A hundred and twenty years ago – sixty-odd years before the tape-recorder became generally available – it was quite possible for ordinary people to make sound recordings in their homes without using any specialised equipment. What is more, this process did not involve any microphone, amplifier or other electrical device, nor did it need an external power source; it could be done in a gaslit drawing-room, a ploughman’s cottage or an explorer’s tent.
The technology was that of the cylinder phonograph, as developed by Thomas Alva Edison from 1887 onwards. The record medium was a cylinder or tube 4.25” long and just under 2.2” wide (108mm x 55.8mm), made of a wax-like mineral compound. The hardware – the phonograph itself – was originally very bulky and heavy and required fragile wet-cell batteries (resembling thick-necked decanters full of liquid acid) to power its electric motor; however, by the late 1890s Edison was offering a model (the Standard) which was compact and portable – so much so that even in the 1930s ethnomusicologists and folk-song researchers were still using thirty-year-old phonographs, usually Edison Standards, to make field recordings.
Model B, 1907
Columbia Type Q
Edison had originally intended the phonograph as a dictating-machine rather than a means of entertainment, so that his machines (and often those of other manufacturers as well) were designed to allow easy recording in the home or office; all one had to do in the way of preparation was to release a thumbscrew or clamp, remove the ‘reproducer’ (sound-box or playing head), put a ‘recorder’ in its place, fit a horn or speaking-tube, and place a blank cylinder on the ‘mandrel’ (the nickel-plated barrel which carries the cylinder, thus corresponding to the turntable of a gramophone).
There are still a few people today who do this. I am one of them, and the purpose of this page is to share a few details and examples of what the phonograph could do in its own time and what it can do today. I am not an expert, and perhaps that is precisely the point: being an Edwardian-style recording engineer is, to my mind, much simpler than being a present-day one, at least if one does not aspire to record a whole band or complex ensemble.
—––- Here are a few examples —––-
Die Post (from Die Winterreise – Schubert) Sung by Oliver Mundy (in German)
Except where stated, these were recorded at 120 r.p.m. on a Columbia Q Graphophone (top left), using a German-made
EWC (Excelsiorwerke Cöln) recorder fitted with a substitute diaphragm cut from a piece of plastic rescued from
the rubbish-bin! The accompaniments were digitally constructed on my computer. Left-click the
highlighted text to play the file; if this does not work, right-click and then, in the
dialogue-box which will then appear, click Open link or Open file.
Der Leiermann (from Die Winterreise – Schubert) Sung by Oliver Mundy (in German)
The blank cylinders were supplied by Paul Morris (http://www.paulmorrismusic.co.uk), one of only three people
in the world (as far as I know) who still make them.
The two cylinders above were made on blanks which had been previously used and then cleaned with white spirit. The
proper way to recycle cylinders is by shaving off the existing recording with a sapphire blade, but I do not possess the
equipment. Chemical cleaning results in a higher level of surface noise; thus these records do not correctly represent
the quality of Paul’s blanks in their virgin state.
By the time this record was made, I had replaced the plastic diaphragm with one made of thin glass, identical to that
originally fitted. I obtained this from Norman Bruderhofer (http://www.cylinder.de/index.html). For the voice at least it
seems greatly superior to either the Edison recorder or the EWC with my old improvised diaphragm; consonants are
noticeably more distinct.
—––- And here, for comparison, are a few genuine records from about 1900 —––-
Charles D’Almaine (1871–1943), a Yorkshireman by birth, settled in America early in life. He secured a post with the
Chicago opera-house orchestra and later with that of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He was active in recording
from at least 1899, working for several companies on both cylinders and discs. In 1904, when the Victor company
formed a studio orchestra, D’Almaine was appointed its leader. In later life he built a new career as a chiropractor.
The ‘Scotch Air’ is Ye Banks and Braes.
James Hough, a former sewing-machine salesman from Manchester, began to make records in the early 1890s. From
1898 he used the name ‘Edisonia’, but soon afterwards his business merged with that of the Edison-Bell Consolidated
Phonograph Company which held the sales agency for Edison and Columbia machines, and eventually the recording
department also used the Edison-Bell name. This record does not identify the maker, but the announcement is very
much in the Edison-Bell style. Eric Farr continued to record into the black-wax era (after 1902) and is also found on
Gramophone & Typewriter discs. The recording speed is very slow for a cylinder, about 115 r.p.m.
Somebody seems to have used the blank area at the end of the cylinder for a home recording What I hear is the
rather distant wailing of a cat, followed by a distinct bark of a dog.
Auction Sale of a Piano George Graham (reciter)/F. W. Gaisberg (piano)
Berliner disc (U.S.), No. 644W, dated 26 May 1896
George Graham, a Washington (D.C.) street entertainer, was among the earliest artists to perform on Emile Berliner’s
seven-inch disc records, while Fred Gaisberg, then a studio pianist and recording technician, would afterwards become
one of the most honoured and influential people in the British record industry. According to Gaisberg’s reminiscences,
this sketch was originally devised by himself and Berliner without any involvement by Graham. Certainly there was an
even older version than this, included among the samples which Gaisberg took to Philadelphia in March 1895.
Note the very rough surface; discs were then much inferior to cylinders in this respect. The opening announcement runs
‘Imitation of an auctioneer selling a piano, by George Graham’. I believe the recording machine was still hand-cranked,
but the shaky pitch of Gaisberg’s demonstrations on the piano is probably a deliberate exaggeration. ‘Why, on dis
pianner Richard Wagg-ner got his foist inspiration to write the Götterdämmerung – I dunno what that is, but anyhow he
wrote it on dis pianner!’
In cellar cool (Im tiefen Keller) (Ludwig Fischer) E. F. James (bassoon)
Anon. [Edison-Bell or Edisonia] brown wax
Edwin Frederick James (1861–1921) was one of the most distinguished wind-players in Britain. In Henry Wood’s very
first Promenade Concert (10th August 1895) he led the bassoon section and played a solo in the second half. Nine years
later he was one of forty players who left Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra in order to establish the London Symphony
Orchestra. Elgar wrote a Romance for bassoon and orchestra (op. 62) especially for him. James favoured the French
(Buffet-Crampon) pattern of bassoon, less rotund and mellifluous but more varied in tone than the German Heckel
design which is now almost universal; its distinctive buzzing quality is quite recognisable on this record.
The piece is a straightforward transcription of a drinking song for bass voice by Ludwig Fischer (1745–1825), a friend
of Mozart’s (he created the part of Osmin in Die Entführung). The slow tempo and emphatic phrasing, disconcerting
perhaps to modern listeners, follow traditions generally observed by bass singers in performing the song.
I believe this is the first attempt since Edison ceased production in 1929 to record a classical orchestra on a cylinder.
Truro Sinfonia is an amateur chamber orchestra based in the city in Cornwall (south-west England) whose name it
bears. For this recording, made on 5th July 2018, the orchestra consisted of sixteen players: three each of first and
second violins, one viola (myself), five cellos and one each of flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. As the players and
the conductor had generously made time for this experiment during a normal rehearsal, I could not greatly alter the
usual positioning of the instruments, none of which was less than six feet from the single 30-inch horn. Furthermore,
the ambient temperature was not high enough for the best results. (All the specialists say that the thermometer
should be at no less than 75°F (23°C); otherwise the wax is too hard and the record will have shallow grooves, a
very low volume level and an even narrower frequency-range than usual.)
The piece is the final movement of a concerto for string orchestra by the north German composer Johann Adolph
Hasse (1699–1783), who was best known for his many operas. Barry Moule, founder and conductor of the Sinfonia,
arranged it for strings and wind. The movement was too long for the cylinder.
Ne permettrez-vous pas (Waltz scene, act II) (from Faust – Charles Gounod)
Antoinette Laute-Brun (sop.) / Léon Beyle (ten.) / André Gresse (bass) / Chorus of the Paris Opéra /
wind ensemble Gramophone & Typewriter disc G.C. 34633 (10” black label, matrix 4414o), 1904
This is part of what I believe to be the earliest attempt at a sustained opera set on record, although it seems never to
have been recognised as such. At least 24 sides were recorded, embodying perhaps about a third of the score.
In contrast to many other early sets, the cast is almost entirely uniform (Laute-Brun is replaced by Charlotte Agussol on
two sides). Beyle and Gresse were established members of the Paris Opéra company (they sang the same roles in a
complete Faust issued by Pathé in 1911); Laute-Brun – plain Laute until 1907 – had just joined the same company.
Any kind of orchestral accompaniment is rare at this period, although I suspect that what we have here is only a
handful of winds and a trombone. At over four minutes, this is an exceptionally long-playing record for its size.
Sardana, Perlas y Diamants (J. Serra)
Copla ‘La Principal de l’Ampurda’ – recorded at La Bisbal d’Empordà, Catalonia, Spain
Gramophone & Typewriter disc G.C. 60250 (10” black label, matrix 7862F), c. 1904
An early example of music for the Sardana, the traditional circle-dance of Catalonia, played by a copla, an eleven-piece
ensemble incorporating several special wind instruments handed down from mediaeval times. Notable among these are
the flabiol, a relative of the recorder (the name is a variant of the French and English flageolet), whose piccolo-like
tones are heard almost throughout, and the shawms (plangent reed instruments related to the oboe), locally called
tible and tenora, which first appear after about one minute. The opening flourish on the flabiol and tambourine (still
heard in modern sardanas) derives from the ancient ‘pipe and tabor’ which would once have been the only musical
accompaniment to the dance.
La Bisbal is a small town near Girona, the home of a flourishing ceramics industry and, even today, a centre for the
study and practice of the sardana.