A daily dose of Hughes; Jimmy Hughes aka James Michael Hughes – “Is it Live or is it a 78?”

Go back in time, even to the very earliest days of recorded sound, and you frequently encounter stories of people (some of them experienced musicians) who heard music reproduced on what we today would think of as a hopelessly primitive acoustic horn gramophone, only to emphatically declare the result so incredibly lifelike and real-sounding, it was like having the singer there in the room with you.

Of course we smile condescendingly as such naivety; how can something so poor, technically, have convinced an experienced listener they were (almost) hearing a live singer? But, how do we know what they actually heard? While it’s sometimes the case that very old recordings can and do sound extremely primitive when played on some modern hi-fi systems, that doesn’t mean they really are that bad.

You need to hear the best early 78rpm shellac discs played on good vintage equipment of the period to appreciate that the sound could often be surprisingly vivid and ‘real’ – for all the limitations of the medium. Agreed, horn gramophones introduced colorations and had limited bandwidth. But the all-important mid-band was beautifully served, resulting in a strong vibrant sound that had colour and presence.

Admittedly, 78s were very selective in terms of music they reproduced well. Not everything sounded great. Simple individual things like solo voice or violin sounded vastly more convincing than (say) heavy choral music or large orchestra works. Nevertheless, a good 78rpm disc can, at its best, sound remarkably convincing and realistic – even those recorded in the pre-electrical period.