Time Machine: The 78 Project

March 6th, 2013 by Barry Stringfellow

This recording project embraces extinct technology to honor and pay respect to the past.

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Rosanne Cash sat pensively; interlocked fingers pressed to her lips, listening to the playback of her elegiac rendition of the American folk classic, “The Wayfaring Stranger.” Over the course of her storied career, Cash has spent countless hours in the recording studio, but this was the first time hearing herself recorded on a 1930‘s “Presto” direct-to-disc recorder.

“I feel like I know what it was like to be in Bristol in the 1920’s for those first Carter family records.” she said, a wistful quiver in her voice. “That was time travel.”

The Presto mobile recording device was used by Alan Lomax when he crisscrossed the back roads of America in the 30’s and 40’s, making legendary field recordings (which are now in climate-controlled safety at the Library of Congress) of artists such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and a young McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a., Muddy Waters. Invented in the late 1930‘s, the Presto records music directly to an acetate disc with a ruby-tipped stylus, physically carving the sound and creating, in effect, an aural sculpture of a moment in time.

Inspired by Lomax and a shared love of roots music, Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright created The 78 Project - a mission to record contemporary musicians of all style and strata with an almost extinct technology, while using 21st century technology to document and share their journey.

Prior to directing three independent films, including “Prey for Rock and Roll” and “One Last Thing” (which premiered at Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival, respectively) Steyermark was a sought-after music supervisor, working with top directors like Ang Lee, Jonathan Demme and Spike Lee.

Through some industry connections, he tracked down his first Presto shortly before meeting Wright. Somewhat appropriately, his quest was well off the beaten path. “I’d been looking around for a Presto for a while when a friend told me about this guy who was way out in Quoge, Long Island, Robert Van Dyke. He had a fishing shack packed to the gills with this equipment he gets from all over the world. It was incredible,” recalled Steyermark.

Wright also has deep roots in the music industry from her work in the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) marketing department where she wrote and edited ASCAP’s Playback Magazine, the ASCAP website and, as fate would have it, the ASCAP Field Recording web series.

After a meeting of the musical minds at an industry panel, Steyermark and Wright began exploring the Presto, learning the twists and turns that come with an antiquated and temperamental technology. “The Presto manual is only one page,” said Steyermark, “but the troubleshooting guide is four pages.”

Gradually, Wright and Steyermark acquired the spare parts, the acetate disks and the know-how to record in their native NYC, while capturing the proceedings on video. “We were still proving the concept to ourselves, and we worked with people who’d understand when things went wrong,” said Steyermark. “Pretty soon people were coming to us.”

What started as an experiment became a consuming passion for Wright and Steyermark. “Our goal with The 78 Project is to reconnect people with the nature of performance,” said Wright. “We have a little bit of an obligation to let musicians experience this bygone era.”

“The artists who’ve been doing it longer have the biggest emotional connection,” said Steyermark. “It reconnects them with what made them do music in the first place.”

Webisodes with artists like Cash, Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson soon gave The 78 Project a considerable presence on the Internet.

Last summer, The 78 Project went on a Presto pilgrimage – making stops in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Virginia, the Carolinas, Nashville, Memphis and Mississippi. Some sessions were planned, and others were spontaneous, like the session with Reverend John Wilkins in Mississippi where, in a situation unique to field recording, Wright was swarmed by red ants.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign in the fall, Steyermark and Wright started work on a full-length documentary and recently made a West Coast tour. After four sessions in San Francisco and one in Joshua Tree, they headed to Los Angeles.

On an unseasonably cold Southern California night, they unload their rented Kia outside a post-war apartment building on a tree-lined street that feels more like east coast suburbia than San Fernando Valley. Although this is the seventh recording session of the trip and their second of the day, they show no signs of fatigue as they lug their gear up two flights of stairs.

Wright, an energizing presence in vintage dress, well-worn granny boots and blonde hair in a bun, could play the role of pretty schoolmarm, albeit one with a nose ring and a pineapple tattoo. Steyermark, dressed mostly in black with a mid-winter NYC glow, sports a natty trilby chapeau.

They’re greeted by an ebullient Gaby Moreno at the front door of her apartment. In the spirit of the occasion, Moreno dresses in an azure flapper dress, sequined headband and two long strings of pearls.

Moreno, a rising star in the L.A. music scene with a passionate Latin following, is performing with guitarist Adam Levy, a recent L.A. émigré who Wright knew from the New York music scene. Moreno excitedly tells the recordists they’re performing the roaring 20’s classic, “After You’re Gone.”

One of the conditions of The 78 Project is that the artists play a song from the public domain, meaning songs published before 1923 – a requirement that deepens the connection to the past. Another condition is that the artists choose the location. Tonight, it’s a cozy living room. They’ve also recorded on porches and in parlors, in kitchens and back alleys, in a soaring marble chapel and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. “We don’t location scout,’ said Steyermark, ‘so it can get pretty interesting.”

Moreno and Levy rehearse on an overstuffed couch, pictures of Chick Webb, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald looking down from above. Moreno’s dulcet, soulful voice combines seamlessly with Levy’s baritone and his tasteful picking on a 1932 National Resophonic dobro. If you ever got Rikki Lee Jones and Leon Redbone in the same room, you might hear something akin.

Wright and Steyermark barely say a word to each other as they go through their road-tested set-up routine. Steyermark handles the video, Wright handles the audio, stopping several times to watch Moreno and Levy and marvel at their talent.

Wright warms the acetate disc under a heat lamp. The existence of these discs depends on one manufacturer, Apollo Masters in Banning, CA. “Apollo is the reason The 78 Project can exist,” Steyermark said later. “They make our 78 acetate discs and the cutting needles, and they’re the only ones in America who still do.”

Tension mounts as the take nears. Another condition of The 78 Project is that no matter what happens, there’s only one take – just like the old days.

“There’s something about the constraint of one take that brings out some amazing performances,” Steyermark said later. “A lot of times artists think it wasn’t a good take, then when they hear it back, the mistakes add to the character.”

Also adding to the character are the happy accidents that come with field recording. “It feels like when we record, everything around us just synchs up to the experience,” says Wright. “We’ve got hydraulic brakes, car horns, birds...”

“When we were shooting in Memphis I had my iPhone in my back pocket and I sat on it and Siri started talking,” says Steyermark.

“And she sounds really great,” Wright says with a laugh.

Wright places the warm disc on the Presto, gives an encouraging smile to the musicians, then gently lowers the stylus and starts brushing away the shavings with a well-traveled 1/2 inch paint brush.

The artists take a breath, nod the tempo to each other, and as Moreno counts them in, the Presto goes dark.

Steyermark halts the proceedings. He calmly tries some quick fixes, but to no avail. “Same thing happened yesterday,” says Wright, seemingly unfazed, giving her gum a workout.

When the Presto acts up (which is often), the recordists, like the musicians, have to improvise. In the many miles The 78 Project has covered, no session has ever been cancelled due to technical difficulty. But a few fits and starts and 20 minutes later, the Presto still isn’t cooperating. In the meantime, Moreno and Levy have been putting on a rollicking show to an audience of four. Unfortunately, her new in-laws from Germany have just flown in and are waiting for her at a nearby restaurant.

In a last ditch effort to save the session, Steyermark performs major transplant surgery.

“I was sitting in my car, about to go to the airport, when I decided to go back for the extra tubes,” Steyermark recalled after the session. ‘I pulled the glass tubes from our last machine. They were an afterthought.”

Afterthoughts installed, the Presto comes to life. Moreno and Levy perform a sparkling rendition of “After You’re Gone,” while Wright and Steyermark work in their own rhythm to capture it all. If you don’t count the bulb that blew on a 1970‘s camera light, 80 years of technology worked together seamlessly.

Wright holds up the acetate like a newly mined coin.

“Can I hold it?” says Moreno, like she’s talking about a newborn.

“Now I’m really nervous,” says Levy. “Playing was easy. Now we’re going to meet our maker.”

Wright plays the disc on a 78 phonograph player. Moreno and Levy marvel at the fidelity and tonal warmth coming out of the mono speaker.

“It’s the first time I ever heard myself on vinyl.” says Moreno, underscoring the tectonic shifts in recording technology. “How can you compare an MP3 to that?”

Barry Stringfellow is a freelance writer based in Hermosa Beach, California. He's contributed to Westways Magazine, Yankee Magazine and The Boston Globe, among others; he's also a Writers Guild of America member with numerous television and film credits.