Without the recording lathe, Willie Nelson would have never heard the Carter Family sing. Neither would Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash. These portable machines toured the country in the 1920s, visiting rural communities like Poor Valley, West Virginia, and introducing musicians like the Carter Family to new audiences. This remarkable technology forever changed how people discover and share music, yet it was almost lost to history until music legend T Bone Burnett and a few friends decided to bring it back.
Much like iTunes and streaming, the lathe democratized music. Back then, recorded music was written by professional composers, recorded by professional singers, and marketed to wealthy audiences. “It was a very elitist thing, music,” says Bernard MacMahon, director of American Epic, a three-part documentary about the early days of audio recording that premiered last night on PBS. “Record sales were centered in the big cities, to people with money.” But the rise of radio sent the record industry into crisis. Record sales dropped 80 percent in 1926 alone. So the industry went looking for artists who would attract new listeners, and invested in the technology needed to record them outside of New York studios.
Columbia Records and Victor Talking Machine Company targeted listeners in rural America who could afford hand-crank record players but not electric radios. Instead of hiring professional songwriters and musicians, they leased portable recording gear from Western Electric and dispatched “song-catchers” to travel the country. Their recordings captured musicians and genres rarely heard beyond regional pockets. Ralph Peer recorded country music legends Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and the Johnson Brothers during a single week in Bristol, Tennessee.
American Epic (The Music)
Record companies planned to sell specific genres to regional audiences: Cajun music in Louisiana, bluegrass records in West Virginia, and so forth. “At the time, the record companies didn’t have any sense that people in New York would be interested in recordings that were made by rural Mississippi musicians,” says MacMahon. But the records proved immensely popular. Millions of people bought them, fundamentally changing the nature of popular music. The lathes recorded gospel, Delta blues, and bluegrass for the first time. Recordings from the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James and Robert Johnson laid the foundation for the music of the late 20th century.
“It brought about the advent of the American singer-songwriter, of people recording songs about their own lives, about what was happening in the world,” says MacMahon. “For the first time, America suddenly heard herself—and began to communicate with herself—through music.”
The portable electrical system allowed people to record directly onto a 78 record and quickly share their music with a huge audience. Sound familiar? It created a template for music discovery and distribution widely used today. “We’re living in its wake now,” says MacMahon. “It’s very much a precursor to people sharing something on SoundCloud immediately after they’ve captured it.”
The lathe is very much a precursor to people sharing something on SoundCloud immediately after they’ve captured it. director Bernard MacMahon
The lathe democratized music production and distribution, just as mixtapes, file-sharing, streaming services, and platforms like Bandcamp did. And musicians have rediscovered it. For The American Epic Sessions, a PBS program airing June 6 and a CD landing June 9, 20 artists—including Merle Haggard, Alabama Shakes, and Nas—recorded on a Western Electric system. “Getting musicians around a focal point, getting them to tell that story—the thing that comes out of it is a profound document,” says T Bone Burnett, who produced Epic Sessions with Jack White and Robert Redford.
Bringing the Lathe Into the 21st Century
Finding a working lathe proved nearly impossible. Record companies leasing the machines from Western Electric paid a royalty on each record sold, prompting them to design their own recording lathes in the early 1930s. The weight-driven lathes of the 1920s gave way to models with electric motors, which allowed for a longer recording time. When MacMahon started researching American Epic, he discovered that the original electric lathes—as many as 20 of them—had been lost. “There was no known film footage of it working, or photographs of it,” he says. “Everything about it was speculative.”
Then MacMahon met Nicholas Bergh, who had rebuilt one.
Director Bernard MacMahon and Engineer Nicholas Bergh recording on the very first electrical sound recording system from the 1920s, the only one in the world.Lo-Max Records Ltd.
Bergh, an audio engineer who specializes in restoring old soundtracks, has long been fascinated with the Western Electric system, which recorded the sound for The Jazz Singer and other early talkies. “This equipment is the beginning of things being wired,” he says. “It’s the blueprint for the next 60 years of audio recording.” In 2000, he started a hunt for any pieces of the original technology. It took a decade, but he eventually built a weight-driven lathe, microphone, and a six-foot amplifier rack with parts used in those early recording sessions.
These records were the basis of folk and blues music in the ‘50s and ‘60s for Dylan, for Clapton, for all of us. There was that one keyhole into the past. T Bone Burnett
The recording equipment presented unique challenges to artists accustomed to ProTools and compressors. Because the lathe uses a weight-driven pulley system of gears to end the recording, songs must be recorded straight through, in less than three and a half minutes. (It’s no coincidence that this is a standard song length.) A recording of Beck and a gospel chorus performing “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods” required 14 takes to accommodate the equipment, including one with the microphone in the corner of the room, another beside Beck’s guitar, and another with the chorus facing the wall.
Many of the artists appearing in the film felt the limitations of recording lathe technology led to a more spontaneous performance. And some said it provided a connection to the musicians who influenced them. “These records were the basis of folk and blues music in the ‘50s and ‘60s for Dylan, for Clapton, for all of us,” says Burnett. “There was that one keyhole into the past.”