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Cylinder Record History
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Learn from the Experts on how to play, shave and record cylinder records!

Playing Cylinders.
All two minute wax cylinders, new or old, play only on the correct equipment, that is the record must match the machine. Wax cylinders are white-dark brown and black. The composition, has a wax-like appearance, although nothing in the compound justifies the term, as the principal ingredient in all wax cylinder is sterate of soda with a metallic hardener. Two minute WAX records were manufactured up to 1908. And so machines made previous to this time play them.
The Edison reproducer, known as the sound box or head that will play them are as follows (The model of reproducer is usually stamped on the floating weight.) : The standard speaker (Identified by external knurled diaphragm retaining ring, adjustment wing with no writing, and a rigid, floating weight with recording and reproducing styli on a single bar.),Edison Automatic (It looks like the standard speaker, only says Reproducer,and has a circular weight that is articulated and only has a reproducing stylus.), and model B,model C. Edison Reproducers model K,S,M,O have the two stile and can play both two and four minute cylinders. A two minute record, however will not play with a model H,N,N56,or any other four minute reproducer. The late Edisons have the diamond styli and are models A,B,C, if you attempt to play any wax two minute or four minute with these, the groove will be ruined. You can identify these if you look at the stylus, if it is pointed and conical, it is a diamond and the weights on all these diamond stylus reproducers have a flat,steel spring between the weight and the swivel. On Columbia Machines, you can play them with the Columbia Floating, Lyric, and Higham. Check to make sure the stylus is a ball or doorknob shape, and not pointed. as some Post 1908 Columbia may have a pointed stylus designed for Celluloid records. (Celluloid is an early thermoplastic made of cellulose,nitric acid, and camphor.) The pointed stylus will ruin any wax record, new or old! To play these records make sure the gearing is set for two minute, slip the cylinder fat end to the right, thin end to the left, you will note the taper inside the record, and the taper of the mandrel.Push it firmly, but not too forceful, or the record may crack. The record should not be left on the machine when not in use. All wax cylinders expand and contract with changes in temperature, so the record may crack if it is left on the machine (Any wax record). Next close the end gate (If the machine has an one.) wind the machine up then place the on off lever in the on position. Next  place the reproducer at the left end of the record where it appears to begin, and then let it down gently on the record, it should be playing. Always return the cylinder to the box that it came in. North American record boxes have pegs in the box to keep cylinders from scratches and moisture. Original cylinder boxes have a cotton batting for a lining. This lining does a great job of keeping them from scratches, but recent studies show the batting attracts moisture, and may cause the record to become moldy in areas of extreme humidity. Nothing can be done for a moldy cylinder.

 Recording hints and tips.

To record first you need a recorder head. These Always have an "Recorder" stamped on them. Replace the reproducer with a recorder (picture shown below),and place a blank on the mandrel, then put the horn on the machine. Practice the music or subject you want to record, and use the same steps as for playback. Place the recorder at the left end of the cylinder. Turn on the machine, lower the lift lever then Speak into the horn, and record.
Advanced Recording Tips.
For talking records a cone horn with no bell, 26" and 6" at the opening is the best recording horn for general use. Speak clearly especially sibilants sounds which should almost be whistled slightly, to be audible in play back. Use an even distinct diction.
You should be about two inches from the opening when recording. If you are recording a singer with a piano, have the piano about two feet behind you with the treble section pointed at the horn. Grands should have the lid raised toward the horn, and uprights three feet off the floor on a riser, no sustain pedal used. Sing about the same distance as the speaking record. If you have loud or high notes, take a step back from the horn to equalize the amplitude, so you do not blast the recorder. For duets and quartets, two recording horns should be hooked together with a horn copper adapter,and rubber tubing of 4" long. The singers at one horn and the other towards the band or piano.
A band with singers should have the band some distance behind about three feet behind the singer, is where the band should begin to balance the voice over music. Cornets, trumpets, and loud brass should be at the back, woodwinds at the front. Bass drums should be omitted in brass band, and orchestra recording, they just do not record well on cylinders. Cymbals should
be used as an effect, and off to the side, not through a whole song, as they are quite loud. If you are recording a brass band use a 36" or 56" horn, a bell is OK on these. It is a good idea on large recording horns to wrap rope in a spiral down the length of the horn to reduce resonance. Solo instrument recording Use a 26" horn, and point the horn at the instrument in the middle place trumpets cornets, about three feet distant from the Horn. Clarinets, woodwind solos as close to the horn as possible. Violins should be very
close to the horn, with S holes pointed at the horn.
Modern rock and country recording can be done with surprising results. You can use the small bass drum in these kinds of recordings, they do not effect the sound too much. Place instrument amplifiers about six feet distant from the horn, singers should sing as close to the recording horn as possible. Drums about six feet distant. You will need to have the amplifiers much softer, as you are not using a PA system for the voice, Do not Use a PA for voice in an acoustic recording, the low mid range of the speakers spoil the sound. If you have a real good clean PA with little distortion, you may use this for back up voices, mid and tweeters pointed at the horn. To monitor the mix before recording listen at the small end of the horn, have the band play to check the balance, what you hear at the small end of the horn, is what the recorder is going to hear. It sometimes is possible to put an t in the line before the phonograph with a valve for a set of ear tubes (like a stethoscope) for listening to the mix.  Temperature is very important, about 95 degrees is ideal.  To Achieve the right temperature, I  use a chicken house style lamp with a 100 watt light bulb placed five inches behind the back of the machine behind the blank I put the blank on loose, and have the mandrel turning five minutes, wind machine up fully again, seat the blank, and tape the end of it to the mandrel
with some scotch tape, then begin recording. When you are finished recording brush the swarf off the record you have made with a camel hair brush. These brushes are available at high end art stores. ( Swarf, the little worms of wax, that are made by recording.) Next take the blank off, shut the light off and let it cool to room temperature again. Replace the recorder with the reproducer the hear the record you have made. In demonstrations it is best to have the two machines, one for recording and one for reproducing. All this information is the result of years of experimentation and that is the best way for you to learn the art, much trial and error.

Nothing is better for shaving than a Commercial Ediphone or Dictaphone shaver. You put the record on the shaver mandrel, just like playing a record, and close the end gate. Push the cutting head down to the wax, then lift it
up, place it on the right end of the blank, and shave. Always shave several thin shaves to one thick one that may tear the wax. A cotton cloth dampened with Lamp oil, Kerosene, or mineral spirits, may be used to dissolve the surface of an un-wanted recording, if no shaver is available, the surface wills have much more noise than of those shaved with a commercial machine made for the purpose, of shaving cylinders, but it does work none the less.   Sincerely
Shawn Borri

A family stops to look learn and listen (note the young lady listening to an 1898 Edison Home Phonograph with listening tubes just like in the 1890s phonograph exhibitions). This is an example of an educational exhibition, by Borri Audio Laboratories at the Bureau County fair Princeton IL. We love to do them, prices vary as to location, and what is needed. I love to teach about these mechanical wonders, and the inventions of Thomas A Edison.

patrons listen at North american phonograph co's dislplay  at the Bureau county fair


This is how to make a vocal recording, be close to the horn talking across it but use a loud, even tone of voice, dramatic, but not straining.

Edison the Napolian of Invention

This painting of Thomas A Edison June 16, 1888. Edison had worked 5 days and nights without sleep perfecting his wax cylinder PHONOGRAPH. Edison the Napoleon of invention. This was the first machine marketed  from 1888-1889.
This painting is hanging in Edison's office in West Orange NJ at Thomas Edison Historical Park!


This is a 1901 Edison 2 minute home recorder. It is acoustic, that means the  sound vibrates the mica diaphragm (The clear membrane.) causing the stylus(The copper piece in the middle with the sapphire on the end.)to vibrate cutting a up and down groove in the blank wax master cylinder. Each recorder sounds different some are better for certain instruments.  Most recorders, if they are in good shape should be left alone, as they are very delicate.  nobody to day make shaving knifes or decent cutting styli, the best cutters are original Edison cupped center sapphires.


This photo of a 1909 Native American  recording session with Geoffrey O'Hara: composer and enthnomusicologist shows the rarely seen studio master recording machine which in this case is an Edison Class M electric phonograph.  Edison Triumphs were also used as master recorders. The white master cylinders are of a similar composition as the ones made today by Shawn Borri.    You will note the engineer adjusting the depth of cut with a special adjustment screw.  He is adjusting the advance ball, a little saphire on a screw, that raises and lowers the cutting stylus into the wax blank..