Down to the Wire: Restoring Woody Guthrie
An Interview with Warren Russell-Smith
Douglas Heselgrave's #13 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Photo by Al Aumuller
Thu April 3, 2008, 09:15 AM CDT
For fans of roots music, last year’s release of Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 was nothing short of a revelation. Considering that it is the only existing record of the hobo-troubadour in concert, it undeniably is a historically important endeavor. Not surprisingly, it recently won a Grammy for "Best Archival Recording." The story behind the discovery of the original wire tape — and its journey from Paul Braverman’s closet to its release on CD — is almost as exciting as the music itself. I had the good fortune to sit down and chat with Warren Russell-Smith, an employee at the Magic Shop in New York City, who served as the project’s chief engineer. The following is a collection of excerpts from our conversation:
Warren Russell-Smith: I’m an engineer at the Magic Shop in New York City, and I was involved in this project from the very beginning with Steve Rosenthal, who owns the company, and Brian Thorn, an assistant engineer. I worked as the cedar restoration and mastering engineer, and this recording was brought to me after Steve and Brian went out with Nora Guthrie to this fellow Art Shifrin’s place.
Douglas Heselgrave: Who is Art Shifrin?
WRS: He’s a hobbyist, really. He was a guy that the Guthries found who had a wire recorder.
DH: Had you heard of wire recordings before the Guthrie spools were brought to you?
WRS: No, I never had. I was just as surprised as everyone else when this came to us.
DH: What does a wire look like?
WRS: Imagine fishing wire. It really is that thin. When you look at it and think about how magnetic domains get adjusted, you can’t figure it out. There’s no front or back to it, and this was one of the big problems. If you had 60-year-old fishing wire sitting in your closet, you’d just toss it out, right? It got transferred a couple of times, but it was always spooled incorrectly. We’d go from one spool to another, and it would do this. [Russell-Smith shook his hands up and down to illustrate his point].
So, we transferred it again, and this Art Shifrin dude had the machine. However, he had modified it, so that it had a head on it that could read the wire. They must have transferred it 10 different times at 10 different speeds. Each time, the wire would break in different areas. We couldn’t just splice the ends together or solder them. We had to tie a reef knot, and the message would travel so slowly that you’d lose a lot of material. You’d have to snip off the excess wire. Luckily, there were so many different transfers that we were able to fill in the gaps. We transferred it many times onto a Taskar 192K. Then, it was passed on to Jamie Howarth at Plangent Sound.
DH: Did you choose Howarth because he’s renowned for his restoration skills?
WRS: Well, he designed this system, and it’s a speed-correction thing. They lock onto the bias frequency. There was a bias frequency on the wire, but it wasn’t very clear. It was hard to lock onto. So, he and this fellow Dr. Kevin Shaw would find the algorithms. They took the 60-cycle hum from the New Jersey power grid because it’s constant, and they locked all of the material onto that.
DH: That’s wild!
WRS: I know!
DH: Who would think, "That’s going to work?"
WRS: Those guys pretty much had the whole thing laid out from start to finish. They took the best transfers at all of the different speeds, and they tried as best as they could to correct all of the speed issues. They did a great job, and then it was sent to us. Me and Steve got it and we had this system — the Cedar Cambridge system. It comes as a standalone PC unit, and it commonly used by the FBI and the CIA. It has about 20 different plug-ins that will de-click, debug, de-this, and de- that. Essentially, they’re adaptive filters that will allow them — if they bug someone in a bar, for example — to hone-in on one specific conversation, even if there are a hundred people talking around them. So, we had this system for three weeks, and I spent hours working on each bit, slowly patching something together. Remember, we were working with so many different transfers. It was really hard. There were bits where the transfers were really clean, and the wire was good. Then, we’d hit a bit where the wire would start spinning, and the frequency would fly really high or really low. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle.
DH: You must have heard each phrase of each piece hundreds of times.
WRS: It drove me crazy. I heard each bit more than hundreds of times. Because of this, it was really hard to maintain consistency through the whole thing. There would be one piece that would sound great, but then the next piece would sound nothing like it. It was very difficult to maintain sonic consistency throughout the recording.
DH: To me, the musical performances sounded spot-on. The sound was more inconsistent when listening to the stories.
WRS: They were a bit off, and we decided that was fine as long as the music remained pretty consistent. I think there was just one microphone, and you can hear Marjorie [Guthrie] say, "I think there’s too much guitar in the mic." You can hear Woody [Guthrie] trying to play a little softer, but the tough thing was always to get the vocal right. That was the important thing.
DH: ...Because Woody wasn’t really a heck of a guitar player....
WRS: Yeah, and he kind of admits that. If you listen to the talking blues, he tells you that he can’t play guitar.
DH: Which is part of what is so charming about the whole set.
WRS: Yeah. I think we did quite well trying to get the vocal over the guitar. It was very hard to get, but in the end, it sounded quite good. The one that sounded best, in my opinion, was the first tune — Black Diamond. The level was right.
DH: It’s an incredibly spirited performance, and even if you had managed only to make it sound half as good as it turned out, it would still be a miracle.
WRS: Yeah, it was an amazing project to be a part of. The booklet and all of the photos in it — it was really nice to see it done right. Once we’d done the Cedar thing [the restoration], we used some gear and added analogue EQs and compressions to get it up to a decent level. Most of it was done at the Magic Shop, but I did some of it at my house. The studio was sometimes booked, but I just couldn’t leave it alone. [Russell-Smith laughed]. We worked on it for a good six months — on and off. We’d put it aside to freshen our ears up a bit, but then it was right back at it.
DH: ...And now, it’s here for the world to hear!
WRS: Thanks! I still can’t get Pastures of Plenty out of my head. Miraculously, I still like that song.
Of Further Interest...
Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 is NOT available
from Amazon. To order, please visit the Woody Guthrie Store!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box