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Historians strive to save old sounds

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 2006

David Levine's iPod is filled with exactly 4,768 songs, including a handful of tunes by turn-of-the-century pop stars with names like Anna Chandler, Will F. Denny, and Harry Lauder.

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If they don't sound familiar, don't worry. You're not out of touch. The fact is that these singers haven't been big for about 100 years.

Mr. Levine and other music fans are listening to long-forgotten pop music - along with 1900-era performances and speeches - thanks to a landmark effort to preserve audio of the past.

With the help of donations from collectors, the University of California at Santa Barbara has digitized songs and spoken-word performances from more than 6,000 cylinders, the early precursors of vinyl records and compact discs.

Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can visit the university's website and listen to the audio for free; downloads are also available, allowing curious visitors like Levine to store the songs and listen to them as they jog, drive, or wait in line at the airport.

"To be able to sit back and listen to this stuff on an iPod, that's just a lot of fun," says Levine, a fellow at Stanford University. His tastes usually run to "modern" artists like The Band and Miles Davis.

Visitors to the website can listen to everything from minstrel and banjo music to speeches and readings by luminaries such as actress Sarah Bernhardt, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and a surprisingly high-pitched Theodore Roosevelt.

David Seubert, a curator who manages the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, expected there would be some interest in the old songs, which had been "totally inaccessible." But the enthusiastic response has surprised him: since the cylinder music website appeared in November, its pages have been viewed more than 4.5 million times.

"We knew it would have popular appeal; I'm well acquainted with the collector community, and there are a lot of fanatical people interested in these things," Mr. Seubert says. "But I didn't think I'd be getting all these e-mails from random strangers thanking me and our team or asking questions or offering to donate records. It's just amazing."

Part of the appeal may lie in the allure of the cylinders themselves, a product of Thomas Edison's fascination with the idea of recording sound. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, musicians recorded their songs onto grooves on cylinders that were first made of tin, and later wax and celluloid. Customers would insert a cylinder into a player, wind it up, and listen as the stylus tracked the grooves and reproduced the sound.

Over time, the technology improved and the cylinders - about the size of a soda can - gave way to flat records. But the cylinders themselves stuck around in attics, basements, and amateur collections.

It's not easy to play cylinders now: One modern player, called an archeophone, costs a whopping $12,000. Enter UC Santa Barbara, which has collected historic audio for decades and received a huge donation of cylinders from a collector in 1994. The digitization project, in which the audio is converted into computer files, has allowed the public to easily listen to them for the first time.

Not all of the cylinder audio is pristine. Like any old recordings, the quality has diminished over time thanks to overplaying, improper storage, and in some cases, mold. Many of the songs on the cylinders pop and crackle just like scratched vinyl records.

Even when they were new, the cylinders weren't a perfect medium. In the earliest days, they couldn't even be reproduced: Each cylinder held an original version of a song or performance. "There were no microphones, there were no mixers, there were just people who - through trial and error - knew how to position people around a recording horn," says Sam Brylawski, a sound archivist and consultant to the Library of Congress, which has its own collection of some 25,000 cylinders in Washington, D.C.