The early story of recording is more than just the history of an invention and an industry. Although the pioneers and entrepreneurs played important and fascinating roles, their work would hold little interest for us today had it not coincided with the unique artistry of Caruso and Melba, Chaliapin and Ponselle. It was the Golden Age of Singing and Prima Voce preserves this archive of great voices from the first half of the century in transfers which capture the immediacy of the original performances.
Prima Voce puts the performance first. Our aim in transferring 78s to compact disc is simple: to allow the full musical enjoyment of these recordings without the distraction of intrusive surface noise between the performer and the listener. This is achieved by a process which re-records rather than re-masters the original sound, a combination of the best of the latest and earliest technologies in sound reproduction.
Transfers made only from mint condition 78 rpm pressings manufactured from the finest materials of the time.
The Search for 78s
Not all pressings were created equal! We travelled the world to track down suitable 78s which could be added to the Prima Voce archive in preparation for transfer to CD. We worked with private collections as well as museums e.g. The St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. The experience developed from years of collecting proves invaluable because we knows almost instinctively which labels and types or periods of pressing are the most important, and furthermore we are able visually to recognise these characteristic features. When one is looking at over 500 records a day there is hardly the time to play every prospective purchase!
Sometimes it will make sense to buy a particular 78 even though several copies of the same recording exist in our archive, simply because the quality of the shellac or the way in which the 78 was pressed indicates a possible improvement in sound quality. We therefore often come to a transfer session with a choice of pressings and spend some time in choosing the copy to use. It is only by making this effort that we are able to afford the people who are listening to our series the chance to forget about surface noise and enjoy the performance.
Much time and effort are invested in each individual Prima Voce project long before we are ready to go into the studio and proceed with the transfers of the 78s. Ideas for new issues may precede the release of a CD by anything from a month to a number of years and can come from a number of different sources:
- a favourite singer of the people involved with the series
- collections within museums which are made available for use
- important voices which are under-represented in our series to date
- letters from other collectors pleading a case for a particular singer
From the moment at which we decide to concentrate on a particular artist, we will increase his efforts in finding the relevant recordings. Depending on the singer and the period of recordings, this task can take an extremely long time to complete. Even though our archive has been built up over many years, and contains more than 20,000 78s, one can always strive that little bit harder to find the cleanest pressing! Some projects may therefore take a little longer than others to plan. The issue of Nellie Melba (NI 7890) was something that had been on the cards ever since the series was launched in October 1989. As John Steane quite rightly points out in his note: "Assiduous collectors of the Prima Voce series may have wondered why there has been no Melba number before now. She is, after all, with Caruso, the most famous singer of what is still commonly regarded as 'the golden age'".
Once the records have been assembled we begin the first of what may turn out to be two or three listening sessions. For this the 78s are played on an original EMG Gramophone, known as Boris. It would be slightly impractical to assemble our specially constructed horn-gramophone every time we want to listen to a 78!
If the artist is relatively unknown, e.g. Vilhelm Herold (NI 7880), these sessions provide the opportunity to become familiar with their voice and recorded legacy. They are otherwise a chance thoroughly to remind oneself of the voices of more well-known artists and to place their recordings in the context of a career. Finally, and on a purely practical level, it is the stage at which the number of records is whittled down to a manageable size for transfer. This usually amounts to anything between 80 and 120 minutes of playing time depending on the condition of the records.
The final stages in our preparation are designed to make the transfer session flow as smoothly as possible. Each 78 needs to be pitched, i.e. the correct playback speed must be established. Every side then has to be cleaned using professional cleaning equipment and the wooden thorns that we use must be sharpened. Both of these tasks are extremely time consuming and tedious but they are essential in obtaining the best results!