By Margaret Ashburner
One of the fascinating elements of Library and Archive Canada’s (LAC’s) retrospective audio collection is that it captures both the history of Canadian music and the development of sound recording and formats. Audio technologies have developed and changed rapidly over the last century, from wax cylinders to digital. There is a story to be told in the recordings, but also in the formats themselves.
LAC’s audio collection goes all the way back to the beginning of recording technology, which was first developed in the late 19th century. The earliest audio format developed for production was the phonograph cylinder. These cylinders were produced in a variety of materials, though all had a similar in design.
Cylinders have small grooves etched into the outside, exactly like those of a vinyl disc. The recording can be played by a machine that rotates the cylinder while a needle traces the grooves. The resulting vibrations are then amplified. This YouTube video shows a cylinder in action: note that the needle is fixed and the cylinder moves, unlike a record player where the needle moves and the disc remains fixed. Early cylinders were made from wax, which produced good acoustic results, but were quite fragile. Later cylinders were made from plastic, some tinted different colours to create a distinctive appearance (Roll Back the Years, p. 32).
While the sound quality produced by cylinders is no match to the digital recordings of today, it is important to remember that, at the time, there were no alternative methods of sound reproduction. Households that bought an Edison machine and cylinders for the first time would not have had any way of playing music in the home other than live performance. It would have been quite the magical experience to go from relying on amateur performance and concerts to having a device that could play music at any time.
Challenges of the cylinder format
The small size of the cylinder, and limited surface area, meant that recordings could not be very long; the typical playing time was two or four minutes. This placed limits on the repertoire that could be performed and often influenced the tempo for a selection. These two examples of “The Holy City” are both performed by Canadian Henry Burr: Version 1 is two minutes long and Version 2 is four minutes long. In both versions, Burr adopts a very elastic tempo, but one that is fairly consistent between the two recordings. In Version 1 he accommodates the smaller cylinder by abbreviating the song and omitting more than half of the music. Much of the poetic narrative is lost in this version, but this is the challenge posed by the cylinder format.
These time restrictions had a significant influence on popular music compositions of the time, and have contributed to today’s trend of the three- to five-minute “hit single.”
Margaret Ashburner is a Special Collections librarian (music) in the Published Heritage Branch.