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Thursday, July 7, 2022

Digitizing audio that has been unheard of for almost 100 years: NPR

Early opera recordings on wax cylinders 1900–1904, recorded by Lionel Mapleson.

Robert Cato Lionel / New York Public Library


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Robert Cato Lionel / New York Public Library


Early opera recordings on wax cylinders 1900–1904, recorded by Lionel Mapleson.

Robert Cato Lionel / New York Public Library

Before audio playlists, before cassette tapes and even before records, there were cylinders of wax—the oldest, mass-produced way people could listen to commercial music and record themselves.

In the 1890s, they were a revolution. People slipped empty cylinders onto their Edison phonographs (or shaved wax on commercial cylinders) and recorded their families, their environments, themselves.

“When I first started here, it was a format I didn’t know much about,” said Jessica Wood, assistant curator for music and recording sound at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “But it turned out to be my favorite format, because there are so many unknowns and it’s possible to discover things that haven’t been heard since they were recorded.”

They have not been heard because the wax is very delicate. Soon after only hearing a few dozen when played on Edison machines, the putty-colored cylinders wear out; They explode if you hold them in your hand for too long. And because the wax tubes themselves were unlabeled, many of them remain a mystery.

“They may have been people’s birthday parties,” Wood said, recording that could tell us more about the social history of the time. “Or they could be “The Star-Spangled Banner” or something incredibly common,” he laughed. “I really hope for people’s birthday parties.”

He’s particularly curious about a box of unlabeled cylinders he found on a storage shelf in 2016. Everything she knows about him was inside the box: the gift of Mary Dana to the New York Public Library in 1935.

The Endpoint Cylinder and Dectabelt Machine, invented by Nicholas Berg, is now at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Jonathan Blank/New York Public Library


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Jonathan Blank/New York Public Library


The Endpoint Cylinder and Dectabelt Machine, invented by Nicholas Berg, is now at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Jonathan Blank/New York Public Library

log in Endpoint Cylinder and Dectabelt Machine, was invented by Nicolas Berg of California, which was recently acquired by the library. Thanks to its laser and needle combination, it can digitize even broken or torn wax cylinders—and there are plenty of them. But the cylinder’s design, said Berg, is what makes it fragile, also its strength.

“Edison thought of this format as a recording format, almost like a cassette machine,” Berg said. “That’s why the format is a [cylinder], Very hard to do on disk. And that’s why there’s so much great material on wax cylinders that doesn’t exist on discs, like field recorded cylinders, ethnographic material, home recordings, things like that.”

One of those important collections owned by the library is “Mapleson Cylinders”, a collection recorded by the Metropolitan Opera’s librarian Lionel Mapleson at the turn of the last century. Mapleson recorded rehearsals and performances – this was the only way listeners could hear pre-World War I opera singers with a full orchestra. Bob Kosowski, a librarian in the Music and Recorded Sound division, said that the Mapleson cylinders “represent the first comprehensive live recording in recorded history.”

He said that some stars sing like no contemporary opera singer sings. “And it gives us a kind of keyhole about things at that time. Not necessarily doing it the same way today, but just knowing what options are available and what singers and artists and audiences used to do with these things.” How we conceived, which is very different from our own concept. It’s a way for our brains to listen to what other possibilities exist.”

It will take a few years for the library to digitize all its cylinders. But when they do, listeners across the country should be able to access them from their home computers, much like people 100 years ago looked and thought.

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– Article Written By @ from https://www.npr.org/2022/04/05/1090819310/mystery-recordings-will-now-be-heard-for-the-first-time-in-about-100-years

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