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Preserving Audio Cylinders: From Edison to the Archeophone

The following is a guest post by Audio Preservation Specialist Brad McCoy.

Collections tend to take pride of place in any discussion of moving images and sound recordings at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. It’s understandable — we like talking about the more than 5 million items in our collective care. But we’re also responsible for preserving these sound recordings, films, and videos in order to ensure their survival and make them available for researcher access, and for that we need 1) playback equipment; 2) parts to maintain the equipment; 3) the knowledge to sustain the equipment; and finally 4) the expertise to make the best possible transfer. This last one requires what can be a lifetime of knowledge and experience to choose and properly prepare the collection items and use the right equipment for the best archival transfer…not to mention that we need this for an astonishing variety of formats. In that sense, we not only have to preserve collection items, we also have to preserve the knowledge and expertise that will be needed in the future to continue this important work.

Examples of legacy equipment maintained at the Packard Campus

Most of the equipment we maintain here at the Packard Campus is no longer manufactured—for example, audio reel-to-reel tape decks or audio wire players, 2″ Quadruplex videotape playback machines and many more—so we’re always looking to acquire older pieces in order to stock a parts depot. You’ll hear the word “cannibalize” around here a lot because we frequently take parts from an otherwise non-functioning machine in order to keep another one working. We even have a sizable space at the Packard Campus devoted to storing legacy equipment that we jokingly refer to as the Indiana Jones Room in honor of the concluding crane shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sustaining our legacy equipment and keeping it operational requires highly specialized knowledge and skills on the part of our maintenance and engineering staff.

There are, however, a handful of examples where we employ a newly manufactured piece of equipment specifically designed to preserve a legacy format. A good example of this is the Archeophone, which we use to preserve audio cylinders. The Archeophone, which is manufactured in France by Henri Chamoux, offers a number of advantages over vintage players, including the ability to play cylinders backwards. This can be an advantage in cases of cracked or scratched cylinders where the stylus will not track in the forward direction, but will track in reverse, which can then be corrected later in software.

The Motion Picture Story (August, 1911)

Cylinder records were invented in Washington, DC, in the mid-1880s by Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell at their Volta Laboratory. From their original prototypes a variety of cylinder types were developed by others including Thomas Edison, and sold commercially. Brown wax cylinders were the first commercial sound recordings and these are among the most fragile of all audio formats. Subsequent cylinder formulas resulted in sturdier, better sounding, and more easily mass produced records, and new releases on cylinder were issued into the early 1900s when disc recordings gradually won out in the first major “format war.” Edison’s company sold their catalog of “indestructible” blue amberol celluloid cylinders until the company went out of business in 1929. We store approximately 7500 celluloid cylinders and about 16,500 wax cylinders at the Packard Campus.

Making the best archival preservation transfers of these cylinders requires knowledge and equipment that must be maintained and passed down. This need is among the many concerns of the audio preservation community and is one that was highlighted in the National Recording Preservation Plan. Specifically, Recommendation A1.8: Documentation of Legacy Technologies stresses the importance to research, collect, document and preserve information on legacy recording practices and technologies.” This recommendation also calls on archives to “initiate a program to videotape interviews and demonstrations by senior audio engineers.” In September 2013 our Audio Preservation Lab hosted experts David Giovannoni and Ward Marston to provide training to Packard Campus audio engineers about the preservation of audio cylinders using the Archeophone player. The engineers had three intensive days of education and training about the history, handling and the playback of audio cylinders. This ultimately led to new preservation transfers of some unique and historic cylinders from the Library’s collection that were of much higher sonic quality than ever before achieved This training was videotaped and edited by Packard Campus Institute staff with production by the Recorded Sound Section. These three videos pertain to background, formats and digitization/preservation of cylinders. We’re delighted to present them here.

An Introduction to Cylinder Recordings


Storage and Handling of Cylinder Recordings


Transferring a Cylinder


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