Version: February 19, 2000
by Christian Pillet, 2000
I - THE PROBLEM
The first cylinder phonographs were intended to incorporate, in the same machine, the recording and playback of sound.
The success of the phonograph created a strong demand for prerecorded cylinders and the two functions, recording and playback, were dissociated, bringing:
Consequently, playing cylinders on the phonographs we have today, even when they are in an excellent state of conservation, does not permit us to restore all the information recorded on these supports. One may make the same remark for discs, ecpecially microgroove discs, the information recorded being only partially recovered, or even deformed by low-end players.
These observations make us ask the following question:
How can we, given the cylinders we have, and with the technology of today, read all the information that has been recorded?
The answer hinges on two points:
The two points are bound tightly together and one can not be conceived without the other. The first one mostly makes use of mechanics and electronics while the second one uses computer technology and the almost limitless resources of digital sound processing.
Even if the final result can only be fully appreciated after processing the sound, we will here only concern ourselves with the first point, that is the description of the player. It is an important point because it permits extracting the sound message engraved on the cylinder. It is very technical and leaves little room for subjectivity or improvisation.
The second point is a lot more delicate and in some cases poses problems of interpreation. Contemporary technology lets us process sound and change it to the point of obtaining "virtual" but perfectly plausible results that have never existed, for instance, to make Caruso or Nelly Melba sing Yvette Guilbert's success "Le fiacre".
Aside from there ethical problems, which by far exceed the limits of this article, the description of the techniques of sound processing require a competence that the author of these lines holds only in very small part.
II - THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A PLAYER
A modern player, whatever it may look like, and whatever its finish, should have the following characteristics:
It is obvious that these characteristics are not all equally important and that some may be omitted. What is listed above are the ideal conditions. As we will see, especially the changes in rotational speed can be very effectively brought about by digital sound processing.
III - SOME REMARKS ON DIGITAL SOUND PROCESSING
For some years now, we have known how to digitize and process sound. What used to be reserved for professionals at very high cost is now accessible, at a more decent price, for home use.
There are several programs on the market, not all performing equally well. Some have functions that approach those of the professional tools. In particular, we may mention the program Sound Forge, which in its most complete version permits an efficient restoration of old recordings.
We will not here enter into the details of sound processing, which is relatively complex and requires a fair amount of practice to end up in an interesting result.
The main functions used are the following:
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