Cut Straight to Record | Recording technology & the sound of early Blues

Written by Dr Anders Ingram

My recent release, The Trouble EP, was recorded and cut direct to vinyl by The Lathe Revival in Newcastle in 2016 using 1930s equipment. You can listen to it here.

I’d be willing to bet that if I had told you that these recordings were made in the late 1930s or early 40s you would have believed me. It just has that sound … but what is that sound exactly?

Anyone who has ever put a second hand record on a deck can tell you that dust, static, and a worn stylus, etc. can cause hiss, crackle, and pops, while wear and scratches to the record can cause many other sound issues. However, this is something more. The fundamental sound itself is shaped by the format and the recording process.

So what was that process?

Technology to shape Music

Well these recordings were made by feeding a microphone signal directly into a restored 1938 Presto Shellac Lathe (shellac was a rather more fragile and brittle precursor to vinyl as a record material).

Lathe machine

Lathe (click for larger)

A blank record is placed on the contraption (for my album we used vinyl, not shellac). Each record is an individual track, giving about two and a half minutes of recording time with the sound quality deteriorating rapidly at the end as the record reaches the centre.

As the musician plays, the stylus – a sharp point – cuts the sound into the record, while the operator brushes the ‘swarf’ – or shavings – away to prevent them from catching under the stylus on its next rotation.

You can see the operation of the Lathe here:

A recording Lathe

A recording Lathe (click for larger)

On my recording, following this stage, we also recorded a digital version (WAV format) of the physical record and had it Mastered by Gareth Bury (aka Asthmatic Astronaut), who did an amazing job.

You can hear the unmastered version here:

The small portable Presso Shellac Lathe was used by the folk music ethnologists John and his son Alan Lomax in many of their field recordings. These same recordings (notably for the Library of Congress) were central to both the American and British Folk Revival movements, and had a formative effect on the survival and development of the blues; for example Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters in 1941, in the latter’s own words the session inspired him to move to Chicago and pursue up a professional career in music.

Here is a promotional picture of Alan Lomax in 1940 posing with a Presso Shellac Lathe and microphone:

Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax with Presso Shellac Lathe

This form of recording is very immediate. You cut the record and within seconds you can play it back on the machine used to cut it. The differences between the recorded sound and what you just played are, however, striking.

To return to The Trouble EP, if you listen to Trouble in Mind (track 1) you can clearly hear the hum of the engine in the lower register under the music, while past the two minute mark a high pitched whine starts as the record reaches its centre (remember this is the cleaned up version). With a slow number like this it was also immediately clear that the recording process had tangibly increased both the speed and the pitch.

Finding limitations in music

This answered a question I had always had about early blues as a guitar player: Why are these records generally not in concert pitch?

This might seem like being picky, but when you are trying to figure out the arrangements by ear, it is very clear that many old blues recordings are not in concert pitch (which exacerbated by the frequent use of alternate tunings such as ‘open G’ and ‘open D’ in acoustic blues music makes them hard to work out by ear – you first have to figure out the tuning, and you can’t just play along). From my own experience the answer might be that the original player was in fact in concert pitch, but the recording process distorted the music.

Other sound artefacts are also in evidence. Listen to When Did You Leave Heaven? (track 3). You can clearly hear some ‘pops’ at the start, however, the clearest effect is a warbling, modulation of the pitch of the guitar and voice – known rather charmingly as ‘wow’. You can literally hear the record turning, stretching, and bending the notes.

This is an effect you can also hear in many old records. This track is easily the ‘worst’ in sound quality of the three: almost certainly because it was the quietest. This form of recording technology is poor at picking up sounds below a certain threshold.

Finally, in terms of frequencies, this kind of recording is the least effective at picking up sound in the regions where there is the most interference, that is to say among the low rumbling engine noise (peaking around 100 htz) , and amongst the high pitched hiss and crackle (peaking around 10-12k htz). This leads to the characteristic sound of these recordings, a little distant, eerie, and a little bit muddy.

For me personally, one of the most interesting things about recording this way, was that it prompted immediate thoughts of how one would adapt to these technical limitations in future recording sessions…

For example, I might make sure none of my tracks were more than 2.15. I would definitely sing louder in quieter songs. I might play less slow numbers as they speed up in the final recording process, and so on. I am 100% certain that many of the blues musicians of the 1930s had similar thought processes to these and adapted their own music to the recording process available.

Listen to Robert Johnson’s Kind Hearted Woman (this clip has both extant recorded versions):

In a brief 2 minutes 47 seconds Johnson squeezes in a guitar introduction, a solo, and a bridge, and varies his own singing with a falsetto section. The effect is incredibly dynamic.

You can bet your bottom dollar that this drastically compact form was not how he played the same number for a live audience – after all when you are being paid to play why not stretch it out a bit?

and finding advantages

So, given these limitations, why record this way? Why not just use modern equipment?

Well, how can I put this … it wouldn’t have that sound. In musical recording there is no such thing as empirically good or bad sound, it’s all about what is appropriate to the context. To me this sound immediately conjures up another era. The sound of this technology and these methods was an integral part of the sound of early blues, and had a formative effect on the sound of that music as it developed and survived for us to listen to.

After 20 years of playing the blues I have never felt happier listening to one of my own recordings of a blues tune.

When I have played these recordings to fellow blues musicians they were likewise instantly captivated … after all, it sounds just like those old records we all fell in love with ….

12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Dr Anders Ingram. Musician, DJ, and dancer, Anders is a familiar face on the European Blues scene. His new release, the Trouble EP, is out now on Bandcamp.

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