Music Tech Gallery: Edison Wax Cylinder

This post marks the first in a series where I will be sharing pieces of music technology from my personal collection. Over the years, I have made it a point to collect historical pieces of music technology. The bulk of my collection is comprised of recording and interactive media. While the collection looks pretty scattered various places around my office at school and at home, I figured I should “liberate” the various items from the physical to the digital world and share them with my students and readers.

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To start this blog series, I begin with a 1911 Edison Wax Cylinder. This piece was acquired back in 2010 as a result of a challenge/dare from my wife to find and bring back something “Made in America” from when I visited Beijing, China for the 2010 International Society for Music Education World Conference. I found it at the Panjiayuan Flea Market for $3. It was quite a challenge to find something made in America while in Beijing, so I was pretty excited when I came across this.

After some web sleuthing, I came across digitized versions of the recording on this cylinder from The University of California Santa Barbara cylinder archive and from Archive.org. Take a listen.

Title: The Monastery Bells

Artist : Indestructible Military Band

Cylinder: 1465

Year: 1911

UMass Lowell, where I teach, is known in part for its sound recording program. We had an opportunity to get up close and personal to Edison Wax Cylinders a couple years ago thanks to a visit from Gerald Fabris, a curator at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. He brought along a vintage cylinder player (160 rpm), a wax cylinder recorder and several blank “virgin” wax cylinders which are still being manufactured in the UK for historical enthusiasts. One of our sound recording majors wrote a short composition (wax cylinders can only record a bit over 2 minutes of music) and recorded several takes. Unlike today where we can utilize multiple microphones, place them close to the sound sources and balance their levels with a mixer, recordings made to wax cylinder required moving the musicians closer and further away from the recording “horn” to achieve a balanced recording. Our students recorded the various takes to wax cylinder and to digital using a variety of mono and stereo microphone techniques. Check out the video below for the process:

Here’s a set of photos from the session.

3 Comments

  • Serge Puchinsky says:

    Thanks for this great resource. I’m looking forward to learning about the rest of your collection. I’m a high school music teacher and I have two music technology classes that will be very interested in this amazing historic technology. Thanks!

  • Shawn Borri says:

    Cylinder records are quite popular now, there is an upstart in there manufacture in both the blanks and in innovative moulded records as well. There are two of us in the United States who make blank , brown wax cylinders, myself and Chuck Richards, and then again as previously mentioned Paul Morris in the UK. From the backlog, I have it is really a surprise of how popular the Edison style cylinder is. There are about 3 makers of the moulded cylinders as well. To make a moulded cylinder, a metallic soap blank is needed to make the master this is plated to make a working mold in metal or metal impregnated epoxy.

  • […] Technologies of frailty and failure make us hear recordings differently. Each performance of a wax cylinder and to some extent an LP is different and bears the marks of its life as an artefact in the world on the skin of its sound: http://www.alexruthmann.com/blog1/?p=459 […]

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