Hundreds of audio restorers, preservationists gathering in Baltimore this week for a conference all about sound recordings

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Ian Nagoski says he was first drawn to foreign records as a teenager. He would go to a yard sale and, for example, find an entire box of 78s, all in Russian, and “90 percent of them were terrible…and then there’d be two good ones in the box,” he says.

Such finds were rewarding. “It was this transformative thing where I got obsessed with one singer, and then in order to learn her story I had to learn about every one around her, her scene.”

His fondness for obscure foreign audio carried on into his adulthood here in Baltimore. A trained composer with a keen ear, Nagoski now runs his own record label, Canary Records, dedicated to restoring and reissuing early 20th-century recordings “made in the United States by immigrants who spoke Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Arabic,” from the 1910s through the 1950s, he says. He’s been doing this for about 10 years now.

Nagoski’s specialty is niche, but his devotion to audio restoration is shared by many. He’ll be in good company downtown this week, when hundreds of others dedicated to preserving sound in all of its forms—phonographic cylinders, 78s, cassettes and more—gather at the Inner Harbor for the Association of Recorded Sound Collections’ annual conference, spanning from Wednesday to Saturday.

The lineup is as varied as they come. There are technical sessions—”Analog Tape Playback” and “A Methodology for Digitizing Wax Cylinders”” for example—and niche and peculiar ones, like “Global Hits and Village Music in the Top Ten: Kenya’s Recording Boom of the 1970s and 1980s,” or “Microphones in Medicine,” all about recordings made at Johns Hopkins medical institutions from as early as the 1930s.

“The common thread is simply recorded sound,” says Matthew Barton, outgoing ARSC president of two years. The nonprofit association has about 800 members, most of them in the United States.

As with all ARSC conferences, this 52nd one will fixate on the catalogued noises of its host city. Main sessions will include “Baltimore Sounds,” about the city’s earliest known recordings, the works of Peabody-trained opera singer John Charles Thomas and more; “Bluegrass in and Around Baltimore,” about the genre’s rich local history; and “Revival and Reinterpretation,” which will recontextualize early racial stereotypes in recordings in light of the modern Black Lives Matter movement and the legacy of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in police custody.

Other sessions will cover Baltimore jazz and ragtime legend Eubie Blake; the rise of go-go and club music in the region; “obscure” audio of the Baltimore-born baseball legend Babe Ruth; and Ray Davis, the local bluegrass broadcaster who founded Wango Records, among others, according to the conference program.

“We try to really reflect the recording heritage of the area,” Barton says. “Baltimore has a really varied recording history. It covers country and rhythm and blues and bluegrass and blues, rock, rap.”

Audio restoration is tedious. In the case of a record, it begins with finding the best possible copy—sometimes only a couple exist for rare recordings—and cleaning out the “junk that settles in those grooves” over many decades, Barton says.

An ultimate goal is to restore audio that was once lost or hidden away, degraded over time—oftentimes simply from poor storage–and transfer it to a new recording. It requires using different styluses to play the record at its best quality for the specific grooves of the medium.

“When we say preservation, you’re trying to do the best you can by those original recordings,” Barton says.

Baltimore has become a “real hotbed of record collectors” over the last half-century, Nagoski says. The city’s economic decline, beginning in the late 1960s, left it “a place where there’s a lot of junk lying around that nobody wants, which is perfect for me,” he says. (He refers to himself a “bottom-feeder” in this way.)

Local crate diggers will have plenty to peruse Friday night, when ARSC hosts its Collectors’ Roundtable/Swap. The public can come and trade or sell or buy records, ranging from 50 cents to “premium collectibles,” according to the conference program.

For media restorers like Nagoski, the search for the right find can launch an entire journey, or even a “life’s calling,” as this 2010 Washington Post profile put it.

“The discovery and representation of the music is a big part of what the ARSC community is involved with,” he says. “It’s a tradition among some record nuts of looking for stuff that nobody else cares much about, then trying to do some research and learn some stories… It can change people’s values, and that’s the exciting thing for me.”

The ARSC’s 52nd Annuual Conference runs May 9-12 at Radisson Baltimore Inner Harbor. Click here for more info.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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