A piece on NPR’s Morning Edition (see the link at the bottom of this page) about The 78 Project caught my ear this morning. I’d never heard of this project before, but apparently it’s been going for a few years. A couple of folks from New York have resurrected a portable (it weighs 50 pounds, but there’s a handle on the case) Presto disk recorder from the 1940s, and have been taking it around, making direct-to-lacquer disk recordings of musicians in non-studio environments, invoking the spirit of Alan Lomax and his extensive field collecting work for the Library of Congress.
The 78 Project’s work isn’t quite like Lomax in that they’re not discovering music history. Most of their work, at least that which they’ve published, has been with established contemporarly artists in the (though I hate the term) “americana” genre, Richard Thompson, The Secret Sisters, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Marshall Crenshaw and such. They’re issuing their recordings as vinyl LP pressings with a digital download including extensive notes, and for those who don’t have a turntable, their recordings are available for download through iTunes. This is definitely lo-fi stuff, and clearly a bit of a novelty, but they’re pretty serious about what they’re doing. In essence they’re using the disk recording and playback process as a signal processor, following up with contemporary digital mastering, sort of like using Grandpa’s TEAC to “warm up” your digital home studio recordings. From the photos, it looks like they’re using the original microphone that came with the recorder, or one like it.
I’m not sure how technically hip they are (the write about desparately changing tubes before a session), and their gear lust for a Newcomb suitcase turntable owned by one of their artists is a little strange (this is the sort of player common when I was in elementary school in the 1950s). They accept the flaws and glitches of the one-take sessions, but they seem to have some good guidance and want to let people know about what they’re doing, so I’m doing my part here in the interest of maintaining vintage technology. I hope they’re using something better than the Newcomb for transcribing the masters, and that they’re taking good care of the lacquers. They have a film in the works, too, as Kickstarter funded project.
For further details, visit The 78 Project web page
Here’s the NPR story