How the Internet Archive Has Digitized More than 250,000 78 R.P.M. Records: See the Painstaking Process Up-Close

In the his­to­ry of record­ed music, no medi­um has demon­strat­ed quite the stay­ing pow­er of the phono­graph record. Hear­ing those words, most of us envi­sion a twelve-inch disc designed to play at 33 13 rev­o­lu­tions per minute, the kind still man­u­fac­tured today. But like every oth­er form of tech­nol­o­gy, that famil­iar vinyl LP did­n’t appear ex nihi­lo: on its intro­duc­tion in 1948, it was the lat­est in a series of phono­graph records of dif­fer­ent sizes and speeds. The first dom­i­nant record for­mat spun at 78 r.p.m., a speed stan­dard­ized in the mid-1920s, though the discs them­selves (made of rub­ber, shel­lac, or oth­er pre-vinyl mate­ri­als) had been in pro­duc­tion since the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry and remained in pro­duc­tion until the 1950s.

The half-cen­tu­ry of the “78” adds up to quite a lot of music, most of which has long been inac­ces­si­ble to non-anti­quar­i­ans. Enter the his­tor­i­cal­ly mind­ed tech­nol­o­gists of the Inter­net Archive, who since 2016 have been work­ing with media preser­va­tion com­pa­ny George Blood LP to dig­i­tize, pre­serve, and make avail­able, as of this writ­ing, more than 250,000 such records.

The process involves much more than play­ing them all into a com­put­er, due not least to the toll the past cen­tu­ry or so has tak­en on the discs’ sur­faces. “Each record is cleaned on a machine that sprays dis­tilled water onto its sur­face,” writes The Verge’s Kait Sanchez. “A lit­tle vac­u­um arm then sucks up the water, along with what­ev­er dirt and nas­ti­ness has built up in the record’s grooves.”

“The discs are then pho­tographed, and the pho­tos are ref­er­enced to pull info from the discs’ labels and add it to the archive’s data­base by hand.” There fol­lows the actu­al dig­i­ti­za­tion, which records each disc with four styli at once: since 78s nev­er had stan­dard­ized groove sizes, “record­ings tak­en with var­i­ous sty­lus tips will each sound slight­ly dif­fer­ent,” but for any record in the George Blood Col­lec­tion the lis­ten­er can choose which of the four they’d pre­fer to lis­ten through. You can see each step of the process in the video at the top of the post, part of a Twit­ter thread recent­ly post­ed by the Inter­net Archive. There the Archive notes that, “after scan­ning 250,000 sides, we’ve found 80% of these 78s were pro­duced by the ‘Big Five’ labels” — Colum­bia, RCA Vic­tor, Dec­ca, Capi­tol and Mer­cury — “but along the way, we’ve uncov­ered 1700 oth­er music labels and some pret­ty beau­ti­ful pic­ture discs.”

You can look at — and more to the point, lis­ten to — every­thing in the the George Blood Col­lec­tion here, which is a sub­set of the Inter­net Archive’s larg­er col­lec­tion of dig­i­tized 78 records as well as the cylin­ders that 78s whol­ly dis­placed as a con­sumer for­mat. As the Inter­net Archive’s Twit­ter thread reminds us, “from 1898–1950, this was THE way music was record­ed & shared.” In oth­er words, if your par­ents were lis­ten­ing to music in that peri­od — or maybe your grand­par­ents, great-grand­par­ents, or great-great grand­par­ents — 78s were their MP3s, their Spo­ti­fy, their Youtube. We descend as lis­ten­ers from enthu­si­as­tic buy­ers of 78s, and now, thanks to the Inter­net Archive and its col­lab­o­ra­tors, we can enjoy a large and ever-increas­ing pro­por­tion of their entire world of record­ed music for free.

via The Verge

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mas­sive Archive of 78RPM Records Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Stream 78,000 Ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry Records from Around the World

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

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

The Boston Pub­lic Library Will Dig­i­tize & Put Online 200,000+ Vin­tage Records

The Ground­break­ing Art of Alex Stein­weiss, Father of Record Cov­er Design

How the Inter­net Archive Dig­i­tizes 3,500 Books a Day–the Hard Way, One Page at a Time

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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