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An Archive of 10,000 Cylinder Recordings Readied for the Spotify Era

Brown wax-era cylinder featuring "Beau Ideal" by Edison Concert Band (1898 or 1899) (all photos courtesy UC Santa Barbara Library. Dept of Special Collections)
Brown wax-era cylinder featuring “Beau Ideal” by Edison Concert Band (1898 or 1899) (all photos courtesy UC Santa Barbara Library, Dept of Special Collections)

From cakewalks to carols, historic sounds of all kinds are preserved at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Audio Archive, home to a vast collection of recordings. The UCSB Library first made this archive available online in 2005, but it recently launched a new website that now features over 10,000 cylinder recordings — all available to download or stream online for free.

Cylinders, as the website explains, are what people listened to “before MP3s, CDs, cassettes and vinyl records … First made of tinfoil, then wax and plastic, cylinder recordings, commonly the size and shape of a soda can, were the first commercially produced sound recordings in the decades around the turn of the 20th century.” Similar to vinyl, they had engravings of audio recordings on their exterior surface, which phonographs could trace and play.

Lambert cylinder featuring "A bird in a gilded cage," possibly by Joe Natus (click to enlarge)
Lambert cylinder featuring “A bird in a gilded cage,” possibly by Joe Natus (click to enlarge)

UCSB’s own trove has grown threefold over the past decade. The new online database now boasts recordings from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and they range from hit singles to operatic arrangements to vaudeville songs. There’s also spoken word — including speeches and readings — and everything is searchable by title, genre, instruments, region, and even subject.

Interested in sounds related to disasters? Check out this old-timey song about a 1926 freight wreck. Perhaps you’re in the mood for some jazz — the archives offer plenty to sample. Or if you’re eager for some truly unique recordings, enjoy this man’s bird imitations from 1902, journey to the South Pole in the early 20th century with Ernest Shackleton, or explore home recordings from decades ago (my favorite: these bizarre animal noises). The library also presents curated thematic playlists — one of the website’s new features —  from “Central European Mix Tape” to “Tahitian Field Recordings.”

In addition to granting the public greater access to bygone sounds, the new website also allows users to learn more about this very particular era of sound recording technology. It delivers a brief — although, due to the nature of the collection, Thomas Edison–focused — history of cylinder recordings, from their introduction in 1877, when Edison invented tinfoil recordings, to their final production in 1929, when the format lived on celluloid. As the primer reveals, the technology underwent a number of developments in its 50 years of activity, and the library holds many examples of the different types of cylinders. Some of its most unique ones, for example, are 19th-century Lioret cylinders from France, each “comprising a brass tube with spokes covered by a molded celluloid sleeve carrying the grooves” that were even color-coded according to music type. Among the most eye-catching, though, are the library’s Lambert cylinders, which were often produced in different shades of pink. It also boasts a number of cylinders designed specifically for Chinese songs and recitations, recorded in San Francisco in 1902, that include Chinese characters on the classic Edison Records label.

While the vast majority of UCSB’s cylinders are online, more than 2,000 physical ones still await digitization. More than half of those are scheduled to undergo the process following a grant from the GRAMMY Foundation the library received in 2010, and UCSB has launched a new initiative to fund those that remain. The “Adopt a Cylinder” program allows users to make donations toward cylinders the library hopes to see preserved that will then be prioritized for digitization. Each new addition allows valuable documents of the past to be heard repeatedly without risk of deterioration, as well as helping us glean a greater understanding of the music and sounds made during a specific era.

Busy bee cylinder featuring "Uncle Josh at the dentist's" by Cal Stewart and Len Spencer
Busy bee cylinder featuring “Uncle Josh at the dentist’s” by Cal Stewart and Len Spencer
Edison Chinese Cylinders featuring "An old valet carries a letter," performer unknown (1902)
Edison Chinese Cylinders featuring “An old valet carries a letter,” performer unknown (1902)
Brown wax cylinder, featuring "Three minutes with the minstrels" by Arthur Collins, S.H. Dudley, and Ancient City (1899)
Brown wax cylinder featuring “Three minutes with the minstrels” by Arthur Collins, S.H. Dudley, and Ancient City (1899)
Sterling cylinder featuring "When other lips [Bohemian girl. Then you'll remember me]" by Balfe, M. W. Ernest Pike (1906)
Sterling cylinder featuring “When other lips [Bohemian girl. Then you’ll remember me]” by Balfe, M. W. Ernest Pike (1906)
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