Contemporary wax cylinder recordings

 Wp-Content Uploads 2011 08 Recording Williamson Web

Phonographies is a collection of contemporary audio recordings made on wax cylinder phonographs from more than a century ago. In the late 1880s, Thomas Edison's wax cylinder phonographs were a mass market item. By the 1920s though, gramophone records totally dominated and cylinders quickly became a dead media. Phonographies founder Aleks Kolkowski records numerous musicians using the technology, from a jazz trio to a children's choir to avant-garde electronic composers. You hear many of the tracks above by scrolling up and down in the player. (photo by Helen Petts):

The epoch of sound rendered into physical objects has reached its nadir with the rise of the digital file. Compact discs are devalued while vinyl records and magnetic tapes have become niche products for audiophiles and widely fetishised. This archive began as a response to the increasingly transient nature of digital music consumption by returning to the very first stable recording and reproduction medium of the 1880s – the wax cylinder, in order to create and assemble a permanent collection of material sound objects. It has since developed into a more exploratory project, one that examines the potential of the wax cylinder as a recording medium by employing experimental techniques and pushing the boundaries of its recording capabilities, as well as being a joyful discovery for each contributor who re-enacts for the first time, the bygone practice of acoustically inscribing sound.

Phonographies (via The Wire)


  1. Ugghh.   I couldn’t think of a more grating, annoying example of this media.  Maybe something more ‘musical’ next time.  I’m all for the John Cage bubblegum,  but this is… indescribably bad.  Recording something unlistenable for it’s own sake is a poor reason to support a dead format.

    1. Thanks. I was looking for some actual music in the above project, but found none. This is much more like it.

  2. I like it in principle, but do they have any examples of recording music or other identifiable sounds, or is it just clicks?

    Edit: Disregard that, just heard two of the non-clicky ones. Ugh

  3. I want to like this but yikes. Maybe the sense of pristine sound is required to make the whole non-music thing seem intentional. 

  4. I love my vinyl collection as much as the next guy, but all of this “digital files are the nadir of sound reproduction” business is so much hogwash. Certainly there are digital files that are terrible, as there are digital examples that represent wonderfully well-played, well-engineered performances that sound really quite nice. Now, that having been said, there may be discussions to be had about relative enjoyment of digital reproduction vs vinyl – at least some of it stemming from euphonic (or pleasant-sounding) distortions – but as for digital vs. the enjoyability of wax cylinder reproduction, I’m not sure there’s an awful lot of room for discussion there. Certainly, the raw idea that actual, physical sound waves directly moved a series of physical items causing a direct result on recording media – that’s very cool, indeed. As for any pleasure gained from the experience of listening to it, as opposed to a digital reproduction – well, I don’t know about that.

  5. Yes this utter crap. I was hoping to hear actual music not some retrophile jacking off in to a cylinder and calling it awesome. I would like to hear some Bieber on wax cylinders just to hear how it would come out. Clicks aren’t enjoyable for anyone. Ever.

    1. I was actually thinking it would be interesting to hear contemporary pop music recorded this way to hear the difference, but perhaps it would just come off as another weird effect layered on top of the other 20 thousand? Somehow I feel like the combination of wax cylinder and autotune overdose could be interesting though. I’d rather hear it with Kesha than Bieber though) I think.

    2.  jacking off in to a cylinder and calling it awesome.
      Now I’m sad (and also kind of surprised) that The Gerogerigegege never released a wax cylinder recording.

  6. Edison invented the phonograph with the foil cylinder but because it was not very effective (foil wore out easily, had to be operated by hand so very uneven sound, etc.) he did not see any potential in it and abandoned it to work on the light bulb. Alexander Graham Bell acquired the rights, changed the name from phonograph to graphophone and went on to invent (with Charles Sumner Tainter & Chichester Bell, the other members of his Volta Laboratories) the wax cylinder (which was made on a spiral cardboard tube – think toilet paper roll – invented by Tainter), the wax disc, the floating stylus, all made much more listenable with a speed regulator. They then sold the rights back to Edison. Credit where credit is due! :o) 

  7. I’m an acoustical engineer by training. While the history of recorded sound is indeed interesting, and worth studying, I don’t need to actually inscribe an archaic wax cylinder to understand it. There’s a reason that technology was replaced. I can’t imagine getting much joy from pain-stakingly recording a sound source with a needlessly complicated rig, and producing a recording with terrible fidelity. This sounds more like recycling old tech due to crushing boredom and an excess of spare time.

  8. If this is about physical sound artifacts, why not take the maker route, and fabricate plastic sound cylinders of short MP3 (or lossless) files. You could even fabricate the player. It would be a great DIY hack, and probably have better sound quality.

  9. You can buy a Maker Kit:

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