For most music lovers, the imperfections of an old recording, its crackles and nasally sound, are exactly what make it so charming. Like a Sepia photograph, the eroded quality helps imagine a far away time. A world before iPhones. With modern recording techniques and digital formats in particular, future generations won’t have this long-ago sensation when they hear the music of today. We have created the photo that never ages.
Which is why discovering new “old” music can be such a treat.
Our friend Spencer and his fiancée Andi thought of a wonderful surprise for the first dance of their upcoming wedding. Andi’s grandmother, who passed away last year, had been a jazz singer. There was only one known recording of her efforts, an album Andi kept in a plastic sleeve. The plan was to rip it to an mp3 so that the DJ could play it during the couple’s first dance, thereby blindsiding the family with the waft of a forgotten voice.
Andi’s record had no label sticker, it had three holes near the center, and most interestingly, it had several metallic dents on its side. After a bit of hunting, we discovered that this was no ordinary vinyl. It was something called an “acetate record.” Those shiny bits peeking through the black were actually glimpses of its aluminum undercoating.
The better known name for acetate is a dubplate, a type of test pressing intended for quality checks before mass-production. They were also used for promos and other disposable on-air spots. Why this record format was also the family’s sole musical heirloom is unclear. But it seems likely that the studio gave it to her as an option for future pressings (the equivalent of a rough mix CD in today’s world).
The problem with Acetate records is they have a very brief lifespan, useful for about 10 or 20 plays before turning to garbage. It was only after running a few tests that we learned how precious each drop of the needle would be. And judging by the quality of what we captured it’s fairly clear that it had already been played many more times than its design intended.
Nonetheless, we were able to rip it. And with that, it’ll stop eroding, its soul reincarnated in a digital universe. What you hear now is exactly how it’ll sound in 100 years.