Introduction To Collecting And Listening To Shellac Records

For Before-After Demos and Acoustical versus Electric Demos, scroll down.

What’s a 78?

78 rpm shellac records were made from the 1890’s to the late 1950’s. They are heavy, easily broken like a china plate, hence their old slang term “platter.” The records were made of materials such as clay or limestone dust, held together with shellac, a compound derived from bug secretions!  Getting them to sound right today is a real challenge, because they were once subjected to hundreds of pounds per square inch of pressure from the old steel needles of wind-up Victrolas and Gramophones. See photo on the top right.

My collecting began in June of 1968 in the Seattle Goodwill, where I bought a suitcase full of old records because they were cheap and looked cool. In high school, I got a collection someone found in the attic of a building at an abandoned whaling station, and I got a large case full of records that once belonged to the doctor who birthed me. And it’s gone on from there, in antique stores, at yard sales, and from Ebay and auction houses.

What’s the Appeal?

What’s the appeal? Well, imagine 80 years from now some folks discovering a stack of 45's of Beatles hits, and immediately appreciating the energy and inventiveness they are hearing. It was like that for me, hearing my first Bix Beiderbecke jazz record or hearing Victor Herbert conducting his own “March of the Toys.” My collection specializes in post-WW I pop and early jazz, early electric recordings up to the mid-1930’s, “country and western” from the 20’s to the 40’s, and classical selections of historic interest, such as experiments using microphones instead of horns, or a famous work conducted or played by its composer. Although I enjoy (and have) a lot of swing, it’s very common and very commonly reissued, so there won’t be much of it here.

Most of the tracks on this site are of the pop and dance variety, because they are infectiously fun to listen to, with sappy sentimental old songs thrown in, and a good sampling of historic jazz, always from my collection, and always mixed and restored in my little studio using advanced computer software. But some of the tracks (see the photo below) come directly from a real 1920’s wind-up phonograph with wooden horns, not speakers.

My Personal “Holy Grail” Wind-Up Phonograph

In my first summer in Idaho after retiring, I took a break from painting and repairing our house and went out exploring nearby mining towns with my friend Travis. In a shop in Wallace (the town where Dante’s Peak was filmed) my friend pointed me to a large object in the far corner. There sat a fully-functional 1926 Columbia Viva-Tonal Grafonola, my personal “holy grail” of old players. The largest model ever made for home use, it arguably produces the best sound of any non-electric (acoustical) phonograph.

Naturally I found a way to buy the thing. It took five men to get it into my van, and three of us to get it out. Four guys working on our new floors moved it into place in our living room, using refrigerator straps. So… a selection of the tunes on this site come from that Grafonola, direct to you with no noise reduction whatsoever, and very little sound shaping. You’ll hear whatever that Grafonola is capable of out of its 12 feet or so of twisting wooden horns.

The Columbia’s sound volume can be immense, and it’s controlled only by the size of the steel needle used, or by closing one or both of the doors. But by placing a microphone in front of each of the two internal horns, a full, almost stereophonic sound is recorded, due to the difference in distance from the needle and sound box, and a slight variation in response between the two hand-built wooden horns. (These tracks sound best using headphones).

Tim’s Signature 78 rpm Restoration Mix

However, the largest portion of the music on this site comes from a modern digital turntable with five different styli at my disposal, run through a battery of sound shaping options in my Acon Digital “Acoustica” software. My trademark mix is similar to the sound that a state of the art tube amp and speaker system in the pre-transistor era would be able to crank out. Most digital releases of vintage material try to match the sound curves of 1950’s hi-fi LP’s. I try to mimic and improve on the sound of a good 1940’s jukebox, with a signature punchy mix. What results is an extremely easy and entertaining, sonically amazing wall of glorious music.  Have a listen, and download these tunes if you wish!

For Before-After Demos and Acoustical versus Electric Demos, scroll down.

Welcome to Tanignak Shellac (Tim’s Old Record Collection)

For full songs and downloadable .mp3 albums,

Click  Collection One  or  Collection Two

Pop Jazz and Dance

Classic Jazz and Blues Tunes

Sentimental and “Salon”

World War I Songs

Country and Western

Classical and Instrumental

“Sacred” and Gospel

Humor and Novelty

Two Approaches to Recording Antique 78 rpm Shellac Discs:

Top: A few of the battery of screens used to adjust and repair antique 78’s after the sound has been transferred to digital using a modern USB turntable equipped with special styli selected for each record. Often, the selections can be made to sound clearer (with more bass and clearer vocals, for example) than would have been possible on any of the equipment available when the record was made! Although far superior to the original sound, it is not “authentic” in that it is not what people would have originally heard.

Right: The 1926 Columbia Viva-Tonal Grafonola, model 800, made in March of 1926. The two microphones catch the sound from the two enormous wooden horns behind the grille. When the record starts, I close the lid to eliminate the scratchy sound of the steel needle. Once the digital recording is made, I use software to boost the bass (hardest for acoustics to reproduce) - although I can only boost whatever frequencies the sound box, steel needle, and wooden horns are capable of. But the steel needle can’t pick up the high-pitched hiss and scratch, resulting in an amazingly warm and clear re-creation of the original disc. (Note the logo under the lid)

Demos Demos Demos


Two Demos of Acoustical (horn) verses Electric (microphone) Recordings

Nell Gwynn Dances excerpt: 1916 Victor military band acoustic and 1927 Victor Orthophonic electric recordings. Note that the military band is in a different key than the orchestra. Dynamic range, fidelity, and depth are all improved in the second example.

Painting the Clouds With Sunshine – an unusual nearly identical arrangement of a 1920’s pop tune, one recorded acoustically (Velvet Tone label) and the other an electric (Broadway label). Other than the second disc being more worn, it has much more oomph, and a band recorded electrically can be much larger than the one squeezed in front of a horn!


Two Before and After Demos of Sound Restoration

My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Nowa great, “hot” dance tune with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, around 1928 (Victor Orthophonic). The unedited disc starts over with the computerized restoration. The restoration is not noise free, but it restores clarity and that legendary VE (Victor electric) punchy sound. My mix mimics a mid-50’s hi fi tube amp component system with woofers, whizzers, and tweeters.


Shaking the Blues Awayanother great “hot” band, this time Paul Whiteman. Sometimes a wonderful disc comes only in thrashed condition, and until you find a less-worn copy, your beat up one has to make do. That’s the case here. The opening few seconds are pretty painful, with scratch, hiss, pops, and distortion. The computerized sound restoration seems to have less treble, but that’s mostly from greatly reducing the record wear. Tonal balance is better in the low end after the changes that I made. Most examples on this site will be less worn than this one, but it shows how “audio restoration” can be a resurrection!


A Comparison: Grafonola versus USB Turntable Special Styli, and Software

You’re the Cream in My Coffee, Ted Weems Orchestra, VE disc. Recorded from a mic’d wind up phonograph, compared with the same disc recorded from a digitally transferred modern turntable. See the photos above for the recording setup and the software panel.


Here are two takes of part of a song, played with a steel needle on a Columbia Viva-Tonal 800 (perhaps the largest acoustic phonograph made for the home market) and an all-digital modern phonograph with a variety of stylus sizes to use. Both of these are “right;” one is the best that any wind-up player could produce, and the other is the best I can do with modern equipment.  


The Grafonola version is slightly off-speed (it’s just a slider lever to control the spring motor). You’ll notice only “some” bass, but you can hear the consonants when the vocal begins. Likewise, since my microphones were placed in a “live” room in front of the two physical horns, there’s a very slight stereo effect from the mono record groove. The software version was processed as described above, and I had to work hard to reduce hiss and crackle. The VT 800 Grafonola (1926) can’t replicate such high frequencies. But it’s the best non-electrical technology that humans were capable of at the end of the “acoustic” era. It’s best heard with stereo headphones for full “head between the horns” effect.


NOTE: there are a few songs posted at Collection One and Two pages already. Use the links at the top of the page.


Call these demos a sample of what’s coming! When the “Collection One” and “Collection Two” pages are completed, there will be albums-worth of songs transferred digitally, but a good quantity of fun-sounding straight-off-the-Grafonola tunes available as well!

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