5:59am – And So it Begins…
So, our day starts. I was scheduled to meet my party at Au Bon Pain on Boylston at 6:30am. Naturally (and probably as a result of my worrisome nature and overall paranoia), I arrived here at 5:45.
Even though these guys open at 6am—at least that’s their posted opening hour—the doors were open and I came in and got a couple waters and a coffee just as the registers were being opened. Good start to the day, at least.
Now, excuse me if I sound a bit rambling. Please understand: I am tired as hell. I’m a far cry from the “get up at 5am” kind of person. Instead, I opt for the more palatable “rouse groggily from slumber around… 11.”
So be it. Today should be really exciting. As I find out more details on the history of, and the ideas behind, the Edison Wax Cylinder Record Sessions, I’ll be sure to relay the information here.
That’s right, ladies and gents… unless there’s no internet where they’re taking me (this is a possibility), I’ll be blogging in real-time all day. That’s like some CNN shit up in here.
In the event there isn’t internet, I’ll be keeping track real-time, and will post everything this evening. So either way, stay tuned to HWM for a rich and valuable learning experience.
7:07am – The Departure
As I met up with my contact, Nick Blakey (a Boston Phoenix contributor), he kind of educated me a bit on the significance of the Wax Cylinder Recordings. As it was described, wax cylinder recordings are where physics and music collide: it’s the process of using sonic pressure and vocal output to impress upon a wax cylinder a series of sounds. It’s almost even less complicated than I make it seem, but if you’re one of those music “purists” (still clinging onto records, possibly even cassettes), a wax cylinder recording is like your holy grail.
The Audio Engineering Society (AES) has been around since 1948, and is, in part, responsible for setting up the Wax Cylinder recording today. According to one of its members, it’s a pretty varied organization—the only specialization is audio. From videogame sound design, musical engineering, and all points in between. There are 16,000 members, and they have a great program encouraging college students to engage in the world of audio engineering and production. It’s a really great group, and if you’re interested in the melding of science and music, or simply in sound design in general, you should definitely look into the programs. They’ve got a lot to offer on the table.
Which leads me here: to be honest, my excitement level going into this was pretty low—probably because I had to get up earlier than usual to cover this. But the more I’m learning, and the more I talk to the organizers and watch the students, I’m learning that this is something to be excited about.
And before I pipe in again later, I’ll just say that what I’m excited about is exactly this: that there are people out there who hold such regard for the history of audio production that they maintain these crudely beautiful methods long after they’re outdated.
Music really is a wonderfully unifying thing.
11:34am – The Arrival
We made it. To be honest, I didn’t do adequate homework on this one. When they told me where it was, I, ignorantly, made the assumption it would be about an hour away, maximum. Once again, the egg is on my face. We went from Boylston St in Boston to West Orange, New Jersey. For those of you who know as little as I do about geography, that’s approximately really fucking far away.
The first thing I notice is all sorts of Thomas Edison-y stuff. Which makes since, because this was the workshop in which he tinkered and toyed and invented his way into the homes of every single American. Next, a small, black house is pointed out. Apparently, it was the first movie studio—on a rotating base to optimize shoot times and allow for lighting even during sun-up and sundown. Cool shit.
Also, apparently, the recording today will feature longtime music sensation Suzanne Vega. While the name didn’t ring a bell, initially, with me, I looked into it and found out she was the lady who did that song my mom liked that went “do-do do-do-doo-do do-do-do-do-do-do-do.”
My travelmate, Nick, is hyping me up on this recording, and I have to admit, it’s working. It’s just that 4.5 hour bus ride kind of sapped me of all the coffee I’d drunk. Hopefully, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts nearby who will sell me coffee beans to freebase.
11:42am – Wait, a tour?
Right now, the group of us (students, organizers, Nick, and myself) are on a tour of the Edison manufacturing building. While it’s cool, it’s also about seven hours since I awoke—which means my body clock thinks it’s about 5pm. It’s not.
|That's what they called me in high school.|
In any case, there’s some cool shit in here—materials for production (tanned elephant hide, 80-year-old human hair), strange and kinky-looking machines, etc. The only thing is that, due to antsy and scatterbrained nature, tours of old buildings led by park rangers is not exactly my thing. As a result, the thought keeps popping up in my head, over and over, about whether or not they’d kick me out of here if I started talking about how awesome Nikola Tesla was….
12:55pm – “A three hour tour… A three hour tour…”
Okay, so not three hours, but long enough. And goddamn, I would kill a man for a cigarette right now.
Must. Smoke. Cigarette.
|This is what nicotine looks like. Sweet, sweet nicotine...|
1:06pm – The Quest for the Holy Grail
The search for an area without a no-smoking sign has led me to conclude that there isn’t one. As a result, I am smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk in New Jersey. For some reason, I feel like one has hit a low-point in their life if they are forced to end a sentence with, “…on the sidewalk in New Jersey.”
1:16pm – These Beats is Fresh
I have grown delirious. My body and mind think it’s approximately next Wednesday (see, I can’t even remember how time works).
I am currently looking at the first-ever recording studio, used by Edison back in the day. Edison was, all things considered, the original OG—the OOG, if you will. He had a recording studio and a record label, before it was cool.
In exploring his studio, however, I have been unable to locate the original auto-tune machine. However, I did happen to find this very crudely-made synthesizer:
1:21pm – R-r-r-reeeeeemiiiiiixxx
...and the first-ever turntable. DJ, spin that shit!
2:13pm – Learning is Fun!
So, before the recording itself, we have to sit through this guy, Jerry (a park ranger, of sorts), telling us the history of the phonograph wax cylinder method of recording. As he begins, I have to admit, I’m viewing this like the rest of the stuff forced upon me this afternoon: like stuff that’s been forced upon me. Which is to say, I’m not excited. Jerry does, however, have some interesting things to say:
First, there was the phonautograph—a primitive sort of method of recording and recreating speech. What it did was it create a Morse code-like representation of the tonality of a speech, and was meant to go alongside it as a reference point. So, whereas you can’t tell the annunciation and presentation of a set of words just by looking at them, the use of a phonautograph allowed for people to get a feel for how the words were said.
|Jerry, doing his thing.|
Then, of course, the telephone, in 1876—if I have to describe its function to you, then you should, like… take a class, or read a book, or something.
Next was the phonograph in 1877, used for complete reproduction of sound. Funny thing, though, is that Edison (the first of all audiophiles) didn’t like how the sound quality was, and thought it was better fitted for speeches than music. He even went so far as to posit that the phonograph recording would overtake written letters. (For a second, allow me to digress. Think about this: in a world where audio letters were the norm, then you would actually have to sit and listen to all those forwarded messages your aunt sends you. How much would that suck?)
As the phonograph grew in popularity, wax cylinder recordings began to take prevalence. The reason was, as oppose to tin cylinder recordings, they could be played over and over again and still maintain their form and function. It went so far as people having their own playback phonographs (pre-record players) and there being innumerable nickel-play phonographs in public places, like Grand Central Station. Simply pop in a nickel, and you can hear about forty seconds of music. Not a bad deal, I guess.
The wax cylinders were then mass-produced (as best they could be) through a method called pantographing. Essentially, the same process that allows keys to be copied.
2:31pm – The Main Event
So, Suzanne Vega comes in, and she’s very tiny. This isn’t anything positive or negative, it’s just what it is: she’s a tiny lady.
She seems pretty nice, and pretty humble, too, which is good—because the process of recording on wax cylinder is pretty funny to watch. Essentially, she had to stick her face and head as far into this odd tube that looked kind of like the mouth of a tuba.
|I keep thinking she's going to get sucked in...|
Since you could only get under a minute of sound onto a wax cylinder, the recording was very short. The AES students were all very interested, however, and asked lots of questions about sound engineering that my tiny little brain were too small to understand.
In the end, I can only put the experience in the exact same terms Suzanne Vega used: “…very haunting. Even though we just recorded it, right here, it sounds like it was recorded 100 years ago.”
I mean, it was cool—really cool—cool enough to let me forget and forgive all of the tortuous touring and lecturing I was forced to endure. I guess it all boils down to music, and music history—and if you fancy yourself having any love or knowledge of music in its most general sense, watching a wax cylinder recording is an experience you must afford yourself. Especially if you’re one of those music purists who thinks using a record player makes you hip: remember that the wax cylinder was to records what records were to cassettes, and cassettes to CDs.
Seeing something like this, you really gain a respect for music that you can’t have had otherwise: the production and reproduction of music in our country was an inevitability. It was a need, because such great lengths were gone to ensuring that, at the end of the day, a man could take his mind off the world (if, in the case of wax cylinders, for only a moment), throw on some headphones, and just… vibe.
All said and done, I think I'm going to head home and enjoy a fine, premium alcoholic beverage: