Simanaitis Says

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WHAT’S A “78,” GRANDPA?

HEARING ABOUT the Great 78 Project may fall on ear-bud-deadened senses. But, in fact, it’s an interesting project for anyone interested in recorded music. The Great 78 Project is a community-based effort to research, discover and preserve music recorded from around 1898 until the 1950s. Started by collector volunteers, the project is supported by the Internet Archive, George Blood LP, and the Archive of Contemporary music.

Vinyl records are having a rebirth, but these earliest discs weren’t vinyl, they were often shellac-based and fragile, long before the word “plastics” became the hot tip for entrepreneurs.

Classic recordings spun at a dizzying 78 rpm, whereas 12-in.-diameter vinyl LPs, “long-playing” records, revolve at a leisurely 33 1/3 rpm. (In a 1950s analog of VHS versus Betamax, there were also 7-in. 45-rpm “singles.”)

The Great 78 Project commentary notes, “From about 1898 to the 1950s, an estimated 3 million sides (∼3 minute recordings) have been made on 78rpm discs. While the commercially viable recordings will have been restored or remastered into LPs or CD, there is still research value in the artifacts and usage evidence in the often rare 78rpm discs and recordings.”

This “1st movement, Part 1” side implies a whole bunch of 78s for Beethoven’s Fifth. Image from whyy.org.

The Great 78 Project website encourages participation in several ways: We can share knowledge about the existing collection available free online, now more than 76,000 recordings and growing. We can share our own digitized 78s. Or learn to convert our recordings not yet digitized. Or simply donate our 78s to the project, and let the experts digitize them and preserve the physical discs for the long term.

Digitizing of a “modern” vinyl LP, i.e., anything since the 1950s, is relatively straightforward. With an iMac, for example, Apple GarageBand can be USB-linked to an appropriate turntable. On the other hand, my turntable doesn’t have a 78-rpm option.

Plus, there’s another nuance: groove size. Modern vinyl carries a standard microgroove, but grooves of earlier recordings were all over the map. George Blood developed a turntable with four tone arms, each with a different stylus.

Multi-tone-arm turntable. Image from George Blood, LP.

As described at whyy.org, “On one pass of the record, he can record each stylus, discretely, to its own digital track. Audiophiles are able to listen to up to 16 tracks of the same piece of music, to appreciate the subtleties of surface noise and equalization.”

The earliest 78s were made from a variety of materials, including hard rubber, but soon shellac-based compounds became standard. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, Kerria lacca, native to Asia. The farming of lac insects remains a significant industry in India, though dwindling now with shellac being replaced by other materials as colorants, food glazes, and wood finishes.

At the beginning of World War II, shellac was recognized as a critical material for treating the fabric coverings on aircraft. This, in turn, gives rise to a family story.

My maternal grandfather was a coal miner in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania. He was also a musician, with drummer gigs in local groups. (Band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey came from the same town, Shenandoah; family legend has it that Grandpa may well have jammed with them.)

Returning from work one day in the 1940s, Grandpa wanted to relax listening to music from his record collection, apparently an extensive one including a complete discography of Bix Beiderbecke, one of the most influential jazz artists of the early days.

“Where are my records?” he asked.

“Oh, those?” my grandmother said, “There was a shellac drive uptown for the war effort and I figured they’d be a good donation.”

Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, 1903–1931, American jazz cornetist, pianist, and composer.

I searched the George Blood digitizations for Bix Beiderbecke and scored 36 hits. Among them, “Riverboat Shuffle” and “Lazy Daddy,” both from 1924, feature Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines. Another, from 1928, has the Original [Paul] Whiteman Rhythm Boys, with Bix blowing cornet and some singer named Bing Crosby. Yet another, from 1939, is “Tommy Dorsey’s Dixieland for Dancing,” crediting composer Beiderbecke, but, alas, no drummer named Joe. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

4 comments on “WHAT’S A “78,” GRANDPA?

  1. Mark W
    February 16, 2018

    If you want to go down that rabbit hole, there is a fascinating article about shellac in Wikipedia. Amazing what can be made out of bug juice!

    • simanaitissays
      February 16, 2018

      Agreed, that’s where I learned Kerria lacca is still such a big deal in India.

  2. MikeB
    February 17, 2018

    Not having a turntable that runs at 78 isn’t a real block. Some cleanup software (I use Diamond Cut) can record at 45 then convert to 78. There are other issues too, that can really furnish that rabbit hole, like: before converting to 78, remove RIAA EQ if that’s built in to the preamp you use (“flat” preamps are available); then choose the correct EQ to use after converting. Along with figuring out the best set of filters to clean things up, that last can be an art form – there are lists of what was used by various record labels in various timeframes, but the older you go and the odder the label the less likely it was standardized.

    I’ve had it fairly easy. Most of my Dad’s stuff is from no older than the early 1940s, so allowing for some off and European brands it’s fairly standardized. Put most of his library on about 1/2 dozen CDs, and my Mom loves them.

  3. poison21
    November 2, 2018

    This link is amazing…will share as a public service. Thanks!

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