The massive white buildings of Capitol Hill in Washington DC house some of the most dreamt-of pieces of recorded music history in America. This week, we had the incredible opportunity to visit them. We have never experienced anything so breathtaking as being led through these collections of our nation’s greatest folk music treasures.
Todd Harvey, the curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress, pulled some documents and artifacts for us to see including acetate sleeves containing handwritten tracklists from Lead Belly field recordings, expense reports from Alan’s expeditions, original Mississippi Fred McDowell tapes and – here’s where our hearts stopped – one of the Lomax’s PRESTO units. Alex was given permission to start putting their PRESTO back together with parts he found in a compartment underneath. Lavinia was allowed to dig her hand into the unit under the platter to pull out used needles that had been thrown down there during the Lomax’s trip.
Jeff Place at the Smithsonian’s Rinzler Archives gave us a tour of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Highlights included Moses Asch’s microphone, Woody Guthrie’s artwork, letters from Lead Belly, a staggering folk record collection, and decades worth of acetate and tape field recordings. Our last stop was to meet the fine folks at Smithsonian Folkways who are hard at work digitizing and releasing music from the collections. They laughed when they found out we were going the opposite way with our recording project.
A full set of photos from the trip is up on our Facebook. It was the most exciting two days of our lives. We’re still recovering.
With every acetate we cut, we’re understanding more and more how miraculous it is to be able to capture and replay sound. Portable and accessible recording devices changed the lives of Americans in the 1920s and 30s. And one of the most important reasons they did, was that machines like our PRESTOs changed the way that radio broadcasts were made.
Before TV (but long after broadsheets) most Americans got their news and entertainment from their radios. 1920s radio shows were a far cry from the phone-prank-laden shock jock-hosted sound effect parades you hear during drive time today. Back then every round of applause or word of warning had to be made in the studio in real time.
But radio broadcasters realized the possibilities of field recorders right away, and dove right in, using them to create all kinds of messages for delayed broadcast. These “air checks” would include intros and outros for popular radio programs, news reports, recurring features that required content from outside the station, political messages, public service messages and more. It was the birth of syndication. Just imagine the faint crackle of record spinning every time you hear Ryan Seacrest start the Top 40 countdown…we have PRESTO to thank.
LISTEN: Kentucky Governor A.B. Chandler for the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936
LISTEN: January 27, 1937 aircheck of WSM/Nashville’s coverage of the great Ohio River Flood
These clips are from the archives of WHAS, LKY Radio in Kentucky. Radio geeks can hear dozens more vintage air checks on their website.
We’ve always felt that the PRESTOs seem like military gear. Whether it’s their army green casings, their utilitarian bulk or their striking resemblance to the machines you see people frantically shouting distress calls and orders into during epic battles in movies about WWII, they have always seemed to us to be battle-ready.
From recorders to radar
We’re only doing battle with the sounds of sirens and some light weather concerns when we take our PRESTOs out these days, and (knock wood) we’re yet to have to send out a serious S.O.S. from a shoot, but during WWII, the company’s technology really was employed for missions of a life-or-death nature.
Can you hear me now?
In the early 40s PRESTO landed defense contracts to develop and manufacture military technology. Their expertise in crafting durable and portable sound equipment made PRESTO uniquely qualified to build radar rigs and navigation gear for the U.S. Navy. And their proximity to the New York harbor made them ideal for the job of installing submarine-detecting sonar rigs to protect the city’s substantial naval reserves.
PRESTO wins the pennant
Their contributions to the war effort did not go unnoticed. PRESTO was awarded the prestigious Army-Navy “E” Award, an honor presented to a company during World War II for excellence in production of war equipment. PRESTO’s plant got a pennant to hang, and each and every one of the employees in the plant at the time the award was earned was given an emblem. Then it was time to get back to the music.
Another kind of award for valor
The shiny black surfaces of our blank acetates are mesmerizing. It’s easy to get stuck staring into one fresh out of the box. Fact is, though, as stunning and profound as the acetate is, it’s only skin deep. The core of these records is solid aluminum.
If you set the tension on the PRESTO’s cutting head incorrectly, you run the risk of your needle slicing straight through the acetate layer and hitting the aluminum core. Not only will the recording become unusable, but you will also waste your (expensive) needle.
During World War I & II, aluminum was essential for building airplanes, ships and weapons. This demand for raw elemental resources came at the height of PRESTO popularity, when the demand for recordings of American folk culture was also starting to take hold. So the PRESTO company offered an incentive program for broadcast companies and recording studios that were dealing with huge quantities of lacquer discs. The company would pay $.15 per used disc when they were returned in bulk. While it kept the company out of competition with the government over aluminum, this offer also led to the destruction of thousands of recordings from the 1940s.
But you can’t make airplanes out of glass.
competitive PRESTO hauler
Of the many ironies that make us proud PRESTO owners, the handle may be the silliest. Yes, we understand the joke. Field recorders have to be portable. But there is a striking difference between “not bolted down” and “easily carried in one hand.” Each of our PRESTOs weighs about 50lbs and bears a carrying handle that looks borrowed like a functionless fashion accessory from your average 1950s suitcase. We are thinking about holding a PRESTO-hauling strong man contest, but we don’t want to put our poor recorders through the wringer.
Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax took out the backseat of their car and removed the divider between the backseat and the trunk to fit all the gear they needed for their multiple cross-country trips.
recording equipment in the back of a truck ca. 1930s
That’s pretty impressive, but we heard that some field recorders during the 1930s would use de-commissioned ambulances to haul their PRESTOs and blank acetates.
We’re not getting an ambulance, it seems a tad dramatic. But maybe they should keep an ambulance standing by for all the heart problems the PRESTOs can cause people out in the field.
The 1930s PRESTO Model “K” Recorder we use is a beautiful piece of vintage machinery, masterful in design and functionality. It functions not only as a single mic direct-to-acetate audio recorder, but also as a public announcement system, a dubbing device, a source of fascination, and quite often, a source of frustration. Below is the first installment of our “Getting to Know the PRESTO” series, in which we invite you into the inner workings of the machine that put us on the roller coaster ride that is making a field recording record.
Alan Lomax has said that a large part of his training before embarking on his first field recording trip was learning how not to be afraid of the PRESTO. We at The 78 Project know exactly what he means. It’s a fine line between a beautiful, even groove filled with the earth-shattering sounds of a live musician singing their heart out, and a wobbly, uneven, catscratch. We’d like to pat ourselves on the back for (most of the time) feeling like we’ve got it under control, just like Alan learned how to be the boss of the PRESTO all those years ago. But the possibilities of things that could go wrong outlined in our original PRESTO manual are the stuff of horror movies! Well, very niche horror movies for people afraid of making bad records. Here’s the first of some of our favorite selected nasty outcomes for the unlucky field recorder:
Thread Becomes Tangled in the Needle
As it cuts, the PRESTO throws up a thread about the thickness and texture of human hair. That’s the negative space from the sound! But not only is it INCREDIBLY FLAMMABLE, it can also become lodged under the cutting needle if it isn’t constantly guided away with a brush. You want to ruin the shirt you’re wearing? Try being the one holding the brush as the record spins. Guaranteed to make you sweat.
PRESTO LORE #1
One of the earliest documented uses of PRESTO recorders for delayed radio broadcast was of the Hindenburg disaster in May of 1937. Reporter Herb Morrision and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been invited to record interviews with passengers embarking from the voyage.