Six Records from My Collection (2017), Sean Gabb

Six Records from my Collection
Sean Gabb
25th August 2017

Earlier today, I sent out a defence of freedom of speech. That discharges my duty for the moment as a libertarian. So now to something completely different.

When I was a boy, we had a large house but very little money to improve or maintain it. No central heating. At least a strong moral pressure for baths to be cold. And my bedroom had no electricity. Since I’ve always been obsessed by music, my solution to this problem was to go off, when I was twelve, to the local street market and buy an acoustic gramophone – an HMV Model 102 from about 1932. For the next few years, until I discovered how to run a spur from the nearest ring main, I collected hundreds of gramophone records, most from before the second world war, some from the nineteenth century. And I would sit, shivering and wrapped in a blanket, listening to the treasures they contained.

Being a touch autistic, I never got rid of the gramophone, or any of the records. Now, they are all stored neatly away in the big living room cupboard – a cupboard that I believe was, during the eighteenth and ninettenth centuries, where the chamber pot was kept out of sight.

I’ve decided, as often as time is available, to digitise some of these. I could use an electric pick-up and heavy software processing. Instead, my intention is to record them exactly as they sound when played on my gramophone. So, my hardware is my HMV Model 102, a Blue Yeti USB microphone, and my notebook computer. The software used is Audacity. Here is a picture to show the set-up.

Here is the gramophone. The barbecue skewer is to stop the lid from falling shut.

And here is a close-up to show what is happening.

It shows how the needle is vibrating in time to the grooves on the record, and how this vibration is communicated to a glass diaphragm, and sent into the horn for amplification. No electricity – just a communication of movements that anyone can understand by looking. And the machinery that does all this is still in working order after nearly a hundred years.

Sadly, some of the records have been broken over the years – either by my own carelessness as a boy, or by the oaf of a removal man who dropped a whole box of them in 1993. Again, being a touch autistic, I carefully saved all the pieces, and have now stuck everything back together with superglue – which does a fine job so long as a record is pressed flat before the glue sets.

Here are my first half dozen recordings. If I get more than a hundred hits on YouTube, I will make more available.

Here is a a version of “Mon cour s’ouvre a ta voix” from 1919. I bought it when I was fourteen, and it was my introduction to Saint-Saens.

“Loudly Let the Trumpets Bray” from the 1922 D’Oyly Carte recording of Iolanthe. I like Gilbert & Sullivan, and I have complete sets of The Gondoliers and The Mikado. I also have a set of Zonophone selections from the operas made before the Copyright Act 1911 came into force.

This is a superglue special. Since C101 was issued in 1912, and this is listed in the 1919 HMV Catalogue, I provisionally date it to 1917.

I first played this record when I was twelve, and it was the first time I had heard any Wagner. I thought it was wonderful. The sound isn’t bad for 1921 – still in the acoustic age – though the secret is to listen past the surface noise to the grand magnificence of the performance. Bearing in mind its date, it is a triumphant reassertion of culture after the horrors of the Great War.

An electrical recording from about 1933. Until 1924, music was recorded by getting the performers close to a horn, so the sounds they were making could be communicated to a diaphragm and then to a needle, and then onto a plate of heated wax – roughly the opposite of the playing method I describe above. The results are often impressive, but you can’t beat an array of microphones, even if they do run on vibrating carbon dust.

This record was also broken many years ago, and now mended with superglue. You can barely hear the regular click.

This one is from 1940. Its original owner, perhaps because of wartime shortages, played it many times without changing the needle. Hence the poorish quality. I did my best with washing up liquid and WD40, but you can’t put back into a record what the needle has taken out.

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