The Voyager Golden Record was never really intended for human consumption. The target audience for the contents—popular songs, sounds from nature, photographs, spoken greetings in dozens of human languages and one whale language—was, and still is, an alien civilization capable of deciphering the instructions on the cover to learn about one small world in the universe. Two copies of the gold-plated copper record left Earth on Voyager 1 and 2, the first of which eventually left the solar system. The dozen extra copies that remained were distributed to mostly NASA facilities. Even Carl Sagan, who led the record’s production, couldn’t get a copy. When Sagan wrote NASA in 1978 asking if he could receive one as a keepsake, the agency’s administrator sent back an apologetic message saying no. “You do understand our concern about the matter of highly valuable mementos being given to individuals,” the note read.
Forty years later, the Golden Record is now on vinyl, and can be ordered online for $98.
Using audio from the original tapes from the 1970s, a small team in California has put the Golden Record on vinyl for the first time. The set contains three LPs and a book of the photos that were encoded in the original record. The records were co-produced by David Pescovitz, a research director at the nonprofit Institute for the Future and a partner and editor at the website Boing Boing. Pescotivz remembers hearing about the Voyager launch as a kid in 1977.
“When you’re seven years old and you hear that there’s a group of people who are creating a phonograph record that’s actually a message to extraterrestrials and attaching it to two space probes and launching it into the solar system and beyond—it sparks the imagination,” Pescovitz said. “That stuck with me.”
The record’s contents previously appeared on a CD-ROM in 1992, and about two years ago NASA uploaded the nature sounds and greetings on SoundCloud, without the music. The lack of a vinyl version, even in the days of digital, seemed like a missed opportunity. Tim Daly, a manager at San Francisco’s Amoeba Music, suggested to Pescovitz that they try to release it on vinyl. They teamed up with Lawrence Azerrad, a graphic designer who has worked on album covers for Miles Davis, Sting, and others. They launched a Kickstarter campaign last year to raise money for the project, asking for $200,000 to make 2,000 sets. The internet responded with $1.3 million. They made 10,000 special-edition copies for their backers, and are now selling a different edition on their website.
After the Voyagers launched, CBS Records, which was eventually bought by Sony, held onto the original reel-to-reel tape recordings. Pescovitz and his collaborators called Sony about them, and an archivist eventually found the tapes sitting in an underground, climate-controlled warehouse in western Pennsylvania. The tapes were exhumed, and Pescovitz and Daly, along with Tim Ferris, the producer of the Golden Record and Pescovitz’s former graduate school adviser, flew to New York to take a listen at Sony’s studios. Sound engineers first stuck the tapes into an oven and literally baked them, which prevents them from deteriorating, then put them on a vintage reel-to-reel player. Everyone in the room sat back and listened.
“It was absolutely sublime,” Pescovitz said. “The quality was like nothing we’d ever heard.” Sound engineers then transferred the audio on the tapes to digital files.
Here’s an excerpt of the remastered audio:
Even though they had the tapes, Pescovitz and the rest of the team still needed to secure permission to use copyrighted material. Getting the rights to songs from major record labels or images from national publications was easy, since such institutions usually have a process in place. Tracking down the owners of some of the more obscure content, like melodies by indigenous groups, proved more difficult, Pescovitz said. Notes from the time of the record’s original production were sometimes lacking or wrong, and online searches for some of the names listed turned up obituaries instead of contact information. “It came to the point where I was calling Papua New Guinea at 2 o’clock in the morning, and working with amazing ethnomusicologists around the world to try to track down as much information as possible, to find out about who these people were, what the music was, who collected it and when,” Pescovitz said.
The owner of one musical piece featuring panpipes was listed as the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, so Pescovitz called. The staff didn’t know the name of the song or who played it, but a young woman who was at the radio station overheard them talking about it and told them her grandfather was one of the musicians. The man is now working on getting a bank account so Pescovitz and the team can pay royalties to the surviving musicians.
The team started shipping the vinyl records to their Kickstarter backers this week, in time for the Voyager mission’s 40th anniversary. The gold-plated versions, meanwhile, are hurtling away from Earth are more than 35,000 miles per hour, looking for an audience. They may go unheard forever. But that doesn’t really matter to Pescovitz.
“Yes, the Voyager record is a gift from humanity to the cosmos, but it’s also a gift to humanity,” he said. “It’s a manifestation of what we can accomplish through creativity, passion, and science. It instills a sense of hope and possibility in people.”