The American Jukebox

 

The Library of Congress recently opened a website for the general public making available thousands of recordings that were previously out of print. The recordings, ten inch platters that could only be found at flea markets or in ancient attics, consist of musical performances and spoken word made for the Victor Talking Machine Company at the turn of the century. With a huge range of obscure work, the National Jukebox, as the archive is being called, is a boon for audiophiles. “[Listeners] can hear operatic selections, vaudeville routines, popular songs of the day, songs from musical shows,” said David Sanger, an archiver for the National Jukebox. 

The National Jukebox began as an idea of Sam Belawsky, former head of the recorded sound section of the Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. Belawsky wanted to provide mass public access to the recordings. Sony Music Entertainment, which owns the rights to the Victor catalog, allowed the Library of Congress to use acoustically recorded Victor records before 1925. “So we got that agreement and went ahead with selecting the material and having it digitized and all the electronic inputting of data,” said Sanger.

Digitizing the material was a painstaking process. All of the records came from the University of California, Santa Barbara. The work was done in Virginia where technicians pulled records from the vault and cross checked duplicate copies for condition. Oftentimes there were six to seven copies of the same recorded performance. 

“A lot of times the talent was called back in to do a new version because the stamps had worn out,” said Sanger. The technicians pulling the records out of the vault would have to scrutinize the discs to make sure they had a unique performance. They had to pick out the best copies simply by eye-balling the discs.

The website also contains a slide show demonstrating how the records were processed. Listeners can also create and submit their own playlists. Coming this fall, the library will be releasing acoustical recordings from the Columbia and Okeh labels.

Visit the library at: www.loc.gov/jukebox/

The Making of a Record in 1900

Acoustical Era
All the recordings in the National Jukebox were made in the acoustical era of studio recording between 1900 and 1925. The acoustical era precedes the use of microphones; instead, performers played into a horn. “There was a gigantic horn that funneled the sound that was being performed to the small end of the horn,” said Sanger. The horn vibrated a thin glass or copper diaphragm to which a cutting needle was attached that cut a groove into the wax master. “It was a completely mechanical way of recording,” said Sanger.

Working the Horn
Just as a singer today works the microphone, singers for the Victor had to work the horn. Singers who had to hit a very loud note needed to back away from the horn. During a performance, the singer was constantly moving toward or away from the horn, and inexperienced recording artists had a studio technician pushing them away or toward the horn.

Back to Knee
Conditions for musicians were equally daunting. Players had to crowd around the horn so they were playing knees to backs in small chairs. “Sometimes a performer would have to come back several times and remake the selection if it wasn’t satisfactory,” said Sanger. Before Victor developed the means to mass produce records, the master wore out after producing up to 400 records. A performer might be asked to come back several times to re-record a selection. 

 Speed Control
Today, we would consider these records as “78s.” However, at the turn of the century there was no standard revolution. Early on, speeds could vary from 65- 80 rpm. Along with selecting the correct stylus, technicians converting these recordings to .mp3 for the National Jukebox adjusted the turntable speed by ear. “They had to get through this cart of records they had to transfer in a certain period of time. They didn’t have the luxury to sit and fiddle with the speed as much as they would have liked to,” said Sanger. •