The 78 Project: Recording in a Forgotten Format

The modern studio, equipped with the latest microphones, mixers and amplifiers, allows the producer to easily capture recordings with clarity and minimal ambient sound. But for New Yorkers Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright, ambient noise is just one of the things they want to capture as they record modern musicians straight to 78 RPM records, on their 1930s Presto direct-to-disk recorder. The result is the team’s first Web series, The 78 Project.
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The modern studio, equipped with the latest microphones, mixers and amplifiers, allows the producer to easily capture recordings with clarity and minimal ambient sound. But for New Yorkers Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright, ambient noise is just one of the things they want to capture as they record modern musicians direct to a 78 RPM record, on their 1930s Presto direct-to-disk recorder.

After watching mastering engineer Mark Wilder use a Neumann cutting lathe, Steyermark, a film director, editor and producer, said he wanted to get his hands on a Presto recorder for his next film project: a video series showcasing the recordings of musicians on this old time machine.

Aided by Wilder, Steyermark acquired two nearly-functional Presto machines, and combined the parts to create a fully functional device. With writer and producer Jones Wright as his partner on the project, Steyermark began recording musicians in New York for the team’s first Web series, The 78 Project.

“We ask each artist to choose a song from public domain as well as record one of their original songs,” explained Jones Wright. “We have the artists go into the past and find a song they want to interpret and explore the intersection between the old music and their own music on 78s. We want them to hear their own songs on that format and find connections.”

Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright are the team behind The 78 Project.
To use the Presto recorder, Jones Wright said she heats an acetate disk under a photographer’s lamp to soften the material, and then places the disk onto the machine, aligning the cutting stylus against the edge of the disk. As the machine records, the stylus cuts into the disk, recording the track. Each 78 holds less than 3 minutes of audio—a factor that often adds an extra layer of immediacy to the performances.

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“It took a lot of experimentation to learn how to use it,” said Steyermark. “There was a lot of failure initially and it took some trial and error to perfect our method.”

But once the team got the hang of it, Jones Wright said the result was a completely original sound.

“First, it’s blatantly an analog recording—it has cracks and skips, a little bit of a hiss—but there’s also a sort of almost intangible beauty to that sound,” said Jones Wright. “You also get everything that’s happening in the room, like someone tapping their foot or a car going by; you can sense it and hear it in the recording. It’s impossible to replicate that in any other way.”

Steyermark said they try to avoid recording in studios, in order to capture all types of sounds.

“Each [web short] we do is an opportunity to give an intimate portrait. The record has its own story on how it came into existence,” Steyermark said. With the success of the Web series project, he said, they are working on a feature length documentary on a road trip through the eastern United States, recoding musicians on the Presto along the way.

“We stopped by in Philadelphia and did a recording, stopped in DC to visit the Library of Congress, recorded a banjo symposium,” said Jones Wright. The film is only 25 percent completed, and the pair plan to head west to Chicago, Kentucky and on to California, with the goal of completing the film by next summer.

“I feel like we’re just getting started,” said Jones Wright.

For more on The 78 Project, visit their Website at www.the78project.com and check out the film's Kickstarter Campaign at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/the78project/the-78-project-feature-length-documentary-film.

[UPDATE—October, 2012: The 78 Projectachieved its funding goal and work on its documentary continues.]