The Internet Archive Is Digitizing & Preserving Over 100,000 Vinyl Records: Hear 750 Full Albums Now

There seems to be wide­spread agreement—something spe­cial was lost in the rushed-to-mar­ket move from phys­i­cal media to dig­i­tal stream­ing. We have come to admit that some old­er musi­cal tech­nolo­gies can­not be improved upon. Musi­cians, pro­duc­ers, engi­neers spend thou­sands to repli­cate the sound of old­er ana­log record­ing tech­nol­o­gy, with all its quirky, incon­sis­tent oper­a­tion. And fans buy record play­ers and vinyl records in sur­pris­ing­ly increas­ing num­bers to hear the warm and fuzzy char­ac­ter of their sound.

Neil Young, who has relent­less­ly crit­i­cized every aspect of dig­i­tal record­ing, has dis­missed the resur­gence of the LP as a “fash­ion state­ment” giv­en that most new albums released on vinyl are dig­i­tal mas­ters. But buy­ers come to vinyl with a range of expec­ta­tions, writes Ari Her­stand at Dig­i­tal Music News: “Vinyl is an entire expe­ri­ence. Won­der­ful­ly tac­tile…. When we stare at our screens for the major­i­ty of our days, it’s nice to look at art that doesn’t glow and isn’t the size of my hand.” Vinyl can feel and look as good as it sounds (when prop­er­ly engi­neered).

While shiny, dig­i­tal­ly mas­tered vinyl releas­es pop up in big box stores every­where, the real musi­cal wealth lies in the past—in thou­sands upon thou­sands of LPs, 45s, 78s—relics of “the only con­sumer play­back for­mat we have that’s ful­ly ana­log and ful­ly loss­less,” says vinyl mas­ter­ing engi­neer Adam Gon­salves. Few insti­tu­tions can afford to store thou­sands of phys­i­cal albums, and many rar­i­ties and odd­i­ties exist in van­ish­ing­ly few­er copies. Their crack­le and hiss may be for­ev­er lost with­out the inter­ven­tion of dig­i­tal preser­va­tion­ists like the Inter­net Archive.

The Archive is “now expand­ing its dig­i­ti­za­tion project to include LPs,” reports Faye Lessler on the organization’s blog. This will come as wel­come news to cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans, ana­log con­ser­va­tion­ists, and vinyl enthu­si­asts of all kinds, who will most­ly agree that dig­i­ti­za­tion is far bet­ter than extinc­tion, though the tac­tile and visu­al plea­sures may be irre­place­able. The Archive has focused its efforts on the over 100,000 audio record­ings from the Boston Pub­lic Library’s col­lec­tion, “in order to pre­vent them from dis­ap­pear­ing for­ev­er when the vinyl is bro­ken, warped, or lost.”

“These record­ings exist in a vari­ety of his­tor­i­cal for­mats, includ­ing wax cylin­ders, 78 rpms, and LPs,” though the project is cur­rent­ly focused on the lat­ter. “They span musi­cal gen­res includ­ing  clas­si­cal, pop, rock, and jazz, and con­tain obscure record­ings like this album of music for baton twirlers, and this record of radio’s all-time great­est bloop­ers.” The method of rapid­ly con­vert­ing the arti­facts at the rate of ten LPs per hour (which you can read more about at the Archive blog) serves as a tes­ta­ment to what dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy does best—using machine learn­ing and meta­da­ta to auto­mate the archival process and cre­ate exten­sive, search­able data­bas­es of cat­a­logue infor­ma­tion.

Cur­rent­ly, the project has uploaded 1,180 record­ings to its site, “but some of the albums are only avail­able in 30 sec­ond snip­pets due to rights issues,” Lessler points out. Browse the “Unlocked Record­ings” cat­e­go­ry to hear 750 dig­i­tized LPs avail­able in full: these include a record­ing of Gian Car­lo Menot­ti’s bal­let The Uni­corn, the Gor­gon, and the Man­ti­core, fur­ther up; The Beget­ting of the Pres­i­dent, above, a satire of Nixon’s rise to pow­er as Bib­li­cal epic, read by Orson Welles in his King of Kings’ voice; and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Con­cer­to no. 1 in B‑flat minor, played by Van Cliburn, below.

The range and vari­ety cap­tured in this collection—from fire­works sound effects to Elton John’s sec­ond, self-titled album to clas­sic Pearl Bai­ly to 80s new wave band The Com­mu­nards to Andres Segovia play­ing Bach to the Smokey and the Ban­dit 2 soundtrack—will out­last copy­right restric­tions. And they will leave behind an exten­sive record, no pun intend­ed, of the LP: “our pri­ma­ry musi­cal medi­um for over a gen­er­a­tion,” says the Archive’s spe­cial projects direc­tor CR Saik­ley, “wit­ness to the birth of both Rock & Roll and Punk Rock… inte­gral to our cul­ture from the 1950s to the 1980s.” Vinyl remains the most revered of musi­cal for­mats for good reason—reasons future gen­er­a­tions will dis­cov­er, at least vir­tu­al­ly, for them­selves some­day.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Vinyl Records Are Made: A Primer from 1956

An Inter­ac­tive Map of Every Record Shop in the World

25,000+ 78RPM Records Now Pro­fes­sion­al­ly Dig­i­tized & Stream­ing Online: A Trea­sure Trove of Ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • brewster kahle says:

    Thank you from the Inter­net Archive. Yes, we are work­ing away on this, and will as many as we can stream­able or down­load­able. If oth­ers want to help us QA records as they go up, please write to us at (and men­tion me, brew­ster kahle).

    Inter­net Archive

  • Jerry says:

    Focused on the lat­ter, not the lat­er.

  • Jerry Kline says:

    We lis­ten to most of our music col­lec­tion on CDs while we’re on long dri­ving trips. Can I down­load Unlocked Record­ings to CDs that we can play in the car?

  • Iain Sanders says:

    For me, the whole point of vinyl — & pre­vi­ous record­ings — is the non-dig­i­tal, whole-spec­trum- sound! I do hope this won’t encour­age any­one to pre­fer dig­i­tal when they could hear ana­logue — nor any casu­al destruc­tion of old discs..

  • Robert Auld says:

    I lis­tened to some of the Van Cliburn/Tchaikovsky record­ing linked to the arti­cle. The trans­fer is ter­ri­ble: the record sounds worn, so there is dis­tor­tion (which is dif­fi­cult to impos­si­ble to remove) as well as a great deal of sur­face noise (which could be reduced with prop­er soft­ware).

    I work as an audio engi­neer and have done LP trans­fers to a pro­fes­sion­al stan­dard, so I know it is pos­si­ble to do much bet­ter than the exam­ple you have pre­sent­ed. If this exam­ple is typ­i­cal of the trans­fers that are being done, they will be of lim­it­ed val­ue.

    I believe you can still buy the Van Cliburn record­ing as a CD. Fur­ther, since the mas­ter tape has already been dig­i­tized, it will like­ly be avail­able in the future on what­ev­er play­back for­mat is pop­u­lar. LP dig­i­ti­za­tion efforts should con­cen­trate on less pop­u­lar records that are not eas­i­ly avail­able in dig­i­tal form, and the trans­fers should be of bet­ter qual­i­ty.

  • Steve Holio says:

    Sad­ly every sin­gle Clas­si­cal record­ing I want­ed to add to my col­lec­tion is in “Sam­ple Only” mode cur­rent­ly so not a lot of use.

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