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.