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A woman with sterile rubber gloves leans over a turntable to place a needle on a record.
NAVCC audio engineer Melissa Widzinski cleans a lacquer disc. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Saving the Sounds of History

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In the dimly lit studio, just after the backing band starts, Mary Ford’s smooth voice cuts in: “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone, Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone.” The sound is so vibrant it’s easy to imagine yourself in the Quonset Hut Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, where Ford recorded “She’ll Have to Go” in 1962.

The sense of immediacy increases as record producer Jim Fogelsong interrupts: “Once again, please,” he says, ending Take 1. On Take 3: “Hold it a second. Joe, the bass is just a little bit too hard.” Take 8: “Mary … move in just a touch.”

In 2024, Ford’s voice emanates not from Nashville, however, but from a speaker in Culpeper, Virginia — one of six in a custom-designed multitracking studio at the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC).

Audio design engineers fabricated the studio to preserve the vast collection of guitar virtuoso and sound recording innovator Les Paul, a pioneer of multitracking.

In 1962, Paul and Ford were spouses, musical collaborators and major mid-20th-century hitmakers. Paul listened in the control room as Fogelsong guided Mary and the band through takes.

The new multitrack studio is NAVCC’s most technically complex audio studio to date. Its infrastructure enables engineers to capture and package multiple elements of a multitrack work for access in a library cataloging system — a new capability at the Library.

But the studio is not alone in number or sophistication.

“We have some of the best specifications you’re going to find,” Rob Friedrich, head of the Audio Preservation Lab, says of the 20 support rooms and audio preservation studios engineers operate on NAVCC’s sprawling campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Wide-angle view of a recording studio. One swivel chair sits in front of an audio control board with speakers and other instruments surrounding it.
The Library’s custom-designed multitracking studio. Photo: Shawn Miller.

He should know. He joined NAVCC in 2011 having won three Grammy Awards, including a Latin Grammy, as an audio engineer for the Telarc label. He now supervises a staff of specialists who transfer audio from fragile or obsolete formats to preservation-quality digital files.

Along with studios, Friedrich and his staff have developed an array of cutting-edge sound preservation labs at NAVCC, where they work hand-in-hand with curators, archivists and librarians to acquire, preserve and share America’s sound heritage.

Preserving the Library’s audio collection is no small feat: At nearly 4 million and growing, it is the nation’s largest. It spans experimental recordings etched into wax cylinders in the 1890s to the most recent achievements in digital sound recording.

A trip to NAVCC’s subterranean storage vaults — once used by the Federal Reserve to safeguard billions in cash — brings home the almost mind-boggling range of formats and genres.

“We have commercial albums and singles in every format — 78s, 45s, cassettes, reels, CDs. We have hundreds of thousands of radio broadcasts. Recordings of sound effects. Environmental recordings, you name it,” recorded sound curator Matt Barton says.

On ceiling-high shelves in one vault, CD box sets of the Beatles sit next to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There’s a music-box recording of “Amazing Grace.” Commercial LPs feature Billy Taylor, the Beach Boys and, for drag-car racing fans, “The Big Sounds of Drag.”

In another vault, master recordings of Andrés Segovia, Lawrence Welk and Bing Crosby are etched into 16-inch lacquer discs. Even after all of this time, they give off a scent, despite the chill. The vaults are kept at low temperature and humidity to slow down degradation of materials.

In other vaults, the NBC collection contains upward of 40,000 hours of radio broadcasts from 1935 to 1971. Master recordings in the Universal Music Group collection showcase Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Monroe and Jascha Heifetz, to name a few.

Often, before a collection proceeds to a studio for digitization, items have to be stabilized. In one lab, specialists wash lacquer discs, the most vulnerable of formats.

“They constantly undergo a chemical degradation process called exudation,” explains audio engineer Melissa Widzinski. It leaves a white haze that, over time, can cause irreparable damage.

To clean a disc, she places it on a turntable. Its arm has a small brush and cleaning fluid, applied as the disc revolves. A water rinse follows. Then, a tiny vacuum threads through each groove picking up moisture.

Next, the disc goes into a cabinet with shelves of perforated racks and a fan. The door closes, and the lacquer dries completely within minutes.

In another lab, preservationists use specialty ovens to bake tapes that have absorbed too much moisture from the air, causing their layers to separate. Once heated overnight, “it’s essentially like dehydrating them, pulling the moisture out,” Widzinski says.

In one unusual instance earlier this year, a tape had too little moisture, not too much.

A French radio performance of composer Gunther Schuller’s music arrived in the Audio Preservation Lab looking like — not audiotape. A hockey puck? A blob? No one could say for sure.

To rehydrate the solidified brown mass, audio engineer Bryan Hoffa placed just enough water in a round plastic bucket — the kind home-improvement stores sell — to cover the bottom. He wedged an empty reel inside the bucket above the water, topped the reel with a flange, then set the tape on the flange and closed the lid.

Within 24 hours, the water vapor had rehydrated the tape. When Hoffa plays the digitized file now, the sound resonates.

“This is the creative process,” Friedrich says of Hoffa’s seemingly simple yet carefully considered approach — he spent months doing research before treating the tape.

In other labs, optical-assisted technology extracts sound from wax cylinder recordings. In one space, a system dubbed IRENE uses a tiny ultra-high-resolution camera to image grooved discs that are too fragile or damaged to play with a stylus. Afterward, software translates the images to sound.

“There were some hundred Les Paul discs that we could not have transferred without IRENE,” Friedrich says.

Given the size of the Library’s sound recording collections, sound preservationists have to balance time-intensive methods with expanded research access.

To qualify, the tapes must be in good condition. “They don’t have to be baked or spliced or have any other kinds of repairs done to them,” Chroninger says.

In two studios, he operates up to eight decks simultaneously at two- to four-times normal cassette playback speed and can transfer the A and the B sides of tapes at the same time.

In another studio, 16 vintage reel-to-reel tape machines transfer 32 hours of recorded sound in a single hour. Friedrich jokes the room is his “magnum opus” for production speed.

As in Chroninger’s studios, tapes have to be good quality. Engineers just finished digitizing the enormous NBC collection. Years earlier, it was transferred from disc to tape at the Library, making it a known quantity.

The studio’s decades-old reel-to-reel machines operate as if they were new thanks to NAVCC’s “amazingly knowledgeable” maintenance specialists, Friedrich says.

Maintenance engineers have expertly restored all kinds of legacy playback equipment, including a 16-track player that captured some of Paul’s hits.

Now, his artistry lives on in high fidelity at the Library. And in the studio built to preserve it, other unique multitracks — music of Liza Minnelli, Max Roach, the Gershwins — can be preserved for future generations.

“It’s because of the Les Paul collection,” Friedrich says. “We’re in a position to do it now. We’ve never been able to do that before.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Nicely written blog post. I really miss doing this kind of work and the community of other people doing it. Keep up the good work Melissa, Bryan, and Rob.

  2. Such a fascinating article! I already work in Technical Services in a Public LIbrary–and part of my job is helping preserve our collection and keep it usable. This type of work, though, is exactly the type of work I’d be doing if I were younger and lived closer to the LOC.

    I’ve been an audio collector all my life, and with the format changes of the last 40+ years, I’ve amassed quite a personal collection of 45s, LPs, Cassettes, Videocassettes, DVDs etc. I’m a physical media-phile, and rather than throw one format out when a new one comes in, I’ve held on to it all. Reading about your efforts to preserve, restore, and maintain your collection was right up my alley! I hope there will be more articles about this in the future. Thank you!

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