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The 78 Project seeks to recapture sounds of a bygone era

Lavinia Jones Wright and Alex Steyermark take a 78 rpm record and gingerly place it on the turntable. They drop the phonograph needle, and a tinny, haunting sound emanates from the scratchy spinning disk.

Only, the disk doesn't come from the 1930s or '40s, the heyday of the 78 record. Wright and Steyermark just made it, and it captures the sound of a contemporary band performing in a New York back alley.

"We always play it back for them," said filmmaker and producer Steyermark. "It's a very cathartic moment."

"It sounds like your voice coming back from the past," said writer and producer Wright.

In 2010, Steyermark and Wright got their hands on a couple of Presto recording machines from the 1930s, similar to the 78 rpm record recorders used by folklorist and music archivist Alan Lomax. They decided to use the machines to make modern recordings of modern artists, but performing songs from the past.

"We asked them to pick a public domain song because that gets us back far enough to a group of music that's more primordial," said Steyermark. The project also allows the artists to get in touch with America's music history.

They're calling the journey The 78 Project.

So far, Wright and Steyermark have recorded with the likes of Rosanne Cash, Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson and Mary Chapin Carpenter. They have set up their Presto recorder for bands from Africa and recorded virtually unknown musicians in alleys, public parks and kitchens.

Artist reactions to hearing the one-take recordings can be quite emotional, Wright and Steyermark said. Cash, daughter of the late Johnny Cash, likened the experience to what the Carter family must have experienced when they recorded in the 1920s.

Despite the crude technology and low-fidelity sound quality, the performances can be surprisingly powerful. Carpenter, recorded on her tour bus on a 90-degree day with the air conditioning turned off to keep from interfering with the recording, turns out a chilling performance of "The Water is Wide" that can make the hair stand up on the back of a listener's neck.

Most of the recordings have some kind of flaw from the recording process that seems to add to the experience rather than detract from it. Buses may be heard driving by during a session, or extraneous voices or sounds of wildlife may creep in. During one recording session, a passing subway train literally bounced the recording machine, creating an audible skip in the finished record.

"Because it's a one-take format, it really paints a picture of what was happening in the room at the time of the recording," Wright said.

Steyermark and Wright record with a single microphone from the 1940s, plugged directly into the recording machine. Musicians are arranged in front -- experience and trial and error have taught the pair the best setup -- and Wright drops a ruby recording stylus onto the spinning laquer-covered, aluminum disk.

Once the three- or four-minute recording is done, they play it back once for the artist, then plug a turntable into a computer and transfer the sound. No mixing, no manipulation and no attempt to improve the sound quality.

"We're more into archiving what's on the record," Wright said. "The challenge of the transfer process is to transfer it in much the way it was recorded."

Steyermark and Wright are also making a documentary about The 78 Project, which explores their journey around the country making records, their experiences with the technology and the history of American music. The film debuts at the SXSW Film Festival on March 7.

Although the 1930s technology used to make the 78 recordings in the project is pretty simple, there are lots of things that can go wrong. Steyermark has two Presto machines partly to make sure at least one is working.

"The format and the process can be very challenging," Wright said. As the ruby cutting stylus records sound onto the aluminum disk, it creates a thread of laquer that streams out from the needle like the strand of silk from a spider's web. Wright must furiously brush the surface of the record with a soft paintbrush to keep the strand from wrapping itself around the cutting needle and spoiling the record.

Wright and Steyermark now have dozens of field recordings from all over the country. Thirteen of them have been released on "The 78 Project: Volume One," which is available as a digital music download or on vinyl. The record is available through retailers like Amazon, at larger record stores or from Wright and Steyermark's website, www.the78project.com.

Other archived recordings, video of recording sessions and other information is also available on the website.

"It's sort of a deceptive simplicity," Wright said of the recording process. Steyermark said that of the original four-page instruction manual for the Presto recorder, three-and-a-half pages are devoted to troubleshooting what's wrong with the machine.

Although the pair has had its share of recording glitches and problems, "We've never had anything [recorded] that was a total disaster."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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