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"Digital Wizard"

by Robert Baxter, Courier-Post, 21 July 1996

Like a modern alchemist, Ward Marston leans toward his digital recording equipment and quickly manipulates the controls on the hard-disc drive. Marston is not turning base metal into gold. He's cleaning up the sound on an old 78 shellac of Artur Rubinstein. "Did you hear that?" asks the digital wizard as he begins to isolate a clicking sound embedded into the surface of the old disc. Once he marks the precise location of the click, the engineer rapidly pushes several buttons and then replays the excerpt.

A smile crosses Marston's face as he listens again to the brief excerpt. This time, no obtrusive click interferes with Rubinstein's playing. Marston, 44, has turned digital dubbing into an art. He has produced a long series of acclaimed CD restorations of legendary recordings by Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler and Rosa Ponselle. Critics marvel at Marston's talent for revitalizing old records. Through some digital alchemy, he liberates a singing voice from the deadening confines of old shellac and brings it back to vivid life. The International Classical Record Collector recently dubbed him "the compleat transfer engineer." Marston is also an extraordinary man who has triumphed over a devastating disability. Born prematurely, Marston was blinded by excessive oxygen piped into his incubator. Tragically, a year after he was born, doctors discovered they were destroying the sight of premature babies with too much oxygen. "I really don't think too much (about being blind)," says Marston, his seeing-eye dog, Dana, stretched out at his feet. "I wish I could drive a car, but I've tried lots of things."

Marston, who lives in Swarthmore, Pa., swims almost every day and recently took up cross-country skiing. Two years ago, he went sky diving for the first time.

"I jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet," he says. "I'm an adventurous person. I like adventure. I like thrills. "That's not to say I wasn't fearful. I had to try it once. I love to experience things. I love to feel sensations."

Perfect pitch

As a jazz pianist, Marston travels the world with his trio giving concerts at private parties from Hawaii to Switzerland. The travel brings him into contact with record collectors and lets him search out rare recordings. Marston's love for music surfaced early in his life. As a child he refused to go to sleep until his father played a record of Grieg's piano concerto. His mother discovered her 3-year-old son had perfect pitch when she hit a clinker on the piano and he shouted from his room, "It's F sharp." Music opened up a universe of sounds for the blind boy. Marston recalls driving his parents crazy by playing over and over again an aria recorded by Caruso.

"I was ecstatic when I played that record. My parents wanted to murder me because I played the same record 10 or 20 times." But it wasn't only the classics that fascinated Marston. Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington rank high among his musical idols. "I was like a sponge," he recalls. "I soaked up everything-opera, jazz, instrumental music, rock 'n' roll, the Beatles, Motown."

Career switch

By the time he was in the seventh grade, Marston had already formed his first jazz ensemble and was playing at parties in suburban Philadelphia. The extra income allowed him to buy the old records he loved to hear. At first, he haunted secondhand shops and thrift stores. Then, during forays to New York City, he became a serious collector when he discovered dealers who specialized in historical recordings. At that point, Marston was studying history at Williams College and intended to become a lawyer. The pull of music proved too strong. After graduation, Marston formed his own jazz group and began playing in restaurants around Philadelphia. "Now, I only play for private parties," he explains. "I know I'm there only because somebody wants to hear me perform, not because a restaurant needs some background music. It's fun, great fun." Even more fun, Marston readily admits, is restoring old records. He began, inadvertently, as a youngster when his parents gave him a tape recorder and he transferred his 78s to reel-to-reel tape. Marston engineered his first professional dubbings for the International Piano Library in the early 1970s. He achieved such lifelike, clear transfers, he was quickly picked up by CBS and RCA. For the Franklin Mint, Marston engineered a series of historical reissues. Over the decades, Marston has refined his techniques. At first he was satisfied to reproduce what everybody accepted as the standard 78 sound. Now, he tries to retrieve the original performance sound from old discs recorded almost a century ago.

Trade secrets

"I try to make my transfers sound like live music, not like old records," he explains. "Too many engineers fix in their mind a kind of model of how an old record sounds. I try to make the record sound the way the voice or instrument actually sounds."

Marston is reluctant to share all his techniques. "Do you want me to give away all my secrets?" he asks with a smile. Transferring old recordings to CD is an art. Most discs were recorded at speeds considerably slower or faster than 78 rpm. The small hole that fits a disc to the turntable is often off-center and causes slight distortion in playback.

Marston's keen ear allows him to determine the precise speed of a recording and also allows him to compensate for any fluctuation of pitch. An assistant helps him center a disc on his turntable to avoid any distortion in playback.

Marston says his blindness has not improved his hearing, but it does allow him to concentrate on sound without any visual distraction. "I have a keen musical ear and a sensitivity for sound, and I also have a certain technical propensity. I work well with machines." In recent years, Marston has worked primarily for BMG (formerly RCA) and for English historical labels like Romophone, Pearl and Biddulph. For BMG he is transferring Rubinstein's 78s onto 20 CDs. They will be issued in a 90-CD compilation of the pianist's complete recordings. He is also in the process of forming his own label, H.W. Marston. He intends to specialize in instrumental releases and French and American vocal reissues.

Forgotten voices

French singers are one of Marston's current passions. From the vast collection of 78s lining the walls of his studio, Marston excitedly pulls out paper sleeves holding rare recordings by Suzanne Brohly, Emma Luart and Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur.

Marston's face is transfixed as the sounds of Cesbron-Viseur's distinctive voice soars through the speakers. Her inimitable French style has disappeared in an age of mediocre singing. "That sound gives me chills," notes Marston after the aria from Massenet's Sapho ends.

"Some wonderful friends brought these voices to life for me when they shared these records with me years ago. Now, through my work, I'm trying to pass on my education to other people. "One of my goals is to share great and forgotten recordings with young people. I am so passionate about the work I'm doing. I think it is so important. Fortunately, digital technology is giving us a better way to pas on this priceless heritage of great singers and instrumentalists.


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