Just how hard was recording on a wax cylinder?

Suzy KleinWed 28th November 2018
Suzy Klein, with violinist Lucy Wilkins, makes a record the old-fashioned way - part of the BBC’s Our Classical CenturySuzy Klein, with violinist Lucy Wilkins, makes a record the old-fashioned way - part of the BBC’s Our Classical Century

Suzy Klein finds out - by making a record just as Elgar had done it

I’ve loved exploring the last 100 years of music-making in Britain as we’ve recorded Our Classical Century. For this project we wanted to tell a story through our encounters with classical – both public and private – which brought into focus what was happening in the country at large. So, rather than produce a definitive musical ‘history’, the idea was to look at life in Britain – the changes in our society, politics and culture - through the prism of music. With that in mind, the story of the 72-year-old Edward Elgar suddenly engaging with the latest technology absolutely had to be included. Elgar decided, late in life, to reinvent himself as a cutting-edge musician – and he joined forces with a bunch of young, ambitious techies at The Gramophone Company. That desire by Elgar to embrace the future of music coincided with a revolution in recording technology, and the nationwide appetite for listening that followed it was central to our film.

We wanted to understand the practicalities of how those early recordings happened, so engaged the help of the brilliant Duncan Miller of the Vulcan Cylinder Record Company, and violinist Lucy Wilkins, who spends a lot of time in the recording studio as both a writer and performer. Together we had a stab at creating a wax cylinder recording.

The first thing that struck us in the studio was a huge funnel – just the sort the HMV dog would have been familiar with – and a silver-looking needle resting on wax, waiting to imprint itself when we played. This unwieldy, if marvellous-looking, bit of kit was a million miles away from the palm-top, sleek recording devices we’re used to today. Duncan gave us a brilliant beginners’-level explanation of the technicalities of this machinery – he also explained that in order to produce anything audible we had to play extremely loud. So loud that it was actually impossible to hear one another. Suppressing our laughter we pushed on through an excoriating performance of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour – never has that piece been so unjustly and roughly hammered out!

But the experience certainly gave me a new respect for historic recordings. How anyone managed to produce anything vaguely musical is incredible. You only get one shot on the wax – once it’s carved in, there is no second take. Singers and soloists virtually had to shove their heads inside the recording horn to register their sound; tiny recording studios were heated to ridiculous temperatures to keep wax discs soft enough to record onto. Music was slashed and chopped to bits in order to fit onto the discs. The miracle is that despite the tyranny of early technology,  musicians like Elgar or that supreme pianist Rachmaninov actually seem to have enjoyed the early recording process.

In contrast, today’s musicians are spoilt with a bevy of tiny microphones and digital gimmickry that allows them the luxury of take after take, only stopping when they’re satisfied. For that innovator and tech-champion Edward Elgar, the speed, ease, clarity and verisimilitude of making a recording today  would have been a marvel.

Suzy Klein presents the year-long season Our Classical Century across the BBC from November. You can watch her attempt of recording onto a wax cylinder on iPlayer here until mid-December - you can find that specific segment at 41'30". Our Classical Century is explored daily on BBC Radio 3 on BBC Sounds throughout the year: bbc.co.uk/ourclassicalcentury


Suzy Klein

Suzy Klein broadcasts widely about music and culture, not least on BBC Radio 3 where she hosts Essential Classics

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