About the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive
Before MP3s, CDs, cassettes and vinyl records, people listened to … cylinders. First made of tinfoil, then wax and plastic, cylinder recordings, commonly the size and shape of a soda can, were the first commercially produced sound recordings in the decades around the turn of the 20th century.
The UCSB Library, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and donors, has created a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the UCSB Library. To bring these recordings to a wider audience, the Library makes them available to download or stream online for free.
This searchable database features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.
The website also includes the Library’s collection of more than 650 Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings, which in 2015 were selected to be part of the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. These personal recordings, also known as home wax recordings, were made by everyday people at home, not by record companies or field researchers, and capture the early spirit of the public’s interaction with recording technology.
On this site you will have the opportunity to find out more about the cylinder format, listen to thousands of musical and spoken selections from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and discover a little-known era of recorded sound. If you know what you are looking for, enter names, titles, or subjects in the search box above, or you can browse by genre or sample some of our favorite selections in the featured cylinder section or by exploring our curated thematic playlists.
About UCSB's Cylinder Collection
The UCSB Library has several major collections of cylinders. The Todd Collection consists of approximately 6,000 cylinders, ranging from brown wax to late Blue Amberols. It is especially strong in two- and four-minute Edison wax cylinders. The Blanche Browning-Rich Collection consists of approximately 1,200 Blue Amberol cylinders from unplayed dealer's inventory, acquired by the library in 2002 from the Rich family of Ogden, Utah. The collection of the late author and discographer William R. Moran is especially strong in operatic cylinders, including many Edison rarities. The Library of Congress, Bowling Green State University, UCLA, UW Madison, and Western Michigan University also contributed cylinders to the project for digitization. The Fred Williams collection consists of over 1,000 cylinders of concert and military band recordings. The Edouard Pecourt collection contains over 3,000 French cylinders. Other smaller collections of cylinders have been acquired from various donors.
In 2002 the precurser to the present project and website was begun as a pilot project to explore the feasibility of the goal of digitizing the UCSB Library's collection of cylinder recordings for online access. The original pilot project website can be accessed at:
After completing the pilot project and demonstrating both the feasibility of and public interest in the collections, a grant proposal to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) was submitted in 2003. A $205,000 National Leadership Grant in the preservation/digitization category was awarded in September 2003, and the project began in November 2003. The project website went online in October 2005 with an initial collection of 5,000 digitized cylinders. Cylinders continue to be added incrementally as they are digitized. Funding for the project was provided by IMLS, the UCSB Libraries, the GRAMMY Foundation, the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, and individual donors
Cylinders were cataloged according to standard library rules for cataloging sound recordings. A large number of cylinder recordings had been cataloged by Syracuse University's Belfer Audio Lab, and their catalog records were used (with modifications) for this project. The remaining cylinders were cataloged by UCSB Library staff. All catalog records are searchable through this website, as well as in the UCSB Library catalog; Melvyl, the University of California systemwide catalog; and FirstSearch/Worldcat, the union catalog of OCLC member libraries. In May 2013 the library switched from AACR2 descriptive framework to RDA, so there are minor differences in descriptive vocabulary and standards in the collection.
Cylinders were transferred using a French-made Archeophone, using custom Shure styli from Expert Stylus in England. The audio was converted from analog to digital using a CEDAR ADA (through 2014) or Prism ADA (after 2014) and captured at 44.1kHz with a bit depth of 24 bits in Steinberg Wavelab software running on a PC. Starting in 2014, raw files were captured at 24 bits and 96kHz. Files were edited and normalized and then processed with CEDAR's Series X and Series X+ Declicker, Decrackler, Dehisser, and Debuzzer units. After "cleaning," a third file, dithered down to 16 bits, was created. Surrogate files for online distribution are created via batch process. After 2009, cylinder transfers have been captured simultaneously as raw and processed wav files by splitting the digital signal, routing one channel through the CEDAR/Prism components and recombining them and capturing simultaneously on the DAW as two mono wav files.
Storage and Servers
All audio files (over 80,000 files, including master and derivative files) of the original cylinders are stored on the UCSB Library's servers and use approximately 2.0TB of disc space. The website is hosted on a Linux server, which communicates with the library's OPAC in realtime through Z39.50 to generate the searchable index and record displays. Until 2014 the files were streamed from an Apple Xserve running Quicktime Streaming Server until migration to HTML5.
The quality of the original cylinders varies widely, depending on the type of cylinder, the condition, and even the quality of the original recording. Project staff recognize that not every cylinder digitized is in pristine condition and that better copies may exist at other institutions or in private collections. However, the primary goal of this project is to make UCSB's collection available and a wide range of music from this era accessible to researchers and the public. Many cylinders sound wonderful, while others are almost unlistenable, even after having undergone treatment with CEDAR. With few exceptions, project staff did not make decisions to exclude items from the collection based exclusively on condition or sound quality. Project staff decided that bad copies were better than no copies at all since CD reissues are virtually nonexistent, and the public's ability to hear even copies in poor condition is essentially nil. If better copies are acquired by UCSB, inferior copies in question will be replaced and new sound files loaded onto the server.
Disclaimer About "Dialect Recordings"
"Coon songs," "rube sketches," "Irish character songs," and other dialect recordings that were popular in vaudeville routines and genres of songs during the late 19th and early 20th century often contain negative stereotypes and portrayals of blacks and other ethnic groups. These recordings reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. Many individuals may find the content offensive. Some of these songs and recitations were written or performed by members of the ethnic group in question, while others were not, such as the tradition of blackface minstrelsy of whites performing caricatured portrayals of blacks. To exclude these cylinders from the digital collection would deprive scholars and the public the opportunity to learn about the past and would present a distorted picture of popular culture and music making during this time period. The mission of the UCSB Library is to make its resources available to the faculty, staff, and students of the university community and to the general public. The UCSB Library presents these documents as part of the record of the past and does not endorse the views expressed in these collections.