Listening at 78 RPM

by the other theo

I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for the music of the first half of the 20th century over the years.  It’s crept in slowly, first by listening to bands like the Asylum Street Spankers, who consciously create modern music in the style of the 1920’s and 30’s.    More recently, it’s come out of listening to some of the early music itself after a blogger friend turned me on to the 1920’s Radio Network (a live radio feed near Norfolk, VA and online digital stream.)

Having heard a few 78 RPM records in person over the years, I have always wondered how much information ever went onto those grooves in the pre-vinyl days of shellac from before 1948.   The records that come down to us now are often worn and the playback equipment is tired.  Digital transfers often do not help much, because the aim too often is “hiss free playback” not “proper fidelity” (something that made early CD remasters of much more recent music inferior to their analog counterparts in the 1980’s and 1990’s.)

So, it was a very pleasant surprise to happen upon the YouTube archive of Ade Gregg, an Australian sound engineer with a love of Big Band Era and earlier recordings who spends a lot of his free time figuring out how to get the most sound off of a 78 RPM record.   He posted much of his material online between 2010-2013, some of it during a period when he was unemployed and trying to see if he could do work with 78’s for a living somehow.  From what I can see, he’s evidently got a two part system: a phono pre-amp that’s he’s put together himself to best reproduce the sound envelope of the era, and some custom and stock digital plugins that he uses with whatever digital mastering software he’s got.   Most to all of the stuff he’s posted is from records he’s picked up at junk and antique shops for cheap.

I initially found out about him while looking up some online sources for Hawaiian slack key and steel guitarists:


From there, I jumped to Jussi Bjorling singing one of the great tenor arias of all time:


There also was some of the cleanest Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli I believe I’ve ever heard (and apparently only playable from a computer because of some arcane Youtube permissions):


Finally, I heard some proto-Dixieland jazz:


I guess it turns out that there’s a lot of information in those grooves, if you know how to get it.

I don’t know what happened to Ade Gregg in the last few years, but I hope he gets his dream job.  If he can get sounds like this off consumer pressed records bought for cheap, I’d like to hear what he can do with surviving metal and acetate masters.

Check out his YouTube channel.  He’s got a ton of stuff (well, at least 100 other recordings) there.