Josef Stalin and bone records

Josef Stalin was known for many things, but record production was not one of them. He did love music- especially military marches- which is why he loved the music of Dmitri Shostakovitch.  In fact he loved that form of music so much that he demanded that Shostakovitch only write military marches. This was a major reason why Shostakovitch and two of his young students surreptitiously left soviet Russia for the United States in the early 1950s.

Stalin hated jazz music.  It was a type of revolution that Russia was not quite ready for.  Russia had formally outlawed jazz and it was illegal either to play or listen to it. Possession of a 78 (rpm) record or tape meant a trip “up north” to Siberia. (Maybe that’s one reason why the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is considered one of the best in the world).

In the 1940s and 1950s young men and women seemed to have more arm and leg injuries than at any other time in Russian history.  So, what do arm and leg injuries have to do with jazz?  This is where bone records came on the scene.

I first became aware of bone records from my son, who recently graduated in composition from the Berklee School of Music in Boston.  His private composition teacher was Jakob Barinoff, who was one of the two students who  left Russia with Shostakovitch in the 1950s. The bone record was the Russian youth’s answer to Stalin’s ban on jazz music.  A jazz enthusiast would fake an arm or a leg injury and go to a local hospital for an x-ray.  They would then return home with their (hopefully normal) x-ray in hand. They would then press the x-ray acetate paper into the groves of a 78 rpm record in hopes of making a copy of the jazz record.  These were called bone records.

But in doing this, what Stalin’s laws didn’t anticipate is that they were encouraging Russian youth to become involved in digital signal processing… Well, the “digital” part was simply using one’s digits to press the x-ray sheet onto the grooves of the record. But there was definitely signal processing going on.

The grooves of the bone records were not as deep as the original 78 rpm record, nor were all of the very small lateral excursions that the record player needle had to traverse as true as they could have been.  This limited some of the acoustic features of the bone record music.

Compared to the original, the music played from bone records became highly compressed and had a narrower bandwidth.  However, the more limited bandwidth had a nice side effect.  Since harmonic distortion is a higher frequency phenomenon, the narrowerd bandwidth meant that some of the distortion was not as audible as it could have been. And since they couldn’t push the x-ray paper fully into the record grooves, the amplitude envelope was significantly altered as well- thereby creating a form of amplitude compression.

Unfortunately even today, most jazz radio stations highly compress their music. I have no idea why they do this to the extent that they do, but I know many hard of hearing jazz musicians who can no longer listen to jazz radio anymore. Perhaps the sound technicians at these stations grew up on Russian bone records?

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About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.

2 Comments

  1. That was a really interesting read – I’d never heard of bone records (sounds intriguing).

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