Digitising discs at the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Martin Astell, Sound Archivist

The Essex Sound and Video Archive has fully equipped studios for digitising all kinds of sound recording media – from open reel tapes to digital DAT tapes; from shellac discs to vinyl discs to mini-discs. The equipment is used for making high quality digital copies of the many recordings held at the Essex Record Office, but we are also able to do the same for other people’s recordings too.

We recently had the pleasure of digitising an interesting recording for the London Metropolitan Archives. It is a 78rpm shellac disc containing a speech made by Viscount Wakefield of Hythe on the occasion of him being made a freeman of the City of London in July 1935. As well as being able to hear a unique voice from the past – one of the constant joys of the Sound Archivist – this was an interesting disc to transfer for a couple of other reasons.

Because this was a ‘private’ recording, rather than one made for general release, the disc has no B-side. Instead this side is decorated with rather beautiful patterns and the “His Master’s Voice” legend.


The second thing I noticed on examining the disc before the digitisation transfer was that it had become somewhat warped. This is not necessarily a problem as the groove remains intact. However, because the disc is travelling quite quickly on the turntable – at 78rpm this means a complete rotation in less than a second – a warped disc can cause the stylus to jump out of the groove, not only spoiling the recording but potentially damaging the surface of the disc as it lands.

To avoid this risk I began by playing the disc at a much slower speed with the intention of correcting the sound digitally if it proved necessary. The speed was increased gradually to ensure the stylus was safely held in the groove at all times and, in the event, I was able to complete the digital transfer at the correct speed.

The disc was also cleaned on a VPI record cleaning machine. As the disc spins, the cleaning fluid is carefully placed on the recording surface avoiding the paper label in the centre of the disc. The fluid is worked into the groove with the brush and then removed using the vacuum. The process is then repeated using distilled water.

The London Metropolitan Archives now have a high quality digital copy of the speech which can be preserved for the future and, being digital, is much easier to make available for researchers.

If you have sound recordings which you would like digitised, give me a call at the Essex Record Office on 033301 32500.

Recording of the Month, December 2014: Roger Smith and his Talking Guitar

Our Sound Archivist Martin Astell brings us another highlight from the Essex Sound and Video Archive…

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For our December recording I have resisted the temptation to select one of our many recordings which relate to Christmas. However, I feel we should end the year with a bit of fun so I have chosen a remarkable performance of musical skill and ingenuity.

Roger Smith spent his retirement living quietly in Heybridge. Previous to that he had travelled the world as a musician playing the steel guitar. As well as being able to play the pedal steel (or Hawaiian) guitar, he also built his own version of the instrument designed to imitate the human voice. We know that Roger Smith performed with Felix Mendelsohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders in the late 1940s but, unfortunately, he died before we were able to talk to him in detail about his career. If you have more information, please let us know.

This recording is taken from an instantaneous disc recorded in 1948 with the title of Nit Wit Serenade.

Eric Clapton may have been compared to God in the 1960s for his abilities as a guitarist, but could he perform the feats achieved by Roger Smith?

Recording of the Month April 2014: ‘I didn’t want medals’ – One man’s experience of the First World War

Our Sound Archivist Martin Astell brings us another highlight from the Essex Sound and Video Archive…

SA 24/1011/1

This month we have extracts from a talk given in 1992 by Alf Webb who had served as a machine gunner in the First World War. The recording from which these extracts are taken is an incredible resource. Alf Webb was talking to a group of school children and his recollections of both the mundane detail and the harsh reality of the war are delivered in a matter-of-fact and unflinching way (perhaps surprising given the audience) as he talks about mud and lice, tactics and trenches, the death of friends and colleagues, and his own unheroic attitude towards the war as he did his best to ‘try and survive and get out of this.’

If you are interested in finding further resources held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive which relate to the First World War, a sources list is available.

We will be hearing a great deal about the First World War over the centenary period, but few things will bring us closer to understanding the reality of events than to hear the experiences, thoughts and authentic voices of people who actually lived through them.

Recording of the Month, January 2014: “These New-Fangled Ways” (A Ballad of Protest)

Our  Sound Archivist Martin Astell begins a series for us of monthly highlights from the Essex Sound and Video Archive…

“These New-Fangled Ways” (A Ballad of Protest), SA 24/222/1

To begin this series and to be our first ‘Recording of the Month’ I have chosen one of the oldest recordings held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. The exact date the recording was made is not known, but it is thought to be around 1905 or 1906. It is taken from one side of a double-sided 78rpm shellac disc on the “Jumbo” label, and consists of a poem written, and in this case spoken, by Charles E. Benham.

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The poem is subtitled A Ballad of Protest as it satirises the curmudgeonly views of an old country fellow who cannot see the benefits of change and such modern contrivances as parish councils and board schools. Although it relates particularly to the late nineteenth century – which was, indeed, a time of great change – nevertheless, the theme can be seen as more or less universal, reminding us that we all may have a tendency to regard new developments as dangerous, retrograde or, at the very least, unnecessary.

Charles E. Benham published his Essex Ballads and Other Poems in 1895. He took a keen interest in the Essex dialect and the thirteen Essex ballads were written in this manner ‘to perpetuate many archaic and interesting forms of folk speech.’ It was later that he was asked to make sound recordings of a number of these poems, as he explains in the Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society (Part XIX, Volume III, December 1917, p.22):

“Some time before the war a student from Berlin named Theodor Albrecht, came to me in order that I should correct his vocal interpretation of my Essex Ballads. Friends warned me to have nothing to do with him, as even then it was suspected that he was trying to acquire the east coast dialect for sinister purposes. Be that as it may, the country was not endangered by his visit, for the accent with which he solemnly read the book was such that he never could have made himself understood in Essex, much less have passed himself off as a native. However, he appeared satisfied, and he wrote and published an extensive thesis or “inaugural dissertation” on the Essex Ballads which gained him the degree of Doctor at the University, and the University itself commissioned me to have phonograph records made of four of the ballads to be deposited in Berlin.”

You may have to listen to the recording a few times before you are able to discern every word but if you want to cheat, the poem is transcribed on its SoundCloud page. However, you may notice that the author recites some of the verses in a slightly different order than in the published version. And by the way, the word ‘tares’ which appears in the poem is given as “rough grass, weeds” in Edward Gepp’s A Contribution to an Essex Dialect Dictionary (London, 1920) but is defined in James Britten’s Old Country and Farming Words: Gleaned from Agricultural Books (London, 1880) rather more specifically as Vicia Sativa, or the common vetch, which is grown as livestock fodder or as a soil-fertilising plant.

Many more examples of Essex dialect and accents can be heard in recordings held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, and the ERO library contains dialect dictionaries, plays and novels written in dialect, and numerous papers discussing the subject (particularly in the Essex Review). The Essex Sound and Video Archive has a source list (ESVA Sources on dialect) which will help you to identify some good examples of recordings, or you could purchase a copy of our CD called How to Speak Essex: 20th Century Voices from the Essex Sound and Video Archive; please e-mail ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk or telephone 01245 244644 for more information.

Written examples of dialect speech are a valuable resource for the academic, but nothing can be better than hearing the real thing. As Charles Benham says:

“But to preserve for future generations the distinctive intonation, accent, and inflection, there is still needed the gramophone record, and this important aid should not be overlooked by the devout dialect-philologist.”

(‘The Essex Dialect’ by Charles E. Benham, The Essex Review, Volume XXIX, 1920, p.159)

And perhaps he should have added that there is still needed an accessible sound archive in which these treasures can be preserved, and that should not be overlooked either.