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Long before records, wax cylinders played music. UCSB has one of the world's largest collections

UCSB Performing Arts Curator David Seubert with some of the UCSB Library's Cylinder Audio Archive Collection.

Wax cylinder collector supports new initiative to collect, and preserve some of the oldest recordings.

They are the sounds of history. It’s music from the late 1800’s. Long before we had digital downloads, CD’s, cassettes, or even records, wax cylinder recordings were the first commonly used way of recording music, and the spoken word.

UC Santa Barbara’s Library has one of the largest cylinder collections in the United States, with some 20,000 cylinders dating back to the late 1800’s.

"They're about the size of a soda can, they're made out of a brown colored wax, they're very fragile, and susceptible to mold," said David Seubert, who is the UCSB Library’s Performing Arts Curator. "But they were the first home recording technology where you could make a recording at home."

He says for the last 20 years, they have been digitizing the recordings, and making them available for the world to listen to on the internet.

"That was the turning point for the collection," said Seubert. "That visibility that came from having so many accessible to the public, recordings that hadn't been heard for a century in many cases, more records came, and we just put more online."

Seubert takes us on a behind the scene tour of the library’s archives, where the cylinder collection is stored.

UCSB's David Seubert takes people on a tour of the Library's massive wax cylinder collection, which is one of the largest in the world.

There are studios where the wax recordings are played, and digitized, so they can be put online. There’s another area filled with giant metal cabinets where the wax cylinders are stored.

We pass by the desk of Nadine Turner, who is documenting new arrivals to the collection, which will eventually end up online.

"I'm actually cataloguing cylinders that come in, so those will go onto our cylinder website," said Turner. "Eventually they'll be digitized, so they (people) can listen."

Now, there’s a new effort to collect, and preserve some of the earlier wax cylinder recordings, dating back before 1903. It's called the Early Recordings Initiative. Collector John Levin is helping to underwrite the project, and will eventually donate part of his cylinder collection to UCSB.

"This era of sound doesn't sound anything like the modern age," said Levin. "These are sonic postcards from another time."

Seubert says the pre-1903 cylinders are the rarest of the rare.

"1902 was when mass production began," said Seubert. "Before that time, it was a system of semi craft production...and very few of them survived."

The library celebrated the new effort with a live performance of some of the historic music by Grammy-nominated musician, and music historian Colin Hancock and his five-piece orchestra.


But, to put it in perspective, part of the live performance was recorded with the wax cylinders, so people could get a taste of the before and after.