The 78 Project at Rough Trade NYC for Record Store Day

Record Store Day is less than a week away. If you’re like us, you’ve had it circled on your calendar for months. It’s a great opportunity to score exclusive vinyl and support your local record store. If you’ll be in the NYC area on Record Store Day, come celebrate with us! On April 18th we’ll be cutting a record live with Sondre Lerche at the Rough Trade store in Brooklyn. It’s a thrill to be a part of Rough Trade’s fantastic Record Store Day event, and we hope you can be there.

More info and the full concert lineup are on Rough Trade’s website.

If you’re closer to Minneapolis, Pepito’s Parkway Theater is hosting a special Record Store Day screening of The 78 Project Movie. It’s part of a great double feature starting Saturday, April 18 at 6:00 pm. Tickets are available on The Parkway Theater website.

Record Store Day is the perfect time to crate dig at your local record store for your copy of The Original Soundtrack to The 78 Project Movie on vinyl if you haven’t already!

There’s Water Now: Watch and hear Victoria Williams’ “Bath Song”

Just on the other side of the steepest mountain in Echo Park, and many miles west of the desert cafe where we first met her, Victoria Williams invited us over for an evening of songs and record-making. The L.A. night was cold, but the house was warm and alive with some friends – including her dog Beau – and home-cooked food.

Victoria wanted what would be to be; she had happily followed Beau’s lead to the restaurant in Joshua Tree where we had also stopped on a whim, and as we set up that night, she was excited to find out what surprises “Bath Song” would bring at 78rpm. It seemed like a moment that had become inevitable since we left New York, wondering who we would meet, somehow thinking it might be her. The Presto clicked off, closing the circle, and our California road trip felt complete.



Our thanks to Gabe Noel for his beautiful musical contributions to this recording and to Robert for his kind and generous hospitality.

May Adventures Past and Present: Cannes and daring recordings in an alley, on air, and onstage

May has turned out to be a momentous month for The 78 Project, each year it brings opportunities and joys we can hardly imagine.  This year May finds us in France!  Thanks to our fiscal sponsors and wonderful supporters at IFP we are participating in the first year of the Cannes Cross Media Corner, taking place during this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Thinking back to last May, we realized we were on a similarly adventurous bent, as in just one week we had the chance to record with The Wandering in a New York City alleyway at night, to appear live on WNYC Soundcheck recording with Justin Townes Earle, and to share an incredible evening of music at City Winery with our friends and supporters, culminating in a live onstage recording with Marshall Crenshaw.

In anticipation of the exciting week to come, a look back at this exciting week from one year ago:


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Getting to Know the PRESTO – #8 – On Needles (and Pins)

Things that have been used as needles for record players in a pinch: Cactus needles (like the ones to the right at the Smithsonian which belonged to Moses Asch,) shards of bone, ivory and glass, hatpins, nails, safety pins, sewing needles, paper clips, and even lasers.

If it’s pointy, you can believe someone’s tried to run it across a record to see if some sound will come out.  But most of these impromptu options will ruin your record!  And, of course, when it comes to cutting a record, you can’t use just anything. If you want that disc to last, and sound its best, you’re going to need a gemstone.

We discovered at the Library of Congress – during our (sanctioned!) exploration of Alan Lomax’s own PRESTO – that Lomax used sapphire cutting styli.  We saw them on his order reports…pricey for the 1930s! Diamonds make great cutters, too. But for us only Apollo-made Transco rubies will do!

During our California road trip, we were fortunate enough to tour the factory where our ruby-tipped cutting needles are made, and as we said at the time, we were in awe of the careful process by which each individual stylus is brought to life.  Hundreds of tiny ruby slivers are fit one at a time by hand into individual metal settings (you can see them in the pictures on the right and below) then aligned and sharpened in 8 stages by carefully calibrated lasers and grinding and polishing stones.

The result? A tool as much a unique work of art as the records it will cut.  Hatpins need not apply.

 

Serendipity, Spoons, Hammers and Harmony: Our California adventure continues south and finishes strong

Something drew us into that café. With it’s squeaky screen door, two tiny tables and unassuming presence at the end of the block, it just looked like the place where the locals go.  We were passing through Joshua Tree on our way to Wonder Valley and had stopped in for a quick bite to eat.  When Victoria Williams walked through the café door, we could hardly believe it.  The luck!  She told us her sweet dog Beau had led her there, and we’re inclined to thank him here now.  We asked her if she’d like to make a record later that week and were thrilled to find that she did!

The next day we sped back west to meet an old friend for a very unique recording.  Coati Mundi had tested every spoon in his kitchen, he told us when we arrived at his Murrieta, CA home.  He’d chosen the perfect two, the ones that sounded the best in the bright-sounding room.  The version of “Billy Boy” he had cooked up was truly original, infused with Latin percussion and the strangeness of a memory he has of learning the song as a city kid sent to the country for some fresh air.  Over a home-cooked meal Coati reminisced with his sister about the Midtown disc-recording booths and rock concerts of their childhood.  And he even played us the very first acetate he ever cut as a young piano player in New York City.

A couple hours drive away in LA the next morning, we were scaling Topanga Canyon in search of Little Wings.  He met us in the road and guided us up to a steep parking spot, then helped us haul our gear down dirt paths and up homemade stone staircases to a lovely, sundappled little utopia where he spends half the year in a tiny cabin.  We assembled on the porch to record his mesmerizing take on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, and afterwards, he broke out his spray paint and stamps to customize the record sleeve.

Later that day in a cozy apartment in Studio City, Adam Levy & Gaby Moreno patiently practiced their smokin’ hot jazz while we disassembled the Presto to replace some tired tubes.  If it sounds scary, that’s because it was!  With no backup on hand, our Presto had to work.  Many fraught moments later, the platter was back on and spinning.  With the crisis averted, Adam and Gaby performed a sparkling version of “After You’ve Gone” that we’re sure will be one for the ages.

Gaby had been kind enough to let us use her just-bought vintage suitcase Newcomb turntable to play back their acetate, and after hearing its beautiful warm sound, we knew we had to get one.  She and our friend and master audiophile Tom DeSavia directed us to the Audio Specialist.  He turned out to be the vintage dealer of our dreams, outfitting us with the perfect new playback turntable.

We arranged to meet Victoria at her friends’ house in Echo Park a few days after we’d run into her in Joshua Tree.  When we arrived, she and Beau were waiting for us with great-sounding a spot all picked out in the beautiful front room.  Victoria’s friend Gabe Noel came over with his cello to accompany her as she sang “Take This Hammer” with her undeniable style and breathtaking grace.  Over a dinner of vegetables from the garden out front, Victoria and her friends gave us a wonderful feeling of home so far away from our own.

It had been almost two weeks since we’d arrived in California, and those two weeks had been monumental.  There was just one more record to cut to complete this most amazing trip.  We packed up our car, bid our lovely LA hosts Elli and Andy goodbye, and started north for Pasadena.

Tom Brosseau & John Reilly were waiting for us, warming up their voices and guitars.  They spun through an impressive repertoire of classic songs, wowing us at every subtle turn of their harmonies.  Settling on two perfect tunes, “Careless Love” and “Single Girl’, the duo made an acetate of true distinction marked by the beautiful sound of true friendship and collaboration.

Later that night, we saw them perform at the Sanctuary in Santa Monica along with their friends Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Willie Watson.  And who should we see there but Victoria! It was a wonderful way to end our week in LA, and we headed back North with our hearts full of happiness and our car full of unbelievable records.

Before catching our flight, we stopped in to say hello to our old friend Mia Riddle in Santa Cruz, then headed the rest of the way up the coast back to San Francisco, the place where this whole wild trip started.  A new year began while we were on the road filming this next chapter in The 78 Project Movie, and we feel the newness now, filled with potential and excitement, as we write this.  It’s off to an amazing start thanks to our friends and supporters and to this fantastic West Coast journey, now complete.

Ouds, a New Year, a Lacquer Factory and the Desert: Our first week in California

At the end of our first week in California, we found ourselves looking out across a vast expanse of sand and sky thinking back to our trip’s beginning, just one week ago in San Francisco.  It seems too beautiful to have all just happened in one week. But as Ben Vaughn reminded us, gesturing out beyond his property to the faraway mountains before we recorded with him at his house in Wonder Valley, “How can anything be wrong?”

This idyllic scene in the Mojave fell at the end of a week filled with wonderful hospitality and amazing serendipity. But we should begin at the beginning of the story of our California Journey…

Last week when we left New York, we were nervous. If you’d seen us at the airport, you’d have laughed or died. We checked 9 bags of gear, including the Presto in its iron-clad, perfect black road case made for us by Red Dirt. It might have only been a hundred yards from the car to check-in, but it felt like a mile. Thankfully the nice folks at Delta took our gear with good humor, and we were on the plane and on our way!

We arrived in San Francisco and watched in horror as the Presto came crashing down the baggage chute. After testing the gear and finding everything miraculously in working order, we set out for Santa Rosa to record our first 78 of the trip with The Easy Leaves. At the end of a gravel road, next to a chattering creek, Sage Fifield and Kevin Carducci live in cozy, adjoining shacks. We set up in Sage’s under twinkling lights and recorded the duo performing “Cotton Fields.” Our first record in California! And it was beautiful.

Novato became our home base, thanks to our generous friends Tony and Kay. And suddenly, New Years Eve was upon us. How better to spend the last day of the year than on a real adventure? we thought when Jaron Lanier called and asked us if we wanted to stop by his Berkeley home to see his profound collection of musical instruments from all around the world. We stopped into San Francisco to pick up Jody Stecher to join in the fun, and an hour later we were lugging the Presto over clarinets and under hanging ouds to make our final 78 of 2012. A momentous and improvised recording of Jaron’s own design.

A new year and what a way to start it! Recording with X’s John Doe in his home in Fairfax. After cutting a rendition of “Skip To My Lou” more badass than your average barn dance, John was all fired up to try out some of the 78s he had lying around the house. So we turned the turntable over to him for an afternoon of Almanac Singers and Lead Belly’s “Sinful Songs.” 2013 felt welcomed in right.

 

An hour away in Sacramento the next morning, Julie Baenziger of Sea of Bees awaited us with doughnuts and coffee and stories galore. Her voice, like her house, was filled warm sunlight and life as she sang “In My Dying Day.” And after we made her 78, she took us to see her favorite Sacramento sights, cafes and a recording studio and all the places a local would want to go. We felt so at home that it was hard to depart, but we had to put a whole state under our wheels that night, so we bid Jules goodbye and hit the trail.

Eight dark hours later we were in Southern California. We regrouped, backed up and repacked at our dear friend and 78 Project contributor Sarah Law’s house. The desert was calling and we knew we had to be ready. We had a date with our supplier!

We can say without hesitation that Apollo Masters in Banning, CA is the reason The 78 Project can exist. They make our 78 acetate discs and the cutting needles we use…and they are the only ones in America who still do. We were honored that they extended us an invitation to visit their record-making facility, which included a full tour of every part of the process. All we can say is that it was mind-blowing. Apollo is a small company that produces an incredible product. Each disc goes through so many stages of production and quality control, and at each stage a real human being handles it. We saw how they polish the metal discs and coat them in lacquer then punch the hole in the center after they’ve dried. We also saw how one woman carefully crafts the ruby-tipped cutting needles one at a time under a microscope. We left wide-eyed and in awe of the preciousness of each and every disc we cut!

Further east past the grapevines and cow pastures, past the golf courses and the Joshua Trees, at the end of a long dirt road and a long dirt driveway, Ben Vaughn was waiting for us. His famous Rambler stood sentry as we entered his property, and two vintage campers sat out back, ready to be used to make a 78. As the sun went down, we set up in front of the Silver Streak, and Ben played “Worried Man Blues” with a lilting, cheerful energy. No dust settled on the disc and his camper provided us with a refuge for our playback after the hot desert sun set and left the air chilled and dark.

Our L.A. adventures are still to come, and our California trip is only halfway done!  More from us soon…

Getting to Know the PRESTO #7 – Playing With Fire: We confirm the rumor that acetates are crazy flammable

Muddy and his cigaretteIt’s not so common anymore to see someone pull up to a studio mic with a cigarette dangling irreverently out of the side of their mouth. We’re not saying we miss that so much, at least not the lingering sour and musty smell that lived in our favorite clothes for all of the pre-smoking-ban years.  We’re just saying it was standard for rooms filled with working musicians to also be filled with smoke.  Knowing what we know now about the incredible danger of fire that comes along with recording onto lacquer discs (common practice throughout the ’30s and up to the ’60s), smoking anywhere near them seems pretty much certifiable.

Recently our friends at ARSC started a conversation about the combustible nature of nitrocellulose lacquer. It was a topic we gleefully joined in on, having plenty of firsthand experience in that department (see our Reverend John DeLore teaser below.) The conversation called to mind a story we’d heard a while back, but it took a deeply learned producer friend in New York to help us place it by reminding us that the story took place in The Beatles’ Abbey Road Studios.

Geoff Emerick wrote a fantastic memoir about his years as a recording engineer for The Beatles, and quite a few of his stories revolved around the highly flammable nature of the nitrocellulose lacquer discs that they used in the studio.  Apparently, when lacquers were cut, they would sweep the hair-like chip into a chute below the cutting room.  He compared it to the old system some barbershops used for clearing out the snipped hair, wherein they would sweep the hair into a hole in the floor and clean it up after a lot of it had accumulated in the basement.  Except that the accumulated lacquer chip from a few days of recording alone at Abbey Road would be enough to blow up the whole block.

In fact, it is even said that a popular studio prank would be to create tiny bombs out of nitrocellulose lacquer remnants which would be lit and thrown at a friend.  Because the chip incinerates instantly, it would burn out before it reached the other person.  Hopefully.

It sometimes happens that we don’t immediately burn our acetate chips after a shoot for The 78 Project.  Unable to throw away something so precious as the negative space from a human voice, we feel obliged to keep the chip for posterity.  But there is always a wary look that goes around the room as we decide who’s going to put the makings of a tiny bomb in their bag and carry it home.

 

Getting to Know the PRESTO #6 – Crossing State Lines: Early success and devastating failure as The 78 Project gets baptized in the Delta

Memphis, TN / Clarksdale, MS
September, 2010

[Note: Our PRESTO recording skills have been hard won, as the following story of our very first attempt at recording illustrates. Our first ever acetate recording streams below!]

Each acetate we cut tells its own unique history. There’s a personal tale of circumstance, hopeful anticipation and the potential for disastrous failure etched into every new set of grooves. The results are always uncertain, always unpredictable. We are continually reminded of the sheer physical effort and the miracles of technology that go into each performance captured on our lacquer discs. And we are grateful for all of the shared knowledge and inspirations we receive from friends old and new as we travel forward on our journey.

And so it was that we loaded up our PRESTO for its inaugural two-day road trip to Memphis one summer a couple of years ago. At the end of the long drive we found ourselves in Electraphonic Recording, the funky, vibey studio owned by our dear friend and frequent collaborator, Scott Bomar. It was there that we set up our PRESTO unit for the first time, hooked up our vintage Shure 51 mic, inserted an old cutting stylus of uncertain age, and pulled out a stack of recently acquired, 1960’s vintage lacquer disc blanks – unsure that our efforts could result in anything more than scratchy unintelligible sounds and untold frustration.

After a few level checks, the PRESTO recorder was engaged, and Scott proceeded to strum out a few bars of the Blues.  Brushing away the lacquer thread that was accumulating as the stylus carved its careful deliberate groove into the disc’s smooth black surface, it was clear that something miraculous was happening. We stopped the recorder and nervously played back our new record. The results were, as Scott would later exclaim, “magical.” We stood transfixed, tears welling up in our eyes, transported back in time by a sound almost a century old, yet a sound recorded only moments earlier.

A trip to Clarksdale the next day was not so successful. Amidst the swarming mosquitoes of a sultry Mississippi night, we set up our PRESTO on the porch, and watched horrified as our batch of lacquer blanks flaked and pulverized before our very eyes, driving one decades old cutting stylus after another straight to the discs’ aluminum core, to be ground down and shatter and crumble. Turned out time had not been so kind to those materials, our initial success in Memphis merely a fluke. What sort of fool’s errand had we embarked upon? Clearly we still had much to learn about capturing field recordings on acetate and a PRESTO.  But haunted by the ghostly sound of our very first sonic experiment, we left the birthplace of the blues, feeling that perhaps, like Robert Johnson himself, we had already sold our souls to the devil.

LISTEN: Scott Bomar’s Memphis acetate
The first ever acetate recording for The 78 Project – September, 2010

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