A group of folks in New York are taking famed field recordist Alan Lomax’s example to heart. They’re not just collecting and listening to old records, they’re making them:
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.
You heard right. They’re recording direct to highly flammable nitrocellulose lacquer discs with a vintage machine. They say their Presto operating skills were hard-won, but worth it. Their initial efforts with vintage acetate discs were mixed.
After a few level checks, the PRESTO recorder was engaged, and Scott proceeded to strum out a few bars of the Blues. Brushing away the lacquer thread that was accumulating as the stylus carved its careful deliberate groove into the disc’s smooth black surface, it was clear that something miraculous was happening. We stopped the recorder and nervously played back our new record. The results were, as Scott would later exclaim, “magical.” We stood transfixed, tears welling up in our eyes, transported back in time by a sound almost a century old, yet a sound recorded only moments earlier.
A trip to Clarksdale the next day was not so successful. Amidst the swarming mosquitoes of a sultry Mississippi night, we set up our PRESTO on the porch, and watched horrified as our batch of lacquer blanks flaked and pulverized before our very eyes, driving one decades old cutting stylus after another straight to the discs’ aluminum core, to be ground down and shatter and crumble. Turned out time had not been so kind to those materials, our initial success in Memphis merely a fluke. What sort of fool’s errand had we embarked upon? Clearly we still had much to learn about capturing field recordings on acetate and a PRESTO. But haunted by the ghostly sound of our very first sonic experiment, we left the birthplace of the blues, feeling that perhaps, like Robert Johnson himself, we had already sold our souls to the devil.
They’ve even managed to record well known and influential guitarist, singer and songwriter Richard Thompson.
Visit the project, see more videos and hear more of their discs at their website:
Thanks for your good work.