78 Project replicates original vinyl recording style

By Matt Wells
BBC News, New York

  • Published
No pressure. Adam Arcuragi goes for a take

New York is buzzing with retro-chic products these days, but few can match the authenticity of a project that aims to bring alive the sound, touch, and even smells of recorded music's first golden period.

For the last few months the team behind the 78 Project have been travelling to diverse venues around New York, visiting artists such as Loudon Wainwright III, Roseanne Cash and Richard Thompson.

Media caption,

Hear the sound of a fresh-pressed 78

They are recording performances in exactly the same way that folk pioneer Alan Lomax recorded blues artists in the Mississippi Delta during the 1930s.

The polar opposite of today's high-tech recording studio, the Presto direct-to-disc recorder (which ceased manufacture in the 1960s), was designed to be highly-portable.

The duo who have embarked on this very modern exercise in nostalgia are film-maker Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright, who is in charge of the field-recording process and takes care of the project's ambitious online presence .

The pair gave me a guided tour of one of their Prestos before heading out on a recent recording expedition in Harlem. The shiny black acetate discs hold only four minutes of music per side and need to be warmed up by a customised lamp before use.

Once on the turntable, the music cuts into the record at 78rpm and Wright has to spend most of the dramatic recording session deftly brushing away the tiny filaments as they are thrown up by the stylus. She is left with what looks like a fistful of shiny hair.

Image caption,
Recording on acetate is a hands on process

Today's guest artist is the pioneer of the "death gospel" genre, Adam Arcuragi, and his band The Lupine Chorale.

The tension and excitement before the do-or-die recording reached fever pitch during one of the practice runs, when the Presto seemed to come alive with sparks.

Unique performance

"It was kind of sizzling a little bit, so I stopped it," explains Wright. But following an anxious inspection it looks as if it is only filaments catching fire, not the whole machine.

No pressure. Adam Arcuragi goes for a take

For the performer there is only one take to get it right.

"There is no predictability. It's never going to get boring for us," says Steyermark. "Just like for the artist, it's going to be a unique performance."

The team films and digitally records every session, and then transfers it to the web.

"We kind of see the project as bridging 100 years of technology," he adds. "We use these recorders that come from the 1930s, and we're using the internet to self-distribute the material."

From the beautifully converted church building where the recording is taking place, the band and the 78 Project crew head into the garden, to listen to the fruits of their labour.

There is no doubting the power of the almost spectral recorded voice that seems to hang in the branches of the trees.

Arcuragi, who takes as much geeky interest in the process as the crew, is clearly moved. "It was really weird - sounded almost like a different person."

Image caption,
Musician and song-writer Adam Arcuragi listens to a newly minted vinyl recording

He begins to wonder how different it would have been, to have heard some of the giants of early popular music live, as opposed to on their surviving recordings.

"I started thinking… Hank Williams didn't sound like that. Leadbelly didn't sound like that."

The 78 Project duo admit they are absolutely hooked on the process of taking some of their favourite musicians to a unique performance space, for an unrepeatable experience.

On 20 May they are planning a benefit night in support of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, to give back something to the old generation of roots musicians who inspired them.

Among the items for auction will be many of the original acetate 78s that they have recorded in recent months. It looks like the project is only just starting.