Prepared by Roger Beardsley

The pressings in this set are unique: nearer to the original wax masters than any previous pressings, including the first issues of 1906. To appreciate the reasons, we need to revisit the original process used for making 78s’ in those early years. Put simply, a cutting stylus converted sounds made by the performer through groove modulations on a wax blank. When played back, the groove modulations would be converted into the sounds we hear.

The original wax masters were far too soft to allow replay without severe damage to the delicate grooves; and of course the recording needed to be reproduced in quantity. The first stage was to make the wax electrically conductive. This was achieved by dusting it with the finest available graphite. It was then electroplated: when the resulting copper disc was peeled from the wax, a negative image of the wax was obtained which had ridges, instead of grooves. This was called a ‘first shell’. Using this, it was possible to stamp out records in a steam press, but the first shell would not last for ever, and when worn out, perhaps after 1000 pressings or sometimes even less, no more could be made. The Gramophone Company was well aware of the historic importance of many of its recordings as well as when large sales were anticipated: a solution needed to be found.

Later, different methodologies would be developed – particularly through electro-plating, which ensured that all stampers used to manufacture records would be identical. No such technique was known in these early years when the first celebrity records were made. The answer lay in making duplicate shells from the first shell. The actual process may now seem deceptively simple. The original first shell was placed in a pan. A special mixture of various waxes and ultra-fine plaster of Paris was then poured over the shell. When set, it resulted in a duplicate (positive) of the original wax. This could then be plated to produce a (negative) stamper for making records, but left the first shell unworn and (usually) undamaged. The process, which was termed ‘dubbing’ could be repeated whenever a fresh stamper was required. It is, however, NOT the same as what we mean by dubbing.

Although Head office insisted that for celebrity records duplicate shells had to be of the highest standard, this was not a perfect process. It sometimes resulted in greater surface noise and a lack of definition. This seems to us to be the case with many issued copies of Patti’s records almost all of which were made from duplicated shells. Indeed as the years went by some were issued from shells duplicated from already duplicated shells: the results were poor and may explain why the Gramophone Company also started to transfer original pressings to produce new masters. This in modern terminology is what we mean by ‘dubbing’.

As mentioned above the electroplating process (developed prior to, and in widespread use by, 1920) would have resolved the problem, as indeed it did. However, by that time the original Patti shells were no longer available to the Gramophone Company, having been left at its very first pressing plant in Hanover before 1914, This technical note started with a declaration that our new pressings of Patti’s records are unique: indeed given Patti’s importance in the history of singing and recording, they are also uniquely important. They have been made from the newly rediscovered original first shells. Obviously we did not press directly from these first shells, but went through the modern process (as with microgroove LPs), of making fresh stampers from these shells.

It is of course inevitable that after one hundred years there is the odd imperfection on some of the shells and, correspondingly the occasional click on the reproduced records. However we believe that the results, compared to original and more especially later pressings, are sensational: the much greater sound clarity brings the art of Patti to us in a way never previously heard. We would single out her ‘Costa diva’ Previously this has only been known in poor and indistinct sound, the result of the copy shell being over-polished in an attempt to reduce the surface noise. Another startling record is ‘La calesero, which was withdrawn almost as soon as it had been issued, most probably because it wore out after only a few playings. It has been widely available as a special 78 pressing, but always with blasting on one particularly loud note. Our new pressing is clear of this fault, obviously one which had crept in during subsequent processings to make fresh stampers.

Speeds are a potential minefield. ‘Absolute’ pitch varied during the last century between A=425 and A=445, with today’s general standard being A=440. In the case of Patti’s recordings, we simply cannot be certain of the pitch of her piano. Since it could have been tuned by as much as a semitone lower than today’s pitch, we can really only go by the sound of the voice, and whether it appears to be natural at a particular speed. The speeds given on the record labels are those determined with respect to A=440, and they are only a guide based on that standard. We cannot be certain as to how close they might be to the actual speeds of the discs as recorded. Additionally, we have found that speeds do move almost imperceptibly downwards from beginning to end. Recording lathes were not always as constant as might be supposed. The differences are virtually negligible and need only concern those who wish for absolute accuracy. As for the actual speeds, it is interesting to note that the Gramophone Company, at the time advocated rather faster speeds than our current recommendations.

Where users have a variable speed turntable, we would encourage experimentation, but in the end, the right speed is that which satisfies the listener. Certainly, the standard speed of 78 rpm will not produce bad results, merely (we think), possibly a semitone higher. Patti’s voice does not seem to be adversely affected unlike many others where the speed is too high, indeed at 78, there is a brightness to the voice that may possibly give us a stronger hint of Patti in her younger days.

Either way, these are quite remarkable recordings, pressed from the very best sources possible and they reveal more than anyone could have dreamt of even two years ago. We are most fortunate too, that almost all the shells have survived the last 100 years in generally good condition. Only 683c ‘Ah! non credea mirarti has given us any real problems – a few clicks caused by corrosion on the original: in view of its importance we felt constrained to include this as part of the set.

Stylus size: The standard 0.0025″ 78 rpm stylus seems optimal for these vinyl pressings.

Finally a note about the companion CD which is part of the Patti edition. This has been made using as little electronic intervention as possible. What you hear on the CD is much the same as you will hear when playing the actual pressings.

 

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