One of Edison' Phonographs used in the AES recording session at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (11 Mar 09)
Meeting Topic: Live to Wax - Edison Wax Cylinder Lecture and Recording Session
Moderator Name: Alex U. Case
Speaker Name: Gerald Fabris, Museum Curator, Edison National Historic Site
Meeting Location: Concert Hall, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA
What a blast from the past, as presenter Gerald Fabris, curator of the Edison Museum visits the UMass Lowell AES chapter to share his knowledge of the early history of sound recording technology. The event started with a lecture on the events leading up to the invention of Edison's wax recording cylinder, from the 1850's when Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville first recorded his daughter on his phonautograph to Edison's prototype tin foil and early wax technologies, leading to the "current" wax, our media of choice for today's recording session.
Gerald described how placement of instrumentalists around the phonograph horn was crucial, even though often odd looking and inconvenient. In a time before faders, we were shown how early engineers placed pianos on high risers, and loud instruments in corners of rooms simply to achieve balance and "optimal" frequency response.
Initially, the audience and the performers felt that such an absurd arrangement would prove unnecessary for this work - an arrangement for flute, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, tuba, banjo, snare and cymbals composed for this occasion by UMass Lowell Sound Recording Technology senior, Brian Corey. After the third or fourth take of the 1'50" piece (cylinders run just over 2 minutes, afterall) entitled Edison's Frontier, the laws of physics proved just as relevant in 2009 as in the cylinder recordings of the late 1800s. Furthermore, Gerald's prediction that the snare drum's lack of presence upon playback of the cylinder proved accurate, forcing the ensemble to gather up close to the recording horn and place the percussionists in the center, playing at Fortissimo. In order to achieve a decent balance on cylinder playback, a rather odd balance on stage was required.
In parallel, this work was also recorded in hi-res digital audio by SRT student Gavin Paddock, using close microphone and ambient microphone techniques for mono, stereo and surround.
Finally, playback of the wax cylinders via a separate playback phonograph was also recorded. We now have extensive means of comparison and analysis, and have already begun studying just how Edison's creation shapes recorded sounds. Special thanks to Gerald Fabris for educating us, and to professor Alex Case for organizing the event!
-Brian Corey, secretary