Saturday, June 7, 2014

Larry Fast cuts some wax tracks. No, really.

Today was the annual Analog Heaven Northeast gathering but this year I had to pass it up because it also happened to be Edison Day at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Normally these two events aren’t in any way connected but this year’s Edison Day wax cylinder recording demonstration featured none other than Larry Fast. It was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.

The demonstration was in a sense much more interesting then I expected, which doesn’t quite sound right but bear with me. It wasn’t “just” Fast playing his Kurzweil K2000VP, but it also wasn’t just a demonstration of Edison’s wax cylinder technology either. Although either one would have been quite satisfyingly enough, and that was certainly what I was expecting. What was much more interesting about the demo was that it was an experiment in using old technology in new ways, and I was not expecting that at all. The first part of the demonstration was Fast played Phobos and Deimos Go to Mars. Live, I might add. They recorded it on a wax cylinder and then played it back. Typical museum-style demonstration of wax cylinders. I could have left happy with just that because hey, it was Larry Fast, but they took it so much further.

Note that it wasn’t just Fast up there. There was also a Park Ranger, in full uniform. Unfortunately I didn’t catch his name but he turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable about the Edison wax cylinder system, was an entertaining and informative educator/lecturer, and was also basically working as the sound engineer for the recording session. He explained the whole process as well as giving us a bit of history. It seems that when they first set up a factory to make these cylinders what they’d do was have a performer come in for the day and play or sing their piece over and over. They’d record it each time onto maybe a dozen or so machines. They’d then repeat this process all day long until they had enough cylinders recorded. Also, this was a completely acoustic process. Just like today’s demonstration, each recorder had a large horn that picked up the sound and transferred it to the wax. The “problem” with this was that each horn heard a slightly different version as they were all in different places in the room. It was this “problem” that led the park into several years of research to try and find a matched set of cylinders from the same take. If that search is eventually successful it might be possible using modern recording technology to reconstruct a stereo recording, something unimagined back in the day.

And that’s what I mean about today’s session being more than just a simple demonstration. It was actually a proof-of-concept experiment in using wax cylinder technology to make stereo recordings. What Fast and the Park Ranger did was to record a Synergy piece with the left channel on one cylinder and the right on another. (They actually used four cylinders because you only get about two or three minutes per cylinder, so they had to use more than one per track.) So in a few weeks once they’ve had time to combine the tracks and synchronize the left and right channels we may have a new Synergy recording to enjoy, albeit in full “wax fidelity.”

Today’s Edison Day demonstration was more than “just” a simple demo that you typically might get to see in a museum, it was actually part of a research project in 100+-year-old recording technology.

1 comment:

sealion said...

I work at a museum and play synth and this is just the coolest event. I learned lots from your article even though I've read and handled a bit of the era. Thank you!