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IRENE Seeing Sound Blog

IRENE Tested on Aluminum Discs

This week the IRENE lab has been conducting experiments with aluminum transcription discs. 

Invented in 1929, aluminum transcription discs were the first electrical instantaneous recordings. In a time when radio programming was performed live, transcription recording allowed stations to archive programs, delay broadcasts, or prove advertisements to sponsors.  By 1940 the format was obsolete, superseded by lacquer disc recording beginning in 1934.

aluminum disc video

Instead of the time intensive process of cutting a wax disc, plating it, and pressing shellac, aluminum discs allowed sounds to be played back immediately after recording. Aluminum can't be cut like wax, however, so the discs were recorded by embossing the surface with a heavy recording head, leaving a relatively fragile groove that must be played back with a wooden or fiber stylus.

In the absence of supplies and expertise, this format has become a high preservation priority. Like we've mentioned with wax cylinders and lacquer discs, aluminum transcription discs benefit from the optical approach by eliminating the wear associated with traditional mechanical playback.


A Determined Point of View

Our pilot 'collection' (so far) is a single disc of student speeches from Amherst College. The date is  January 1941, eleven months before America will enter World War II. The topic of debate is American involvement in the war, something that was on the minds of all U.S. citizens. This young scholar's heartelt opinion on war received high marks from his speech teacher, and he was noted for his "determined point of view," although it seemed that he "walked around too much." (Who can blame him?!)

                       Alum_documentation         Aluminum1


The recording was stored in a sleeve that included the transcript of the speech. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

 Photos by Patrick Breen, NEDCC Photographer


Preservation Week - Lasting Lacquer

Celebrating Preservation Week with Carnegie Hall

The Carnegie Hall Archives celebrated Preservation Week with a blog post honoring renowned American Conductor Robert Shaw's 98th birthday, and highlighting their Digital Archives Project as well as the NEDCC IRENE system's work on their collection of rare lacquer discs. 

April 30, 2014 - Carnegie Hall blog: Lasting Lacquer

(The post includes a great 1956 documentary on how a lacquer disc is made. Don't miss it!)



LEARN MORE about the Carnegie Hall Archives.

CHECK OUT NEDCC's IRENE Seeing Sound blog post for March 28 for more on the Carnegie Hall IRENE project.

A Visit from Edison




NEDCC recently had very special visitors to the IRENE Lab: Jerry Fabris, Museum Curator at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and David Giovannoni, founder of First Sounds, a collaboration of experts dedicated to recovering audio from the world’s earliest sound recordings.

But the most distinguished visitors to the lab that day were some of the earliest examples of recorded sound.  Jerry brought a few of the Edison Park’s most historically significant recordings to NEDCC to be transferred using NEDCC’s IRENE optical approach.

Three of these cylinders were made by the technical staff of the Edison Laboratory during the first year that the Edison Perfected Phonograph was in use.  Each was cut on a yellow paraffin blank – an early type of solid-wax cylinder not used after March 1889. Few other recordings are known to survive from this period, and together, they symbolize the beginnings of the worldwide recording industry.

 Edison1a   Edison2

 Curator Jerry Fabris hand-carried the Edison cylinders to NEDCC and packed them with great care.


Most of the cylinders had been digitized in 1995 on an Art Shifrin electric phonograph at the New York Public Library, but David and Jerry wanted to see if the IRENE platform could elicit better results from these unique and delicate recordings.

These unusual recordings presented some new challenges for NEDCC’s IRENE system. The yellow paraffin wax was too translucent for our laser focus sensor to detect, so we used depth information from the 3D camera to focus the images. The groove shape and depth of these experimental recordings were different than what we typically see from later recording processes, and even differed among this set.

About the Edison American Exhibition Recordings 1888-1889

These early cylinder recordings represent a transition between the sound experiments of the Edison and Volta laboratories in the late 1880s and the blooming of the phonograph and cylinder record market in the 1890s. The Edison lab used these recordings to demonstrate their developments in the art and science of sound reproduction in the US and abroad. Even within the six cylinders scanned for this project, we saw considerable variation in recording technology.

Three of these were selected by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in 2002 to be among the first 50 recordings chosen for the National Recording Registry. Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Librarian is responsible for selecting recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."



Assisting Edison during these early recording sessions were Theo Wangemann and Walter Miller. They recognized the symbolic significance of these three cylinder records, which have long been carefully preserved together - stored in this small wood and glass display case at the historic Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.






Edison’s Laboratory Music Room,
the same room in which this recording was made of Miss Effie Stewart
of New York City performing the Pattison Waltz on February 25, 1889.
(The Effie Stewart cylinder is in the center in the above photo of the display case.)


 [This sound clip is as seen/heard by the IRENE3D technology.]

About the Recording

“Miss Stewart was an accomplished singer—a soprano soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  Her cylinder recordings were played at public exhibitions in the U.S., in October and December 1888; others were later sent for exhibition in England and Russia.  Stewart’s recordings for Edison rank among the earliest successful efforts to capture and preserve 'serious' vocal music.” (Bill Klinger, ARSC, National Recording Registry: 2002 Nomination for Edison American Exhibition recordings, 1888-1889.)

Our thanks to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park for inviting NEDCC to participate in this important work. Learn More about the Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Photos and sound clip courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

Top photo: Thomas A. Edison with "Perfected" phonograph and "yellow paraffin" cylinders at the West Orange Laboratory, June 16, 1888.  NPS photograph 14.650/003

Music Room Photo: Circa 1889, NPS Photograph 29.430/001

Display Case for Phonograph Cylinders: NPS Object EDIS 475
NPS catalog description: Display case for three early phonograph cylinders, one reproducer and one recorder.  Finished oak frame with glass front and glass sides.  Interior wood is painted off-white.  Top and sides are sealed shut with screws in bottom.  Case holds EDIS 564, EDIS 565 and EDIS 566: three "yellow paraffin"-type wax cylinder phonograph records from 1888 and early 1889 in good condition.  In front of cylinders in case are phonograph recorder EDIS 567 and phonograph reproducer EDIS 568, both from circa 1888 or early 1889.  Label in case reads: "Recorder and reproducer.  Three records made on the first perfected phonograph in 1888/9".  This case is described by Walter H. Miller in article: "The Talking Machine World", October 15, 1913, p. 13.  In January 2003 the Library of Congress included these three cylinders recordings in the National Recording Registry.

Cracked and Damaged: The Mystery Cylinder

His Name is Embroidered on My Mantle So Green...

This week, the Lab is trying out IRENE’s capacity to image cracked or damaged cylinders. Because of IRENE’s ‘touchless’ system, the recordings on cylinders that were thought to be unplayable are able to be safely imaged and turned into sound.

While a cylinder phonograph (spinning at nearly three revolutions per second) would probably damage the recording or the stylus on a cracked cylinder like this one, and probably not correctly track the groove across the crack, IRENE's contact-free approach allows us to bypass the damage and continue playing.



The Mystery

Almost all the singers and musicians featured in Middlebury College's Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection have been identified and cross-referenced. But on several cylinders, such as this one, the singer is unknown.

This is a perfect example of IRENE's 'discovery' capability. We can learn what's on recordings that don't have descriptive metadata and haven't been played for a variety of reasons, including fragile or broken media, or a lack of playback equipment.

We have pieced together a transcription of the lyrics here:

As I went a-walking one evening in June
To view the fine fields and the meadows so green
I spied a fair damsel, she appeared like a queen
With her costly fine robes and her mantle so green

(My pretty fair maid?) will you come along with me?
I’ll dress you in rich attire, and married we’ll be (forgets words – oops!)
(restarts verse)

My pretty fair maid, will you come along with me?
We’ll join hands in wedlock, and married we’ll be
I’ll dress you in rich attire, you’ll appear like a queen
With your costly fine robes and your mantle so green

She answered – please no, sir, you must be refused
For I’ll wed with no man you must be excused
Through the green fields I wander for to shun all men’s view
For the lad that I love died in famed Waterloo

If you are not married, pray tell your love’s name
For I (was in the?) battle and I’d know the name(?)
Draw near to my garment and there you will see
His name is embroidered on my mantle so green

As always, thanks go out to Dr. Carl Haber and Dr. Earl Cornell of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Without them, these discoveries (and the discoveries yet to come) would not have been possible!