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SH Spotlight Old 78 RPM records: FATS WALLER/BUNNY BERIGAN, etc. sound so amazing 75 years on...

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Steve Hoffman, Nov 23, 2007.

  1. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    I have so many old records and love them but the nameless, faceless engineers of the really old days fascinate me.

    For example, I have a Thomas "Fats" Waller record from 1929 on Scroll Victor (Victor Talking Machine Co.) that was recorded in the Victor Trinity Baptist Church Studio in Camden, NJ. (picture below). It is of Fats playing some jazzy stuff on the pipe organ like "Sugar", etc.

    Now, having played a pipe organ a few times in my life I can tell you that if you try and play fast stuff on it you CANNOT HEAR what you are playing until the lag time is over. If you are improvising like Fats did you are hearing what you played a while back while making up new stuff. This would be like basically playing without being able to even hear yourself. A talent.

    At any rate, my Victor of "Sugar" has the lowest bass I've ever heard on a 78. Way down to 28 cycles when Fats his the low bass pedal. A low E on an electric bass is 40 cycles for comparison.

    I doubt they could hear that when they were recording it but it's right there on the record; we measured it today. Amazing bass for something that was recorded only 4 years after electrical recording began.

    So, all praise the Western Electric microphone, used on most all electric recording sessions in the 1920s and up to the middle 1930s.

    And have you ever heard the actual 12" Victor 78 of Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started" from 1937 using the nifty new RCA Ribbon microphone? I don't mean a later dub that was filtered and compressed but the real deal (on a 12" 78 RPM album set called "Symposium Of Swing", a thrift shop favorite; 5 bucks). Bunny is one of my favorite horn players of that era (along with Louis and Bix) but what gets me is the unsung hero on the cutting lathe who managed to get 52 db of dynamic range on a 4 minute song cut into wax with in one live take with no overcut on a fixed groove cutter like in the picture below using a single microphone for a 12 piece swing band. If you've heard this song on a CD or LP or even the 10" "dub" version you are not hearing the real thing. Try and find this non expensive 12" 78 RPM album set (make sure the records are not broken in the sleeves; examine each one) and report back. You'll mainly find them on that ugly 1940's grey and silver label but not to worry; it's the original direct-cut stampers.

    So, here is to you unsung (and I'm sure long dead) heroes of mastering from way back then. You did your job well, preserving the great sound of some of our musical heroes.

    Getting off my soapbox now; I realize this thread will be read by about three people but I just felt like writing about the good old days of recording tonight; forgive me..

    Below: Pictures from RCA-Victor. Notice that beautiful object that you can see through the glass in the third picture? That is a playback speaker, Art Deco style. Amazing.

    Attached Files:

    somnar and Tim Albertson like this.
  2. More kudos to them, considering some of their achievements couldn't really be appreciated then, with the playback equipment in use.
  3. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Yes, it's only now that we are discovering what is really in those grooves. It's great.
  4. Engineer X cuts this fabulous sound, and then Mrs. So & So gives it few spins on the old wind up record shredder, and great sound is gone. Or at least much harder to discern.:shake:
  5. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Thing is, I don't think Engineer X knew he was cutting such fabulous sound on his records. I think he would be surprised at the quality hidden in there..

    All of the records cut at the RCA-Victor Trinity Church Studio (see below picture) from 1927-36 have this amazing ambient full-range sound that constantly blows me away. Do you know why they closed this studio? The Jukebox operators complained that the Victor and Bluebird records cut in that studio were too "bright" for their crappy sounding jukeboxes. So, Victor closed the studio and started cutting (pun) back on the top end of its record releases. In other words, instead of a record going up to 10,000 cycles like at the Trinity Church Studio, they were cut off around 6,000 for less top. And, after the end of the recording ban in 1944 I don't think a Victor record went beyond 5,000 cycles until the 1950's and magnetic tape recording. A shame..

    Attached Files:

    somnar and McLover like this.
  6. Unsung heroes indeed. Some enterprising historian should compile a capsule history of some these engineers and the records they cut, if the documentation exists. To use as a reference.
    I do have the 10" inch I Can't Get Started. Guess I should look out for the 12" version. Thanks for the information, once again.
    McLover likes this.
  7. drh

    drh Talking Machine

    OK, Wolfe is no. 1, and, I suppose predictably, I'm no. 2. ;) You know you'll get no arguments out of *me* about the wonders fixed in those old grooves or the skill of the engineers who recorded them. But let's go back even a bit further: what of the magic worked by the pre-electric engineers, who captured surprisingly life-like sound with just a vibrating diaphragm set at the narrow end of a horn? A fine art indeed, and now completely lost in the mists of time.


    Just occurred to me: jukebox owners wouldn't care about the sound of classical releases. Did Victor similarly limit the top end of its red seals, or were they still cut with a higher top?
  8. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    The 10" Victor record of Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started" is a record to wax electric dub (in other words a needle drop) of parts of the 12" version. Dreadful sound but the record was a surprise hit in 1937 and they needed a 10" version for the jukeboxes. They just redubbed (badly) the record, cueing it to start after the long intro and cutting the sound off right before the amazing ending. In other words, useless.:) Find the 12" version for the real deal. A true "one take wonder".
    McLover likes this.
  9. Yes, all the way back to the turn of the century. It must have been a very hit or miss affair. But the immediacy and presence of those old acoustics at their best is really something. Caruso's 1904 series for Victor, for instance.
  10. -Alan

    -Alan Senior Member

    Connecticut, USA
    They sound like true pioneers. It's ironic that 75 years later, many in the industry are heading in the opposite direction. I'm sure lots of forum members appreciate topics like this one, I know I do!
  11. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Ah, very observant. The Victor classicals were not messed with. I have a "Red Seal" of Nelson Eddy and Jennette McDonald from around 1938 singing "Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life" that sounds amazing. Probably "taken" in the studio in the photo in my first post with the big round VU meters and the guy looking on through the window. Great sound.

    Regarding acoustic recording, I have a Victor acoustic on the "First Prize Award" label (before the "batwing" label) that I guess is from the teens. Arthur Pryor's Band doing "Mr. Dream Man Two-Step Medley". This is without a doubt the loudest record I have in my entire collection. When I want to blow someone away with a great acoustic recording (made before microphones were invented) I play them this. They hold their ears! It sounds great and is truly thunderous.

    Don't forget to watch COMMAND PERFORMANCE, the little movie that shows the recording and manufacturing process of Victor Records circa 1942. It's a must for anyone who hangs out here. Click on:

  12. Doubtful many of the c.d.'s being made now will have any mysteries to unfurl 75 years from now. What's there is there in all it's maximized splendor.
  13. boyfromnowhere

    boyfromnowhere Forum Resident

    missouri, usa
    I love this stuff! I don't really have anything to contribute, but i like reading everyone else's posts!
  14. mrwolk

    mrwolk One and a half ears...no waiting!

    Ottawa, Canada
    Steve...As soon as I saw "Old 78 RPM" in your title...i got pretty excited...and as i looked at the attached photos...i thought "gee, those look familiar...and then it hit me..those were the photos i scanned and posted on Flickr ages ago..wondering if more than three people would see them...well if it were only three.. i'm glad that you were one of them...thanks for using them....a little background on those photos..i found them at a flea market and they were attached with an article entitled 'Electric Recording Comes of Age" that a certain Reginald S. Allen of Vancouver, Canada submitted to the local paper (back in 1943)...only to have his article and photos returned with a card of rejection from the editor. BTW the photo of the combo is of Tony Pastor and his band. PS..a more recent flea market find was a collection of over three hundred 78's for $35.00 delivered!!...what treasures in those album sleeves!
  15. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Thank you so much for finding those pictures. Do you know that they are about IT for that entire era? Harder to pictorially document the "secret" recording process of that time than just about any other mass medium of the era. Other than the COMMAND PERFORMANCE film that I mention above there is really nothing else of a photographic nature taken inside the studio from the perspective of the recording engineer or cutting engineer. A shame.
  16. Been listening to a Bluebird copy of "It Had To Be You" by Artie Shaw & Orch.
    May not have low notes to 30 cycles, but still sounds amazing. Dimensional, spacious, flows like butter.
  17. mrwolk

    mrwolk One and a half ears...no waiting!

    Ottawa, Canada
    The one thing i forgot to mention was that Mr. Allen's intro into the article
    makes reference to the lifting of the AFM/Petrillo ban that halted all all commercial recording.
    (source IEEE Virtual Museum)

    ...makes you wonder to what extent a similar strike today would impact the music industry??
  18. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Yes, I have that same Bluebird. Beautiful sound, full and rich; like most Bluebirds of that era. Only missing the true top end but the midrange is so magic you don't notice it.

    Recorded by that same dude you see in the picture in my first post (with the second guy looking on) and in the 1942 film about recording and manufacturing an RCA-Victor record: COMMAND PERFORMANCE. Obviously a wonderful engineer capable of mixing and recording all types of music. I wish I knew his name.

    Hope all of you have watched COMMAND PERFORMANCE by now...

  19. Tom R

    Tom R Forum Resident

    Wow! Those films are incredible. It's sad there is so little documentation of that era. A lot of care was put into those old 78's. I have a new found respect for those old records.
  20. Perisphere

    Perisphere Forum Resident

    I think Victor 25653, 'Caravan' b/w 'A study in brown' was recorded at the same August 1937 session as 'I can't get started'. Same sonic idea though. Some of the solos can leap out at you and swat you one! Brilliant recording.

    Look for the diamond-shaped VE symbol in the dead wax near the double eccentric grooves if you want to find these records pressed from original parts and not dubs. My dad's 12" of 'I can't get started' had it on that side but not on 'The prisoner's song' which is the flip. (Victor 36208.) It was a mid-late 1940s pressing with 'RCA VICTOR' on the labels, and 'SWING CLASSIC' around the very tops. It still sounded pretty good though!

    Speaking of Bunny Berigan, I strongly recommend searching out the LP called BUNNY BERIGAN PLAYS AGAIN, RCA Victor LPT 1003, for a study in how 78s should always be dubbed for reissue. 'I can't get started' and 'The prisoner's song' are two of the only eight titles this 12" LP has, but sonically it is the least futzed-with sounding reissue LP I have ever heard, no wonky re-EQing, NO ADDED COMPRESSION OR LIMITING, NO ADDED REVERB OR OTHER BS!!!! Nothing ever matches the proper 78s 100% but this is by far the closest thing I've ever heard from a reissue LP. Amazing; apart from one wee tape burble near the end of 'ICGS' they got it right in 1951!
  21. Perisphere

    Perisphere Forum Resident

    And on the subject of the Trinity studio, one record I have that never fails to blow me away is Victor 35946, CHRISTMAS HYMNS AND CAROLS, numbers 3 and 4. This dates from 1928, and the bottom end definitely goes below 30 cycles. Billed as by Trinity Choir, the performing forces include the choir, solo singers, a full orchestra, and that pipe organ. Everything is beautifully balanced and in perspective. The organ is very understated, but at the end of the 'Hark the herald angels sing' segment on side 1 there is an A natural--27 1/2 Hz--than can be heard on the best equipment. It's an incredible, first-rate recording as far as I am concerned too. I just wish my late-1930s circle-label copy wasn't so worn out!
  22. Thanks, Perisphere. I have just snapped a copy of this LP up on your recommendation on Ebay for four dollars. I cannot tell you how much my musical appreciation has been enhanced since I joined this forum. I love it!
  23. scotto

    scotto Forum Resident

    Same here. Nothing like the sound of a great, clean 78.
    But how about some of those old Deccas? They seem to be overlooked when discussing "great sounding 78s," but some of those Fletcher Henderson, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, etc., Deccas sound amazing as well.
  24. il pleut

    il pleut New Member

    i've been messing with making needle drops of 78s lately, mostly just to be able listen to them more conveniently, recording them flat and then applying eq to try to avoid the muddiness that the riaa curve gives them. other than a light application of clickrepair, that's all the processing they get.

    i've been concentrating on bluebirds and victors of the same era as the berigan records, stuff like hal kemp, blue barron, freddy martin...stuff that will never make it to even a crappy sounding cd, most of it considered excruciatingly corny even in the late 1930s. for some reason i love this stuff.

    the dynamic range of these records always amazes me. sometimes it's a problem because the loudest part often is at the end of the record where the wear is worse, which causes distortion. vocals sound beautiful, especially if the singer has more of a baritone range. i'm inclined to keep as much high end as i can, even at the risk of the surface noise being a little high. most of the records are NM-VG+, so they're not too beat.
  25. drh

    drh Talking Machine

    I guess my most amazingly loud acoustics are Pathes, one or two by Jacques Urlus and another one or two by Titta Ruffo, both gentlemen noted for their huge voices. These, of course, are vertical cut, so there was no need for "limiting" of the sort the lateral crowd had to employ (say, keeping a staff member on hand to pull the singer away from the horn just before a big climax!). On the other hand, like all Pathe acoustics, cylinder or disc, they were mechanical dubs from oversized master cylinders. Be that as it may, these things, played back on my avatar machine, will absolutely blast you from the room; they are actually painful if heard close up. Exhibit A for my belief that, for the period, only a vertical cut disk can give a real impression of the sheer size of a voice calculated to fill an opera house, although, curiously, I've never had a similar "opera house sized voice in your living room" experience of raw volume from the (better-recorded) Edisons.

    Boy, howdy, I wish that some of those Pathe master cylinders had survived the years....

    Thanks for all this interesting info. Needless to say, *I* love stuff like this, and I'm delighted that you opened the discussion!

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