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Collaborative effort brings archival recordings from Interlochen's early days to current radio audiences

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Interlochen Center for the Arts
A 1944 transcription disk made at Interlochen's National Music Camp

If you're under 84, odds are that you're going to start hearing IPR play archival recordings from Interlochen Center for the Arts that are older than you are.

This fall, Interlochen's Recording Services department began remastering digitized archival audio files that go all the way back to the summer of 1937 at the National Music Camp.

The archival audio was preserved and catalogued by Interlochen's Archives department and will be edited and prepared for broadcast by Interlochen Public Radio.

"It's required a lot of communication and coordination between three different areas to get these recordings ready for radio broadcast again," said IPR's music director Amanda Sewell.

Listening to history
An NBC announcer closes a radio broadcast of the National High School Band and Orchestra at Interlochen in 1937

"Again" because many of these recordings were originally heard on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s.

The audio files were initially preserved on transcription disks, a type of phonograph record that is either recorded from a radio broadcast or recorded to be used in a radio broadcast.

Interlochen Center for the Arts has approximately a thousand of these 16-inch transcription disks.

Six hundred of those thousand disks were digitized recently. Dating from the 1930s and 1940s, these digitized disks contain about 300 hours of audio (about 15 minutes per side, or 30 total minutes per disk).

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Arthur J. Snook
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Interlochen Center for the Arts
Robert Howey performs an important service at Interlochen's National Music Camp in 1948

Many of the disks are recordings of Interlochen student and faculty performances that were broadcast nationally and locally on NBC, WKAR and WTCM.

Getting these transcription disks ready for 21st-century radio broadcast has been a multi-year process.

In April 2019, Interlochen Center for the Arts' Leo Gillis drove the disks to George Blood Audio-Video in Philadelphia.

Gillis chose to transport the disks himself in his personal vehicle for several reasons. The cost of shipping very heavy and fragile disks was very high.

Plus, Gillis said, it didn't really matter whether Interlochen insured the disks for shipment: "If they broke, they are irreplaceable, so what good is the insurance money?"

He returned to Philadelphia to retrieve the disks and the digitized audio files in December 2019.

The physical disks are now stored in a climate-controlled room at Interlochen's Bonisteel Library. Interlochen does own an oversized turntable to play back the disks.

Although IPR and Interlochen Presents had planned to begin remastering the audio right away, the project remained on hold until just recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This fall, Interlochen's Senior Recording Engineer Michael Culler began remastering some of the digitized transcription disk audio. He started with recordings that Sewell had identified as top priorities.

Preparing these digital transcriptions for radio broadcast on IPR is an involved process.

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Interlochen Center for the Arts
One of the 600 16” electrical transcription disks from Interlochen's National Music Camp that was recently digitized

The first task is to identify exactly which concert was recorded on the transcription disk. Many of the physical disks had very little information on their labels, often nothing more than a date and sometimes not even that.

The specific concerts are identified by using National Music Camp program books from each summer and matching them to the audio heard on the disk.

For example, one disk is labeled with nothing more than "1940-06, 13th season NHSB." That likely means it contains a National High School Band concert recorded in June of 1940, but the audio on the disk needs to be matched to the printed program to determine which concert it was and which parts of the concert were recorded. (Sleuthing revealed that the disk contained one of the very first band concerts that Frederick Fennell ever conducted as a faculty member of the National Music Camp.)

Most digitized audio files include one side (15 minutes) of a transcription disk recording of a concert, although some disks include rehearsal audio, sound checks and camp church services.

Sometimes, disks were recorded over, or different concerts were recorded onto the same disks. For example, one disk appears to have fragments of band and string orchestra performances and rehearsals recorded on three different days in July and August of 1941.

Sewell has identified which disks have the most historically relevant concerts on them, and Culler is remastering those first.

These include Frederick Fennell's first concerts as a conductor from 1940, along with guest appearances by Percy Grainger and Frederick Stock. Recordings of Grainger conducting from 1937 have been preserved, as have those of Stock's first summer at Interlochen in 1940.

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Interlochen Center for the Arts
The program from the July 24, 1943 WKAR broadcast at Interlochen's National Music Camp, featuring Percy Grainger and Ferde Grofé conducting their own compositions

Sewell is particularly excited about one recording from July 24, 1943. The National High School Orchestra performance, which was broadcast on WKAR, features composer Percy Grainger conducting two of his own pieces as well as composer Ferde Grofé conducting his famous Grand Canyon Suite.

"I can't even think of a corollary to this concert in any context," Sewell said. "To have two of the most important composers of the era in person, conducting their own music - and on the same concert - is just breathtaking."

It's important to note that, even with remastering, these transcription disk recordings are best understood as presentations of archival materials as opposed to high fidelity performances.

As Culler explained, "You have to approach each transcription disc recording like an art preservation specialist restoring a painting: very carefully removing as many layers of noise as possible without affecting the original material."

The quality of the source material varies widely among disks. Some factors that affect the quality include low signal-to-noise ratios in the recordings, the frequency bandwidth of the disks and the age and condition of the disks.

Culler uses specialized audio programs with highly refined noise reduction algorithms, often running four or five separate processes as he tries to restore the sounds of the original performance.

All that is to say that it is unlikely that IPR will broadcast a performance of an entire symphony from this era, but excerpts from these historic performances will be making their way onto the air in the coming months.

At the same time, these transcription disks are a treasure trove of historical events from Interlochen's past.

"Technical challenges aside," Culler said, "it's fascinating restoring these archival recordings of some of the most influential conductors, composers and musicians of the early twentieth century."

Listening to history
Interlochen's founder Joe Maddy conducts the National High School Orchestra in Borodin's Polovtsian Dances in 1940

The cost of digitizing the transcription disks was underwritten entirely by the Hamer D. and Phyllis C. Shafer Foundation.

Melissa Birdsey and Eileen Ganter provided additional support for this article.