This week, we take you “under the hood” of a restoration job so you can see some of the work that goes into making an ancient record sound newish.
The specimen of our efforts: Blue Amberol 2057, “One Fine Day” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, by Agnes Kimball. This was recorded in 1912 and released on wax Amberol 1007 and then made into a Blue Amberol and re-released in November 1913. The cylinder is in very good shape, it’s loud and clear, but there’s one problem: it has an abrasion that goes lengthwise all the way across the grooves. This results in an obtrusive “swish” sounding prominently above the vocal and music once per revolution from start to finish.
There are a few ways we could deal with this. One would be to try to dull the sound a little bit and hope the listener will forgive the imperfection. Another way is to reduce, if not eliminate, the problem with some precise surgery. This is what we’ll do, since the rest of the record’s surface is so clean; we want this restoration to sound as clear as possible.
As George Harrison beautifully sang, “All Things Must Pass.” It’s a sad realization of which we are constantly aware in the field of ancient audio, and life feels—on a daily basis—like a race against the clock as we try to preserve and contextualize the world’s oldest recordings.
A brown wax cylinder that was not saved in time. The original cotton batting has now permanently blanketed the wax. (Archeophone Records)
The Library of Congress understood it had a role in saving our aural history when it instituted the National Recording Registry at the beginning of the 21st century. Now up to a total of 400 items, the Registry is a list of recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” Further, “the Library is identifying and preserving the best existing versions of each recording on the registry.” But by their own admission, they don’t have copies of everything on the Registry, and so it’s up to the individuals or institutions that *do* possess originals to join in the mission of preservation.
Just back from L.A. and the 57th Grammy Awards. Although we didn’t win, we did come back with a lot of great memories made with friends and family. Count us among those who believe Beck has plenty of “real artistry.”
We took some audio gear along, and before leaving, we got together with a couple of collector friends and did some transfers. Top of the “to do” list was to procure new digital transfers of some brown wax cylinders made in 1899 by legendary evangelist and hymn composer, Ira D. Sankey. Sankey’s records are the centerpiece of our upcoming collection, Waxing the Gospel, a multi-CD volume that tells the story of the earliest sacred recordings—from the 1890s.
Getting a Transfer of Ira D. Sankey’s “The Homeland” (Archeophone Records)
Years of research and preparation have gone into this set, yielding a tale that will surprise most readers and listeners. Many people think that the earliest days of recording were flooded with recordings of gospel songs … but they are actually quite rare. Most seem to think that this type of material is slow and dreary … but much of it is actually brisk and upbeat. A lot of people probably expect the sound to be scratchy and difficult … but the vast majority of what we’ve found is stunning in clarity. Some of the one-of-a-kind records are more challenging, but when we tell you who made the records and where they come from, your spine will tingle and you’ll turn into an inquisitive audio detective.
And now for something completely different—
As you may know, our album, Happy, by the Isham Jones Rainbo Orchestra is up for two Grammy Awards: Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes. We get asked a lot by well-wishers if we are actually planning on attending the awards show. The answer is: yes, of course! It’s great fun and not to be missed.
Other questions surround the organization of the various events, so we thought we’d share with you some of what goes on “behind the curtain,” as it were. First of all, this entire week is filled with special events in Los Angeles sponsored by the Recording Academy, including the “Legacy Concert” this Thursday and the “MusiCares” celebration on Friday (honoring Bob Dylan). These events are part of the Academy’s community outreach efforts; MusiCares supports musicians in need, for instance.
Saturday is when the official nominee events begin. On Saturday afternoon, nominees attend the Special Merit Awards Ceremony, which honors recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, the Trustees Award, and the Technical Grammy Award. This year’s Lifetime Achievement honorees include the Bee Gees, Pierre Boulez, Buddy Guy, George Harrison, Flaco Jiménez, Louvin Brothers, and Wayne Shorter. Trustees Award recipients include Richard Perry, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and George Wein. Receiving the Technical Grammy Award is Ray Kurzweil. Short tribute films are shown, and many of the honorees and/or their families are in attendance to accept the awards. It’s a fabulous little ceremony at which you get a deep sense of history.
1985 Grammy Awards Program Cover (Archeophone Records Collection)
1985 Grammy Awards Pre-Telecast program cover (Archeophone Records Collection)
1985 PreTel Program, pages 2 & 3 (Archeophone Records Collection)