This Project Is Digitizing Wax Cylinders So You Can Listen Like It's 1880
There’s been a quiet revival around this mostly forgotten recording medium.
A wax cylinder record from the UC Santa Barbara collection. Image: UC Santa Barbara Library
Wax cylinders—the earliest commercial medium for recording sound—will probably never make a massive comeback in the same way as vinyl. But there's still a sizeable fan base for the sound recording device from Thomas Edison's era.
For the last decade, a group at University of California Santa Barbara have been slowly digitizing a collection of wax cylinder recordings so that the public can access these sounds of the past. Wax cylinder production started in the early 1880s and lasted until around 1929.
"We've been collecting early historical recordings since about the 1970s, but in 2005 we wanted to bring these materials to the public," archivist David Seubert, who heads up the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, told me over the phone. "This was in the early days of the internet when Napster was around and people started to experience the ease of sharing music online."
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The digitization project celebrated its ten-year anniversary last month, when it got relaunched as the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive along with a fresh new website. According to Seubert, wax cylinders are experiencing a small resurgence in popularity.
"I get emails from young musicians who listen to these recordings and who have discovered a whole new world in a sense," said Seubert. Unlike modern sound production, which allows musicians to amend, edit, sample, and remix their tracks, wax cylinder recordings are fixed in time.
"With wax cylinder recordings it was all done live, straight onto the cylinder. So you sat down in front of the horn, the recordist would start the recording going, and you played for ten minutes and that was it. It was permanently in the wax," said Seubert.
Among the 11,000 digitized records on the website, visitors can listen along to everything from jazz, ragtime, and waltzes to whistling tunes. What sets the USBC collection apart, said Seubert, is its international scope and emphasis on collecting all types of music and sound.
"A lot of major archives were focused on ethnographic collections, meaning scientists went into the field and recorded languages and musical cultures. Our collection is focused on commercial recordings that aren't for documentation and study, but for popular consumption and entertainment," said Seubert.
"This is what you would have listened to in your parlour in 1905 as a means of entertainment before radio and television," he added.
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Finding pristine recordings is, however, hard, given how delicate wax cylinders are. "If you drop a cylinder on the floor it will break—they're as fragile as a light bulb, essentially," said Seubert.
Many cylinders the team come across are found in a semi-destroyed state. "Some have been lost over time because of neglect and the elements," said Seubert.
The subtle crackles and pops that you can hear on some wax cylinder recordings embed some of the tunes in this archive in a distinct far-away era. Once the files are digitized, however, Seubert's team use noise reduction equipment to edit out most of the loudest interferences.
"We're very gentle with that process because there are a lot of early recordings online that are over-processed and sound like they're underwater," he explained. "We want to make something that's a little more easy for people to listen to today. If the music is completely buried under clicks, pops, and static, then people will just tune out and go back to SoundCloud."
Seubert admitted that sometimes there are a lot of non-descript cylinders to get through, but said he felt elated when he came across a gem.
"I guess what's exciting for me is when I'm listening to these cylinders and suddenly there's one where I'm like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe how great that is and nobody's probably heard this for 105 years, but this should be on everybody's iTunes playlist," said Seubert.