- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

In 1953, Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five played a live radio broadcast from a club on Lexington Avenue in New York City. The performance, featuring the popular clarinet player and fellow jazz musicians playing some swing favorites, was recorded by the National Broadcasting Corp. on a lacquer-coated glass disk.
A fragile technology prone to cracking and chipping, the lacquer disc does not age well. Its deficiencies threaten to reduce Artie's mighty clarinet to a scratchy rasp.
Enter Peter Alyea. It's his job to make sure that the session does last forever as part of the historical record, capturing a particular time and place in America.
"A radio broadcast is a great window into the culture. Even the advertising reveals so much," says Mr. Alyea, a digital conversion specialist at the Library of Congress' Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division.
Sound engineers at the library, such as Mr. Alyea, are constantly working to preserve fragile bits of the historical record stored as audio files.
The library holds 2.6 million audio recordings, published and unpublished, on a variety of physical formats, from late-19th-century cylinders to eight-track tapes to CDs and digital audiotape. Many are one-of-a-kind snatches of sound.
Radio broadcasts make up about 30 percent of the audio collection and cover musical performances such as Artie Shaw's, but also newscasts during major historical events, old comedy and variety shows, and today's big musical hits.
Library audio staff follow two tracks with the original source materials, first selecting the most at-risk files for preservation and conversion to modern, more stable formats, such as a digital file stored on a computer.
The library also duplicates materials for the public, charging more than $100 per hour for the engineers' work. The sound engineers are not paid by congressional appropriations; they work on a revolving fund basis, generating billable hours that are paid by customers and other government agencies.
The work that goes into a disc, like the Artie Shaw recording, is indicative of the process for older works.
Depending on its condition, a 15-minute recording on a lacquer-coated disc can take as long as two hours to record to a new format, according to Larry Appelbaum, senior studio engineer at the library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division.
First, a sound engineer has to assess the recording's condition. Some are too-far gone to be played with today's technology, but they are kept on file in the event new techniques are developed that allow playback and recording.
Then the material has to be cleaned. With a 50-year-old lacquer-coated disc "you literally want to clean the grit out of the grooves," Mr. Appelbaum said.
An engineer also has to select a stylus through much of the early recording era there was no standard that makes the most contact and captures the most sound without causing distortion.
Then playback speed must be assessed. Just because a record says it should be played at 78 revolutions per minute, for example, doesn't mean it was recorded at that speed. Sometimes the most accurate sound comes out as low as 68 rpms, Mr. Appelbaum said.
A disc has to be centered on the turntable holes were often punched just a little out-of-whack and a tone arm weight must be picked that keeps the stylus in contact with the disk but that does not weigh too heavily and damage the product.
When that is done, Mr. Alyea or one of his four full-time colleagues can start recording onto a computer file.
He has the technology to improve sound quality, enhancing some tones while blocking out pops and hisses, but that is not done.
"We have a very conservative, very purist approach," Mr. Appelbaum says.
The work can be laborious but also fun and offers a peek into different eras of American history, Mr. Appelbaum and Mr. Alyea say.
Take the comedy variety show of Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, a comedy variety show broadcast from 1936 to 1955. Based on later television performances, Mr. Alyea thought that Mr. Bergen was neither funny nor talented. But when he worked to preserve some of the old radio broadcasts, his opinion changed.
"I was blown away by how cutting and sarcastic it was. The guy was really digging into people," Mr. Alyea says.
Listening to the recordings while preserving them is often one of the job's greatest rewards.
"Why do we do this? We love this stuff. We're drawn by the content, by the challenge and by the responsibility to history," Mr. Appelbaum says.


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