Some Reflections on Collections

Part 1: Manna from Heaven--Straight onto the Noggin

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: March, 2023

[Vintage records collection]

In mid-January I finally completed a project to sift and settle a large collection of mostly vocal 78 RPM records that had come my way more than a year earlier. The story of how I came to have them is short but sad: an emergency that need not detain us forced a friend who was also a long-time collector and his family to dispose of his collection in a hurry. To help him and save the records, I agreed to take them. What ensued was more than a year's worth of assessing condition, weeding out duplicates, organizing and cataloguing what I decided to keep, and generally drowning in disks (and cylinders) stashed all over my house in the meantime. Looking back on the experience, I had some thoughts that I'd like to share in hopes they will help others, especially those who, either through abrupt accession or just gradual expansion, deal with records in bulk. I'm breaking them down into two parts. In this article, I will cover some points about handling a big collection when it unexpectedly appears. In the next, I'll look at ideas for preparing in case disposal of a big collection unexpectedly becomes necessary. Both will be written in reference to 78s, because a collection of 78s gave rise to them, but I think most of the general points are equally applicable to LPs.

You can have too much of a good thing.
I didn't make an accurate count, but I'd say I kept at least 1,000 records, and that was by no means the majority of the collection, which contained many duplicates and, of course, some things that had been of interest to my friend but that were not to me. I'd not be surprised if many readers, around now, are thinking that the circumstances may have been bad but falling heir to a four-figure collection of records would be their idea of heaven. Please let me assure you, that old saying “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it” is in full force here. Trust me, the physical labor of moving that many heavy, breakable 78 RPM records is by itself daunting, and then there's the matter of finding where to put them such that they are accessible to process in a house already, er, well-stocked with round, black objects and associated equipment. Naturally, once that processing is over, the ones to be kept pose the additional problem of finding space to shelve them, just as the rest demand that the recipient find them a new home and somewhere to rest, without getting mixed back in with the “keepers,” in the interim. Don't get me wrong: the back story notwithstanding, I'm happy to have added many real gems to my collection, and I take a certain satisfaction in having helped out a friend in need while preserving a beloved collection that otherwise might well have ended up in the landfill, but the process has by no means been all beer and skittles. If you find yourself in a like situation, think carefully about logistics before you take the plunge. A big influx like that can easily take over your life for quite a long time.

[Vintage records collection]

Playing records to assess them, especially when comparing duplicates, is not the same as listening for pleasure.
Every collector of 78s, at least to some extent, develops what another collector friend used to call “filters in the ears,” the ability to focus on the music and tune out surface noise and like distractions and flaws, artifacts of outmoded recording technology or the vicissitudes of age and abusive playback. Assessing records for condition, however, and especially comparing duplicate copies, requires the reverse: focus on the flaws, not the music. Yes, sometimes a record's musical content will be so compelling that it simply demands attention, and I'll confess sometimes I'd play a record more than once just because it caught my fancy, but overall the process of settling this collection was one of playing each side with an ear attuned to noise, distortion, tracking issues, and such. That's not nearly as much fun as putting a record on the turntable, sitting back, and being transported to a better place by the beauty of the music, the excitement or commitment of the performance, or both.

Visual grading is useless.
As noted above, I figure I probably kept at least 1,000 records, probably more; I make that estimate on the basis of having added or modified nearly 1,600 entries in my catalogue and figuring something more than half the associated records were single-sided 78s. I played every one of them. Often, I was confronted with duplicate copies of the same record, either because I already had one of my own or because two or even several were present in the new collection. Time and again, out of a pair of duplicates, one looking pristine and the other like a refugee from Armageddon, the beat-up copy would play beautifully, whereas the “pretty” one would distort or otherwise misbehave no matter what I did with it. Therefore, I also played all but a handful of the rest in the collection, meaning the total number of record sides I played in the course of something more than a year must have been several thousand, particularly considering that often I'd need to play each copy in a duplicate/triplicate/whatever group more than once to reach a conclusion. (Remember, a 78 side plays at most 3.5 minutes for a 10" disk, 4.5 for a 12"; I spent a lot of time at the turntable, but it wasn't impossible as would have been the case with 20-odd-minute LP sides.) It was a great time monopolizer, to be sure, but it also was the only way to be confident I was keeping the “right” copy of any particular record. Note, that process also sometimes meant repeated hearings of less-than-favorite music if it happened to be recorded by a favorite or important artist. Let's just say that, having sorted out recordings of the thing by Lillian Blauvelt, Amelita Galli-Curci, Adelina Patti, Corinne Morgan, Suzanne Adams, and maybe a few others, it may be a while before I let another account of "Home, Sweet Home" pass through my speakers!

Establish your criteria before you begin sorting.
Assessing which copy of a record to keep is not necessarily straightforward. You'd probably like to think it's a matter of “just keep the best one,” but the fly in the proverbial ointment is defining what is “best.” Is it the record that looks cleanest? (See immediately above.) The one that is the oldest playable pressing? The one with least surface noise? The one with least distortion? The one with an unusual, desirable special label? How about centering--does a record that plays 100% cleanly but is pressed a bit off center trump one that is perfectly centered but not quite entirely clean? Or vice-versa? In the case of 78s, do you prefer single-sided pressings to double-sided ones? What if, in considering a single-sided issue, you already have it as half of a double-sided issue that is not quite as good but that has your sole copy of the recording on its other side? Do you keep both? Even if you're not especially fond of that piece of music? As you can see, “best” very often becomes a matter of compromise, deciding which defects bother you least in competing imperfect copies. For what it's worth (probably not much), among my criteria, I prioritized “clean” over “early pressing” and “quiet,” and I adopted more or less of a blanket rule that I would not keep 78 RPM dubs (as opposed to repressings) of earlier issues, my thinking being that anything like that of interest would be available in much superior modern transfers.

The Internet is your friend.
Whether the Internet has been an unmixed blessing to society at large is open to debate, but I think it's safe to say it has been nothing but a boon for the record collector, partcularly the collector of 78s. When I started my voyage into insanity, uh, dedicated record collecting, information available to those of us interested in 78s was sparse and hard to obtain, but today, thanks to our electronic information networks, a wealth of data regarding issues, artists, labels--everything is accessible with the click of a mouse. Among the most valuable such sources for the collector of 78s issued in the United States is the Discography of American Historical Records. For HMV issues, the Kelly database is a bit less “user friendly” but equally valuable. Both offer up useful information like take numbers, matrix numbers, participating musicians not noted on labels, and recording dates. More than once during my journey through my friend's records, reference to DAHR or Kelly revealed that what I thought to be a duplicate might actually a different recording for which the issuing company had recycled a catalogue number; so alerted, I could investigate further, often finding that in fact I was not dealing with duplicates. Note that these two sources have some overlap, as Victor in the United States often released HMV recordings and vice-versa.

I'll stop here for today. In a future article, I'll offer some suggestions for “emergency-proofing” your own collection.


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