January 15, 1999


From his home, Glenn Sage is doing a lot to preserve turn-of-the-century music for collectors.

Music enthusiast turns passion into business

Early-recorded songs saved, unfiltered

BY DAN McMILLAN
Business Journal staff writer

To most people, they are curiosities from a low-tech age: brown wax cylinders played on funny-looking phonographs that yield scratchy renditions of long-forgotten songs.

To Glenn Sage, they're time capsules from a time when technology was growing rapidly – a vital part of our musical heritage.

From 1888 through the early 1900s, brown wax recordings were the medium of choice for people who wanted to enjoy professional music performances in their homes. A phonograph cost [from about $7.50] and a standard brown wax recording [from about 50 cents], which bought the consumer about two minutes of music.

Because of the technological limitations, brown wax cylinders resulted in vibrant performances, Sage said.

"There is nothing between the sound and the impressions (on the wax cylinders)," Sage explained as he carefully held out a wax recording for inspection. "These were all acoustically recorded, nothing but physics and brute force."

Sage's business is preserving the recordings for collectors, for which he charges no fee, and creating compact disc collections that he sells to other early-recorded music enthusiasts.

The business allows him to escape the high-tech world he usually occupies. The Mount Scott resident is a computer systems consultant by trade and has worked extensively for East Coast clients on exotic applications, such as computerized trading and global satellite systems.

Now, most of his time is taken up running his business from home, which allows him to take care of domestic matters and his son [Ed: I'm not sure what was on my mind here, but I believe I was trying to say that with my office at home I can spend more time with my family].

Sage has been interested in early recordings since he was a kid. He'd get his allowance and then head to a thrift store to paw through the 78s and choose a few to buy.

"I've always been interested in sounds," he said. "I'm really into preserving early-sound recordings."

That's where Sage differs from most early recording enthusiasts. He's a preservationist, not a collector. That's how he gets access to collections.

Because he's not competing with collectors, they are comfortable sending him their collections, Sage said. Plus, it helps that he's never damaged a cylinder, which can cost anywhere from $20 to thousands of dollars.

In exchange for cataloging and digitally transferring the recordings, Sage asks that he be allowed to use the digital transfer on future compilations. So far, he's cataloged more than 1,000 recordings.

The recordings, Sage said, are often unique or one of a very few, and are true live recordings with no filtering or editing.

Thomas Edison pioneered the process, and many of the existing cylinders bear his name.

Because the recordings were done acoustically, rather than electrically, the musicians would stand in front of a recording cone and play, loudly if possible. As the sound moved through the cone, the performance was etched on the wax cylinder.

Sometimes, more than one recording machine was set up, or duplicating machines were attached to the first recording unit.

But, in the latter cases, the sound quality is noticeably inferior.

In order to mass-produce a performance, the band or performer just performed the song over and over, which meant few recordings were exactly the same.

The brown wax recordings, however, are very delicate – so delicate that each playback causes some damage. That's one of the reasons why preserving the recordings is so important.

In order to minimize damage, Sage created a 4-foot-long tone arm that is light-weight.

The tone arm is long because cylinders are best played with a needle that moves laterally across the surface. A short tone arm would move in a pronounced arc shape but a longer one minimizes arcing.

Although digital technology gives Sage the ability to tinker with the sound and smooth over the rough edges, particularly surface noise, he prefers to stay true to the medium.

"I'm more of a preservationists type and I don't get involved in the noise reduction that much," Sage noted.

Sage's growing reputation has reached a point where the Library of Congress called him in to [demonstrate his process].

He's also worked with professional musicians, such as Stan Stanford, chair of Portland State University's music department and clarinet teacher, to preserve certain types of music.

Sage admitted the music isn't for everyone. But for those with an adventuresome ear, there are rewards.

The limitations of the medium – songs no longer than two minutes and then up to four or five minutes by [1908] – kept performances crisp and vital.

Sage has also found some recordings that when played back on compact disc reveal far more detail and ambient sound than, he would have expected.

It's those rewards, not monetary ones, that keep Sage interested.

"Nobody has gotten rich from wax cylinders," he quipped.

For more information, visit Sage's web site at www.tinfoil.com.


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