Early wax recordings

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

I really enjoyed the first programme in Neil Brand’s BBC4 series, Sound of Song especially the beginning about the early history of recorded sound.

Early recordings were made on tinfoil which sent me back to the childhood game of playing a comb covered in tinfoil and how it tickled the lips!

From tinfoil, the great innovator of recorded sound, Thomas Edison, moved from voice recording for the office to a much more lucrative business, recording music. From around 1889, this was now done on wax cylinders and music and songs, for the first time, were being heard outside of live performance.

The programme, the first of three, showed an early recording session where the singer sang, How’d You Like to Spoon with me, a song from a 1906 musical called The Earl and the Girl using a horn as a microphone.

The sound travelling through the horn creates vibrations which, via a diaphragm, activates a recording stylus which in turn engraves the vibrations onto a wax cylinder.

I wanted to find out what it was about wax that made it a good material for recording and via a google I stumbled across a site called tinfoil.com which has some of those really early recordings on them.

There is an 1898 version of The Blue Danube played by the Edison Grand Concert Band (www.tinfoil.com/cm-1411.htm) and My Creole Sue, sung by the Edison Quartette and recorded in 1899 (www.tinfoil.com/cm-1410.htm)

It’s fascinating looking back to these early experiments and watching how the changing technology led to 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs, and now digital recordings and downloads and, as Neil Brand suggests, how recording changed the nature of music, from something that was created to mark important events in our lives, to something that was consumed.

The second programme in Neil Brand’s BBC4  series The Story of Song can be seen next Friday at 9pm and if you’re interested, here is Angela Lansbury singing the above-mentioned How’d You Like to Spoon With Me.

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