YOU can forget digital recordings and internet downloads as far as Duncan Miller’s concerned. He’s still be recording on to wax cylinders. Star reporter Rachael Clegg finds out about this near obsolete, Sheffield-based, industry.
TO say that Duncan Miller works in a ‘niche’ market would be a colossal understatement.
So niche is the particular industry in which Duncan works that he is the only man in the world doing it.
Since the 1980s, when Duncan moved up to Sheffield from Kent, he has been recording on to wax cylinders – an almost obsolete recordable medium which predates the MP3, the CD and even the record by a long, long way. His label, Vulcan Recordings, is the only one of its kind. Anywhere.
So archaic is the practice of recording on to wax cylinders that the whole process can be done without electricity.
“I became interested in making recordings without electricity, which dates back to the second half of the 1800s,” says Duncan. And with a cylinder phonograph, this was entirely possible.
The phonograph was invented in 1877. Musicians would play live while a phonograph recorded their performance onto a wax cylinder. But these were one-offs.
“They weren’t duplicated,” says Duncan, “So no two records would be quite the same.”
This was a rudimentary process. There were no opportunities for editing. What you heard is what you got. Sometimes comments such as ‘was that alright?’ can be heard at the end of a record and at the start of a record.
In some instances the listener can hear a faint voice prompting ‘go’. In today’s world, where anything can be edited, dubbed or manipulated, this seems incomprehensible.
The process of recording on to a wax cylinder is relatively simple: an artist sings into the phonograph’s recording horn, which engraves a corresponding groove on a wax cylinder, the depth of which changes minutely with the variations in sound pressure.
Once the song is finished, the cylinder can be played and the song can be heard – in much the same way the grooves on a record player are ‘read’ by the needle of a record player.
But while the recording is easy, the preparation is immensely complicated.
Duncan has spent years researching the specific chemical compounds required for the process in order to be able to make durable copies of the wax recordings.
“To duplicate the cylinders I had to mould them and create a cast of the original in plastic,” says Duncan.
But this plastic is the result of years and years of research.
“There’s a lot of science behind it. I actually use a kind of soap. ‘Soap’ is actually a technical term for any metallic compound of a fatty acid, whereas the soap you wash your hands with contains potassium.”
The Vulcan Cylinder Record Company – aka Duncan – produces around 100 new phonograph cylinders a month though stock levels are quite low as records are mostly made to order and shipped out.
Duncan’s home is his HQ, and fittingly so. Crossing the threshold of his house is like going back in time. There is no TV, no computer, no electrical equipment whatsoever – his sources of entertainment are the enormous phonograph, on which you can also play music, and a stand-up piano. His lights are still gas-powered, though referred to as ‘miniature open flume wall mounted heaters’, for complicated reasons, and his furniture resembles that of war-time Britain.
And from this modest time capsule, Duncan records and ships out wax cylinder recordings all over the world. He’s worked for EMI, as part of their centenary celebrations, using their 1911 recording lathe to engineer a 78rpm disc.
More recently, he’s recorded death metal bands and has even pressed recordings of ghost sounds from a supposedly haunted house in America.
Duncan also records a lot of archival work, such as playable copies of more than 200 cylinder moulds from the National Library of Norway and a rare recording of American inventor Thomas Edison telling a joke – something Edison never thought would be made public.
Other recordings he’s worked on include a very entertaining recording of Arthur Sullivan – of Gilbert and Sullivan fame – commenting on the very new invention of Edison’s phonograph during a demonstration at a dinner party.
“Edison would have British agents who would demonstrate these machines to the ‘stars’ in Britain and Arthur Sullivan was at one of these demonstration parties.
But what makes this recording so wonderful is that you can tell they have all had rather a lot to eat and rather a lot to drink.”
On that recording Arthur Sullivan – though himself a master of low-brow pop – said he was ‘amazed and somewhat terrified’ for the quality of future music as a result of this machine.
“There’s also another wonderful moment during that recording in which the host speaks of the guests having had ‘such lovely wine’. And it’s moments like this that allow Duncan to dip into another era.
“You can look at photographs from another era but it seldom tells you as much about a person as their speech,” he said.
“Speech is much more connected to who a person is. To hear someone speak gives you additional insight into a person, such as Sullivan’s comment about the quality of recorded music. And even in written records, people don’t write as freely as they speak.”
Few people across the globe own a phonograph, but for those who have, the archaic machine clearly provides a great deal of pleasure, not to mention an opportunity for time travel.
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 at his laboratory in New Jersey, USA.
The phonograph is used to record and play music.
Duncan was born in Kent and became fascinated by Edison’s work as a boy at the age of nine.
Duncan’s interest in cylinder records began in 1977 with a desire to make acoustic recordings.
Around this time, he contacted local Edison expert, G Frow, author of Edison Phonographs 1877 to 1929, who introduced him to The City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society (CLPGS).
Through this connection Duncan met Paul Morris, with whom Duncan collaborated for several years making wax cylinder blanks and records under the Miller Morris label.
In 1998, Duncan worked with EMI as part of their centenary celebrations.
Duncan has developed several processes for the manufacture of moulded records in plastic materials.
He launched the Vulcan Record label in 2001.