Like many audiophiles I have appreciated the recent surge in the popularity of vinyl recordings. There is not only a marked difference in sound quality but there is also something satisfyingly tactile about placing the record on the platter and positioning the tonearm, triggering for yourself the moment the music begins. Putting an audio CD in the slot and watching the machine suck it in or tapping an icon on your phone just doesn’t have the same vibe.
That said, there is an even older format than vinyl that we are not very likely to see come back in the same way – beetle resin. That is to say – shellac.
That’s right – beetle resin. Shellac was used for a variety of things in it’s heyday from furniture and violin finishes, to fingernail polish, to electrical insulators, to.. well, records. If you have ever watched an old movie and seen someone break a record to stop it from being played again, it’s very likely it was a shellac disc because they were quite fragile and shattered quite nicely. Some of you will point out that vinyl breaks as well, and while that is true it just isn’t as easy to do as with shellac and in movie making you go with what works consistently.
The records ran at 78 rpm which is why you most often hear them referred to as 78s rather than “shellacs” and their fragility plus the fact they are made from beetle secretions is why you’re not likely so see this little piece of nostalgia on the shelves at Best Buy® any time soon. That doesn’t mean there is something wonderful happening with them however.
I recently became aware of The Great 78 Project, and effort by the Internet Archive, George Blood L.P., and The ARChive of Contemporary Music to preserve for posterity as many 78s as they can, physically and digitally.
The digitization work is being done by George Blood L.P., and will be made available to the public for download – FOR FREE! Great news for audiophiles and soundscape designers everywhere.
For the techies among my readers, I would like to point out that this is not easy because unlike their vinyl descendants, shellac records were not all created equal. Other than the fact they all rotated at 78 rpm (more or less) there were differences in manufacture from one publisher to the next, including diameter, groove size, spiral spacing, and shellac formula (some were softer than others so too heavy a tonearm might damage the groove). For the most part shellac records were designed to be played on the machines manufactured by the publisher of the music. They didn’t want you playing other company’s records on their machines and if you wanted you play their music you needed their machine. Kinda like Apple®.
As you can imagine this makes getting an accurate digitized copy challenging because it’s hard to tell exactly what the recording was supposed to sound like. George Blood met this challenge by, among other things, creating a turntable with four tonearms, each with a different size stylus. The full story on the digitization process can be found here.
The Great 78 Project is out to preserve as many 78 recordings as they can, not only sourcing them from artists and collections at various museums but they want your 78s as well. You can donate your old 78s to the project or they will advice you on the best way to digitize your collection and then you can upload the digital files to the project for inclusion.