A Broken Record, And Other Sounds Kids Don't Know

Phones today beep and buzz. MP3s don't scratch. Noises that were once familiar, such as the clacking of manual typewriter keys or the ding of the gas station driveway bell, have all but vanished. Kara Kovalchik of MentalFloss.com shares these and other sounds your kids have probably never heard.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Sounds that once filled our world have vanished just about completely. Case in point:

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER KEYS)

CONAN: In an article for mentalfloss.com, Kara Kovalchik compiled a list of 11 sounds that your kids have probably never heard. We figured you could identify a few more. What's the sound from your life that has vanished? 800-989-8255 is the phone number - is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at their website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kara Kovalchik joins us from a studio in Royal Oak, Michigan. She's research editor for mentalfloss.com. Nice to have you with us today.

KARA KOVALCHIK: Thank you so much. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And have the kids in your family ever heard that manual typewriter?

KOVALCHIK: Well, I don't have kids, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOVALCHIK: But I've talked to people. I used to work in an office where we had to bring out an old manual to do a five-part carbon form. And the high school intern that typed it just literally recoiled when she hit a key, said it snapped at me.

CONAN: Those I'm old enough to remember newsrooms filled with those sounds as people struggled to get on air on deadline.

KOVALCHIK: Right. That used to be the classic sound of a busy office, newsroom. There was a clatter of typewriters and ripping the page from the plate, you know, rip here, you know, stop the presses.

CONAN: What gave you the idea to do a list of vanished sound?

KOVALCHIK: Well, my husband Sandy Wood, who's also a research editor at Mental Floss, and I were watching some reality show. I forget which one. And they had a sound effect. It sounds like a record needle screeching across an album, and it was to indicate, oh, my God, you know, something's weird. Stop everything, stop the action. And he turned to me, you know, I bet you a lot of kids wouldn't even know where that sound originated from. And that just got us talking about other sounds that people probably wouldn't hear anymore.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Lucia(ph) or Luccia(ph) in Cameron Park, California: The sound from my life that has already vanished: a teletype machine in the newsroom. My husband was in radio. There was always a closet-sized room with a door that had a window where they kept the teletype machine. It was fascinating watching the yellow paper cranking out the news of the day - amazing – yes, at an amazing and astonishing 60 characters a minute.

KOVALCHIK: You know, what's interesting about that, my very first job back in 1976, I was ahem years old, still a teenager, OK? But it was as a Telex operator for a large Fortune 500 company and it was a teletype machine. And you - yes, it was 64 words per minute was how much - how fast the thing would go at top speed. You punched out your messages on paper tape. You didn't have a shift key for caps. You had to hit numbers or figures if you - I mean, figures or letters. I mean, I know that - and, yes, they did put us in small, airless, closet-sized rooms because the things were so noisy.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Bill, Bill with us from Russellville in Arkansas.

BILL: Hello. I miss the sound of a golf ball hitting persimmon wood instead of the metal that clubs are made out of today.

CONAN: Wow. The...

KOVALCHIK: That's very specific.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: The sound is quite distinctly different, though.

BILL: There's nothing - it's a little click that you get when you hit the ball perfect, whereas when you hit with metal, it's just a clank. Even if you hit it good, it's a clank. It ain't the same. I really miss that.

CONAN: It's the same as when you go to a high school baseball game, and it's the ding of horsehide on aluminum.

BILL: Yes, sir. Very good, yes, comparison. Absolutely right. Same...

KOVALCHIK: Right. Instead of hickory.

CONAN: Yeah. Bill, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BILL: Interesting show. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you. Let's go next to - this is Patty(ph), Patty with us from Anderson in Ohio.

PATTY: Hi. I was just going to say my son is going to miss the sound of a rotary dial phone.

CONAN: Oh, we happen to have that sound right with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROTARY PHONE DIAL SPINNING)

CONAN: Apparently somebody calling, well, not 911 because you can tell how many clicks there were. It was an audio cue.

PATTY: Absolutely. And then there was always the associated sound of your mother yelling at you not to stretch the cord so far.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOVALCHIK: Right. Oh, yes. OK. You must have known my mom.

PATTY: Yeah, yeah. I think they went to the same - they pulled them aside in gym school - in gym class at school and...

KOVALCHIK: Yeah, gave them all the same cliches. But, yeah. Interestingly enough...

PATTY: I wanted to add one more that is actually a noise - a sound that's been long distance but - distant and gone but - from my childhood. My dad was a jockey. And when I was little, I went to the race, went to the horse races, there was actually a man with a bugle who began the races. And that song has long since vanished.

KOVALCHIK: Oh, played the "Call to the Post."

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING SONG)

PATTY: Exactly.

CONAN: I have somebody on our staff who can actually do that a lot better than I can.

KOVALCHIK: I'm going to say Neal's going to take Michael Winslow's job.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Patty, thanks very much for the call.

PATTY: Thank you for taking my call. Bye-bye.

CONAN: The sound from my life, writes Joy in Memphis, Tennessee, that has vanished, the burring and clicking of the 8 mm movie projector.

(SOUNDBITE OF 8 MM PROJECTOR RUNNING)

CONAN: My father used to broadcast our home movies, she writes. Since the movies had no sound, of course the only audio was the sound from the projector, along with comments from the peanut gallery, of course.

KOVALCHIK: Exactly. And they had to shout over that noise.

CONAN: Yeah. Indeed. Even the sound of the 35 mm projector is vanishing from movie theaters very quickly.

KOVALCHIK: Right.

CONAN: So let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Joseph. Joseph, with us from Charleston in South Carolina.

JOSEPH: Hey. Actually, I had two as well, one from back in my childhood. Before the overhead projector, we had the press button Kodak slides. Yeah, (Unintelligible) yeah.

CONAN: The little carousel that...

JOSEPH: The carousel Kodak.

CONAN: Yeah. There was the - as soon as people brought that out, you knew you were going to be seeing a lot of vacation pictures.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH: Exactly, yeah. And the second one - actually, I'm pretty recent, you know? I'm a pretty young guy, and I even had to think about the sound of dial-up Internet with that (makes noise), you know?

CONAN: Oh, that - and modem breath.

KOVALCHIK: Right. Yeah. The shake-hand signal between the two.

JOSEPH: Right.

CONAN: Yeah.

JOSEPH: Yup.

CONAN: Joseph, we think of all of these sounds as, you know, 19th or early 20th century sounds or even midcentury. That wasn't - hasn't vanished all that long ago.

KOVALCHIK: You wouldn't think it has, but I had a lot of comments from people who said my kids have never heard that modem sound. Yeah, I thought of that as something fairly recent.

CONAN: Joseph, thanks very much for the call.

JOSEPH: Thank you.

CONAN: Lynn(ph) in Roseville, California emails: The old-fashioned slot machine. The cranks sound much better than hitting a button. I don't spend a lot of time in casinos. I don't know if you do, Kara Kovalchik, but do slot machines sound different today?

Right. And I don't spend a lot of times at casinos, but I've heard those in old movies and TV shows where, you know, the characters go to Las Vegas back in the '70s or something. And there is a definite ripping kind of sound. You can actually hear the gears turning and spinning. And I think you get a little more action for your quarter that way.

Let's go next to Peter. Peter with us from Salt Lake City.

PETER CALLER: Yes. I think one thing that kids don't care anymore in the age of digital music is the hiss from a cassette tape, especially when you make a mixed tape.

CONAN: This would be a good thing.

CALLER: I don't know. There are some people that are kind of nostalgic for it. They kind of miss that old, and I guess I'm kind of aging myself here, this old hiss from a cassette tape.

CONAN: It's also possible, Peter, we lose the ability to catch high frequencies as we age. So the hiss may be there. We just can't hear it anymore.

CALLER: (Unintelligible) you'll never know.

KOVALCHIK: If you listen to cassette tapes or made his own, I'm sure once in a while the cassette would get jammed up somehow or start unwinding in your player, and you rewound it. But there is that little patch where the tape was wrinkled, and it had a distinctive sound where - there's some sound drop, et cetera.

CONAN: Those in the industry...

CALLER: I think it's going down the drain.

CONAN: Those in the industry...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...always worried about wow and flutter. Those are the...

KOVALCHIK: Yup. Oh, yeah.

JOSEPH: Yep.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

CALLER: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from Elizabeth in Goshen, Indiana: The Gaylord machine is the thing that punched the circulation card when you checked out a book at the library. I can remember for when I was little the satisfying ka-chunk(ph) sound it made when taking that little chunk of cardboard off the edge of a card. I worked in a library when they were still in use. And now, everything has gone all computery, which has tremendous benefits except for the fact that I'll probably never hear the ka-chunk of the Gaylord machine anymore. Boy, I'm getting all nostalgic. Elizabeth ends her email with a sniff.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But I don't actually consciously remember hearing this sound.

KOVALCHIK: I do remember, though - you could always hear where the circulation desk was years ago because they had a manual date stamp ka-chunk, you know, because they would flip it to change the date and stamp your due date slip. So there was ka-chunk. It wasn't a Gaylord machine, just a regular, you know, office supply date stamp.

CONAN: Let's go next to Michelle. Michelle with us from Waterford in Michigan.

MICHELLE: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good, Michelle. Happy Thanksgiving.

MICHELLE: Well, thank you. It's very kind of you. You know, there's two things I miss, and one is very dear to my heart. The first thing, though, is the sound of coins falling into a pay phone. And you can always tell it's empty because the coins that hit the bottom they had that echo in a payphone.

KOVALCHIK: Right.

MICHELLE: And the other thing is with the new technology of the cars anymore - when I was a little girl, I could tell my father's tires, the way they - his car rolls in the street. I knew when my dad came home. And all four of us kids will run from the backyard, daddy's home, you know? And you could tell your dad is rolling his car from every other car on the sidewalk, in the street. Now, it's different.

KOVALCHIK: (Unintelligible)

MICHELLE: You have the electric cars. Cars are made differently, and they don't get that rattle like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOVALCHIK: Right. Even, you know, the household dog could recognize daddy's car coming in.

CONAN: And again, not having that distinctive rattle could be a good thing.

MICHELLE: Yep.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Michelle.

MICHELLE: Thanks for the - thanks for your show. It brings us such fond memories of things. And I'm only 48, but it's nice to remember.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Michelle. She's wishing - brought the sound of the coins going through the payphone. And that was the original phone-hacking device. If you had a tape recorder and could play the sound of a quarter going through the phone, you could fool the phone company into thinking that you now deserved a long distance call across the country, which is all a quarter could buy you in those days.

KOVALCHIK: Not that you ever tried that, Neal, right?

CONAN: No. Not once.

KOVALCHIK: OK.

CONAN: Because my tape recorder had too much hiss on the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOVALCHIK: And wow and flutter, too.

CONAN: We're talking with Kara Kovalchik, the research editor at mentalfloss.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email from Jack in Bakersfield, California. I remember back in the late 1940s and early '50s the sound of steam locomotives and their steam whistles late at night on my great aunt's back porch. There was nothing like it. And I guess that's one of those classic American sounds that has all but vanished from the entire landscape.

KOVALCHIK: Right. I mean, almost sounds like an old, industrial factory or something, you know, from old movies that, oh, the steam, all the noises of a railroad yard were different back in the '30s and '40s.

CONAN: And there is one that's on your list, and this is the sound of a long - well, not actually, well, that long, but now completely discarded technology used to light things up for photography.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASH CUBE)

KOVALCHIK: Right.

CONAN: The flash cube.

KOVALCHIK: That's the sound.

CONAN: And that was once almost universal.

KOVALCHIK: Yes, because it was such an amazing progression past the single-use flash bulbs. So when mom or dad brought out the Instamatic at parties or your graduation, they could snap four pictures in a row, instead of having to change, you know, stop after every shot. Of course, that click-grind-click-grind was usually followed by ow, ow, ow, ow, as dad popped the hot flash cube into his hands and then realized this could be so hot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's go next to Jim, and Jim's with us from Spencer, Iowa.

JIM: Oh, sure. Well, similarly, I was just reminiscing about the old Polaroid with its click and whirr, very distinctive sound, putting out a picture.

CONAN: Also a distinctive smell as the chemicals set.

KOVALCHIK: Oh, yeah.

JIM: A lot of excitement waiting for the photograph to transpire so.

CONAN: Were you one of those Polaroid shakers to try to get it to dry quicker?

JIM: Well, no, I just kind of lay them, let them lay and just snapped a few more.

CONAN: OK, Jim. Thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Sally in Holland, Michigan. The old fashion pinball machines with all those dings and twaps and the sound of the rolling ball and the thumps from bumping the machine that had eventually led to the bing, bing, bing and the tilt light. But I'm not sure, Kara Kovalchik, but I think they still make those.

KOVALCHIK: Right. But a lot of those sounds are actually now added digitally, the recordings of the old mechanical machines, because people like the - there's - that's a very satisfying sound to hear. Much like on digital cameras, they've added the sound of a shutter click. It normally wouldn't make it, but people like to hear that.

CONAN: We often go to cues for presidential news conferences by the sound of not so much the cameras click but the whirr of the motor of the camera as photographers snap pictures of the president or whoever it is emerging to walk up to a lectern.

KOVALCHIK: Right, the sound of the film advancing all the time.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's go next to Anya(ph), Anya with us from Santa Cruz.

ANYA: Yes. The sound of chalk on a chalkboard. You don't have chalkboard in classrooms anymore, so it's dry erase boards.

KOVALCHIK: Oh, see, I've been out of school for a few years, so I didn't know that, that chalk was getting extinct.

ANYA: Yeah, it's been missing for the past years, and it's all dry erase boards now sadly.

KOVALCHIK: OK. And there was always the one kid that didn't hold the chalk right. It would squeak across the board, and everybody else (unintelligible) a fingernail.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That, again, might not be a bad thing. Ooh, even the memory of that sound makes me cringe. This is email from David in Palo Alto. For anybody who listened to 78 records, the scratchy sound of the needle tracking in the run-off groove at the end of each side will not be heard. This is also true for long-playing records and includes the sounds in the famous run-off groove on one side of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album. Recently, my piano told me about the day he tried to play a sample of the music to younger students using a portable LP player. They have never seen such a thing and were surprisingly intrigued by it.

It must have been his piano teacher. He (unintelligible) a word there. But, yes, that sound, not just of the needle going down on the record and the end groove, but the records skipping. The phrase, you sound like a broken record, people are not going to know what that means.

KOVALCHIK: Exactly. They're thinking probably of, literally, you know, cracking one in half. But what we're referring to is there is a gouge or scratch in the record, and it forces the groove backwards and the same line will repeat over and over. You know, much like he's talking about the run-off groove. It would - at the very end of the record, the needle would literally bump into the label and then pop back in the run-off groove, and you just hear that screech, pop, screech, pop.

CONAN: Here's another sound on your list that involves old vinyl records.

KOVALCHIK: Uh-huh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)

CONAN: And that was the sound of another 45 dropping down on the turntable, so you could stack them up on your record changer.

KOVALCHIK: Exactly. And, of course, all your audio files, you know, the older kids that had their quadraphonic versions of Pink Floyd records and say, you don't use a changer because that hurts your records and all that. But some of us use it because we didn't want to walk across the room every couple of minutes to change records.

CONAN: Let's go next to Peter. Peter with us from Kansas City.

PETER: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

PETER: Hey, I was just being nostalgic for the sound that you get on TV whenever you tune into a wrong channel, and it has TV fuzz.

CONAN: Oh, and indeed even after the station - and this is something else that's changed and gone forever - signed off for the night.

PETER: Right, right.

CONAN: That's, well, it was just that white noise, that (makes noise). But, Kara Kovalchik, gone forever.

KOVALCHIK: Right. The - in fact, going along with the manual channel selector, turning the channels, usually, when you got to a new station, you would hear that snow, that static sound, and you would have to fine tune it, and you would hear sometimes the whistle and hiss just like on an AM radio as you try to tune it in and get the picture just so.

CONAN: And this was the sound of the semi-mechanical TV channel selector.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)

CONAN: And we got a little bit of that - got that white noise in there.

KOVALCHIK: And let's face it. Back in the '50s and '60s, that's why parents had kids so they didn't have to get up and change the channel.

CONAN: Kara Kovalchik, thanks very much. Happy Thanksgiving to you. This is NPR News.

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