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.
Hearing your voice made ghostly by a machine from the past can do strange things to a man. When The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne updated the classic American murder ballad “Omie Wise” for The 78 Project, we warned them that the chip left over from the needle carving a groove into the acetate record was extremely flammable. Ok, maybe we also hinted it would make a mighty beautiful flare. That’s not to say we condone setting the streets on fire. Or take credit for it. John and Kara made the magic, we just remember it.
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.
A generous spirit like Laura Burhenn’s shines brightest when surrounded by friends. So when The Mynabirds frontwoman came to Brooklyn to record for The 78 Project, we invited a crew of fellow musicians and neighbors over for a backyard party. The wine flowed, the piano found its way out onto the patio, and Laura’s voice went deep into acetate.
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.
Exactly a month ago we spent an afternoon in the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with Dawn Landes. She sang, we put the needle down, the rest is history…yet to come.
Each musician has an extraordinary moment to take one microphone, one authentic 1930’s PRESTO direct-to-disc recorder, and one blank lacquer disk anywhere they choose to make a recording that defies space and time.