Sony's archivists had found the master tapes. Pescovitz remembers the moment when they heard them for the first time.

PESCOVITZ: They hit play and the sounds of the Solomon Islands' panpipes and Bach and Beethoven and Chuck Berry and the blues washed over us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARK WAS THE NIGHT")

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: (Vocalizing).

PESCOVITZ: It was very moving and sublime experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI VARGAS' "EL CASCABEL")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A sublime experience deserved a sublime reissue, says Amoeba Music's Tim Daly.

TIM DALY: I mean, if you do a golden record box set, you have to do it on, you know, gold vinyl.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They put the project on Kickstarter and expected it mostly to sell to vinyl collectors, space nerds and audiophiles.

DALY: And, you know, frankly we just kind underestimated the appeal of this. The Internet was just on fire talking about this thing.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They blew past their initial funding goal in two days, eventually raising more than $1.3 million, making it the most successful musical Kickstarter campaign ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM "VOYAGER GOLDEN RECORD")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Last week, Timothy Ferris got his box set in the mail, and he says that his friend, the late Carl Sagan, would be delighted.

FERRIS: I think this record exceeds Carl's - not only his expectations, but probably his highest hopes for a release of the Voyager record, and I'm glad that these folks were finally able to make it happen.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: David Pescovitz says he's just glad to return the Golden Record to the world that created it.

PESCOVITZ: As much as it was a gift from humanity to the cosmos, it was really a gift to humanity as well. It's a reminder of what we can accomplish when we're at our best.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: At a moment of political division and media oversaturation, David Pescovitz and Tim Daly say they hope that their Golden Record can offer a chance for people to slow down for a moment, to gather around the turntable and bask in the crackly sounds of what Carl Sagan called this pale blue dot. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.