I recently posted on Facebook about some old shellac records which I half-jokingly / half-seriously called “Deep Groove 78s,” as they had no apparent reason to sound as good as they did. I bought this batch of records for purely preservationist, archival record collecting type reasons, a raw stack of well loved blues and jump/swing “sides” found at a garage sale. Dicey condition aside, they looked obscure so for the price I figured I’d check them out (they were cheap!). After cleaning however, some turned out to be near jaw droppers fidelity-wise!
On the surface there was no logical reason why they should sound so good — these rare-ish records from the early 1950s looked pretty well trashed, played for years on (likely) less than audiophile equipment (most likely on early automatic changers with heavy metal tonearms and perhaps even steel needles — I seem to remember seeing those kind of things when I was a very little kid).
Many of us vinyl collectors have heard the buzz about so called “deep groove” LPs, records from the 1950s that can sound really good even though they may look rather beat up because (without getting technical) of the nature of how monaural vinyl grooves work in relation to the stylus. I wrote about this a while back after purchasing a Denon Monaural cartridge (my experience which you can read by clicking here). It was a revelation.
But taking this concept to the 78 RPM shellac disc level is another extreme I hadn’t really considered. 45 RPM singles, perhaps yes. But 78s?
Many 78’s are admittedly noisy and often off-center, some of them quite riddled by poor, pitted pressings. Yet, every now and then you find something sort unusual. For an almost extreme example, many years ago I found two Audiophile-worthy 78s released by the great Raymond Scott on the Master Records label, probably dating from the mid-to-late 1950s. These are very rare records but they really do sound pretty wonderful, pressed on vinylite (an early name for the formulation we now know as vinyl if I am not mistaken) and spinning at 78 RPM!
In contrast, consider this wrecked old Lowell Fulson side (one of the two shellac discs I posted about on Facebook and Instagram); you can see from the photos here is looking pretty messy… But then, listen to this video clip I made of the soloing towards the center of the disc where the groove damage looks the worst… It sounds pretty incredible!
How can this be?
For explanation, I again reached out to journalist friend and renown audiophile turntable and phono cartridge guru Michael Trei (as I had in the aforementioned article on this topic) and here is what he had to say:
“I think you can make an analogy to tape recorders, where a wider track width and faster tape speed delivers more dynamic sound. The groove is much wider and deeper, and the linear speed is more than double that of an LP. Scratches are heard less, because the groove is so much larger relatively speaking. The main limitation is the harder shellac surface, which gives the hissy background noise.”
Going back to my Facebook post, someone on one of the threads (who claimed to have been an expert, a fact I am not contesting) commented that the wider groove meant the more modern 78-ready stylus like my Ortofon rode in the bottom of the groove where there would be less damage. That logic goes a bit counter to my knowledge of old record players and how many people tended to use them – never changing the needle, taping a quarter to the already heavy tone arm to plow through skips, etc. — I would assume the bottom of the groove would be a messy wasteland.
To this point, Trei offered this perspective:
“Often a 78 will be worn mostly at one height. Someone doing transfers may have a large collection of styli that reach different parts of the groove, trying them in turn to find which one gives the best results.”
So… Perhaps I got lucky here on this particular group of discs which were perhaps not ground down to the bottom of the groove and which happened to fit my Ortofon stylus very neatly. While I don’t think I could get quite so obsessive buying buying multiple styli for different types of 78 groove widths at this stage, I feel lucky that perhaps my Ortofon 78 cartridge has proven to be just the right width to seek out the good parts of the groove on a multitude of 78 RPM discs I own dating back to the turn of the 20th Century onward.
A happy medium, as it were…
The bottom line with all this is that there is quite a bit of fun to be found in these old records if you find yourself with the mindset to pursue them. You can often find 78’s for pennies at garage sales and flea markets, or even at larger music stores. For example Amoeba Music here in San Francisco has a rack of old 78’s which I peek at every now and then, sometimes finding interesting rarities.
Each one holds a little bit of music history and has a tale to tell. It’s up to you to act as the interpreter to help them sing again.
If you don’t want to get your fingers dirty with these things but are still interested in the music contained on old 78s, you can find a lot of old sides streaming online at the wonderful Internet archive Great 78 project by clicking here.