Sunday, May 10, 2009

Classic Rock Vidoes

Led Zeppelin - Immigrant Song

It's Alive!: Bringing new life to old records

Freedom News Service

In a shadowy basement, past shelves and shelves of dusty, preserved specimens, Bill Cook stepped into his laboratory.

In front of him stood stacks and stacks of arcane machines, tangled with cables.

"Some call me Dr. Frankenstein," he said, turning, so the light caught his face. "I take old, dead recordings and bring them back to life."

He laughed, then slipped a scratched, 70-year-old record out of its yellowed paper sleeve, laid it on a spinning RCA turntable, and set the needle in the groove.

The laboratory in an unassuming split-level house on a quiet wooded lot in Woodland Park, Colo., suddenly flooded with the blare of big band horns and clarinets. The vinyl hissed and crackled as the needle clattered in rutted grooves. It sounded as if the whole band were playing through a tin can.

Cook, 78, stood still for a moment, listening, then started to nudge knobs and prod switches. Lights blinked. Signals surged through cables. Processors crunched the millions of ones and zeros that make up digital sound. And slowly Cook coaxed the battered sound of the record back to life, until it almost sounded as though the band were in the room.

That is Cook's passion and his art. He digs up the remains of recordings, revives them with a complex cocktail of digital processes, and rerecords them on CD as bright, digital sound.

He then re-releases selected works on his tiny record label, Audiophonic.

"I can take an old 78 from the Depression and make it sound like it was recorded yesterday," he said.

He turned back to his stacks of analog equalizers, amplifiers, and digital enhancers and fiddled with the knobs, making slight adjustments.

Cook is one of a small cadre of cottage audio craftsman slowly bringing dead music back to the future.

"There are several people, each with different specialties," said Rick Starr of Portland, Ore., who markets and distributes releases for a handful of digital remasterers, including Cook.

"What makes Bill Cook special is his ear," Starr said. "He is an audio wonk ... an audio geek ... an audiophile ... he just has a really amazing ear. And he has an incredible collection of records."

Shelves sag under the weight of 50,000 records in Cook's laboratory - 45s, LPs, old 78s, and about 30,000 rare 16-inch vinyl discs called transcriptions that were played by radio stations from the 1930s to the early 1950s, before the invention of the LP.

"Those are my specialty," Cook said. "I've been collecting them my whole life."

Cook's is not the largest collection of transcriptions, but it's close.

"The Library of Congress still has me beat," he said with a slight chuckle.


Cook has been fascinated with sound since he built his own high fidelity record player as a kid in 1942.

"Regular records sounded like hell," he said. "Those transcriptions from the radio stations were the only source of hi-fi records. So I started collecting them."

He trained as an electrical engineer in college and hung around Hollywood sound studios on summer breaks. He owned AM and FM radio stations in Colorado Springs, Colo. He worked in film. He even worked for the Apollo space program - always trying to create better sound.

Along the way he kept collecting old sound equipment and 16-inch records. Today his basement is a tangle of old and new. Boxes of vacuum tubes, New Deal-era turntables the size of washing machines, and a 7-foot-tall Ampex amplifier stand next to state-of-the-art digital converters.

"This is the recorder Lawrence Welk used to lipsync all his shows," he said, pointing to a large 1940 reel-to-reel.

"This amplifier was used to record the theme to ‘Star Trek,'" he said. "As this stuff got old and new technology moved in, people were just smashing up this stuff and throwing it away. So I would take it off their hands."

Cook feeds the scratchy analog sound through a series of computers - aptly called the declicker, decrackler, dehisser and debuzzer - that take out all the noise, leaving clean, digital music.

The whole setup costs about $100,000, Cook said.

Cook's stash of old equipment and lifetime working with sound put him in a perfect position to become the Dr. Frankenstein of a dead musical era. But it is the shelves of 16-inch radio transcriptions that give him a loophole to do it legally.


As recording technology has changed over the decades, whole libraries of music have been marooned on obsolete technology. Who has a record player anymore?

Hobbyists such as Cook have the technology to update old music, but copyright law, which generally states that record labels own the rights to a recording forever, keep them from doing it. If someone found a 100-year-old Columbia Records wax cylinder and wanted to rerecord it on CD, Columbia would have to give permission first.

Companies often choose not to, or charge royalties that make it too pricey.

But Cook has slipped through the cracks. His 16-inch transcription discs were never sold to the public. Record companies sent them to radio stations to play, then be thrown away.

"So they weren't regulated under the same laws," Cook said. "We exist in a gray area."

Since 2004, his tiny record label has released a dozen CDs by long-dead artists such as Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra and country-western stars the Sons of the Pioneers.

He has sold several thousand copies through collectors' magazines and his Web site,

His tiny company also digitizes people's personal record collections.

"This is all music I love," he said as he stood listening to the clean stream of band music pouring out of the laboratory. "It makes me happy to be able to bring it alive."