Making and Maintaining the Original Recordings
The interviews included in this presentation were recorded using what was at the time a state-of-the art-technology known as portable instantaneous or direct-to-disc recorders. These devices, as their name implies, were used on location to produce recordings which could be played back immediately after a recording session. The recorders were well suited for conducting field interviews since they allowed researchers to "go to the source" rather than arranging recording sessions where the equipment was located. In addition, instantaneous recorders bypassed the labor and equipment intensive processes of creating disc masters and their derivatives, which were required to make the "playable" versions of recordings from conventional equipment.
By the 1930s, many companies were manufacturing direct-to-disc recorders. The Library of Congress used recorders made by the Presto Recording Corporation and the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation. The Presto disc recorder helped to bring about the widespread use of recorded material in the news media. On May 6, 1937, a Presto recorder being field-tested by a Chicago radio station inadvertently captured the Hindenberg disaster. The resulting report was so compelling that the National Broadcasting Company waived its rule prohibiting the use of recorded materials (except for sound effects) and aired the report on 144 stations.
The devices recorded at 33-1/3 and 78 rpm and produced discs that ranged in size from six to sixteen inches in diameter. The discs were coated with an acetate lacquer and had a core base, which could be made from either glass or aluminum. They usually had three holes, which helped to secure the record to the turntable and reduce slippage. Needles were made from various materials including brass and steel.
Although the recorders were technically portable, their size and weight made transport difficult. The recorders main sections, the turntable/disc cutter and the electronic audio- settings panel, weighed more than 130 pounds combined. Fletcher Collins, who conducted several interviews in this online presentation recently described the Presto recorder he used in the following way:
"And a lot of them . . . I got with a borrowed Presto recorder from the Library of Congress. Before that I'd always had to write down the melodies by hand, which was tedious. The instrument itself was twenty-five pounds. The batteries were another fifty, I guess, an A battery and a B battery, and most of the places I went didn't have electricity so you had to lug all this stuff. It was an aluminum disc, it played at 78 [rpm], I guess. It played with a needle, like the old-time phonographs. And you could make your own needle with a good-quality thorn." (Courtesy of the Center for Documentary Studies and American Radioworks/Minnesota Public Radio)
Despite the challenges associated with using the recorders, the interviewers captured more than twelve hours of recordings for this online collection and many more hours for other Library of Congress collections.
Instantaneous discs are fragile and can be damaged by improper handling, too much use, or poor storage conditions. Additionally, the materials used to make the records, particularly acetate and lacquer, are susceptible to decomposition and over time extrude oils to the disc surface, creating a dusty white coating. Eventually, the disc coating dries out resulting in delamination or cracks. The discs used in this presentation were not immune to these problems. As a result, several were unplayable. Fortunately, in 1961, the collection was copied onto magnetic tape, saving some interviews that would otherwise now be irretrievable.
All of the discs in this collection required preservation work before and after digitization. In order to maintain the discs in a state as close as possible to their original condition, no attempt was made to enhance them, however, they were cleaned with a special solution and placed in archival sleeves. They are archived by the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) of the Library of Congress. Preservation procedures are found at www.loc.gov/preserv/care/record.html.