Winding the handle
The Shellac Collective
Aside from his solo work, Dave is also involved in a group called The Shellac Collective, which he co-founded with a friend and record dealer called Greg Butler. As its name suggests, the group is made up of like-minded shellac enthusiasts, who are equally interested in performing with old 78s. Dave explains how the group came into existence.
“After I had been doing DJ78 for a year or so, through Myspace I got in contact with Greg Butler who has dealt in second-hand records – specifically 78s – for many years. I was really pleased when I met him because one of the inspirations for doing what I am doing is John Peel. John would specifically play a 78rpm disk every night on the section of his show called ‘The Pig’s Big 78’. His wife, Sheila, was nicknamed the Pig, and she would choose the record. Well, it turned out that Peel was getting his 78s from Greg.
“Greg lives in Foxton just outside Cambridge and his house is literally full, floor to ceiling, with 78s. Every shed and outhouse is stacked with records, all carefully filed in the right place so that you can find what you are looking for. He has 100,000 plus 78s and everything is for sale. Twice a year he has an open day where collectors can turn up and rifle through everything. It’s a great meeting point for shellac enthusiasts and it was on one of these days that Greg and I said we should be doing something with all these records. We thought we should be going out together and DJing so we put the feelers out and found other people who were interested in DJing with 78s.
“Some of the people we found were already doing something similar. There is a group of girls in London called the Shellac Sisters, who were doing a similar thing, although they use adapted wind-up gramophones with magnetic cartridges fitted to the soundboxes so that they actually have a line out signal which is fed to an amplifier. So they are bypassing the acoustic horn side of it and going to straight to something they can amplify.
“We also discovered other collectors who wanted to DJ but didn’t necessarily already do it with gramophones and it progressed from there. There are now, I’d say, about 20 of us in the collective. And our big days out are things like Bestival on the Isle of Wight, where we have a whole tent which we curate. Everyone in the Shellac collective turns up and does their sets with their own records, but we have live music in between the shellac sets.
“We often, by necessity, have to use electric decks, just because amplifying the wind-up gramophones still doesn’t give you tonally, or sonically, the kind of sound that people want to dance to. All the tone coming off a wind-up gramophone is top and middle. There’s no bass so it is quite piercing and there is not really any way you can EQ it out. Yet the bass is actually enormous on many 1950s tunes. ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline, for example, has one of the best bass sounds you’ll ever hear recorded. If you get a good 78 of it and play it on a good deck it blows your socks off!
“So when we do big festivals we actually use this old disco unit with a pair of 1960s DSR decks in it – ‘the Wheels of Wood’ as they are affectionately termed – which are then amplified through a big PA.
“We’ve been in contact with a company called The Expert Stylus and Cartridge Company in Surrey and they have made new diamond conical styli for our decks. These diamonds are made to very, very precise sizes. There is a larger size which is for pre 1939 pressings, then after 1939 the size of the groove changed very slightly but perceptibly, so we use smaller styli to play later tracks. The custom-made styli fit into standard 1960s flip-over style cartridges. The diamonds should last for many years because they track at a very low weight of about 2.5 grams, whereas the steel needles, by contrast, take about 4 ounces! Vinyl wouldn’t stand being played with a steel needle, for example, it would be ripped apart, so vinyl 78s we play on our electric decks.
“Using steel needles is basically like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut: if you stick a steel needle in not much is going to get past it, but if you want to get to where the sound is best on the record you need to have a very precisely sized stylus, mainly because the groove will be worn in a certain place on a record where it has been played with steel needles. If you can then get the stylus to drop past that and into the bit that isn’t worn, but not so far that it drops into the bottom of the groove where all the dirt and debris collects, then you have the best possible sound from the record.
“We are talking microns rather than millimetres. There are companies that sell a box with six different size styli inside and the manufacturer’s advice is that the best one to use is the one that sounds best, so you try all sizes on a record. They are really for people who are making transcriptions of rare records. It’s complicated but I love tinkering to try and find the best needle for a particular record. It really appeals to me. It goes right back to my dad playing around with tape.
“We also wire all our cartridges to mono because no 78 is stereo. If you don’t do that and just play them with an ordinary cartridge, even though the music remains mono, the dirt and surface noise is picked up in stereo so you end up with stereo cracking but mono music! At least this way, by having them wired to mono, you get everything in the same plane.”