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Historians strive to save old sounds

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There was another hitch: The cylinders could only hold a few minutes of audio, a fact that may explain why pop songs then - and today - are rarely much longer than three or four minutes.

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These limitations don't bother fans of old music. "To listen to how the musicians performed, how they inflected words, the kinds of musical structures that they use, is an incredible opportunity," says Levine, although he acknowledges that some songs are "quaint and archaic."

Among the old songs on Levine's iPod: Lauder's "I Love a Lassie," sung in the singer's Scottish burr; Chandler's "All Night Long," a touching tune about a woman missing her sweetheart; and Denny's "You'll Have to Get Off and Walk," a bizarre novelty song about a boy who's vexed by horses and cars.

Other songs of the time were a bit more forward. "There are absolutely songs with double-entendres, winking songs about love," says Mr. Brylawski, who points to tunes by Sophie Tucker, who was later known as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas."

Compared with the present, however, "songs were a little bit simpler, more sentimental," says Joel Chadabe, president of the Electronic Music Foundation in Albany, N.Y., which encourages interaction between music and technology. "Now there's a lot of electronics used, and while the melodies might be extremely simple, the arrangements are full of different kinds of sounds in certain genres."

Will the old songs stick around in Levine's MP3 player? As long as there's room. "I don't know if it's the type of music that I'd replace Led Zeppelin with," Levine says. "But to me, it's an amazing miracle that lets me walk around listening to a recording that was made almost 100 years ago."

To hear audio preserved by the University of California at Santa Barbara, visit

Some sound advice on preserving old audio

Considering how fragile some old audio formats are, it's a wonder some old recordings are still around.

Vinyl records warp in the heat, cassette tapes break, and even compact discs and DVDs fall victim to mishandling. How can you preserve that precious 78 r.p.m. record or the recording of your daughter's first birthday?

First, make sure your audio is stored properly. Keep cassettes and records away from light, dust, magnetic fields, and fluctuations in heat or humidity. "The worst places in the world are the front porch, the basement, the trunk of the car, and the attic," says Andy Kolovos, an archivist and staff folklorist at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.

If you have cassettes, he says, store them upright, not lying on their sides. The same goes for records.

Then consider whether you'd like a more permanent storage solution: While they aren't cheap - some cost $100 to $150 an hour - audio archivists can transfer audio from old formats to more durable compact discs. If you'd rather do it yourself, you can buy inexpensive computer equipment that will allow you to move audio from an old format to a new one; computer magazines, books, and websites will give you guidance.

If you have an especially fragile type of medium like T-120 cassettes, audio transfers could be critical. Other cassettes and records are a bit more durable. (The magnetic tape used in a T-120 cassette is thinner, to achieve the longer playing time.)

Archivists can also rehabilitate audio to take out snaps, pops, and hiss. But keep your expectations modest. "Restoration tools can make the sound better, but they can't make it sound like it was good to start with if it wasn't," says George Blood, an archivist in Philadelphia.

And remember that even the most modern technologies like CDs aren't designed to last forever.