Some «Irene»-Trivia: What is the recording length of aluminum lacquer discs, aka «acetate discs»?

Source: Library of Congress

Having busied myself with some «Irene»-trivia lately, more questions arose. For example, you’ll notice that the «Irene»-version 44-A is almost five minutes long while the maximum play length of a commercial shellac 78 was around three minutes. The «Irene»-version 44-B, then, lasts only about 2 minutes and features only one additional verse – verse 7 if you reconstruct 44-A and 44-B-1 as a supposedly continuous version. This is almost the same verse-structure (with seven verses total) that shows up if you reconstruct the «Irene»-versions 124-A-2 and 124-B-1 as a continuous version, compare my harmonization of «Irene»-versions.

Anyway, how do the field recordings by John and Alan Lomax account for the longer running time of tracks than a commercial 78 could hold?

The recording device and recording discs

It is true for commercial shellac 78rpms (10-inch) meant for replayat home that they only held about 3 minutes of music. Different discs were used for field recordings. John and Alan Lomax were supplied by the Library of Congress with a state of the art recording device, a «Presto» – this was a big machine that made electrically enhanced direct-to-disc recordings on aluminum discs and ,later, aluminum discs with a lacquer coating. These are called «aluminum discs» and «lacquer discs» usually, the latter most often referred to as «acetate discs» – which is materially speaking wrong, they were not made of acetate. While different explanations exist, it remains unclear how this factually wrong manner of naming them developed, but «acetate disc» is the most common name in popular contexts nowadays.

These recording «lacquer discs» were 12-inch-discs, not 10-inch (cf. Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 113), that could hold 5 minutes of music, and even more with some trickery: I read Alan Lomax could bring the recording time of those discs up to seven, some sources say even ten minutes – the most common technique to lengthen the record time apparently was to leave a narrower space between the grooves which in turn worsened the recorded quality. But this was a trade-off the Lomaxes often made for field recordings as these were not meant for commercial use.

Although John Lomax had used one of the only «portable» recording devices on his trips (starting 1907) before – recording on «Edison Dictaphone» wax cylinders which were fragile (cf. Morton 2000, 147) –, and although John and Alan Lomax even started out the 1933-trip with this «Ediphone» (cf. Kahn 2003, 1) and picked up the superior disc-cutting machine in Baton Rouge in mid-July (cf. Szwed 2010, 43), the Presto disc-cutting device was still immensely chunky. With a reported weight of 300 to 350 pounds (plus the discs, so some sources drive this number up to 500 pounds, cf. Ferris 2013, 15), installed in the back of the Lomaxes car.

The cylinder machine made only scratchy and squeaky sounds, but their new disc-cutting machine was the best portable machine on the market. These were long before the days of magnetic recording tape, transistors, and digital sound. Their new behemoth weighed a hefty 315 pounds. Alan recalls that the machine consisted of one large amplifier, a cutting turntable, two Edison batteries […], a loud-speaker, and the discs themselves. The latter were twelve inches in diameter, and were of annealed aluminum […].

(Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 113)

The fact the received the disc-cutting recording device just a couple of days before they first recorded Lead Belly in Angola Prison brings to attention that they had virtually no experience running that machine at that time. You can get a glimpse of such a device as well as of the 12-inch-discs in the film documentary Lomax the Songhunter (the device shown in that clip is not the one used for the Lead Belly-session of 1933 in Angola Prison, it’s a newer one). You can probably see that older Presto in action for a about two seconds in a completely staged «prison» scene recorded for the March of Time newsreel, with John Lomax and Lead Belly here, around the 15-second mark. (By the way, this film with its horrific script was reportedly despised by all involved: «There was something in the film to upset everyone», Szwed 2010, 73).

We have to imagine the process something like this: the 4+ minutes version 44-A was one continuous recording on one of those 12-inch-discs – the side was then labeled 44-A. Since the song wasn’t finished with all verses, Lomax then asked Lead Belly to finish the song for the archive, Lead Belly probably «restarted» the ending part which Lomax recorded on the flip side: 44-B. This explains the wildly different lengths of those recordings.

You can check how this worked if you consider three other examples.

1) Check the «Ella Speed»-version (125-B) on the essential compilation The Midnight Special: Library of Congress Vol. 1 (Rounder-1044) (also on SFW 40201), it is from Angola Prison, 1934. That recording runs a bit over six minutes and then gets a scrambled ending with the song unfinished. This is probably the maximum Lomax could stretch these discs out which he clearly didn’t like to do since examples of this length are rare. I guess that is where the assumption of a «seven minute»-limit comes from. Compare this to Lead Belly’s first recordings with commercial intent (the ones on Leadbelly – King of the 12-String Guitar, CK 46776) by the American Record Corporation (ARC) – they all punch in at around 3 minutes, as was necessary for shellac-78s playable at home.

2) Then, take a look at and listen to the first session by Lead Belly in Angola Prison, July 16–20, 1933, on DOCD-5579. You’ll notice that this session features the call numbers «119-B-1» to «119-B-6» and «120-A-1» to «120-A-7» (plus «120-B-5»). These are 45 to 90-second-snippets of different songs – DOCD-5579 doesn’t even bother to split the songs apart, they are one track on the CD: All songs labeled «119-B» were recorded on one side of a lacquer disc, as were the songs labeled «120». Wolfe/Lornell note about these recordings: «These [songs] took up one side of disc number 119-B, and a second, labeled 120, was started.» (Wolfe/Lornell 1992, 114). Lomax recorded for a short while, stopped the disc. Then restarted to record another song. And so on, until the side was full. The combined time of these song snippets is 4 to 5 minutes, that’s what a 12-inch-disc could hold on a side.

3) One last example: If you take a look at Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress-recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, it becomes clear just by looking at the track times what Lomax’s preferred manner of recording was in a controlled setting – maximum length of continuous recording without sacrificing too much quality. The entirety of the Library of Congress-Morton-recordings runs over eight hours – but each song and each interview cuts out very consistently at about 4:30 minutes. You can hear how Morton is interrupted after 4:30 minutes and then picks up the story where he was interrupted when Lomax puts on the next recording disc.

Well here we are, this was predominantly an entry to consolidate the scattered sources I found available online. There’s some more books I referenced and that I’ll make a note of here:

Further Reading and Sources:

Cohen, Ronald D. (Ed.): Alan Lomax. Assistant in Charge. The Library of Congress Letters, 1935–1945. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi 2010.

Doctor Jazz: Library of Congress: Jelly Roll and Alan Lomax Narrative Recordings and   Discography. URL: http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/page22.html

Ferris, William R.: Alan Lomax: The Long Journey. In: Piazza, Tom (ed.): The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax. Words, Photographs, and Music. New York: Library of Congress 2013, 10–21.

Kahn, Ed: Part I. 1934–1950: The Early Collecting Years. In: Lomax, Alan: Selected Writings 1934–1997. Ed. By Ronald D. Cohen. New York: Routledge 2003, 1–8.

Library of Congress: Southern Mosaic. The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. URL: https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9908/lomax.html

Ma Platine: History of the Record. URL: https://www.maplatine.com/en/content/64-history-of-the-record

Morton, David: Off the Record. The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick et al.: Rutgers 2000.

Preservation Self-Assessment Program: Aluminum Disc. URL: https://psap.library.illinois.edu/collection-id-guide/phonodisc#aluminumdisc

Preservation Self-Assessment Program: Lacquer Disc. URL: https://psap.library.illinois.edu/collection-id-guide/phonodisc#lacquerdisc

Public Broadcasting Service: Lomax the Songhunter. URL: http://archive.pov.org/lomax/background/

Szwed, John: The Man Who Recorded the World. A Biography of Alan Lomax. London: Heinemann 2010.

Wikipedia: Acetate disc. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetate_disc

Wolfe, Charles and Kip Lornell: The Life & Legend of Leadbelly. New York: Harper Collins 1992.

Yale University Library: The history of 78 RPM recordings. URL: https://web.library.yale.edu/cataloging/music/historyof78rpms