above Lionel Mapleson’s diaries, which studiously chronicled both his daily life and the Metropolitan Opera’s calendar, at the New York Public Library. TONY CENICOLA /The New York Times

The first recording, swathed in sheets of distortion, was nonetheless recognisable as a child’s voice — small, nervous, encouraged by his father — wishing a very Merry Christmas to whoever was listening.

The second recording, though still noisy, adequately captured the finale of the second act of Aida, performed by German singer Johanna Gadski at the Metropolitan Opera House in the spring of 1903.

left An Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, which can retrieve information from broken cylinder shards that are incapable of being traditionally played, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in New York on Dec 19. photos:  TONY CENICOLA /nyt

And the third recording was the clearest yet: the waltz from Romeo and Juliet, also from the Met, sung by Australian soprano Nellie Melba.

Accessed by laptop in a conference room at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the recordings had been excavated and digitised from a much older source: wax cylinders, an audio format popularised in the late 19th century as the first commercial means of recording sound.

These particular documentations originated with Lionel Mapleson, an English-born librarian for the Metropolitan Opera, who made hundreds of wax cylinder recordings, capturing both the turn-of-the-century opera performances he saw as part of his job and the minutiae of family life.

For decades, the Mapleson Cylinders, as they’re called by archivists and audiologists, have been a valuable but fragile resource. Wax cylinders were not made for long-term use — the earliest models wore out after a few dozen plays — and are especially vulnerable to poor storage conditions.

But with the innovation of the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, a custom-built piece of equipment made specifically for safely transferring audio from the cylinders, the library is embarking on an ambitious preservation project: to digitise not just the Mapleson Cylinders, but roughly 2,500 others in the library’s possession.

The machine will also allow the library to play a handful of broken Mapleson cylinders that nobody alive has ever heard. “I have no idea what they’re going to sound like, but the fact that they were shattered a long time ago saved them from being played too often,” said Jessica Wood, the library’s assistant curator for music and recorded sound.

“It’s possible that the sound quality of those will let us hear something totally new from the earliest moments in recording history.”

Some of the Mapleson Cylinders had been in the library’s collection, but another batch was recently provided by Alfred Mapleson, the Met librarian’s great-grandson. This donation was accompanied by another valuable resource: a collection of diaries, written by Lionel Mapleson, that studiously chronicled both his daily life and the Metropolitan Opera’s calendar.

Wax cylinders, which were traditionally played on a phonograph, at the library. TONY CENICOLA /The New York Times

The diaries provide extra context to both Mapleson’s audio recordings and the broader world of New York opera. One entry from New Year’s Day in 1908 noted the “tremendous reception” for a performance by Gustav Mahler. Another described the time that Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, “in rage”, dismissed his orchestra because of noise on the roof.

“The consistent keeping of this diary is much more important than just for music,” said Bob Kosovsky, a librarian in the New York Public Library’s music division. “It’s such an amazing insight into life in New York and England, since he went back every summer to the family.”

The library acquired the Endpoint machine from its creator, Nicholas Bergh, last spring, as NPR reported then. “The Western music at that time was being recorded in the studios, so it’s very unique to have someone that was documenting what was actually going on there at the theatre,” said Mr Bergh, who developed the machine as part of his work in audio preservation.

Alfred Mapleson soon reached out to the library about the diaries, and the collection of his great-grandfather’s cylinders that had, for years, awaited rediscovery in his mother’s Long Island basement.

In November, they were packed into coolers and transported by climate-controlled truck to the library, where they’re now stored in acid-free cardboard boxes meant to mitigate the risk of future degradation. (On Long Island, they’d been kept in Tuborg Gold beer caddies.)

These cylinders were previously available to the library in the 1980s, when they were transferred to magnetic tape and released as part of a six-volume LP set compiling the Mapleson recordings.

After that, they were returned to the Mapleson family, while the greater collection stayed with the library. But, Ms Wood said, “there’s people all over the world that are convinced that a new transfer of those cylinders would reveal more audio details than the previous ones”.

Wax cylinders were traditionally played on a phonograph, where, similar to a modern record player, a stylus followed grooves in the wax and translated the information into sound.

The Endpoint machine uses a laser that places less stress on the cylinders, allowing it to take a detailed imprint without sacrificing physical integrity, and to adjust for how some cylinders have warped over time. The machine can retrieve information from broken cylinder shards that are incapable of being traditionally played, which can then be digitally reconstituted into a complete recording.

Within the next few years, the library hopes to digitise both the cylinders and the diaries, and make them available to the public. The non-Mapleson cylinders in the library’s collection are also eligible to be digitised, though Ms Wood said that process will be determined based on requests for certain cylinders. The library’s engineers are shared across departments, and with a backlog of thousands, she said, “We have to wait our turn.”

The wax cylinders comprise just one aspect of the library’s ongoing audio-visual archival projects. Its archives of magnetic tape were recently digitised thanks to a grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. And curators are in talks with Mr Bergh about a new machine he’s developing that can play back wire recording, a mid-century format that captured audio on a thin steel wire.

Ms Wood estimated that about 32,000 lacquer discs — a predecessor to the vinyl record — at “very high risk of deterioration” are also in the digitisation queue. These discs contain all types of audio, including radio excerpts, early jazz music and recordings made at amusement parks.

“Libraries, in general, are very focused on books and paper formats,” Ms Wood said. “We’re getting to a point where we’ve had to argue less hard for the importance of sound recordings, and that’s allowing us to get some more traction to invest resources in digitising these.”

Lionel Mapleson Cylinders, recordings from Lionel Mapleson, an English-born librarian for the Metropolitan Opera. TONY CENICOLA /The New York Times

Alfred Mapleson said he was simply happy to put his family inheritance to good use. The cylinders were previously part of the Mapleson Music Library, a family-owned business that rented sheet music, among other things, to performers. But the business liquidated in the mid-1990s, and the cylinders had sat untouched in his mother’s basement ever since.

“There’s an important obligation to history that needs to be maintained,” he said. “We don’t want them sitting in our possession, where they could get lost or damaged.” He waved off the possibility of selling them to a private collector, where they might find no public utility: “That’s not something that would sit well with my family.”

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