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Historians strive to save old sounds

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"We knew it would have popular appeal; I'm well acquainted with the collector community, and there are a lot of fanatical people interested in these things," Mr. Seubert says. "But I didn't think I'd be getting all these e-mails from random strangers thanking me and our team or asking questions or offering to donate records. It's just amazing."

Part of the appeal may lie in the allure of the cylinders themselves, a product of Thomas Edison's fascination with the idea of recording sound. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, musicians recorded their songs onto grooves on cylinders that were first made of tin, and later wax and celluloid. Customers would insert a cylinder into a player, wind it up, and listen as the stylus tracked the grooves and reproduced the sound.

Over time, the technology improved and the cylinders - about the size of a soda can - gave way to flat records. But the cylinders themselves stuck around in attics, basements, and amateur collections.

It's not easy to play cylinders now: One modern player, called an archeophone, costs a whopping $12,000. Enter UC Santa Barbara, which has collected historic audio for decades and received a huge donation of cylinders from a collector in 1994. The digitization project, in which the audio is converted into computer files, has allowed the public to easily listen to them for the first time.

Not all of the cylinder audio is pristine. Like any old recordings, the quality has diminished over time thanks to overplaying, improper storage, and in some cases, mold. Many of the songs on the cylinders pop and crackle just like scratched vinyl records.

Even when they were new, the cylinders weren't a perfect medium. In the earliest days, they couldn't even be reproduced: Each cylinder held an original version of a song or performance. "There were no microphones, there were no mixers, there were just people who - through trial and error - knew how to position people around a recording horn," says Sam Brylawski, a sound archivist and consultant to the Library of Congress, which has its own collection of some 25,000 cylinders in Washington, D.C.

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