8. Technical considerations

The operations of archives of commercial recordings do not differ much from those of other sound archives. You need storage space, staff, a cataloguing and filing system and technical equipment. But while other sound archives will mainly be using open-reel tape, commercial recordings are mainly issued on records (discs) and cassettes.

Modern microgroove records (LPs and singles) are not likely to present any special problems. They are quite durable (if direct wear, scratches and other physical damage are avoided) and can be safely played even on moderately priced record players if the stylus is checked frequently and changed before it is worn. Information on record players and other high fidelity equipment is readily available from dealers, manufacturers and specialized publications.

Pre-recorded cassettes and cartridges do not, in principle, differ from open-reel magnetic tape and the instructions given elsewhere in this book should apply for cassettes as well. However, in practice, pre-recorded cassettes are usually of much lower quality. Their quality varies tremendously, and they also frequently have mechanical faults which cause problems. Cassettes are such a recent invention that there is not yet much information on their preservation. Any archives which hold cassettes in their collections should -especially if the identical material is not available on disc -pay special attention to them and check their condition regularly. It would probably be safest to copy the most important recordings immediately onto high-quality open reel tape.

The older type 78 rpm records were standard in the record industry until the 1950s and in some countries they were manufactured even later. Today they are hardly made anywhere. From an archival viewpoint the old '78' was an excellent sound carrier if direct mechanical damage was avoided. Most of the shellac compounds used for the manufacture of records seem to be quite stable and 78 rpm discs seem to withstand the ravages of time better than paper, film or magnetic tape. Very little can happen to properly shelved shellac records, although at high humidity certain types of mildew growing on paper sleeves can damage shellac. Even dirty old records which have not been properly stored can frequently be improved by washing them carefully with water (preferably distilled) and a liquid detergent.

The main problem is playing the records. Old records should no longer be played on old record players with steel needles and heavy pick-ups, unless a specialist is available who can ascertain that no damage is caused to the record. Fortunately, modern light-weight pick-ups (except some of the more expensive types) can usually be adapted for 78s. At least one company, Shure, commercially manufactures styli for 78s and there are specialist companies, such as Expert Pickups in the UK, which will supply diamond styli for 78s. Several different types are available, corresponding to different makes and periods of 78s. Many archives have had excellent results with these styli.

Speed control can also cause great problems. Few record players any longer have the 78 rpm speed, although there are still some relatively expensive models with 78, 45 and 33 rpm. If one of these cannot be located it may be possible to have some other model modified so that the 45 rpm speed is changed to 78. Early records were seldom made to play at exactly 78 rpm. Before 1920 the correct speed could just as well be 74 or 80 rpm, so archives may need access to record players with variable speed controls. There is no way of knowing exactly the correct speed, but if an early recording sounds unnatural at 78 rpm then correction should be attempted by trying to vary the speed. Jeffrey Duboff, a specialist who lives in Massachusetts, supplies a variation of the Sony record player which has adjustable speed from 65 to 105 rpm, in addition to the standard 45 and 33. Speeds as high as 100 rpm may be necessary in special cases.

Before the lateral-cut 78 rpm shellac disc became standard in the record industry, it had several serious competitors. The situation in the record industry at the beginning of the century resembled today's video market with several competing systems. There were even oddities such as the 'World' record, which had to be played at a constantly changing speed. Few archivists are likely to encounter the most unusual types and the problems of reproducing them are so specialized that we need not discuss them here. If you meet very special types of recordings ask other, older archives for advice. I shall, however, discuss briefly the most common 'non-standard' recordings.

Cylinders were manufactured commercially from the l890s to the 1920s and, even later, blank wax cylinders were used on dictating machines. Cylinders were made from many different materials, came in different sizes and were played at different speeds. The reproduction of cylinders is a highly specialized field and there is even one specialist company which supplies modern electrical cylinder players which accommodate most types of cylinders. Basically. it is not too difficult to build a moderately successful cylinder player which uses a modern stereo pick-up and several articles on this question have appeared in specialized publications.

Vertical cut discs sometimes look like ordinary 78 rpm discs, but when played on a normal record player little sound is heard. However, with a suitable stylus, a stereo pick-up, the correct speed and using only one channel of the stereo signal, they can be reproduced quite satisfactorily. The main makes were Pathe and Edison. Edison discs are usually 10-inch, the same as most 78s but much thicker, and they play at 80 rpm. Pathe discs come in many sizes up to 14 inches, sometimes play from the inside out and were usually recorded at approximately 80 or 90 rpm. There were also other early manufacturers so, if you encounter early recordings which reproduce poorly make sure that they are not vertically cut.

The sound of old recordings, both standard 78s and more unusual makes, can usually be considerably improved by using filters, equalizers and other more specialized electronic equipment. Such miracles of modern electronics are useless, however, unless the proper stylus and correct speed are used.