Phonograph – the first recording technology
The phonograph was the first technology for recording, storing and reproducing sound. The device was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, but only came into wider usage from the 1890s, due to the change from tinfoil to wax cylinder as the audio carrier.
The phonograph is a purely mechanical technology that does not require electricity to operate. Compared to modern recording equipment, a phonograph has neither a microphone, amplifier or speakers. The wax cylinder is usually rotated in place by means of a clockwork spring.
From Arvidsjaur to Africa
This mechanical technology, and the fact that it was possible to make the devices fairly small and portable, made the phonograph a popular technology for documenting speech and music during collecting trips and expeditions to remote areas.
Alongside Karl Tirén’s joik recordings, at the winter markets in Arvidsjaur and Arjeplog in 1913, the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm in the 1910s supported several other expeditions to Africa, Australia, South America and Greenland. In addition, the archives of dialects and folklore in Sweden also made ethnographic phonograph recordings during this period.
Recording and playback
Recordings were made by singing or playing into the phonograph’s horn. At the narrow end of the horn is a sound box containing a diaphragm, to which an engraving needle is attached. The diaphragm converts sound waves into movement; following these movements the needle engraves a groove in the rotating wax cylinder.
For listening, the process is reversed by switching to a sound box with a blunt needle. The needle follows the contour of the audio track in the rotating wax cylinder, and the diaphragm converts the movements into sound waves, which are then amplified through the horn.
Difficulty in labelling wax cylinders
Unlike gramophone discs, which had a label in the middle, it was difficult to label wax cylinders. Instead, recordings would be introduced or concluded with a spoken announcement, describing what was on the recording – usually a pre- or post announcement.
Phonographs also had variable speed control – the faster the recording speed, the better the sound quality, but at the cost of a shorter playing time. The correct playback speed was therefore sometimes determined by the sounding of a reference tone.
Karl Tirén and the phonograph
Karl Tirén had learned to use a phonograph from Yngve Laurell at the Ethnographic Museum, whom in turn had acquired the technology at the then world-leading research archive on folk music from around the world, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv in Berlin.
On Tirén’s recordings you can hear him pre-announcing the next item, according to the Berlin archive model – who will joik, and what will be joiked – indicating the reference tone by blowing a pitch pipe with the then-current standard tuning pitch (a1=435 Hertz).
Transfers of Tirén’s recordings
When phonograph cylinders are transferred today, this is accomplished by the use of more modern, electrical equipment. Karl Tirén’s phonograph recordings have been transferred a few times in recent decades. In 1984, they were transferred onto audiotape by Anders Schilling at the then national audio-visual archive (today the audio-visual collections of the National Library of Sweden). Around 1990, another transfer was made at Swedish Radio by Mats Brolin and Inger Stenman.
Some forty of Tirén’s recordings, in a selection by Gunnar Ternhag, were released on CD in 2003 (Samiska röster (Sami voices), Svea fonogram SVCD 9). The recording was engineered by Kjell Lolax, AIM Studio. This CD’s versions of Tirén’s phonograph cylinders are included on this website.