Written by 4:13 am Audiophile Music

The Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition

Mark Smotroff sets the controls for interstellar overdrive…

One of the most fascinating collections to be released at the end of 2017 is a three disc — and digital download (and eventually CD) — commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Voyager space mission. In case you didn’t know about this, in 1977 NASA sent out two robotic space probes to study the far reaches of the solar system. Included on these probes — called Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — are a pair of golden discs (one each) containing audio representations of life on earth. 

AR-VoyagerGoldenRecordTurntableMat225.jpgNow, even as a teenager growing up in 1977, my first thought back then was : “hey, I’d love to own a copy of that disc someday.”  Forty years later, curiously enough, as I was reading news updates about Voyager’s journey status earlier this year, I thought about “my” record idea again for the first time in ages. Shortly thereafter I learned about the Kickstarter program aiming to make that dream come true. Clearly I wasn’t the only musically-inclined science-dreamer with that idea! 

From the Kickstarter page, we learn “A year in the making (and many more years on our minds), the Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition is the first vinyl release of the stunning golden phonograph record launched by NASA in 1977 aboard the Voyager spacecraft, one of which is now traveling through interstellar space. The deluxe 40th Anniversary Edition box set will only be available through October 20 on Kickstarter.”

I got my order in and it arrived just in time for the Winter holiday season. And generally I am super pleased with it.  Falling only one step short of having a physical reproduction of the exact Voyager disc, this three LP set pressed on thick, quiet and well centered vinyl is the next best thing. And its something we can enjoy here and now today. You see, the original Voyager disc was not created in a form adhering to our current audio standards; according to the Wiki,  the audio on the original Voyager Golden Record was designed to be played at 16⅔ revolutions per minute.

AR-VoyagerGoldenRecordCover225.jpgWhat is on The Voyager Golden Record (and thus this set), you ask?  Well in this case a quote from the official press release provides the best summary: “The Voyager Golden Record contains the story of Earth expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad cultures and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Dozens of natural sounds of our planet — birds, a train, a baby’s cry, a kiss — are collaged into a lovely sound poem. There are spoken greetings in 55 human languages, and one whale language, and more than one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are. Etched on the record’s gold-plated aluminum jacket is a diagram explaining where it came from, and how to play it.”  You can hear a handy sampler stream of what the album includes  Ozmarecords created up on Soundcloud by clicking here. 

I still have yet to really explore the included 96-page full-color soft-bound book which contains all images included on the original Voyager Interstellar Record, gallery of images transmitted back from the Voyager probes, and a new essay by original disc producer Timothy Ferris, producer of the original golden record. But it is interesting to consider some details from the Wiki about how this collection came together: “The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. The selection of content for the record took almost a year. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, thunder and animals (including the songs of birds and whales). To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, spoken greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages, other human sounds, like footsteps and laughter (Sagan’s), and printed messages from U.S. president Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. The record also includes the inspirational message Per aspera ad astra in Morse code.”

Musically, the three LP set does not disappoint for the most part, presenting a fairly breathtaking array of music and sound (Click here for a full run down of everything that is on the disc).

Some of my favorites from the set include: “Alima Song” by Mbuti of the Ituri Rainforest, a haunting tribal chant type piece.  “Chakrulo” by Georgian State Merited Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance/Anzor Kavsadze sounds sort of like a male backing track to a Kate Bush song. 

AR-VoyagerGoldenRecordSet225.jpg“Izlel e Delyu Haydutin” by Bulgarian folk singer Valya Balkanska is also completely mesmerizing — and just consider that this Voyager collection was put together more than 10 years before the acclaimed 1975 recording Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares was widely released in America, a time when many of us here in the US first became attuned to this fascinating close-harmony music in a mass sort of way.  Clearly, the creators of this collection were really on top of what the global music scene was about — The Voyager Golden Record wasn’t going to be full of passing fads and trends. 

“Melancholy Blues” performed by legendary Jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven is wonderful as is “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by blues great Blind Willie Johnson, both from 1927.  It is wonderful that they included a section from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring respectfully using a version conducted by the composer himself (although I wish they had used a performance by Pierre Monteux, who conducted the world premiere of the piece back in 1914). 

Perhaps the only sonic let down for this writer is, oddly enough, due to an audiophile-ish issue: the version of Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n roll classic “Johnny B.Goode” sounds a little wonky and is likely a reprocessed version, not a tight crisp original Mono version. This one is drenched in additional reverb and some sort of processing, so much so I can’t really tell if it is fake Stereo… but it does sound odd. I have to guess that the original Voyager Record producers weren’t quite obsessing about audiophile issues just went with whatever version they were given permission to use for the set. If that is the case, then Ozma Records is to be applauded for giving us that same version and not some 21st Century digitally remastered update. This is one of the rare instances where having an inferior version might perhaps be desirable in so far as maintaining the authenticity of the collection. 


]]>Perhaps my favorite — and admittedly record collector geekiest — part of the set is the brilliantly designed felt DJ tie table mat which depicts the Voyager mission trajectory through space. My inner 16-year old science geek let out a big “squeeeee” upon opening the package for the first time.

AR-VoyagerGoldenRecordBox225.jpgWhile there is no version of this album up on Tidal, you can stream the entire album via the Bandcamp app if you are a member. It is also available for download (a code included with the set) in every format from low resolution MP3 to fuller resolution 44.1 kHz, 24-bit AIFF (my VLC player indicates it is at 32 bit but I assume it is playing back at 24 bit given that is the limitation of my current DAC as far as I know). 

So while there is potential audiophile joy on this set, the real reason you want to listen to this collection is simply for the glorious snapshot it presents of mankind to the rest of the universe.  Taken as a whole — from Kesarbai Kerkar’s haunting “Jaat Kahan Ho” to Glenn Gould’s interpretation of  Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Prelude & Fugue No. 1 in C Major” (The Well-Tempered Clavier) to the 12-minute sound collage titled “The Sounds of Earth” — you realize what a powerful and creative creatures we are here on this planet we call Earth.

Hopefully by the time other civilizations find this music out in the cosmos and contact us to hear more, we’ll still be here to play them more of these amazing sounds. 

I’ll close here with another quote from the album’s website because it really sums up this importance of the Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition  neatly: “As an exquisitely curated music compilation, the Voyager record is an inviting port of entry to unfamiliar yet entrancing sounds from other cultures and other times. As an objet d’art and design, it represents deep insights about communication, context, and the power of media. In the realm of science, it raises fundamental questions about who we are and our place in the universe. At the intersection of those three perspectives, the Voyager record is a testament to the potential of science and art to ignite humanity’s sense of curiosity and wonder.”

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