Digitizing audio that's been unheard for about 100 years The New York Public Library recently received a machine that will read cracked and scratched wax cylinders — which include some of the earliest recorded audio.

Mystery recordings will now be heard for the first time in about 100 years

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Before audio playlists, before CDs or cassette tapes, even before vinyl, there were wax cylinders. By the late 1890s, sliding a wax cylinder onto a Thomas Edison phonograph was the way that people listened to commercial music. It was also a way they could record themselves.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Today is June the 24th, a day before Roy's (ph) birthday.

MARTIN: Thousands of these live in public collections. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco was in Manhattan when a machine arrived to play recordings that may not have been heard in a century.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: Deep in the basement of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, there's a new machine about the size of a small suitcase. It has two screens, an intimidating number of buttons and dials, a laser and an arm holding a stylus, like the kind of needle that plays records on a turntable. It's called the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine. And we're going to hear audio that no one else has heard likely since around the turn of the last century. And a lot of times, no one even knows what's on these cylinders. They're blank.

NICHOLAS BERGH: No label space to write a nice label. So you get a priceless thing next to something that's just a common cylinder.

VANASCO: That's Nick Bergh, the inventor of the endpoint.

BERGH: There's a laser in the back of here. And it's looking...

VANASCO: He flew here from Burbank, Calif., with his machine and a trunk full of tools. And now he's setting it up. One of the first recordings he's going to try to digitize was found by curator Jessica Wood in 2016.

JESSICA WOOD: The music division did not keep very careful acquisitions records back in the 1930s. I just know that the big wooden box that I found, on the inside of the lid, it said, gift of Mary Dana to the New York Public Library in 1935.

VANASCO: She's hoping we'll hear a birthday party or something that tells us more about the social history at the time, even someone shouting their name and explaining they're testing the machine, which is a pretty common thing to hear on these recordings - because the important thing about wax cylinders is not just that they played the earliest recordings of commercial music and comedy sketches, it's that for the first time, people were able to record themselves. And many did. Or they were recorded by other people, like ethnographers. Nick Bergh.

BERGH: Native American recordings are very rewarding to work on because a lot of times, those communities are relearning their language and such. And there are other stories. And so some of the projects I've work on, they're now cutting those up into words, into phrases to use in the classrooms there on the reservations and such.

VANASCO: There are about 2,700 cylinders in the collection of the New York Public Library. Ninety are mysteries. The Endpoint not only produces clearer recordings than earlier machines, but the laser, it can read cylinders that are cracked or broken. Curator Wood takes a box wrapped in brown paper out of a large, red cooler like you'd have at a picnic.

WOOD: We usually put it in a cooler because the temperature fluctuation is high enough that it could sort of upset the cylinder. It could cause it to crack.

BERGH: Holding - you have to be careful just because of the heat of your hands. You have to kind of, you know, rotate. You don't want to hold it for too long or it could crack just by holding it.

VANASCO: It's a light, putty-brown color, which means it's an early recording. Black wax cylinders came later. It's also fairly smooth. Grooves are barely visible. And the cylinder itself is thin. Berg says these are signs that it's a home recording, but also that the levels are very low and may be hard to hear.

BERGH: These are all acoustically recorded. So they had to, you know, yell into a horn, essentially. So often, you know, if they're a distance away from the horn, it's a very low recording level.

VANASCO: Most of the people doing these recordings were hobbyists who were experimenting. One of the most famous is Lionel Mapleson. He recorded his family.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Good morning, my dear little fool. We come, we come, we come after school.

VANASCO: But he was also the librarian for the Metropolitan Opera. And in the early 1900s, he recorded dozens of rehearsals and performances. Listening to his work is the only way you can hear pre-World War I opera singers with a full orchestra.

BOB KOSOVSKY: They represent the first extensive recording - live recordings in recorded history.

VANASCO: Bob Kosovsky is a librarian in the music and recorded sound division. He says Mapleson was a pioneer.

KOSOVSKY: And then he started capturing sounds from the Met stage from various places, first from the prompter's box. And then he went to the fly system. And he got really good results. And he became a kind of fanatic and kept on doing it and doing it.

VANASCO: The library knew right away how important these recordings were. Over the years, librarians tried to transfer them to other media several times. They sent them out to the Library of Congress, to Germany. What they got back were sometimes damaged cylinders and recordings that were hard to hear.

WOOD: Some of them do sound like brushing your teeth in a rainstorm.


VANASCO: We're not listening to those today. The librarians are taking no chances with the Mapleson cylinders. They don't want to accidentally erase any of the country's cultural history. Instead, we have this mystery cylinder from the family in Maine. It's not in great shape. Bergh cleans it first with an air puffer shaped like a kid's rocket and a brush, but one made of camel hair - a little harsher than the brushes he prefers from a special shop in England.

BERGH: They're made from Siberian squirrel (laughter).

VANASCO: Bergh fiddles with the machine. The cylinder is turning unevenly. He wraps up small pieces of black paper to use as a shim.

BERGH: So if the cylinder is out-of-round, you'll get a wow, that kind of woo-woo, woo-woo sound.

VANASCO: Wood is anxious. She says she's been staring at these cylinders...

WOOD: For, like, seven years, just wondering what's on them. And now to finally see, like...

VANASCO: The room is silent, waiting.


VANASCO: Then the recording starts.


ARTHUR COLLINS: (Singing) Hello, my baby. Hello, my honey. Hello, my ragtime gal.

VANASCO: Bergh laughs in surprise. Wood slides to the floor, her head in her hands.

Are you so disappointed?

WOOD: I thought I was picking something that was unique. And I picked, like, the most everyday thing possible.

VANASCO: It's not a birthday party. It's a commercial recording of the song "Hello! Ma Baby," written in 1899 by Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson. You've probably heard it before. But there's still hope. The library has a lot of other unidentified cylinders. Wood says she just hopes they're not all "Hello! Ma Baby."

I mean, what if they are? What if you have, like, 2,500 "Hello! My Babies"?

WOOD: Then the - whichever curator acquired that collection is going to be in big trouble.

BERGH: (Laughter).

VANASCO: Bergh turns back to his work. He needs to calibrate the machine before the librarians can digitize the collection. Once they're done, you'll be able to hear these very earliest of recordings from your own computer - until that technology becomes obsolete, too.

Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.

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