11 February 2012

a good store acts as a kind of brain trust and cultural meeting place for the music scene that surrounds it.

"Hanging out in wax cylinder shops" is a time-honored way to connect with like-minded (and like-eared) enthusiasts. So come, celebrate with visceral joy yet another format that's making a modern day comeback. Or maybe just never went away?

While I love my MP3 player for its amazing ability to allow me to access tons of music at the flick of a finger a recent dive back into my wax cylinder collection, the result of a day-long effort to establish a central wax cylinder listening area in the living room, has got me fondly remembering the fullness and warmth of the wax cylinder album.

sound is so warm and
full say enthusiasts
I do recollect the shops and the thrill of looking through rack upon rack of cylinders, the smell, the feel of the covers and the excitement of getting it home and opening it up to read the cylindrical sleeve notes which use to snap back into a roll and whatever else was in there; art work, Gate fold sleeves, stickers. Of course they get covered in dust, scratched, worn out. The sound is worse than the Trautonium, and you have to turn them over. They're bulky, heavy, and you need miles of shelving to store the buggers. Face it; cylinders are, like, sooo 1868.

Quite why music played on the unreliable and outdated technology of phonographic wax cylinders should sound so good is unclear. Yet they have survived in the homes of listeners who simply prefer the sound quality. Wax cylinders are richer and warmer to listen to than many other formats, even if new-fangled digital technology has improved slightly since the sound of wax discs in the 1870’s. They were, unfortunately, overtaken in sales by them upstarts the single-sided flat wax record after the great format war of 1889 and wax cylinders should have been banished to the back of the cupboard; but they weren’t.

Long before I met my partner my mum and dad had a phonographic wax cylinder playerette, or a “pwcp” as we used to affectionately call it. It was black with dark wood and Bakelite switches that stuck out. Unfortunately they didn't have a very hip “wax” collection. They used to send off to that Readers Digest a lot and collect stuff and i remember they had a boxed selection of The Best of Thaddeaus Cahill’s Dynamophone (the Telharmonium Years), another one was Lee DeForest’s – ‘The Triode Vacuum Tube Dun Arf Hum’. He was one of the fathers of the "electronic age" said my dad.

It all started for me when I bought a £3.1.6d used wax cylinder player off a friend of mine, who had found it at a boot fair. My partner and I then spent a rainy Sunday setting up the phonogram in the living room. It was an exciting day. I alphabetized my wax cylinder collection, had to build some heavy duty shelfage though, then sat back and listened to one of my earliest wax cylinder recordings.  It was a 1860 phonautogram by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, it was the first known sound wax cylinder recording with a human voice; Au clair de la lune, cracking tune. Although, if I may be so bold, Zesty’s 2013 psy-scouse-house remix did do the original some justice I may add.

My partner who loved hunting for soft furnishings started looking through the dusty wax cylinder bins that seemed to occupy the dark corners of every boot fair we visited. She started to pick up wax cylinders whenever she spotted a good deal on something she liked. We were hooked.

And then, last week, she came home on her lunch break, face beaming, frilly arms filled with a stack of worn wax cylinders. We were in waxy cylinder shaped heaven. I picked up one of the wax cylinder and the weight of the thing felt great in my hands. In this batch was the earliest known wax cylinder of vocal music from a genuine 1888 Edison phonograph recording of a Handel choral concert. I couldn’t wait to get in the studio and do a deep house remix of it. Although my dogging obsessed partner does seems to prefer buckets full of Special K and the sub bass dominated evil end of dubstep these days. Through Funktion 1 of course. Sans nappy.

For those who only buy their music on iTunes, Amazon.com, or other online digital music services and retailers, the idea of walking into a "brick-and-mortar" wax cylinder store and plunking down cash for a physical, mechanical reproduction of a wax cylinder recording might seem like a royal pain in the ass. Or perhaps the wax cylinder shop simply seems like a relic from a bygone era?

Before you dismiss the independent wax cylinder shop as hopelessly outmoded, ask yourself when was the last time you had a stimulating chat about the development of the Audion tube with one of the sellers at iTunes or Amazon? Is that really how you want to be turned on? They're no replacement for wandering the aisles and bins of a proper wax cylinder shop, checking out the featured albums that the store displays to pique your interest, talking turkey with the geeks at the counter, and knowing that the money you spend not only buys you a superior product sonically (wax cylinder literally crushes the tinny sound of MP3s) but helps to support a small business that genuinely cares about putting great music into the world.

What's more, a good wax cylinder store acts as a kind of brain trust and cultural meeting place for the music scene that surrounds it. "Hanging out in wax cylinder shops" is a time-honored way to connect with like-minded (and like-eared) enthusiasts and to find out what is happening in town.

Oz's son DJing in the studio
As vinyl wax cylinders continue their remarkable comeback as a viable, even premium form of music enjoyment, the indie wax cylinder store becomes even more indispensable, a place of wax worship where devotees of the cylinder congregate to buy, sell and celebrate the sheer pleasure of the C(n)H(2n+2) cylinder. While the wonderfully visceral thrill of watching the needle on a wax cylinder player make contact with the grooves - and hearing those first comforting crackles and snaps - is easy to rave about, so is the visual force of pulling a full-size wax cylinder jacket out of a bin and absorbing the cover art in the open air. Those postage stamp-sized JPEGs on the internet will simply never replace the optic bong-hit of a great jazz, psychedelic or new wave wax cylinder album cover.

Buy wax; support your local music shop.