Archive of Recorded Sound demos century-old music players

May 17, 2018, 12:59 a.m.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound held an open house to commemorate 60 years of its establishment. Sound archives librarian Frank Ferko introduced the history of recorded sound as well as the Archive’s collection, and also demonstrated the use of select sound reproduction devices.

The Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound (ARS) was established in 1958 with the purpose of acquiring, preserving and disseminating various sound recordings. The current collection contains phonograph cylinders, shellac discs, vinyl LPs records, magnetic tape and player piano rolls, among other media.

According to Ferko, while around 90 percent of the few hundred thousand items in the collection have not yet been catalogued in the library system’s SearchWorks catalog, they are documented in the Online Archive of California.

During his presentation, Ferko spoke about the history of sound recordings from the very first phonograph cylinders to vinyl records. He explained the development of recording methods  in the U.S. and in Europe.

Ferko supplemented his talk about sound recordings by introducing devices used to play them. He explained the workings of and demonstrated how to use a cylinder phonograph from 1905, disc phonographs from 1914 and 1926, a music box from 1896 and a player piano from 1904, all of which are part of the ARS collection.

Leslie Kim ’98, who attended the event on behalf of the Stanford Historical Society, said that she found the ARS to be both fascinating and historical.

“I loved the demonstrations. I loved seeing the actual pieces working and listening to the sound,” Kim said.

Event attendee Sassan Hazeghi ’72 said that he was impressed by the wealth of the archives both in terms of recordings and playback devices.

“I’ve always been interested in music as well as the electronics that goes behind it, and it was fascinating to see the transition from purely mechanical devices to pneumatic and electric,” Hazeghi said.

The ARS is open to members of the Stanford community as well as researchers from around the world. Items in the collection have been used in research on musical compositions, pieces and performances. Recordings can be digitized on request and demonstrations of the various music-playing devices in the collection are also available.

“We [at the ARS] love it when people come in here and they poke around, ask questions and do research.” Ferko said.

Most of the Archive’s items are received through donations, an example being ten player pianos given by a private collector in Australia. The ARS is currently working to digitize its collection, though copyright on many of the recorded pieces means that access to said items will be limited to those in the Stanford network. Two more open houses are planned for autumn quarter.

“There [are] things [at the ARS] that don’t exist anywhere else,” said Jerry McBride, the head librarian of the Music Library and the ARS. “It’s open to anybody and we particularly want people from Stanford to use it.”


Contact Sean Chen at kxsean ‘at’

Despite having only a high school diploma, Sean Chen nonetheless strives to write about what is interesting and/or necessary. He hails from Shanghai, China, and therefore possesses plenty of experience with bureaucracy and thoughtful language.

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