TIME ENOUGH AT LAST: 2020
(Or, "How I Spent My Pandemi-cation")
The Renovation Remasters Raison d'Être
The hiatus imposed by the global pandemic has afforded me and my colleagues in the music business many months of time at home. Yet amid the devastating and debilitating effects of unemployment, there's been a single boon. For years, I've looked around at the massive archive of printed matter and antiquated media that occupy valuable space in our apartment, and thought about much more useful it would be if it were accessible - and searchable - on my computer. I've been saying "One of these days..." for far too many of them.
Over the past year, there's been "time enough at last", to quote science fiction writer Lynn Venable and later Rod Serling. My "pandemic preservation project" began with the scanning of the contents of three large filing cabinets and adjacent file boxes, which contain sheet music, musical arrangements, memorabilia, and many hundreds of photos. Eventually the project grew to include the digitization of my 78 RPM record collection.
I had actually begun the process of converting my CDs, LPs, cassettes, VHS tapes, and DVDs to digital files about fifteen years ago. That project took about ten years, but I could only devote time to it when I was at home, of course. Next, I started scanning all my sheet music, and the 78s were next on the agenda. I had planned to do straight transfers of them and then use my audio restoration software to improve the sound. But the whole thing came to a screeching halt in 2016 when our daughter was born, and didn't resume until this year.
The audio restoration bug first bit me in 1985, the year I began collecting 78s. From the beginning, I was determined to get the best sound out of those old records. In early 1986, on the recommendation of historian/archivist Miles Kreuger, I went to see Tom Owen, then the chief audio engineer at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library. Owen had recently designed and was marketing a pair of analog electronic devices for basic audio restoration called the Owl One and the Owl Multifilter. I bought them both from him.
For 14 years I recorded my 78s onto cassette tapes using the Owl products. It wasn't the most elaborate system, but it was an affordable and reasonably efficient one. In 1999 I upgraded from analog tape to what, at that time, was state-of-the-art consumer technology: a stand-alone CD recorder. I was one of the first kids on my block to "go digital" and be able to make CDs at home.
My longtime friend Will Friedwald - noted author, journalist and fellow collector - along with collector-friends John Leifert, Sherwin Dunner, Paul Lindemeyer, Rich Markow, and Bob Conrad, began meeting regularly in my small studio apartment in Greenwich Village for what became known as "toast parties" - using the word "toast" in its then-new context to mean "making CDs". We'd invite as many other record-collector-friends as we could fit into the room. The atmosphere was invariably reminiscent of the stateroom scene from “A Night at the Opera”.
Friedwald named our group Toast of New York (ToNY). Collectors would bring a selection of their 78s, which I would "toast" (record onto CD). Friedwald would duplicate the CD or CDs I made and distribute them to everyone at the next party.
Eventually ToNY grew to include collectors all over the country and the world, most of whom were generous in contributing homemade CD-Rs of records from their own collections to the rapidly-growing ToNY library. Radio personality Barry Hansen, aka "Dr. Demento", was one of ToNY's biggest contributors. So was New York City casting director Roger Sturtevant. Renowned British audio restoration engineer John R.T. Davies contributed a few things. Canadian blues guitar superstar Jeff Healey - whose true passion was 1920s jazz - was an omnipresent fixture in the group, donating not only recordings from his immense library of 78s but also his unparalleled knowledge of all things related to his passion.
When Friedwald could no longer manage the increasingly demanding role of “ToNY Duplicator”, Arizona resident John Aldrich and Long Island resident Donald Gardiner were invaluable in donating their time and resources to handle the mass duplication and distribution of ToNY CDs.
In 2001, Friedwald and I co-founded a CD label for the purpose of making the ToNY holdings available to a wider market. We named the label "Renovation Records", in honor of our exclusive distributor and retailer, Ren Brown, who sold our product through his California-based, mail-order media outlet, Worlds Records. Over the next six years, we produced eight CDs. We could have produced many more from the massive ToNY archive, which had grown to include hundreds of CDs, but both Will and I had other careers and neither of us could devote the time needed to manage the label. Each CD required further audio restoration - in most cases, brand new transfers AND audio restoration - cover art and package design. (Some of our original CD issues are still available from Bryan Wright's Rivermont Records website. The direct link to the Renovation page on the Rivermont site is https://rivermontrecords.com/collections/renovation-cds. While you're there, do check out Rivermont's own extensive CD catalogue of reissued vintage recordings as well as new recordings of classic ragtime and early jazz.)
In 2005 I began the daunting process of converting my massive collection of physical media to digital audio files. After using the Owl products for nearly two decades, I invested in audio restoration software. It was nothing along the lines of Cedar - the industry standard among commercial labels, which was way out of my budget - but it was, once again, affordable, and it did an admirable job of getting the most out of those dusty old grooves.
Flash-forward to 2020 and the unpredictable, unprecedented events it brought with it. In October, my wife and daughter took a trip out to California to visit family. I fired up the 35-year old Owl One and Owl Multifilter, dug out an old IBM laptop (I've since migrated to Mac) to run the Windows-based audio restoration software I bought in 2005, and blew the dust off the turntable platter.
During a kid-free span of three weeks, I transferred several hundred 78s from my collection - only a portion of what's on my shelves. I focused on music that hadn't been reissued - or reissued in decent sound - and that I didn't have in any digital format. Most of what I transferred, I hadn't heard in years - in some cases, DECADES. After my wife and daughter returned home, I began the second phase of the project: restoring the audio I'd transferred.
Initially I was motivated purely by self-interest: I wanted instant access to the music. But as I listened to it during the process of transferring it, I became increasingly inspired to share it with others who would - I hoped - enjoy it as much as I did. My first thought was to follow the lead of other record collectors who have a presence on YouTube. But YouTube videos, by nature, require a visual element, even with vintage audio recordings. That's not something I know how to do, want to learn how to do, or want to invest the time DOING, in addition to all the time involved in transferring and remastering the audio.
I considered finding a collaborator to add video to my audio and make it YouTube-friendly. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that there shouldn't NEED TO BE a visual element when listening to music. There wasn't one when the original recordings were made, after all. I remembered my father denouncing television, saying that when he grew up [in the '30s and '40s], radio forced people use their imagination.
The RENOVATION REMASTERS page you've found your way to is the brainchild of that thought process. I'm grateful to my friend and musical collaborator Stephen O'Brien - known in the music world as "Reverend Kingfish" when he's out playing his guitar and singing the old songs - for turning that dream into a reality with his I.T. skills.
In my estimation, the unrivaled Jedi Master of audio restoration engineers was the late John R.T. Davies (1927-2004). I befriended "Ristic" - as he was known - in his later years, and had the opportunity to visit him a couple of times at his home in Burnham, about 30 miles west of London. He developed his techniques long before computer software revolutionized the industry. And yet the recordings he engineered throughout his career - without the aid of a computer - still stand up to the best computer-engineered audio restorations today. He was an inventor, an innovator, a mad scientist, a multi-instrumentalist (as a member of the famed Temperance Seven and the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra), a genius, and, above all, a really great guy.
Another guru of mine has been Doug Pomeroy, whose decades-long work in the field of audio restoration has earned him respect the world over. He's been exceptionally generous with his time and his knowledge over the years.
It seems patently obvious to point out that each one of us has a different pair of ears. I've also come to learn, especially where connoisseurs of vintage recordings are concerned, that we each have a different perception of what sounds good and what doesn't. Conversely, over the years I've heard a lot of music purported to be "restored" that I can't bear to listen to. So I can't promise that what you'll hear on this page will sound optimum to you; I can only assure you that I've made every effort to get it to sound AS GOOD AS POSSIBLE to my ears and with my equipment. You have the right to disagree.
One thing I hope we can agree on is that most of the vintage recordings available on YouTube tend to be lacking, in terms of audio quality. Often, what comes up in a YouTube or Google search for a specific vintage recording is merely a "room recording" of a needle being dropped on a record, with no attempt at audio restoration whatsoever. Sometimes the machine used to play the record is older than the record itself. One of the tragic results of the way people are listening to vintage music these days is that those who are discovering the music for the first time are conditioned to believe THAT'S HOW OLD RECORDS SOUND. All the innovations of the great John R.T. Davies, Doug Pomeroy and other brilliant audio restoration engineers have been jettisoned in favor of having FREE and IMMEDIATE access.
The Discography of American Historical Recordings and the Internet Archive have established themselves as indispensable resources for gathering data on - and listening to - early recordings. Those sites are and will remain infinitesimally more comprehensive that what you'll find on this site. But their mission is very different from mine. They endeavor to preserve ALL THE INFORMATION - both discographical and aural - on the records. They accomplish that by providing flat, stereo transfers, with no audio restoration. It’s optimal source material for audio engineers looking to start from scratch (if you'll pardon the expression), but not at all optimal for people who just want to enjoy the music.
Old records don't have to sound thin, crackly and scratchy. They don't have to be devoid of sonic warmth and brilliance. There's a lot of vital information in those grooves: information that's lost when someone puts a microphone in front of a metal horn that's projecting the raw and brittle sound of a heavy, steel needle grinding a path of destruction through ancient wax; information that's buried in noise when a record is played without any attempt at audio restoration.
In my audio restoration work, I use John R.T. Davies' philosophy, which he related to me in a phone conversation once, as a mantra: "I don't GET RID OF the noise; I just tuck it away in a corner where you don't notice it." I like to hear a rich, full low end - though not boomy - and I like hearing some "room air" on the top, without crackle and clicks getting in the way of the music. I think of that "room air" as having the smooth, soothing timbre of the German "ch" sound.
I'm very careful about which processes I use to remove unwanted noise. Digital audio restoration software is very often overused, and the results can be devastating. Digitally over-processed audio sounds worse to me than audio with no processing at all. It can produce an artifact engineers refer to as the "jangling keys" effect. Technology in the wrong hands is dangerous. The art of audio restoration lies in knowing which tools to use and how to use them. Naturally, the best way to begin is with a record in pristine condition. Admittedly, many of my records are not. If a record is in exceptionally bad shape, I don't use additional processing to compensate for the noise. After checking both groove walls for a quieter sound, if I can't live with the noise, I don't transfer the record.
Another aspect of audio restoration I deal with extensively is SPEED. As a professional musician, I need to hear music at the right speed. Although we call them "78s", many records, especially the earlier ones, weren't recorded at 78 RPM. Prior to 1928, when 78.26 RPM was established as an official speed, records on Columbia, OKeh, Emerson, Edison, and other labels were recorded at around 80 RPM. Records on the Victor label were recorded closer to 76 RPM. Even after 1928, speeds vary widely - not only from label to label, but from session to session. In addressing pitch correction, I don't rely on formulas based on years and numerical values - that data is too inconsistent. I use an electronic tuner to play pitches and I use my ears, combined with a knowledge of what keys the music was likely to be played in and the playback speeds of other selections recorded at the same session.
A word about the recordings you'll find on this page. I currently live in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan with my wife and daughter. Space is at a premium. I continue to be amazed at how much physical media I've been able to fit into this place, but we're at capacity. Over the years I've gotten rid of much more than I've accommodated. My musical interests stretch from the Ragtime Era through the 1920s and into the Swing Era, comprising jazz, dance bands, vocalists, and other popular music from that period. I don't make presumptive decisions about music solely based on the year it was recorded - if it's good music, it doesn't matter when it was recorded. But most of the records I enjoy listening to were recorded in the 1920s and '30s, especially after 1925 when the electric recording process (when microphones were introduced in recording studios) replaced the acoustic process.
As a professional clarinetist and saxophonist specializing in early jazz styles, I've amassed a lot of material that I reference in my work as a musician. But due to the space limitations in our apartment and since so much early jazz has been reissued on LP on CD over the years, the 78s I've collected tend to reflect what can't be found on reissues. I have a particular fondness for recordings by pioneering saxophonists such as Rudy Wiedoeft, Bennie Krueger, Andy Sannella, and Merle Johnston, whose tasteful concept of TONE helped popularize the instrument in the 1920s. (For the same reason, I'm NOT interested in recordings by Nathan Glantz, H. Benne Henton or Paul Biese.) So you'll find a lot of that kind of stuff here.
If you notice any audio problems that I've missed - either during the transfer process or the restoration process - please do let me know. I'm not infallible. You can email me at email@example.com (that's a reference to the C-melody saxophone, by the way).
The sounds embedded in this page were originally embedded in the walls of shellac grooves many decades ago. Almost all the artists who created those sounds are gone now. But their music lives on here. Let us never take for granted the miracle of recorded sound. I hope you enjoy this music as much as I do. I'd like to encourage you to really LISTEN TO IT. Let it shine. Let it surround you, envelope you, fill you with joy, inspiration, light, and LOVE.
-- Dan Levinson