2018 ARSC Conference Overview

Readers of the blog know that I am an enthusiast of recorded sound. Last month, I was excited to attend the annual conference for the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC). The conference took place at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Baltimore, Maryland from May 9-12, 2018. Here is an overview of the conference events:

The conference kicked off with two workshops “Analog Tape Playback,” and “People, Processes & Technology.” “Analog Tape Playback” was hosted by George Blood, a well-known sound engineer based in Philadelphia, and “People, Places, Technology” was hosted by Curtis Peoples, the head of the ARSC Education & Training Committee. Both workshops looked at some of the challenges presented to archivists when dealing with fragile sound carriers such as analog tape, cylinder recordings, wire recordings, and Acetate (lacquer) disc recordings (which were used by radio stations, record studios, and for amateur recordings from the mid-1930s until as late as the 1980s).  After the workshops came the newcomer orientation (in which I participated during my first conference back in 2015) and the opening reception. At the opening banquet, I was able to meet up with many well-known collectors, sound archivists, and recording engineers whom I have become friendly with during my 10+ years as a record collector.

“Baltimore Sounds” was one of the presentations given on the first full day of the ARSC conference.

The first full day of the conference began with the opening address by Matthew Barton, the current president of ARSC followed by three presentations. The first presentation was by David Neal Lewis (the head of the ARSC Award Committee), who discussed the life and career of John Charles Thomas, a Baltimore-born tenor who recorded extensively for labels such as Vocalion, Victor, and International Sacred between 1920 and 1954. The next presentation was by Patrick Feaster (the former president of ARSC and specialist in the preservation of the earliest recorded sound media), who discussed the career of W. O. Beckenbaugh, a Baltimore-based auctioneer best known for his comedic recordings of mock auctions made between 1890 and 1900 for Columbia, Berliner, and Victor. The final presentation was given by Joe Vaccarino, who discussed his book Baltimore Sounds and gave the audience a sampling of many of Baltimore’s top recording artists from the second half of the 20th Century.

Don Wilson, a Philadelphia- area collector, gave a presentation at ARSC discussing his efforts to duplicate, repair, and re-manufacture rare 78 RPM records.

Another highlight from the first full day of the conference was the technical sessions. The first technical session looked at the methods used by archivists to clean lacquer discs (which often face issues such as oxidation and buildup of steric and palmitic acids on their surfaces), as well as techniques used to transfer lacquer discs that get the most out of the recording. The next technical session featured three presentations. The first presentation was given by Don Wilson, a Philadelphia-area collector who developed a process to both repair and remanufacture 78 RPM records using silicone molding and modern chemistry techniques. The next two sessions explored the methodology for digitizing cylinder recordings and recent developments in machines used to transfer cylinder recordings.

After the presentations, two of the ARSC committees held their annual meetings. The first meeting was that of the technical meeting, which is headed by Bill Klinger, Marcos Sueiro Bal, and Brad McCoy. Following the technical committee session, a short question and answer period was held. Following the technical committee meeting was the discography committee meeting, which is headed by Michael Grey, a discographer known for his research into classical recordings made between 1925 and 1979 on both the 78 RPM and LP formats.  Some of the topics discussed during the meeting were the ongoing progress of the International Bibliography of Discographies (IBD) project (which I am involved with), the need to develop a standard set of attributes that all discographies should have, and the merits of print discographies vs discographies in e-book form.

The next day of the conference began with a presentation discussing the evolution of Bluegrass music by Baltimore-area artists in the post-war era. The next sessions were perhaps the most enjoyable ones of the entire conference. The first one was by Filip Šír, who discussed his recent publication Grammar of Gramophone Record Labels: an Aid for Cataloguing Historical Records from 1900 to 1946,  and how the use of such publications will ultimately help recorded sound researchers and collectors alike in their quest to document their recordings. Peter Laurence followed with a presentation discussing the history of discographies, the issues that have arisen for discographers due to the shift away from print discographies, and how the IBD project is helping to bring discographies into the digital age. The final presentation was given by Mike Biel, who discussed the history of record sleeves and the evolution of different sleeve designs by record labels such as Victor and Columbia from the early 1910s through the 1930s.

The poster sessions at the ARSC conference went over diverse subjects ranging from the IBD project to Indian 78 RPM recordings from the 1930s-1970s.

Technical topics dominated the afternoon sessions. Dave Cawley and George Blood discussed the development of a software monitoring system meant to improve the quality of digitization efforts and the steps that audio engineers are taking to overcome the rapid obsolescence and decay of the hardware that they use for the transfer of recordings. Following the technical presentations were the poster sessions. Filip Šír, Peter Laurence, and I displayed a poster that presented an overview of the IBD project and highlighted the progress that has occurred since the inception of the project nearly three years ago. Suresh Chandvankar (the secretary of the Society of Indian Record Collectors) presented a poster on the QC Series of 78 RPM records, which were pressed by the Indian government for various governmental departments between 1934 and 1970.

Picture from the ARSC conference record swap.

After the poster sessions, the collector’s roundtable/record swap meeting occurred. This year, many interesting items were on sale at the record swap, ranging from early Rock and Roll, Country, and Blue 78 RPM records, 16-inch radio transcription discs, and long out-of-print publications. I found numerous 78 RPM records to add to my collection and was also able to purchase over 30 16-inch transcription discs for an excellent price. Some of the records brought by collectors to discuss included early radio recordings dating back to as early as 1930, one-of-a-kind advertising records, and pre-war blues recordings that are extremely rare to find today even in worn condition.

The final day of the conference began with a presentation by Sammy Jones and Seth B. Winner discussing their efforts to get the best possible transfer of the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast from 1938 and the fact that previous efforts to transfer the broadcast were woefully incomplete, leaving out sections of the broadcast. Martin Grams Jr. followed with a presentation discussing recent research into old-time radio shows such as the Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight, and Jack Armstrong and the fact that past research into early radio shows was often inaccurate and left out key details behind early programming. The next session focused on three very different musical genres and artists. Dick Spottswood discussed the career of the Blue Sky Boys, a country music duo active from 1936  to 1975 and best known for hits such as Sunny Side of Life and Where the Soul Never DiesCary Ginell followed with a presentation on the life of Rostom “Ross” Bagdasarian, who is best known for hit recordings such as Witch Doctor and as the creator of the Alvin and the Chipmunks series of cartoons. ARSC President Matthew Barton ended the session with a presentation on Flo & Eddie, a comedic musical duo active during the 1960s and 1970s.

The final few sessions of the conference dealt with both Baltimore artists and how the recorded sound industry depicted African-Americans from the 1880s until the 1960s. Mark Atnip (a former sports broadcaster and private collector)  gave a presentation discussing the limited number of recordings made by baseball star Babe Ruth between 1920 and 1948, as well as the history of baseball-themed 78 RPM recordings. Tim Brooks (the former ARSC President and expert in the field of media law) gave a discussion on the revival of the minstrel show between the 1910s and 1960s. The final session ended with a performance-lecture by Bill Doggett on race in early sound and its contemporary meanings in the issues of #BlackLivesMatter and the consequences of racial stereotyping that played out in the Tragedy of Freddie Gray. In his lecture, Doggett used multimedia in video and historical mp3s and spoken performance art to explore the intersections of blackness, recorded Minstrel comedy about black male criminality, and Freddie Gray.

Filip Šír was one of the many individuals who was recognized for their efforts during the ARSC awards banquet.

The conference ended with the annual business meeting and awards banquet. Several awards were presented to both ARSC attendees and non-attendees alike. One such award was given to Filip Šír for his work Recorded Sound in Czech Lands, 1900-1946, which documents the Czech sound industry from the turn of the century to the time in which the Czech record industry was nationalized by the government. The ARSC Distinguished Service award was given to David Lennick (a Canadian radio broadcaster) and Tim Brooks due to their commitment to the organization, as well as their efforts in improving the preservation of historic recordings.

All in all, the ARSC conference this year was a resounding success. I left the conference with newfound vigor to continue my efforts in the hobby of record collecting and recorded sound preservation. Additionally, I gained many new insights into many different areas of the recorded sound industry, ranging from best practices in preservation to the proper methods to document recordings in discographic publications.

the author

Matt is a student at Seton Hall Law School and graduated from Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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