The first tango recordings were done around 1906/1907. They were successful until the 40’s also known as the golden age. On the contrary, during the second half of the century, tango declined and consequently the number of recording decreased. Today, dancers, musicians and collectors try to breathe new life to these golden age treasures. But really survived? Can we still save few recordings?
Technology and audio support mediums evolved over time.
JUntil 1954, we talk about 78 rpm "discos de pasta", on which only 2 tracks were recorded (one on each side). In the 50’s, vinyl records replace the old 78rpm. It is now possible to record about twelve tracks on the same disc.
Bad luck, this is the era of tango decline, and therefore only the hits (mainly form the 40’s) are republished on the new format. Mostly the famous orchestra-singer duos, like Pugliese-Chanel, Troilo-Fiorentino, D'Agostino-Vargas, Tanturi-Castillo and so on. For profitability reasons, too bad for the others, unfortunately.
Even if there is no accurate figure, we estimate that approximately 25 000 disks where edited in the 78rpm format, which mean about 50 000 recordings in total (2 tracks per disk). Nice discography! But the following hurts…
From those 50 000 estimated recordings, only 12 000 were republished on a more recent support medium, like the vinyl (larga duracion / long play) of the 50’s and 60’s, tapes from the 70’s, or CD’s from the 90’s.
Conclusion: if those figures are correct, there are about 40 000 tracks never republished since their original 78rpm edition; about 80% of tango recordings performed during the first half of the century!
As you can understand, some recordings are definitely lost. At the time of 78rpm disks, recording companies could produce 5000 copies when the recording was a success (those disks have been found easily and most of them have already been republished), but for the others less famous, they limited the production to the minimum, about 300 copies.
Who can find one of those rare treasure in good conditions more than 50 years later...
What about the original copies?
During the transition to the new technology around 1954, several original copies (the ones used to produce the 78rpm disks in quantity) hold by the recording companies were destroyed. For them, it was clear that these originals were not useful anymore. For some labels like Odeon, before throwing it away they did some copies on magnetic tapes. For others, like RCA Victor, stock equal costs and they didn’t make any copy. Trash forever!
Time is not on our side!
What is lost, is lost, but some people may have last 78rpm’s in their collection or hidden somewhere into the Argentinian grandmother's attic… The work initiated by few organizations is to retrieve what can be saved before it is too late. From what they can restore, a little part is edited on CD. The issue is that labels have budget constraints. Like in the 40’s, to produce a disk requires a minimum quantity of copies. Today, one or two thousands is really the minimal threshold for factories! In front of it, the tango market is really small. Are we enough tango addicts ready to pay for those disks? I don’t think so.
By the way, the CD itself is a declining support medium and stores eventually offer one or two "cliché" compilations with poor edition quality. Not really what we are looking for. Of course there is the online music transition, but the excessive use of MPEG compressions (mp3, AAC... formats) often has a huge impact on the audio quality.
Who still purchase good quality recordings today?
I can dare to say that copyrights won’t pay that much to the authors, often deceased. But, a music which is purchased is a little contribution to the companies and associations which invest money, time and energy to publish the tangos we like. It stimulates the creation of releases, hopefully with recordings that we are still missing.
Another consideration is the quality. Most of the files exchanged every day by hand, have a poor quality compared to the original CD. This is mainly due to successive encodings performed by several audio software. Compressed audio formats using MPEG type of algorithms (mp3, AAC, WMA) are 'destructive’; in other words, and to make it simple, the trick used to compress your files is to delete some audio frequencies. Usually a single encoding process preserves a known quality level, while successive encodings dramatically reduce the quality.
You may recognize yourself in this description, today most tangueros download free mp3 files, use mainly YouTube or an equivalent, or even use these over-compressed contents for their milongas, without knowing – by habit or because they had no chance to really compare – the huge impact on audio quality. Instead, use known audio sources, compare them, and to go further, my previous article "How to properly organize your tango music collection?" should help. Audio quality matters, especially for 100 years old recordings, and I hope we will keep recovering few old treasures before they definitely disappear.
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