Posts Tagged ‘wire recorder’

Photo: Robert Kato Lionel/New York Public Library.
Early opera recordings on wax cylinders 1900–1904, recorded by Lionel Mapleson.

I recently finished reading an excellent biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight, Moon and many other delightful children’s titles you probably would recognize. At the end of a life cut short by a blood clot in a foreign hospital (her dates are 1910 to 1952), she was experimenting with a wire recorder to make records of her stories and poems.

That took me back, for sure, as my father also was experimenting with a wire recorder around that time. All I have left of his experiments is a record, transferred years later to a cassette tape, called “The Birth of Willie” — me with a squeaky voice and an unfamiliar accent and my first brother, also squeaky, responding to the news of a new sibling. What a miracle that wire recorder once seemed!

It wasn’t the first such device, though. In today’s story we learn about recordings once made on wax.

Jennifer Vanasco reports at National Public Radio, “Before audio playlists, before cassette tapes and even before records, there were wax cylinders — the earliest, mass-produced way people could both listen to commercial music and record themselves.

“In the 1890s, they were a revolution. People slid blank cylinders onto their Edison phonographs (or shaved down the 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 recorded sound at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. …

‘It became my favorite format, because there’s so many unknowns and it’s possible to discover things that haven’t been heard since they were recorded.’

“They haven’t been heard because the wax is so fragile. The earliest, putty-colored cylinders deteriorate after only a few dozen listens if played on the Edison machines; they crack if you hold them too long in your hand. And because the wax tubes themselves were unlabeled, many of them remain mysteries. …

” ‘They could be people’s birthday parties,’ Wood said. … ‘I really hope for people’s birthday parties.’

“She’s particularly curious about a box of unlabeled cylinders she found on a storage shelf in 2016. All she knows about them is what was on the inside of the box: Gift of Mary Dana to the New York Public Library in 1935.

“Enter the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, invented by Californian Nicholas Bergh, which recently was acquired by the library. Thanks to the combination of its laser and needle, it can digitize even broken or cracked wax cylinders — and there are a lot of those. But Bergh said, the design of the cylinder, which makes it fragile, is also its strength.

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

“One of those important collections owned by the library is … a collection recorded by Lionel Mapleson, the Metropolitan Opera’s librarian at the turn of the last century. Mapleson recorded rehearsals and performances — it’s the only way listeners can hear pre-World War I opera singers with a full orchestra. …

“[Bob Kosovsky, a librarian in the music and recorded sound division] said that some of the stars sing in ways no contemporary opera singer would sing. ‘And that gives us a sort of a keyhole into what things were like then. … It’s a way of opening our minds to hear what other possibilities exist.’

“It will take the library a couple years to digitize all its cylinders. But when they’re through, listeners all over the country should be able to access them from their home computers, opening a window to what people sounded like and thought about over 100 years ago.”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: Playhouse Records
Back in the day, Jim Copp (right) “made recordings [with Ed Brown] that offered children funny fables replete with sound effects, and were literate and charming enough for adults,” says the
New Yorker.

Years ago, the older of my two younger brothers received a record player that looked like a jukebox and flashed colored lights. It was the beginning of his long romance with records. Neighbor kids came over to see this wonder, and we listened not only to music on the records but also to stories. Call it an early podcast platform. David Owen has a bit of history at the New Yorker.

“When my wife was a kid, in the early nineteen-sixties, she and her siblings listened, over and over, to records by Jim Copp. … Copp made nine records between 1958 and 1971. They contain stories, poems, and songs that he wrote, performed, and recorded with the help of his friend Ed Brown. …

“Stories involve a family that takes a cross-country car trip with a cow; a duck that, with excruciating effort, manages to speak just enough English to warn his housemate, a carpenter, that their kitchen is on fire; a dog with the longest name in the world who goes to Yale; … a nearsighted heron; and a feeble-minded old man, Mr. Hippity, who thinks his chicken pull toy is sick. Copp may be the reason that my wife and her siblings and both our children have always had good vocabularies: destitute, vituperative, locality, inauspicious, gauche, megalomaniac, union suit. …

“Not long after my wife received [tapes] from her brother, she noticed a tiny advertisement in The New Yorker for rereleases of Copp’s records, on cassette. She called the telephone number in the ad, and eventually realized that the person taking her order was Copp himself. … In 1993, I [interviewed] Copp in his home. …

“In 1939, friends whom he was visiting in Chicago dared him to enter a talent contest at the old Edgewater Beach Hotel, whose ballroom was popular with movie stars and mobsters. He performed several humorous pieces that he’d written as a student — ‘Arabella and the Water Tank,’ ‘Peaches and Myrtle’ (about two showgirls, one of whom murders the other), ‘The Mystery of the Revolving Tree Trunk’ — and won. …

“Copp got hooked on performing. During the next three years, he appeared, as James Copp III and His Things, in some of Manhattan’s most famous night spots, among them the Blue Angel, Le Ruban Bleu, the Rainbow Room, and Café Society. … In 1941, Liberty released six of his night club pieces, on a set of three 78s.

“He was drafted a year later, and became the adjutant of an intelligence unit that took part in the Normandy invasion. … He returned to the United States in 1946, but decided that New York and its night clubs had changed in ways he didn’t like.

“Copp decided that his best chance of preserving his night-club material was to rework it, slightly, for children. He experimented with a wire recorder — a tape precursor, which recorded magnetically on steel wire. He sold one piece, ‘The Noisy Eater,’ to Capitol Records, which Jerry Lewis recorded, in 1952. … He decided that from then on he would make his own records. He … would record a single character or instrument or effect on one machine, then play that tape in the background as he recorded another on one of the others. For some pieces, he ‘ping-ponged’ as many as ninety layers. He sped up some voices and slowed down others, all without fancy equipment, and he added homemade sound effects.” For the long read, check out the New Yorker, here.

The story brought back memories, especially of my father’s wire recorder. He had a couple of his recordings made into actual records, and when I grew up, I found someone to turn a record featuring my squeaky voice (“The Birth of Willie”) into a cassette tape.

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