The Alan Lomax Archives

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Eddie Ciletti


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Not all humans are seduced by new technology. For some, maintaining a connection to loves past — such as turn-of-the-century cylinders and discs — makes sonic time travel possible. Seventy years ago, Alan Lomax went folk-song-hunting, dragging a disc recorder (quite literally) into the field. Rounder Records is slated to release the 90th master of the Alan Lomax Collection as part of an ongoing series that spans six decades. That's a lotta transfers!

Depending on the era, the media sources for Lomax's material vary from aluminum disc in the early '30s, acetate (on glass, metal or paper-based discs until World War II) and then post war, from paper- and plastic-backed tape to vinyl (if the original source was no longer available). Generally, the discs are stored (and transferred) at the Library of Congress, while the tapes reside at the Lomax Library Archives in Manhattan. Tape transfers are either done in-house or at The Magic Shop by Steve Rosenthal. Matt Barton, the archivist at the Lomax Archives, took copious notes on condition, timing or any problems that were noticed during the transfer.

Discs were transferred in stereo to allow more options during the cleanup process; for example, one groove wall may be cleaner than the other. Generally speaking, summing two disc channels to mono greatly reduces turntable rumble and can improve the signal-to-noise by 6 dB. But especially when considering the playback equipment used during the first-half of the 20th century, wear variations in the left and right groove wall can be so dramatic that it forces the engineer to choose one over the other.

To investigate some restoration methodologies, I spoke with Larry Appelbaum, Brad McCoy and Mike Donaldson at the Library of Congress' recording lab. With all of the available resources, they each view the process more like a recording engineer choosing a microphone than like scientists — even though their work is at times more like archaeology — especially when a challenging disc comes along. In that case, having stylus options can help to maximize the signal while minimizing the interference, made all the more challenging by listening “flat,” with no playback equalization. Sometimes, the process yields two or three transfers of the same material, with everyone hoping that one responds best to the least amount of processing.

“Many of the early Lomax recordings were made on a blank aluminum disc,” Donaldson explains. “Whether it was the fault of the machine or the operator, the grooves were, in some cases, extremely shallow. The discs are not cut, as an acetate disc is, but embossed; at least that is what I was told many years ago. These discs are susceptible to corrosion from moisture in the air or salt from fingertips, so many of them — from being handled over the years and from storage conditions before air-conditioning — have a bit of surface corrosion that sounds like a swish as the disc plays. Amazingly enough, an aluminum disc in mint shape can be hauntingly quiet.”

With restoration projects, cleanliness is essential. “Unless a disc has deteriorated in such a way as to possibly risk further damage by cleaning, a Keith Monks record-cleaning machine is used to remove surface and groove dirt,” states McCoy. “A cleaning fluid is first applied and then vacuum-removed, followed by an application of de-ionized water.

“There is no rule regarding stylus optimization, except to have a selection to choose from and time to evaluate them,” McCoy advises. However, even if the discs are clean, other problems can arise. “It can be hard to find a stylus that stays in a shallow groove,” adds Donaldson. “Sometimes, a microgroove stylus worked [0.5/0.7/1.0 mil]; otherwise, a 2.2mil truncated stylus was used. These are part of a whole series of styli made for us by Stanton. The earlier playback setup included a Stanton 500 cartridge, a Technics SL-1015 turntable and a Stanton 310 preamp set to flat equalization passing through a Neve console.”

Resolution is determined by the customer's needs. “For the past few years, we've been making 24-bit transfers for Matt Barton,” says Appelbaum. “[Barton] either brings his equipment down or we use our own Tascam DA-45HR DAT recorders. When it comes to file creation and digital preservation, our current standard is [at least] 96 kHz/24-bit.” But the analog side is also under scrutiny. “We're constantly upgrading our transfer equipment,” says Appelbaum. “For example, we are currently using the Simon Yorke turntable [with Vibraplane] and a KAB Souvenir MK12 phono preamp.”


After loading into a Sonic Solutions workstation, project mastering engineer Phil Klum's first task is to edit the entire project by closing gaps, cutting out unwanted chatter, pulling split pieces of a performance together and removing mic hits. In some cases, it's necessary to re-create something that has been damaged or cut in some way from the source, such as a guitar chord, a missed sung phrase or even a spoken-word section that may be badly masked by damaged media. In the beginning, Klum recalls, any one of these processes took an entire afternoon, but these days, the team can complete the task within three hours.

With the editing complete, Klum then determines what type of sonic restoration, if any, would be best for any given sound source. In the beginning, Sonic Solution's No Noise program was the primary solution. But after nearly 100 projects, Klum has taken many different paths, from varying types of EQ (analog and digital), using complex notch filtering, manual de-clicking, and alternative de-noising and broadband de-hissing techniques.

After any restorative processing — which, by the way, can take many hours just to test pieces, retry different algorithm settings, etc. — it's time to get to the other mastering chores, such as level, EQ, dynamics (if necessary) and the fine-tuning of edits, fades, etc. Klum comments that level adjustment is not only from track to track, but also within tracks, as he often encounters a song that sounds like the record level was radically raised or lowered, almost as though a knob was quickly moved during the recording. Other sections may have up/down level variations in increasing or decreasing amounts, as if the recordings were faded out and then back in, but at quicker speeds than you'd think a fade could be handled. He views such challenges as a sculptor smoothing a sculpture's rough edges.

When the project has advanced to the first reference level, Klum cuts refs for the entire team to evaluate and makes any necessary changes before cutting the master, which, in seven years, has gone from PCM-1630 (in the beginning) to Exabyte to PMCD. Exabyte refers to the DDP format used as a master medium to ship to the manufacturing plants. It was considered to have very few errors per tape. PMCD (pre-mastered CD) is a format owned by Sonic and Sony. Exclusive to Sonic, a PMCD can only be written on a Sonic DAW: PQ codes are burned into the lead-out of the blank disc. But that was then; many plants now accept CD-R masters as a matter of fact.

It may sound obvious but it's true: There's a fine line between removing unwanted noise and going overboard. Lowering the noise floor or a set of noises beyond a certain point can reveal other noises that may be untouchable. So, again, the goal is a happy middle ground.

“From the beginning, our concern was to preserve the original sources and their integrity by making it as easy as possible to hear what was originally recorded and documented by Alan Lomax, without going to extremes with regard to removing noise, sonic anomalies, etc.,” says Klum, summing up the team's philosophy. “The amounts of EQ and other processing have been employed only to ‘bring out’ what we feel was there originally. Whatever the anomaly, on tape or disc, our goal has always been to go just far enough so that the listener can appreciate — without altering — all of the work Mr. Lomax compiled.”

For more information about (and to hear samples from) the Alan Lomax Collection, go to or

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