Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project
» VIEW BLOG Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project Blog
burdt on 07/03/2013 at 08:36AM
The Star Spangled Banner became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931. It was written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key about his experiences in the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The lyrics are sung to the tune of a British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven" composed by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, an amateur musician's group from London.
The song's four stanzas and one and a half octave range make it a challenge to perform for amateurs and professionals alike. Nevertheless, The Star Spangled Banner has been a staple of military and public events since the 19th century.
The earliest recording of The Star Spangled Banner the CPDP has processed is a Columbia Phonograph Co. brown wax cylinder performed by George J. Gaskin sometime between 1896 and 1900. He was born in Belfast Ireland and was known as "The Silver Voiced Irish Tenor." This rendition of the national anthem has many of the familiar nuances we have become accustomed to hearing, in addition to some familiar gaffes. For example, listen to his rushed phrasing after "the rocket's red glare" and his continuous struggle to hit every high note. In spite of these flaws, this recording is an excellent representation of the single-take-warts-and-all spirit of the brown wax cylinder era.
The most common performances of The Star Spangled Banner captured on cylinder are instrumental and vocal renditions by various military bands. Edison and Indestructible records had their house military bands perform renditions of this and other patriotic songs; the New York Military Band and the United States Marine Band also recorded their own versions of the song as part of patriotic medleys or on its own. One of the most popular medley versions was an Edison Blue Amberol titled "Patriotic Songs of America" performed by the New York Military Band and The Premier Quartet in 1910. The CPDP has five different takes (two of the original and three of the reissue) of this medley alone! In terms of standalone instrumental performances of the national anthem, the United States Marine Band's 1910 version for Edison Standard Records is phenomenal in its regal spirit and subdued grandiosity.
Perhaps the most interesting recording of The Star Spangled Banner the CPDP has is Harry E. Humphrey and the choir boys of St. Ignatius Loyola's "Our National Song" on Edison Blue Amberol from 1916. This version is a didactic recitation about the history of the Star Spangled Banner followed by the St. Ignatius Loyola's choir boys' wide-eyed rendering of the anthem's first stanza. Humphrey posessed a spellbinding oratorial skill and the children choir's provides a compelling coda to his poetic eloquence.
burdt on 08/10/2011 at 09:00AM
Cylinders 8667 to 8671 are a mystery for several reasons.
At first glance they’re run of the mill Blue Amberols. These were some of the most mass produced cylinders of the cylinder era.
Upon closer examination, however, these cylinders are something else entirely. Here's the cataloger's note for further insight:
Custom Blue Amberol recordings, possibly from a larger set of brown wax field recordings that were recorded in Faaone Tahiti, and possibly privately pressed as Blue Amberol cylinders by Edison in New Jersey. Recordings were possibly made by anthropologists Frank Stimson or Edward S. C. Handy in 1923. Four of the five cylinders are stamped "Tahiti-#" on the rim and handwritten notes on the boxes say "Himene Chorus, Faaone, Tahiti, 1923 (Handy)."
The biggest mystery here is how these cylinders were recorded. The cataloger’s note suggests that these five recordings are privately pressed dubbings of brown wax cylinders. This is almost certainly not the case because the groove widths and reproduction speeds don’t match up with those belonging to production Blue Amberol cylinders of the era. Furthermore, if these were dubbed from wax cylinders, the playback noise of the second machine should be audible, but extra noise just isn’t there. How were these five cylinders recorded then?
The groove width and reproduction speed matches up with that of brown wax cylinders. Perhaps a brown wax recording machine was jerry-rigged into recording onto Blue Amberols. How did the field recordists find five blank Blue Amberols then? Cylinder shaving machines existed for deleting brown wax recordings. Perhaps these were also jerry-rigged into deleting pre-existing Blue Amberol recordings.
Unless the details of their recording techniques are among their papers at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, Handy or Stimson’s Tahitian field recordings will continue to puzzle cylinder enthusiasts for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, the contents of these recordings are as interesting as the questions behind their provenance.
The recordings fade in to an already established harmony and end abruptly as the cylinder grooves run out, a common occurrence in cylinder field recordings.
Nevertheless, what is captured is undeniably human and vital in spite of the narrow dynamic and tonal bandwith the medium allowed.
Himene is etymologically related to the word hymn and the sound these cylinders capture is a marriage of the vocal songs of native Tahitians and the sacred choral music that the European missionaries left behind. It is a haunting sound that retains its distance while remaining innately familiar.
(I have posted pictures of an additional mystery object that accompanied these cylinders after the jump.)
burdt on 06/22/2011 at 09:00AM
Bohumir Kryl (1875-1961) was one of the first virtuoso performers to be immortalized by audio recording technology.
He arrived in the United States at the age of 14, having spent 3 years as a circus performer in Bohemia after running away from home.
Kryl picked up the cornet after an injury during his time in the circus, becoming proficient enough to perform in street parades only after a few weeks.
In 1894 he approached Albert Bode, cornetist for the renowned Sousa's Band, for cornet lessons during one of their Indianapolis appearances. After hearing Kryl play Bode said:
That boy wants to take lessons from me, but hell, I can't teach him anything, he's better than I am.
Bohumir played for Sousa's Band until 1898, after which he performed in various outfits finally establishing his own band in 1906.
His dazzling performances and flamboyant looks wowed and thrilled crowds, as this radiant review from the Los Angeles Examiner shows:
About Kryl there is no question – even without his wonderful mass of tangled flaxen hair he would be a musical wonder. He is both and artist and magician. Caruso of the golden voice might almost envy Kryl his artificial golden throat, for Kryl sings through his cornet with a rich, clean-cut tone that carries no suggestion of metal with it – May 16, 1905.
He continued to perform well into his 60s to welcoming crowds and sold out venues, having also made dozens of solo recordings for Columbia, Edison Victor, and Zonophone.
The three selections for this week showcase his genius during the cylinder era.
"Carnival of Venice" is Kryl's signature performance, showcasing his absolute mastery of the cornet with elaborately fast passages and a difference tone so low his cornet seems to morph into a trombone or tuba even.
"Ben Bolt" is a somber meditation that shows off his subtle touch and effortlessly melodious tone, reminding us that virtuosity isn't always about being the fastest or flashiest performer.
"Du, Du", on the other hand, is a whimsical look into his upper register technique with trills so fast and flamboyant at times it appears that two cornetists are playing in absolute lockstep. Nevertheless, his speed and accuracy never prevent his personality from beaming through.
burdt on 05/04/2011 at 09:00AM
Brown wax cylinders, the primary medium for commercial recordings between 1895 and 1901, were in circulation much longer as wax “blanks”—to be recorded on and "shaved" (erasing the old grooves) and recorded on again.
The following is a selection from our minor collection of these. Each recording is a small wonder, for it is highly doubtful that their creators would ever have imagined that they would be heard so many years later.
A boy recites a psalm in the sober, headlong fashion of a child. How old is he?
Men sing to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” Have they had too much to drink?
The vocal duet of Suwanee River—is that a husband and wife, brother and sister, friends?
And then there are the animal noises--is that a real cat or someone imitating a cat? We hope it is the latter...
These few minutes of sound give us an aural snapshot of the lives of people from a previously silent era.
This glimpse into the quiet past has its complications though.
Since amateur recording practices weren't standardized at this time, level discrepancies, speed fluctuations, and unintended noise were recurring issues that we have to deal with while preserving and digitizing these cylinders today.
In spite of these engineering problems, the essence of the past remains. It is this, more than anything, that keeps us listening.
jason on 04/21/2011 at 07:00AM
Cylinder recordings are some of the earliest artifacts from the dawn of recorded sound.
After the heyday of cylinder recordings this sonic window into the past was largely closed, and only small numbers of collectors and archivists struggling to preserve these fragile artifacts for future generations could hear or study these recordings.
Based out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project began in 2003 to address this very issue. In the past 8 years the CPDP has managed to catalog, digitize, and upload nearly 10,000 cylinder recordings to its freely accessible website. Thousands more await digitization in UCSB's state of the art preservation and digitization facility.
Berto Solis, the UCSB digitization lab's team leader, and David Seubert, the director of the project, will be uploading to the FMA a weekly sampling of some of the best and most interesting examples of the recordings being digitized.
For the first installment, here's a small cross section of material spanning several genres and highlighting the audio fidelity achieved solely by acoustical recording technology. Yes, you read that right, no electricity was involved in making these original cylinder recordings! So sit back, relax, and get ready for a sonic snapshot a hundred years into the past.
Gondolier/Temptation rag. Fred Van Eps and Albert Benzler. U.S. Everlasting Record: 1260. 
Banjo recording by Fred Van Eps recorded for the US Everlasting Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The second half of the cylinder is Temptation Rag, a great ragtime banjo recording with stunning audio quality that is proof that acoustical recordings can sound magnificent.
Pescatori di Perle. [Pêcheurs de perles. Je crois entendre encore] / Georges Bizet. Aristodemo Giorgini. Edison Amberol: 30032. 
An aria from Bizet's Pearl Fishers sung by Italian tenor Aristodemo Giorgini. Early recordings provide a valuable link to 19th century performance styles that would otherwise be lost. This recording is an Edison Amberol, the most fragile of all of the common types of cylinders. These cylinders have become so brittle over time that it sometimes seems that they can shatter if you look at them funny.
What a time. Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette. Edison Amberol 391. 
Polk Miller was born in 1844 and was in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His group, the Old South Quartette, was integrated and included four black musicians. They were very popular 100 years ago and the songs they recorded still hold up well for modern listeners.
A live interview with Berto and David will air on WFMU on 04/21/11 at 11am.