Lost and Sound
How a small Nantucket company turned a forgotten Woody Guthrie recording into a Grammy nominee.
In 1949 a college student in Newark, New Jersey, captured one of the only recordings of Woody Guthrie in concert. But he did it on outmoded technology, then stashed it away and let it rot for decades. The bootleg was discovered in 2001, and made its way to Nantucket audio restorer Plangent Processes, which—after considerable effort—helped turn it into The Live Wire, up for a Grammy this month. Here’s how Plangent worked its magic.
Survey the Damage
The concert was recorded on 3 miles’ worth of hair-thin wire, a painfully obsolete medium intended for (but lousy at) voice transcription. It showed up at Plangent in dangerously brittle shape. No machine on the market can convert wire recordings to digital formats, so Plangent had to employ a decades-old reel-to-reel machine that a technician had modified for modern use.
Play It Again
For the rejiggered machine to capture the recorded music, the entire length of the wire needed to be run over a tape head. That task fell to Plangent founder Jamie Howarth, who spent 20 hours pressing down on the running wire, burning a ridge into his finger as he did so. It was, he says, "a nightmare of sorrows and twists and turns." With the wire frequently knotting and breaking, he kept tweezers nearby for quick fixes.
Heed the Speed
Once digitized, the recording could be heard—but it was sluggish and inconsistent. Howarth’s specialty is eliminating pitched warbles and flutters in old audio, which he does by calculating the speed of the motor in the original recorder, and then altering the music’s pace to match. Because the wire recorder was such a simple machine, though, there were no obvious clues to tell him how fast its motor had gone.
Set It Right
After some close listening, Howarth found the marker he needed: Deep in the recording’s background, the constant hum of electrical current could be heard. He researched the technical specifics of Newark’s power grid in 1949, and synced the audio to the frequency of electricity there. "The pitch fell right into place," he says. "You can really hear him."