The Mapleson Cylinders - Program Notes
|On Listening to the Mapleson Cylinders|
by David Hall
"THIS RECORD IS NEITHER STEREO NOR HIGH FIDELITY"--thus, in large letters, the imprint on the outer sleeve of one of the 1950s LP discs containing rerecordings of Mapleson cylinders issued by William H. Seltsam's International Record Collectors' Club. Yet some of the sound Mapleson succeeded in capturing is quite astounding in its vividness and impact. This is especially true for some of the 1902 and 1903 performances recorded from the flies forty feet above the stage, using the giant horn shown elsewhere in these pages.
Unlike electrical recording, in use after 1925, whereby microphones could, in the words of one critic, transform the squeak of a mouse into the wail of a factory siren, the acoustic method--the sole practical technology from the time of Edison's original invention in 1877 until 1925--was wholly dependent on direct sound-wave pressure exerted on the recording diaphragm, which in turn activated the cutting stylus to form sound-wave analogues (vertically in the case of Mapleson's Edison wax cylinders, laterally in the instance of Emile Berliner's disc Gramophone or Eldridge Johnson's Victrola). The more sensitive the recording diaphragm and its linkage to the cutting stylus, the more effective the recording horn in gathering and concentrating sound waves toward the diaphragm with minimum spurious resonances, the more intelligible and esthetically pleasing in its verisimilitude to the performance was the resulting recording.
On some occasions, Mapleson was extraordinarily lucky in this respect--usually when he had a stageful of powerful soloists and chorus, and a Wagnerian orchestra or its equivalent going full blast in the pit: the final scenes of Meistersinger and Götterdämmerung are cases in point. On the other side of the coin, much of the most valuable documentation he captured predated his use of the outsize recording horn: if the singer was front-and-center, as was Nellie Melba's wont the result could be quite good, at least as regards the voice (e.g., Side 1/Band 2), but if he were a distance away--or, worse, out of line with the horn--the result could be a faint voice overwhelmed by the orchestra or by a deafening roar of surface noise. In some cases, Mapleson encountered further technical problems, such as a loose diaphragm (resulting in unbearable distortion), failure to maintain an airtight connection between horn and recording assembly, or failure to completely erase (by shaving the cylinder) an earlier recording.
What I do recommend, at all events, is that the Mapleson cylinder recordings, early and late, be listened to on high-quality headphones rather than through loudspeakers It is true that certain of the best recordings, as described above, can be heard very effectively on a good speaker system, and an unsuspecting listener would scarcely believe that the sound dated back to 1903. Nevertheless I am of the opinion that there is more to be gotten from Mapleson's handiwork, and more to be heard of the legendary singers documented on his waxes if headphones are used in preference to speakers. If one has only speakers available, it is best to set volume just high enough to hear the voice intelligibly, and then leave things alone. Otherwise, one just brings up background noise with no benefit to listening as a whole.