From wax cylinders to SD cards: the extraordinary range of audio technology encountered by an audio engineer

I recently went behind the scenes at the State Library of South Australia to interview audio engineer, Peter Kolomitsev, about his job.  It quickly became apparent that in helping to preserve the state’s audio heritage, he encounters a diverse range of technology and fascinating recordings.

An Edison Phonograph, showing the light brown wax cylinder on the right. Photo by Norman Bruderhofer, CC BY-SA 3.0

Peter’s work includes digitising the audio collection.  Whilst new oral histories are born digital and are donated to the library on SD or compact flash cards, many historic items in the library’s collection need to be digitised and were made using a diversity of now-obsolete media.  Perhaps some of the oldest technology is wax cylinders, as Peter explains:

I’ve learned about those older technologies.  So wax cylinders are something that was well and truly consigned to the past when I started.  So I don’t know if you know what wax cylinders are.  They were the first I suppose commercially available recording device.  As the name implies – it’s a cylinder that’s made of wax and the ‘wiggles’ of the sound are cut into the wax and played by speaking or singing into a big large horn which catches the sound and then scribes the sound ‘wiggles’ onto the wax cylinder.  That was invented by Thomas Edison.”

Internationally significant audio material

Detail of a photograph showing Charles Mountford recording audio in 1948 on Groote Eylandt. Photograph by Howell Walker, courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.

Peter told me about some of the historic audio material in the State Library’s collection:

We have ethnographic film material, so some of the items in the collection: we have the Charles Mountford Collection, or the Mountford-Sheard collection as it’s technically called.  That is a massive collection of indigenous field recordings of Charles Mountford recording people from communities in central Australia and the Northern Territory… It’s got a heritage listing on there [on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register] because it’s actually quite a significant body of work.  It’s his whole life’s work: it’s his diaries and there’s artworks, there’s photographs, there’s films, there’s obviously sound.  And it’s massive and it’s a really good snapshot on that style of ethnographic endeavours of that era.”

Wax cylinders in the outback

Charles Mountford went on numerous expeditions between 1928 and 1963.  During that time, recording technologies changed dramatically.  Peter talks about the range of technologies that Mountford used:

He started off actually using wax cylinders, which he found were entirely useless, and we don’t have any of those, or any recordings of those.  I just know from reading his bio he speaks of them.  And then he used instantaneous lacquer discs, so basically like records except they’re direct cut, so you go out with  – – – he went out with these big record players which would cut the sound into the record, strapped to the back of a camel, take them out onto expeditions into central Australia and then record the local communities doing songlines and stories and language and all of that sort of stuff.  Then, as magnetic recording came on, he used wire recording, which is kind of like tape except, as the name suggests, directly onto wire.  So it’s these really, really thin wires that run around a spindle, much like a tape does, except it’s wire and it goes really, really fast and they snap.”

A window on the past

I asked Peter about some of the more challenging jobs he has had.  He talked about working with lacquer discs:

Peter Kolomitsev in the audio preservation studio.

 Anything that’s on one of those instantaneous lacquer discs always presents a challenge.  So, they’ll be things like – – – the way that the lacquer discs are, just to make it understandable, is they’re generally a disc that’s coated with a lacquer.  So they might be an aluminium disc or a steel disc or a glass disc that’s coated with like nail-polish, effectively, to create a nice smooth surface for the disc recorder to cut the wiggles onto.  Now, that lacquer has a tendency to degrade over time and will shrink over the very stable metal or glass disc and will crack and de-laminate from the disc.  Once that happens, it’s a massive challenge.  Finding little bits of this lacquer – it’s kind of like an all black jigsaw puzzle – to put these pieces back together and hopefully when you play them back they stay in place and we can use all sorts of tricks to do that.  But even ones that haven’t lost the lacquer – that we haven’t had to glue back together for example – you put the needle on and bits and pieces will come flying off of it and you cross your fingers that everything is going to stay recording… So they’re always really challenging.

Generally because those recordings are old – they might be from the 30s, 40s, 50s – their content is often really fascinating.  The most recent one that I spent a lot of time restoring before I could play it was a series of radio ads for government war bonds – Victory Loans.  They were spoken-word ads, and they were basically stories convincing people to buy these Victory Loans to support the war effort.  So they were full of all of the social moires of the era: things about glory boxes and not having twenty-first parties and buying your son Victory Loans, and all sorts of stuff.  It’s always really fascinating hearing that window back onto the past, and that’s one of the things that’s really delightful about audio in this particular role, is that we have that window back on the past and you get to first-hand see the life that people had.”

As Peter mentioned, a ‘window on the past’ is also a wonderful way to describe the records that oral historians create with their interviews.

In a future post, I’ll include Peter’s tips for helping oral historians create excellent quality recordings.


Further reading:

Biography of Charles Mountford:

The Museum of Obsolete Media:


Excerpts from the oral history interview with Peter Kolomitsev used with permission of Peter Kolomitsev.

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