When you hear a musical recording that's scratchy and distant, you might naturally assume it's old: a relic from the early days of sound recording. But what would modern music sound like were it subject to the same limitations that musicians faced in those days?
That's the question posed by The 78 Project, which gives musicians the chance to record using 1930s technology.
"When they're actually engaged in the process, they realize it's very familiar to them," says Lavinia Jones Wright, a music journalist and one of the project's creators. "So that time period, our ancestors, are not so removed as we may think."
Wright and her collaborator Alex Steyermark were inspired by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, who traveled through rural America in the early 20th century recording music for the Library of Congress. He used a Presto recorder, a machine that captures sound by etching it directly onto a 78 RPM acetate disc.
Wanting to tap into the America that Lomax was recording, Wright and Steyermark went out and found some antique Prestos of their own. For the past few years, Jones and Steyermark have been hauling these machines around the country to capture raw performances. They go to places that are not ideal for recording — but that's part of the point.
"There's so much value in an accurate and beautiful record of a moment in time, of exactly what happened during those four minutes," Jones says. "Every sound that was in the room, and everything that the musician did is in that groove. And there's something really special and really important about that."
"Part of what we're interested in, too, is that the recording process that creates that sound is one that brings out these incredible performances," Steyermark adds. "We do everything in one take, and what we've found is that we get what feel like definitive performances as a result of the process."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When you hear a song like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Home, all you roving cowboys down on this rolly plain...
GREENE: It's satchy(ph), distant, from another time. Almost lit the musical version of a black and white photograph.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Let's go home with...
GREENE: But this song was actually recorded recently. Its part of something called the 78 Project, which gives musicians the chance to record using 1930s technology.
LAVINIA JONES WRIGHT: When they're actually engaged in the process, they realize that it's very familiar to them. So that time period, our ancestors, they're not so far removed as we may think.
GREENE: That's music journalist Lavinia Jones Wright. She and her collaborator, Alex Steyermark, wanted to give us a feeling of connection to old music. Their inspiration was the great folklorist Alan Lomax, who traveled through the American countryside in the early 20th century, recording music for the Library of Congress. He used a Presto. It's a machine that records directly onto a 78 acetate disc.
Lavinia and Alex wanted to tap into the America that Lomax was recording. And so, they went out and found some antique Prestos from the 1930s to use in the 78 Project. And they joined us to talk about it.
So what is it about scratchy old songs that really gets you excited?
WRIGHT: Scratchy records are evocative. You can sense that it was made by hand, that it was made in this very physical way with this machine that actually carved it. And that, to your ears, is just very comforting and interesting.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sow sorrows with the poor...
ALEX STEYERMARK: The recording process that creates that sound is one that brings out these incredible performances. We do everything in one take. And what we found is that we get what feel like definitive performances as a result of the process.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Tis a strong sigh of the weary. Hard times. Hard times come again no more...
GREENE: So tell me about the Presto recording device. How does it work?
STEYERMARK: It's actually a fairly simple machine. We use one microphone which goes straight into the machine, there is an input on it. And the sound coming through the microphone is translated to a ruby-tipped cutting stylus, which is on a head that is carving a groove into a blank, acetate lacquered disc.
GREENE: Now, let me just imagine this. I mean we're talking about something that sort of looks like a record player with a microphone kind of sticking out of it?
WRIGHT: Yeah, it looks a little bit like military surplus from the 1930s.
WRIGHT: It comes in a big, khaki green case. And it - yeah, basically with a big, clunky record player.
STEYERMARK: The machines themselves weigh about 50 pounds.
GREENE: Is this what Lomax used, this exact machine?
STEYERMARK: He did.
WRIGHT: And he would often write back to the library complaining about things like that. That's just the nature of it.
GREENE: It's really heavy.
WRIGHT: Yeah, it's very heavy.
STEYERMARK: He eventually progressed to a larger model of the next generation. And that one was so big they modified an ambulance to put it in. But...
GREENE: That sounds big.
STEYERMARK: That's big.
GREENE: And for the last couple of years, Alex and Lavinia have been lugging these big machines around the country, to capture raw performances. They go to places that are not ideal for recording but that's the point. They met the singer/songwriter Dawn Landis at the New York Botanical Gardens.
DAWN LANDIS: (Singing) Oh, mother. Oh, mother come riddle it down. Come riddled two hearts as one...
WRIGHT: It was a beautiful scene. And we were in the middle of this garden that's very charming, because it's mostly geared toward teaching children how to plant edibles. And there's these huge, unbelievably tall sunflowers. They were six or seven feet tall and sort of looming over us...
WRIGHT: ...with these big heads leaning down. And the funny thing was that just on the other side of the fence, it was the day of the West Indian Day Parade. So we could hear them getting the floats together and getting the parade central going. And there was music playing. And you can hear just a touch of it. You can also hear a little bit of a bus going by, which was sort of cool because you could still hear the city in these small ways, poking through.
LANDIS: (Singing) Oh, mother. Oh, mother come riddled it down. Come riddled two hearts as one. How should I go...
WRIGHT: There's so much value in an accurate and beautiful record of a moment in time, of exactly what happened during those four minutes. Every sound that was in the room, and everything that the musician did is in that groove. And there's something really special and really important about that.
GREENE: You're talking about the groove actually literally carved into the disc, right?
GREENE: What's Lavinia and Alex are doing it's almost like taking an old black-and-white photograph and letting us climb inside, and feel a part of it. And they've given us a chance to travel in time on their website with videos of every performance alongside the low-fi recordings.
The whole experience was especially powerful for musician Sharde Thomas of the group The Wandering. Sharde's grandfather was a Mississippi fife player who was recorded by Alan Lomax decades ago. Sharde used her granddad's old instrument when she recorded for the 78 Project in a New York City alley.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIFE MUSIC)
GREENE: You heard that little glitch in the recording? Well, there's a story there.
WRIGHT: After we had finished cutting the record and we took it off, we could see that there was something really strange about one of the grooves - it was sort of crisscrossing a little bit. And we were like: Oh, there must have been some noise, some rumble or something. And all the folks from Memphis were like: You didn't feel that subway go by.
WRIGHT: And then...
GREENE: You're so used to it probably. Living in New York City, it didn't even faze you.
WRIGHT: Yeah, the New York - New Yorkers are totally used to it. But they have felt it. And obviously the Presto felt it because there's a little bit of movement there.
GREENE: So that movement, is it movement because the ground is actually shaking? Or is that movement because it's recording that loud sound in a certain way?
WRIGHT: The ground is actually shaking.
STEYERMARK: And that's actually what keeps us going all the time because we really never know what's going to happen. Every session that we've done has been completely unpredictable. And that's really exciting for us.
GREENE: Well, Alex and Livinia, this has been a true pleasure. Thanks so much for spending the time talking to us.
STEYERMARK: Thank you. It's been really fun.
WRIGHT: Yeah, thanks again so much for having us.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down...
GREENE: Livinia Jones Wright and Alex Steyermark are creators of the 78 Project. We've been listening to them on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Burdens down... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.