Edison Cylinder Recordings Need More Cowbell


[Norman] spent three years developing and building his own Edison cylinder phonograph with electric pickup. We’re glad he did, and that he shared it with the world because the product is a thing of beauty. Every part is clean and precise with plenty of room for adjustments to accommodate differences in media. He’s reused the head from a VCR and attached it to a CNC machined polypropylene mandrel. The needle is interfaced with the cylinder via a delicate passively driven carriage. This consists of an aluminum rod with the cartridge at one end, and two wheels at the other. The wheels travel along a precision rod, propelled by the needle tracking the groove in the wax. Wonderful!

We’ve embedded a video of the device playing a recording of Sousa’s El Capitan from the late 19th century. Although familiar with these cylinder recordings, we were surprised by how little recording space there is available on one.


21 thoughts on “Edison Cylinder Recordings Need More Cowbell

  1. I think it’s to minimize any side forces on the pickup that might happen due to the wire binding at the connector. Reading the article, it sounds like some of these cylinders have very shallow grooves and are difficult to track.

  2. I am curious as to how well that pickup cartridge really works. In “modern” disk records, sound is encoded in the grooves from side to side. In the old cylinders, sound was encoded in the grooves up and down (perpendicular to the surface of the cylinder.)

  3. Three years. It could have been built in minutes. But the years added quality and thoughtfulness to the design. Absolutely awesome. Digital is the future, but, Edison and analogue still kick the most ass. Continue kicking ass, please!

  4. I’ve collected most forms of recorded music for over 40 years now (wow….does that make me old?). I was very pleased to see this and watch the vid. Congrats and thank you to the person who built this. I admire your talent and dedication. Analog sound has a warmth to it that digital cannot duplicate. Digital sound is incredible, in it’s own way. I accept both, collect both, and understand both.

  5. Evil-bert: Modern records are stereo, though, and the up-and-down motion encodes the difference in the two tracks. (More precisely, each 45-degree direction encodes one track, so that a mono record will have equal inputs on each track when interpreted as a stereo record.) Thus, cartridges are sensitive to both directions, and this ought to be just a matter of being sensitive to the up-and-down motion.

  6. I’m hearing moments captured…in time…in wax.

    These things seem so much more visceral than other media for some reason.

    Maybe it’s because it FEELS so much like reaching back in time when they are played.

    Wow. Great stuff.

    This and robots made of junk, THIS feels like Hackaday to me, and I mean that in the warmest most appreciative way possible.

  7. Cool stuff!

    Would be even more awesome if it would have been a steampunked design but hey, it works!

    You got me a little stumped at the mention of the head from the VCR, I thought you meant it was picking up the audio with a magnetic head somehow… When I read the article, I realized he’s using a VCR head drum to mount the cylinder.

  8. fyi – here’s the ELP Laser Turntable system

    but AFAIK the only optical system that reads wax cylinders is the prototype going on at the Library of Congress. Would love to hear an update on that system.

    I have also heard of a European university project where students used an off-the-shelf scanner and scanned an vinyl LP! The audio was awful but they actually could get it to go.

    I would love to see a super high resolution home flatbed scanner that could make the LP of wax cylinder somehow play!

  9. absolutely stunning. i paid 800.00 for my edison player and this guy builds one from scratch. deep bows of respect and much applause are due in response to this fellow’s updated audio reproduction system. bravo. where can i get one to hook into my stereo?

  10. The original Rabco tonearm worked this way, but they had bugs with it. Then they used a servo on a driven shaft. This hack will play 2,3,and 4 minute cylinders incl Dictaphones. The drawback of regular cylinder players is they screw lathe the needle at one time length only. Not all discs were horizontal cut, Edison and Pathe were vertical cut. Beta vs VHS back then! Not only that, pianists recorded digitally and preferred it over analogue. They hated to record a disc because a tech looked over their shoulder and told them how to play, not too soft not to loud no pedal. But on a reproducer they had all the range, and actually liked to hear their own playing. Blind listening tests fooled anyone.
    Personally I like hearing a fully restored player doing that same march.

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