From Archive.org, the people who brought you virtual coffee table books, comes The Great 78 Project, a volunteer-powered effort to preserve early 20th Century 78 RPM and cylinder recordings by converting them to digital formats. This ambitious archive will eventually contain 3 million recordings, and is progressing at about a rate of 5,000 new uploads every month. As of today, the recordings number 126,000, an impressive library by anyone’s standards.
For those of you who don’t know, 78s were short records primarily made from wax and shellac, a brittle resin secreted by beetles. During WWII, shellac became scarce, so the shift was made from shellac to the more plentiful, more durable vinyl. Though longer recordings became the industry standard for the film industry, 78s remained the standard format for home audio until the 1950s, when the LP (long playing) 33 1/3 RPM recordings (and players) finally won out. As a result of that shift, many pre-1950s recordings were lost, and many others have become very, very rare. So the Great 78 Project is a real boon for vintage music lovers!
The recordings in the catalog are every vintage audiophile’s dream, and the process is thorough enough to make the fussiest of audio purists go all tingly.
“The utmost care has gone into preserving the original sound of these records, with a variety of digital transfers made with different vintage styluses to represent the differences in playback systems. The process also preserves all the original records’ crackle and hiss—sometimes the music seems to swim below the surface noise, which only enhances the effect of hearing, transported through time, music from 80, 90, and 100 years ago and more.”
I found some really remarkable recordings, like one of my faves, Anita O’Day, and these studio recordings by humorist Tom Lehrer, I’m even discovering new (to me) albums by artists I have long loved like, Up Swing, by Benny Goodman.
I also found some wonderful (and wonderfully raunchy) old recordings when I searched the novelty recordings section.
And here’s Art Carney singing!
You can hunt around for old and new favorites on The Great 78 Project website. Enjoy the rabbit hole!
(And here’s a tip I learned the hard way: If you’re applying filters to the catalog, right click the title you want to hear and open it in a new tab. The back button sometimes erases your filters and makes you start over.)