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!’