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Sirensound Digital UK archives historic wax cylinders

Dave Robinson 20 July 2010

The Cirencester-based audio archival engineering company has digitised a set of African recordings that are more than a century old. The historically and culturally significant collection comprises a series of wax cylinder recordings of speeches and tribal songs recorded by British explorer and linguist Sir Harry Johnston in the early part of the 20th century.

Within the collection, there are recordings from Uganda that are believed to be some of the earliest, if not the very first, ever made south of the Sahara Desert. Indeed, the late Professor Klaus Wachsumann, a world authority on Ugandan music, claimed that no further recordings were made in the country until 20 years after Johnston’s visit.

A Masai war song and speeches made by various African rulers are among the collection’s content, but arguably the most significant individual recording is an interview with the first Liberian president, Arthur Barclay, who emigrated from the West Indies in the 1860s. The Liberian cylinders also feature the first-ever recording of the Kru, a tribe which played a decisive role in the development of African popular music in West Africa and the Congo basin.

Many years after Johnston’s death in 1927, the wax cylinders were acquired by a collector and, subsequently, Canadian company Voyager Press, which engaged Sirensound Digital UK’s Paul Turney to transfer the recordings to a modern format.

For this historic project, Turney used an Edison Fireside player with custom modifications and a stylus made to the Edison specification. He employed the Millennia Media LPE-2 Legacy Phonographic Environment modified by Bex Audio in Reading, UK, to equalise the signal from the vertical groove media. This was then digitised to a BWAV format using Sony converters running at 96 kHz 24 bits on the Pyramix platform; there was no need for further restoration.

Describing the project as "very rewarding" and one that will help to "open up new lines of investigation for anthropologists, musicologists and social historians," Turney nonetheless admits that upon receipt of the fragile cylinders, "I did of course wonder exactly what I was letting myself in for. Some comments I got from others in this field were ‘glad I’m not doing it!’ But these recordings are not only very old and quite significant, they represent an accurate time capsule of the era."

The fragile nature of the medium requires careful attention to the temperature effects of handling and mounting the cylinders onto the mandrel. "You need to be very gentle with them otherwise they could easily crack," confirms Turney. "You have to appreciate that these were field recordings produced in harsh conditions, and the fact that some of the output was so good is a credit to the recordist. For example, President Barclay was recorded very clearly."

Many thanks to Paul Turney.

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