Old time record enthusiast rips and posts thousands of 78RPM tracks

Wired's Listening Post blog has a great feature on Cliff Bolling, a 78RPM record enthusiast who has digitized and posted nearly 4,000 old vinyl tracks, complete with cartridge hiss and pops.

Like the early US recordings, many of these are fairly noisy. But to clean up the hiss and delete the pops using digital techniques would lessen the impact and appeal of hearing such old recordings played over a global network through tiny, great sounding speakers.

Tn450_rs_stylus As for the equipment he has used for this formidable project, Bolling told us his approach was decidedly old school, in fitting fashion. "I have an old 1950s Gerard turntable that I bought at an estate sale for two and a half bucks, and it's got a GE (General Electric) VR cartridge in it, which is just excellent for playing 78s."

The copyright situation surrounding some of these songs is as murky as their sound quality. But as with the music's political content, Bolling said he has yet to receive a copyright-related complaint about the recordings being online. Everyone who has come across the recordings seems happy that they've reappeared, or at the very least, doesn't care one way or the other -- somewhat refreshing, in these times of copyright lawsuits and name calling.

One Man's Quest to Digitize and Publicize Rare Vinyl


  1. I dunno, some of the digital noise reduction stuff is amazing wrt how much it preserves. Those tools, however, generally cost thousands of dollars.

    Nonetheless I don’t buy the argument that all the ticks and pops and hiss makes it more impacting. It’s not that impacting if you can’t hear the performance, and like I said, a modest application of a Waves X-Noise plugin would give you the best of both worlds – less hiss and none of the original performance lost.

  2. I’m using DownloadThemAll to efficiently get the archive of MP3s. Unfortunately, so many of them are getting the aforementioned Yahoo Error 999. This archive really needs its own bittorrent.

  3. I think it probably has to do with his site being publuished on Boing Boing and Wired.

    No doubt the deluge of the curious has swamped the servers.

  4. All those pops and hisses may add a feeling of “old” but it’s just noise and is not information that can be used. The music is the important part, not the damage to the original record. I’m all for the transcription process, but if you’re going to take all that time to do so, you might as well clean the sound up. And if you really want to, you can add your pops and clicks.

  5. (Comment from Andrew Hickey – http://andrewhickey.info )

    Actually, they’re not vinyl tracks. 78s were produced on shellac – only when 45 and 33 1/3 RPM microgroove records came in in the 50s were they made on vinyl.

    For those who want stuff that’s even older, archive.org has a wonderful collection of MP3s of not only 78s, but Edison wax cylinders, dating back to the 1890s…

  6. Hey. I have one of those GE Variable Reluctance cartridges here on my desk.
    I was looking into the market for 78 RPM records recently when a good sized stash of them was discovered in the estate of a relative. According to dealers and collectors that I talked to 99.5% of 78’s in existence are virtually worthless because they hold ephemeral pop music that nobody wants to hear any more. A dealer told me he would pay $30 for 300 78’s and expect to throw away 298 of them and sell the remaining 2 for $25 each. What is of interest to collectors on old 78’s includes Rockabilly and early Rock and Roll.
    As with other collector infested realms of popular culture, until you know absolutely everything about it you know nothing at all, and that’s where I am.

  7. I’d much rather have the original recordings, pre-processing.

    Compare noise reduction 30, 20, 10 years ago to what’s available today.

    When the originals are archived for posterity, better noise reduction that comes out over the decades can be used on the original source material, not irrevocably harmed version created with tech current to the date of the archiving process.

  8. This is really great. So far i’ve only snagged a handful of Spike Jones songs, but i’m certain i’ll be back for a lot more as time permits.

    the pops and hiss can sometimes be a frustration, especially when its as loud as the music itself, but it does add a certain great feeling to hearing it for the first time, like digging up treasures at my grandmother’s house and giving them a spin on her Victrola. In the “listening experience,” i think it adds more to the “experience” than the “listening” itself, but i think there’s something to be said for that.


  9. I agree that these should be archived without processing to avoid loss of data. If you don’t want the clicks and pops, process them before playing.

  10. Not to steal this dude’s thunder, as what he has done is waaaaaaaay cooler than what I do, but I do a similar sort of thing with vinyl from the thrift store on my blog foundvinyl.net.

  11. Another similar biz working with old time recordings, everything from wax cylinders to 78’s, is Dust To Digital.
    From their site:
    “Dust-to-Digital’s mission is to produce high quality cultural artifacts, which combine rare, essential recordings with historic images and detailed texts describing the artists and their works.”

    I highly recommend the lovely boxed set ‘Goodbye Babylon’, beautifully remastered with just a squeeze of hiss and a pinch of pop.

  12. I believe that many 78’s were manufactured from cellulose acetate or shellac with some sort of underlying support medium.

  13. I’d much rather have them put up uncorrected so I can do it myself. most programs I’ve heard both can’t get rid of the worst pops and frequently kill large amounts of the sound to get rid of the noise- the result usually sounds like a cassette on a cheap stereo.

    to do it right is the same as restoring an old, creased photo. get a top program (I use logic for audio and photoshop for photos) and clean it up by hand. takes lnoger by far but it tends to work a lot better.

  14. Wow – Cliff Bolling had some great jazz recordings of his own out in the 60’s and 70’s

  15. “Call me precious I don’t mind
    78s are hard to find
    You just can’t get the shellac since the war
    This one’s the Beltona brand
    Finest label in the land
    They don’t make them like that any more”

    — “Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands” by Richard Thompson

  16. Great site, but since a couple of hours access has been replaced by a Yahoo “sorry, unused” error page

    “The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.”

    Anyone know what’s going on?

  17. It might have overflown… I got some 2600 mp3 plus the Arabic, Japanese and Greek recordings and then the yahoo page misconfiguration thing appeared

    Too much traffic from too much publicity I guess.

    I have to say that the recordings are awesome. I love ragtime jazz.

  18. I don’t mind the concept of not digitally cleaning up the noise, but I’d rather hear them all recorded on a high quality turntable, not a vintage one. That just compounds the problem.

  19. This really should be done on a high quality turntable with a new cartridge. Maybe that spoils the fun or seems less than authentic, but if you’re going to record this many records for posterity, you should probably get the best quality you can. Might also want to look into the sampling rate and bit rate and pay attention to what preamp you are using. Playing these 78s on an old player with an ancient cartridge is going to slowly damage the records.

  20. Er, it would be a Garrard turntable (not Gerard), and typically 78s would be shellac, which is why they shatter when you drop them.

  21. I’m a 78 hound myself… I’ve got a couple thousand and still more follow me home every week. I’ve transcribed hundreds to digital, but this fellow makes my efforts pale in comparison.

    I absolutely LOVE what I’ve downloaded so far… I found out about the site over a month ago and now have hours and hours of new music to add to my burgeoning collection of 78 recordings.

    He’s doing it just as I would: warts and all. To be sure, too much noise can be a problem, but to someone with shellac in their veins, the pops and ticks are all part of the charm. Taking them all out would be like color-correcting the Mona Lisa, IMHO.

    Unless you spend big $$$, most noise reduction software takes too much life out of the recordings for my taste.

    Do you whiners about surface noise, MP3s and such have ANY idea how much effort is required to transcribe 78s and then share them online? Bandwidth costs $$$! Not to mention that there’s a not insignificant amount of time involved to transcribe, edit and title each track. Christ, this guy’s making cool old music alive again and available to everyone for FREE… just what the hell do you want? Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!

    My biggest fear: that the site will be killed from too much love, that busybody a**holes will ruin it through legal meddling, that the site’s creator will give up because it’s all too much a pain in the ass for him. Something tells me it would take a lot for that to happen, he’s clearly very committed to this project.

    In closing, I’ll say that musically, those old records often blow modern stuff away in terms of composition, melody, arrangement and downright soul and grit. Not to mention that the supression of a sophisticated adult culture in music over the last 40 years is made all too glaringly apparent.

    I urge anyone who loves music to turn an ear toward older recordings. It might take a while to really get it, but it’s worth the effort.

  22. Comments about fidelity aside — this is a labor of love, and people should remember that.

    It comes wholly out of one person’s impulse to preserve the past and continue to make it available. The fact that these recordings aren’t available other than by this kind of effort highlights a market failure — there is an enthusiastic long tail market for these kinds of recordings, but the larger companies who own the rights in these recordings don’t want to mine the long tail, their model tells them to go after the low hanging fruit. The smaller companies have gone out of business and those works are essentially orphaned.

    I scanned the list of artists before Cliff Bolling’s site went down and many of these recordings are still within copyright if they were renewed by the owners. But ownership of copyright contains no obligation to preserve the owned materials.

    The copyright issues with these recordings (problematic to get permission, risk of criminal or civil penalties for infringement by ‘making available’) are no different from the copyright issues posed by Google’s initiative to digitize the contents of large libraries without seeking prior approval of the copyright owners of individual works. Google is essentially doing the same thing without getting prior permission from owners, by running a ‘contact us and you can opt out’ system. Copyright does not currently provide for this. It will be interesting to see whether the risk Google has taken with respect to copyright infringement is reflected in new copyright laws (such as the proposed Orphan Works copyright legislation).

    Carol Shepherd, Attorney
    Arborlaw PLC

  23. Okay. Some of the stuff is in copyright. If they object, he can take it down. But music that has someone to object on its behalf is music that still exists somewhere. Until you put it out there in public, you can’t know which recordings are orphans.

    Considering how much music has been allowed to go out of print, I say anyone who digitizes and disseminates so many early recordings is a public benefactor.

  24. I’ve suggested archive.org for bb consideration in the past. They have a wondrous hoard of 78s, including a lot of “party records” by Benny Bell, Ben Light, Cliff Edwards, and others, as well as great stuff from Billy Jones & Ernie Hare, Billy Murray, Ada Jones, and so many more.

    Tinfoil.com also provides wonderful 78 rips. Redhotjazz delivers RealAudio you can listen to at the site of (I think) hundreds of bands prior to about 1928.

    Tangentially related, a Canadian man named Terry Smythe scans piano rolls to MIDI format, and has thousands (around 5,000 by now), and keeps adding more.

    I have my own bunch of 78s. I’m either going to buy a new turntable for them or keep using the one I got 25 years ago for $15, which I have been mildly dissatisfied with recently. I’m starting to think maybe it’s not all that bad after all; I just have to thump the wire to get the connection started, and after that it’s fine. Maybe a little reedy.

  25. Thank you so much to other commentors & contributors for posting links to other, similar archives. This will keep me busy for years. :D

  26. They should work if the turntable can do 78 – my old turntables only do 45 and 33, and they are thirty years old themselves.

  27. If you have SoundForge or something similar, it’s possible to record a 78 at the 45 speed and then adjust the recording. The problem is that the needle isn’t made for the same kind of movement, so you won’t get the most out of it. It’s better than nothing, of course. It might also hurt the needle, as the ups and downs of 78s are (I believe) more pronounced than later formats. I only used it for a sort of emergency recording of an ancient and fragile one-of-a-kind home recording of my dad.

    It reminds me a little of when I found my late grandfather’s wire recorder and a spool of wire that may have had his voice on it. Grandma feared that something bad might happen if I tried to play it, so I let it be, and some time later, the recorder and everything else were probably given away at a yard sale. Nothing was ventured, and nothing was gained.

  28. @31 St Vincent
    To be sure, too much noise can be a problem, but to someone with shellac in their veins, the pops and ticks are all part of the charm. Taking them all out would be like color-correcting the Mona Lisa, IMHO.

    If the Mona Lisa were crusted over with centuries of grime I’d be all in favour of cleaning to restore her original beauty. Same argument was originally made against cleaning the stained glass windows at Chartres, but once they were restored the brilliance was amazing. This was what the artist/artisans had intended!

    So I wonder if we’re sentimentalizing the pops and static, and forgetting what the artist really wanted.

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