Wax Cylinder Recording at Home:

Hints and Tips

By Peter Fraser

Purple Line

Q: I am looking for blank cylinders for my Edison cylinder phonograph. I recently purchased a recorder but do not have a shaving unit. Is there someplace that I can get fresh blanks or am I better off having somebody shave some? Also, what type of horn would be best? I have both a smaller horn and a larger Edison 11 panel morning glory style. Any suggestions?

A: Home recording using an Edison cylinder phonograph is pretty easy, once you know a few basic points and a few not-so-obvious hints:

  1. The only entertainment-type cylinders you can shave and record on successfully are the early brown wax ones. You may find commercially-recorded ones that are too moldy to save. "Too moldy" in this case means "I can't hear anything intelligible at all for the entire duration of the cylinder!" because these pioneer recordings can be worthwhile with just a phrase or snatch of intelligible material. But you can take the really completely gone ones, shave them and have fun.

    You may also find old home-recordings on brown wax AND black wax. Even though these are usually awful, and even if they're almost entirely unintelligible, you probably shouldn't erase them. Why? Because they are truly unique cultural artifacts. A snatch of speech, or a style of singing, or even the choice of songs sung, portray everyday life for the common citizen in a way that cannot be easily recaptured any other way. This also holds true of old Ediphone business dictation cylinders. Items with seemingly unacceptable or inferior quality may someday be extractable through technology, so preserve these carefully, or donate them to an institution that can. I'd say, however, that you should feel free to erase cylinders that have obviously been recorded within the past 10 years (e-mail me for my infamous Fraudulent Edison Speech cylinder story). No matter what, whenever you decide to record by shaving and re-use of any previously recorded cylinder, you should think it through carefully before you do it!

  2. You can't shave and record on black wax entertainment (mold-casted) cylinders - they are made in a way that incorporate tiny bubbles into the wax, so you shave them and they just get smooth, as well as gray in color and way too noisy to use - from the tons of tiny bubble pockmarks (not even hawaiian music will record because of these . . . bubbles). BUT if it has a legible home recording on it, it's a black wax recording blank, and it'll shave and re-record just fine. The test is to play the newly-shaved blank and see if there's any background noise before you attempt to record on it.

  3. Edison recorders are even more subject to deterioration over time than reproducers. The factory used a weak glue to assemble them ["fish glue"(?)] and thus the cutter bar and diaphragm tend to loosen or even fall off. Also, identical-appearing recorders will give widely varying results - I once had three of them at my house and recorded with each on successive parts of a clean shaved cylinder, with results that ranged from clear as a bell to unintelligible. I don't know if they can be rebuilt, but would imagine Dwayne Wyatt of Wyatt's Musical Americana (707/263-5013) would be the best person to ask to take it on.

  4. Ediphone/Dictaphone cylinders sometimes turn up, and work great, BUT . . .

    • Be very careful that the thickness is shaved down enough that the recorder head can float freely when the carriage is set down - otherwise you'll jam your stylus bar and maybe knock it off the diaphragm, or chip the cutter, or fracture the diaphragm, or otherwise damage something.

    • You of course need to have a machine without an end-gate (Home and Standard Models D and later) because of the extra length of the cylinders (they do cut easily with a hacksaw, though - a nice woven-fabric core keeps 'em from cracking).

  5. The factory recommended using a small, bell-less horn for recording (like the basic Gem horn), but I've had success using a standard small Witch's Hat type. We also dubbed from diamond disc to brown wax using a cygnet horn placed directly in front of the diamond disc machine's horn, with shockingly great results. So fool around with that and it'll be fun, too.

  6. How to shave? Well, the phono-mounted types don't really work well enough except on the Triumph and better machines - because they have enough spring power to do it. Even so, the surfaces don't come out truly clean. The best setup is an electrically-driven Ediphone or Dictaphone office-type shaver, which turn up more often than one would expect. You get a noise-free mirror finish and you get it quickly, and there's no mess on your nice phonograph's bedplate from the shavings. There's a homebrew alternative, which is to wipe the old grooves off with a turpentine-soaked rag, but this isn't always effective - so be sure to pre-play the wiped cylinder to assure there's no bleed-thru from remnants of the old grooves.

  7. Don't expect too much in the area of frequency response! Experiment to see how low and high your recording can go in pitch before it gets cut off - it's a pretty narrow band. It's amusing to record music from a modern sound system and see how the wax trims it!

  8. Watch temperatures - don't try to record on a cold, brittle, hard cylinder that you just brought in from the garage. Let it sit inside and come to room temperature slowly. Then, just before you try recording, hold it near a bare lightbulb and warm it up a bit to soften the surface for cutting.

  9. Have fun!

and let us know how well you do . . .

- Peter Fraser
Purple Line

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