The Paramount Records Cabinet of Wonders Page 2

"After washing and drying the discs, then I will select the proper stylus. In most instances it's a 3.5mm, so I can ride above the noise. From that stage it goes into my McIntosh C20 tube preamp, where I will fix the RIAA levels so I get the maximum body and depth, because those things are pretty thin, particularly the acoustic Paramounts—they were very thin, and sort of honky and tinny sounding. So I am trying to get rid of those things, and I try to uncover the natural warmth that was there in the studio. Then it goes to a Manley Massive Passive, where I can add a little bit more warmth and lower end to it that I really can't with the C20. Then it goes into my TL Tubetracker, which is also a tube-rectified unit, and I can fix the final little EQs there. Then, after I do the A/B'ing and the A/B'ing and the A/B'ing and I find that I'm satisfied both with the track and with its consistency with the other tracks, then I perform the transfer."

King, whose day job is at bluegrass label Rebel Records, and who's worked on a number of 78-restoration projects for Tompkins Square Records, among others, has also devised unorthodox methods to derive more sound from less-than-pristine discs.

"It's crazy. You really can't do it with a lot of turntables. But what I do is, I have a Technics SP15, and it's not attached to the plinth. Then I have a handful of pieces of felt wrapped around tongue depressors, and then I'll go around and insert those at the four angles until I get the absolute correct angle of the groove going down to the spindle hole. And then, by also equally torqueing the headshell just a little bit counterclockwise, you're actually putting the tip of the stylus directly in angle with the spindle, so as it works down, it's performing a perfect angle and it tracks better and you get better midrange response. Even if I have two copies of a Blind Lemon Jefferson disc in the exact same condition, I still have to make adjustments on that tracking aspect, just because of the way they were pressed. They were so eccentrically pressed that everything tracks a little bit differently."

A collector of 78s as well as an audio engineer, King says his feelings toward imperfect-sounding 78s are paternal. "It's the same attitude one would adopt when you have kids. You have to love them. You do everything you can. But you don't give up on one of them just because it doesn't do right."

If there is a controversial aspect to the Wonder-Cabinet, it's the decision to go with 320kbps MP3s rather than higher-resolution files. "I've seen a lot of complaints about the fact that we didn't use lossless tracks," Dean Blackwood admits, clearly expecting the question. "First off, really, for a Paramount record, usually one of the worst-recorded and -pressed discs, using the worst-quality shellac that there was, is somebody going to be able to tell the difference between lossless tracks and MP3s? Okay, I'll concede that some may be able to do that. I can't, but we did look at it, and even thought about offering both. But what we wanted to do was make it easy for people to play on a Web interface, through either Safari or Chrome, but they won't play anything but MP3 tracks. And WAV files or FLAC would have taken it up to a 64-gigabyte drive, which would have added 50-some dollars onto the cost. You have to weigh what incremental value is that providing for recordings not only of this era but from this label, well known for not being particularly focused on fidelity."

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There's also been some Internet chatter about whether or not the 800 tracks of music in this set are in the public domain. "That's the way people treat it, for practical purposes," Blackwood says. "As a legal matter, recordings prior to 1972 weren't subject to US copyright at all. Public domain means it was once protected and it's gone out of protection. So it's not accurate to say that sound recordings that were never covered by the US copyright act are technically in public domain for copyright-act purposes. As a practical matter, since reissues began in the late '50s of this material, people have treated it as practically public domain because, in many cases, rights have been waived or exhausted in one way or another—or, in the 60 years since, rights have been waived because they've never been asserted."

This priceless repository is housed in one of the most marvelous objets d'art ever to contain a collection of music. The attention to detail is without equal. As audio-geek porn goes, it's positively carnal. The outer case and its green velvet lining are meant to replicate a Victrola cabinet. A 250-page clothbound book contains Scott Blackwood's Paramount story, reproductions of the label's influential display ads, and facsimiles of the round labels that went on the many different lines of records produced under the Paramount banner. A 360-page softcover book is the first-ever attempt at a comprehensive Paramount discography. Yet another envelope contains replicas of Paramount sales catalogs. The jewel in this showpiece set is the elaborate book-like package that holds the six LPs, and mimics the lush albums produced in the late '40s and early '50s to hold 78 sets. The cover of this fabulous artifact is made of a single piece of laser-etched white birch. The 331?3rpm, 180gm LPs are pressed on brown vinyl with marbling meant to reproduce burled chestnut wood. Each LP has smaller-than-usual, hand-embossed, gold-leaf labels.

"Jack is really into handwrought stuff, and he has this background with Third Man Upholstery," Blackwood explains. "He also apprenticed to a master furniture maker, and that was what he was thinking of as a career before this little act called the White Stripes. But for that, he might have built furniture. Each one of these being handcrafted was really important. Evidence of the hand at work was the animating spirit behind the project.

"Jack was also big on quartersawn oak. It's a furniture-making technique, particularly in that time period when you made cabinetry; there is this method of cutting oak veneer into strips so that this tiger striping lines up in a certain way. This is all alien to me and everyone else, but Jack not only knows about this stuff, he obsesses over it."

Looking at the LPs, it's hard not to wonder what United Record Pressing, which is literally up the block from Third Man Records, said when asked to make the records "burled chestnut" in color.

"Yeah, that was also Jack's addition." Blackwood laughs. "It's all about being into wood metaphors with the burled chestnut. I was like, 'It's kind of Christmasy. Burl Ives and chestnuts by the fire—it's kind of like subliminal market[ing] for the holidays.' I said 'marbled something or other,' but that wasn't quite in the sweet spot."

And finally, that white-birch folio, the aroma of which will quickly fill a room once the wonder-cabinet is opened. "That is the invention of this guy Bryce McLeod, of Isle of Printing. He's literally, like, a block away from Third Man. He does a lot of work with them. He's a letterpress printer. He's an artist. He does laser cutting and etching. He had these little sketching books that had a single piece of wood, but he cut into it to create a flexing point, where a single piece could be converted to a fold. It's basically folding wood."

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the wonder-cabinet is that it comes free from sticker shock. Depending on the retailer, the price varies from $400 to $479—quite reasonable for a handmade item in an age when the Grateful Dead's May 1977, a 14 CD boxed set goes for $239 on Amazon.

"Believe me, no one is trying to get rich off this thing. Far from it. We're squeaking by. It's a handcrafted item. I hope people, when they have a chance to see it, will appreciate that it's a great value. Is it cost-prohibitive for some people? Yes, and I wish that weren't so, but that's just part of the cost that went into making it. We can't lose money on it. And we don't want to. We think it's a really good value. That's really where we kind of landed on it.

"Jack said, 'Well, we've got this Beatles boxed set, and all they did was put them on 180gm vinyl and that's pretty much it—and it's like $350. It's just music with accompanying liner notes.' This is more like a museum exhibit in a beautifully hand-sculpted container that is more like a piece of high-end furnishing. We tried—and I'm not saying we achieved this on all fronts—to make each thing [in the set] to be the best of its kind."

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COMMENTS
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Whether you like Jack's music or not, you have to admit he's a real artist.  Risking his own money and reputation for the love of music that wasn't even created by himself. That speaks to great artistic perspective and confidence.  Can you think of one other modern pop artist who would do such a thing?  This puts him in the category of serious classical artists who, after a successful career, champion largely forgotten composers.  

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...there is one other artist:  Questlove.

 

Metalhead's picture

Enjoyed the excellent review.  I was going to pass on this set but after reading about the effort and detail I think I HAVE to get it.

White and company are the real deal.  

 

dalethorn's picture

I don't suppose there's a way to get just the USB drive?

MWaehner's picture

I hope down the road Third Man decides to make the LPs available without the full handmade boxed set. I have a real passion for this music, but though I'd love to own the whole experience, audiophiles who teach public school don't get to spend $400 on wooden-boxed records...

deckeda's picture

If you've never heard a decent 78 played on an acoustic Victrola, the floor cabinet kind where the volume is controlled by how far you open the doors (folded, internal horn) ... be prepared for a room-filling, incredible experience of power and vitality.

And it doubles as an inexpesive sound system for when the power goes out.

Even if not clearly audibly better in all cases, I'd have paid the extra to get lossless. (And a quick search shows 64GB USB sticks for less than the figure cited, but whatever.)

otaku's picture

DaleThorn,

If you do a little searching, I think you can find the files from the USB stick available on the Internet. I have never ever condoned piracy (my son claims I am the only person he knows who buys music), but if the publisher of the box set is claiming that the music is public domain, then I cannot see how they can object to downloading the files. Surely remastering the 78's to MP3 does not create copyright in the work.

BTW, I did purchase the box set.

otaku's picture

Just got my Cabinet of Wonders, and I don't understand how the LP's are to be stored. They are in paper sleeves, which do not fit into the (acrylic?) sleeves in the birch binders. Are they supposed to be moved from the sleeves to the binder pages?

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