Love me some Durium

In March, just before “the big hiatus,” my last featured record was Hit of the Week #1088, with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra directed by Hymie Wolfson playing Walter Donaldson’s foxtrot “Little White Lies.”

As you may recall, HOTW was a Depression-era label that pressed their albums on a paper-like product called Durium instead of on the standard shellac. The result was a very inexpensive and easy to transport record (albeit one-sided).

I was just sent this fun blog that is maintained by a fellow collector who has chosen to specialize in HOTW records. As with so many other collectibles, there are niche collectors who seek out records by specific artists, in specific genres, or, in this case, from a specific label.

In 2005 Archeophone Records released a four-volume set of 8 CDs with every HOTW master. The point being the music – the exact same music – is available in modern, convenient, and cleaned-up form. So why the Durium Project? Because to some the medium is as important as the content. The medium in itself has value as a historical, aesthetic, and even scientific object.

The notion of a paper recording medium is as close to the ephemeral nature of today’s digital music, that exists in microchips and in the “cloud,” as the great era of 78s ever came.

Ironically in attempting to make a media that delivered the music in as cheap and easily replaceable a format as possible, Hit of the Week created a unique historical artifact in its own right. It is one that captures a moment in American history and, through its constitution alone, illustrates the economic conditions of the nation.

“Look at me; I don’t know the song.”

The 1878 Edison cylinder phonograph with the foil on it.

The oldest recording of an American voice can now be heard. Is it something profound, you might ask? It’s a 19th century political reporter from St. Louis bungling the words to a classic nursery rhyme.

The recording can now be heard thanks to the efforts the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady NY and Berkeley Lab’s Carl Haber.

The 1878 recording (click for a video with the recording) runs 1 minute and 18 seconds and also includes the world’s first recorded blooper. It consists of a 23 second cornet solo of an unknown song, followed by a man reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” an unidentified woman stating “Old Mother Hubbard,” followed by the same man reciting the poem. The man stumbles over the words in the second nursery rhyme, laughs, and can be heard reprimanding himself: “Look at me; I don’t know the song.” The man is likely St. Louis newspaper writer Thomas Mason.

The recording was last played on June 22, 1878 at a phonograph demonstration by Mason, who had purchased the machine (Serial #8) from Edison in April of that year for the then staggering amount of $95.50. Mason perished (from sunstroke) less than one month after the demonstration.

The foil, with the oldest recording of an American voice, of music, and of a blooper.

Because of the materials used – tinfoil, essentially – the medium was normally only playable once or twice before it was destroyed by the mechanism playing it. The foil sheet, 5″ wide by 15″ long, was wrapped onto a cylinder that was then played on the Edison device; the needle would play the recording, but also tear up the foil in the process. The demonstrator in the 19th century would, after playing back the recording, tear up the remaining foil and distribute the pieces among the audience as a souvenir of the demonstration. This particular foil recording is one of only two still in existence that are playable (the other is from 1880 and is in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan). Edison’s later cylinders were made from a more durable wax composite.

Haber and his colleagues used a scanning technology to replicate a phonograph’s stylus, transforming the grooves into a 3D image that can then be played back by a computer.

The achievement restores a vital link in the evolution of recorded sound, Haber said. The artifact represents Edison’s first step in his efforts to record sound and have the capability to play it back, even if it was just once or twice, he said. ‘It really completes a technology story,’ Haber said. ‘He was on the right track from the get-go to record and play it back.’

Developer of LP records passes away

Howard H. Scott, at right, with Aaron Copland (1974).

The New York Times has the full obit of Howard H. Scott. Scott, a piano student at Julliard, was drafted into the Army during World War II. When he returned in 1946, Scott was hired by Columbia Masterworks to work with a team of engineers on a secret project: the creation of a vinyl long-playing record that could replace the fragile shellac 78 r.p.m.

Where 78 r.p.m. discs could hold only about 4 minutes of music per side, the new, more durable LPs, spinning at 33-1/3 r.p.m., could hold around 22 minutes per side, increasing the amount of music per record by an incredible 550%. Scott’s musical training was essential to the project’s success.

In the days before magnetic tape came into wide use, the process of transferring music to the new discs (soon to be known as LPs) was complex. Long pieces of music, split among multiple 78 r.p.m. records, needed to be stitched together on the new discs without interruption. To do that, Mr. Scott and his colleagues lined up overlapping segments of music on 78s, and — with Mr. Scott snapping his finger in coordination — switched the audio signal at just the right moment from one turntable to the other.

Ironically, Scott was central to another revolution in recorded sound medium later in his career. From 1986 to 1993, when he retired, Scott was the producer at Columbia’s corporate descendent – Sony – in charge of the transition of the company’s recordings from LP to CD. Scott passed away on September 22nd in Reading, Pennsylvania; he was 92.

The 78 Project = Awesome

Back in March I shared a brief news story about a hipster band releasing an album as a 78-RPM in (of course) Portland, Oregon. The band used a 1947 lathe cutter to make the disk. It seemed, to me, a little bit phony, with the column’s author even taking a somewhat mocking tone in his piece: “Move over, cassette fetishists. Your infatuation with an outmoded medium has just been bested.”

Today I stumbled across this – the 78 Project – and my faith in contemporary recording utilizing 78-RPM disks was restored:

The 78 Project is a documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax and his quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century. Our project brings the spirit of his work into the present as we pair breakthrough musicians with the songs and the fascinating recording technology of the past. With just one microphone, one authentic 1930′s PRESTO direct-to-disc recorder, and one blank lacquer disk, musicians are given the opportunity to make a recording anywhere they choose. What we have found is that the film, music and feelings that result defy space and time, living music inspired by ghosts.

Watching some of the episodes of the web series has been a delight and I was pleased to see they have undertaken a Kickstarter campaign to fund a full length documentary of their project. One of the greatest discoveries from watching some of these phenomenal musicians record direct to acetate has been the realization that with this technology, you only get one take to cut your album. There’s no digital editing, auto-tuning, or “cleaning up.” If you screw up, you start again from scratch. And there’s certainly something exhilarating about that risk that is clearly absent from modern recordings: when it’s safe and easily sanitized “in post,” the magic of the moment and the rawness, the authenticity of the music is reduced or even removed altogether.

Bowling me over

A vendor in my local Farmers Market sells these bowls, made by warming LPs and folding them over a mold or crimping them by hand.

Scanning the records I thankfully didn’t notice anything that jumped out at me as being terribly valuable, but then again 33-1/3RPM discs are not my forte, so I might have missed one. Regardless of the value of the records, though, it reminded me of some repurposed books that I’ve seen manufactured into pieces of furniture.

I have mixed feelings about these. Friend-of-the-blog Tarquin Tar has often written about the value of the book as an important and worthwhile object in itself – the book is more than the story on its pages. It has a story its own, and an intrinsic value beyond whatever the words within are about. It has provenance, ownership history, and even artistic qualities of its own (binding, jacket illustrations, etc).

Is the same true of records? With rare exception they are simply black shellac discs. Some may have illustrative elements – picture records, decorative labels, sleeves, and so forth. The content contained can exist on any other media and still be the primary artistry of the album. Consider those 78s in my collection that I have featured here (and many I have not yet) that do not exist digitally on the web or on any CDs. Their value is in their scarcity first and their musical quality second, in most cases. Rarely do the two meet: truly great tracks are hardly ever scarce. But that has little to nothing to do with the media.

But the media is scarce, too. These LPs will never again be made. Something about that fact saddens me, even though I know can find these exact tracks as MP3 or on CD very easily.

So, I put it to you. Record bowls: heart breaking destruction of someone else’s art or acceptable/creative work of art of their own? Or both? Or something else entirely?

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Coming soon…

After a recent move I finally yesterday unpacked my 78s collection. Happy to see they all made the trip ok and undamaged. It was also a good opportunity to rediscover some intriguing albums in my collection about which I had nearly forgotten. Now stay tuned in the near future for the the return of Zayde’s Turntable!

Sheepish…

Alas, I have been far too remiss in sharing here what I have been playing on the turntable lately. As we pack up for a big move it seems even more unlikely I will get back to this blog in the immediate future. Hopefully in August or September 2012 I will be able to resume! Until then…