The Virtual Gramophone: Early Canadian Sound Recordings

Madeleine Brown removes a vinyl record, "Music by Muzak" from its sleeve to be played as background music in a munitions factory, 1943.

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Virtual Gramophone is a multimedia website devoted to the early days of Canadian recorded sound, providing an overview of the 78-rpm era in Canada.

In this episode, we explore the music collection at LAC. Gilles Leclerc, Archival Assistant, and Gilles St-Laurent, Head Audio Conservator from LAC discuss the different aspects of the collection and bring to light some incredible stories about maintaining the collection for future generations.

Duration: 31:15

File size: 29.3 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: March 28, 2014

  • Transcript of podcast episode 10

    Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    In this episode, we discuss LAC’s Virtual Gramophone, a multimedia website devoted to the early days of Canadian recorded sound, providing an overview of the 78-rpm era in Canada. Joining us today from LAC are Archival Assistant Gilles Leclerc and Head Audio Conservator Gilles St-Laurent.

    JO: Hi Gilles, thanks for joining us today.

    Gilles Leclerc: Thanks very much.

    JO: LAC’s collection is quite diverse. Can you tell us if it includes music recordings?

    GS: It does in fact. We have a fairly large collection of a little over 200,000 recording from all eras. It’s quite fascinating to see the full development of the recording industry. We have a sample of just about everything that has come out since the late nineteenth century.

    JO: Are these recordings available and accessible to the public?

    GL: They are, in fact. For the most part one can come onsite to actually listen to them. Usually there would be a reference copy or a consultation copy prepared for that. Especially for the old 78s because those are rather brittle, so therefore we try to preserve those as best we can.

    JO: Are these only accessible in person?

    GL: You can of course consult our webpages because the Virtual Gramophone provides a fairly extensive part of the 50,000 records that we do have, 50,000 78s. Of those, we described about 15,000 on the webpage called Virtual Gramophone and of those about 7,000 you can actually listen to online or actually even download, which is quite interesting. So it makes them really accessible.

    JO: Wow! That’s interesting. Are these recordings all done on 78s or are there other formats?

    GL: For the Virtual Gramophone we are talking 78s. However if someone came onsite, they could listen to perhaps the CDs we have in our collection. Of course those are coming in through legal deposit. Or the vinyls as well, unless of course those are too fragile. Those would also have a consultation copy prepared on DVD or CD.

    JO: Do we have cylinders as well?

    GL: We do have a fairly large collection. Those are rather fascinating, they preceded the actual 7 inch 78s. It must have been quite striking to go from nothing—that is to say nothing listenable anywhere—to music in a can so to speak, because their little containers actually look like a can.

    JO: Here’s Gilles St-Laurent.

    Gilles St-Laurent: The very first recording in 1877 by Thomas Edison was on a cylinder. It’s basically a large cylindrical object wrapped in foil and the sound waves were etched directly onto this foil. Later on the discs were made smaller and made out of wax because plastics hadn’t been invented by that time, so we’re talking about the early-mid 1880s. The problem with these early cylinders—there are several problems. First of all they’re wax; its hard wax, but they still wear out; the pressure of the needle would wear out the information on the groves. They were very fragile, they would break quite easily. There was no room on the cylinder to write song information, so you can wind up with a drawer full of cylinders and not know what song is on what cylinder. They were not easy to store just because of the physical size of it, they are basically the size of a pop can with the information etched into it. Now the advantage to discs when they came about in the late 1880s was that, you know again a lot of stuff. There was one interesting advantage, it was that there was room on the label to stick a label on the record and to write down what the information is and have some kind of record label.

    JO: Who was the musician…

    GS: Who was the musicians, the composers, record labels… Any kind of information that you wanted. The very first discs were made out of a rubber; it was a hard rubber, but it sounded awful and they had real quality control issues and that’s when they developed shellac discs, which is your now modern 78.

    JO: Right. So nowadays how do you play and digitally record these albums or records?

    GS: They are records.

    JO: Yeah.

    GS: We have modern equipment that’s been designed to playback these early discs and cylinders. The very first records, like cylinders and discs before 1925 were records without microphones because electricity wasn’t available and the microphone hadn’t been invented. So they would synch directly into a horn and the sound waves would etch the original material. Later on in 1925 when they started using microphones, they discovered that the microphones could pick up a great deal more bass than the horn could. What would happen is that the groove would cut into the adjacent groove. So what they had to do is cut the bass before they put a song onto a disc with the idea that at home with your amplifier you would bring the base back to where it was cut. They also exaggerated the high frequencies and lowered that later to reduce some of the noise, the surface noise. The problem with this is that these playback curves, as they are called, changed from record company to record company. They could each have different frequencies where they would boost a cut. Even within the same record company, you know the Chicago plant would have a different EQ [equalization] than say the Montreal plant.

    JO: Right.

    GS: So what we have is we worked with a company in the States to develop a box that allows us to dial in the proper playback equalization, so that way we have a historically accurate sound. The playback equalization wasn’t standardized until 1955. So anything before 1955, which all of these records are, is all over the map.

    JO: Right.

    GS: It’s just everywhere and ultimately the decision has to be made by year as to which EQ you’re going to use. Something could have been released in 1926, but it was recorded in 1924 before the microphone or it’s been reissued. So there are all kinds of things that play into it…

    JO: Variables.

    GS: Another thing we need to keep in mind is that the size of the record groove has changed over the years. The very first ones were quite coarse and over the years they made them smaller so they could get more windings and longer-playing discs. We have a large range of styli that allows us to track lower and higher in the groove to get the best sound possible. Sometimes there is certain damage to the records. I mean who knows where they have been before we got to them, so sometimes by choosing slightly smaller or slightly larger stylus you can work your way around the noise. Sometimes it doesn’t make any difference and other times it can be a night-and-day difference.

    JO: When you are talking about the stylus you are referring to the needle?

    GS: Yes, that is correct. The needle that sits in the groove.

    JO: Okay thanks.

    GS: Another thing to keep in mind is that the earliest flat discs, you know they are called 78s, but were never recorded at exactly 78. They could go from mid-60s to 100 and that really has a large effect on the quality of the voice. You know the voice sounds like chipmunks or one of the Chipmunks and the vibrato is too fast. It just sounds very unnatural. We spent a lot of time getting the proper pitch and to do that we have a keyboard and compare the record to the keyboard to try and figure out what key it’s in. Keeping in mind that brass instruments prefer a flat key, strings sharp keys, pop music is written in more simple keys and classical music they can modulate and all off a sudden you have your wind up with six sharps or something. For classical music we can pull out the sheet music and compare it and find out exactly what key it should be in. But the challenge to that is that at that time classical musicians had no qualms about transposing music to fit their voice. They even had pianos invented where the whole keyboard would just shift over so the guy…

    JO: An octave?

    GS: No, it would just shift over a half-tone or a tone. The pianist would just play whichever key, but it’s playing a tone higher. So the score says one thing, you see something else and you’re going, oh! That sounds a bit off. Again, it’s taking all of this stuff into consideration.

    JO: What we’re listening to when we are listening to the Virtual Gramophone is pretty close, as authentically close as you can, to the original or what you think it might be.

    GS: Well, what we think it might be, yes. You know it’s an educated guess. Also, the ones you are hearing on the Virtual Gramophone—like the first thing we do is get the best analogue sound possible. As you get all your EQs, stylist size, speed, so that’s all set. Then we digitize it at quite a high level, it’s about 512 times more accurate than an audio CD. So we start out with a very high quality recording. Then we do a very light amount of noise reduction, just to make it a bit more palatable. You know—making this 19th, 18th century technology more palatable to 21st century ears. So we will remove some of the pops and clicks and a bit of the hiss just to make it a bit more enjoyable to listen to. Now I could have certainly taken off more noise, but it’s best to leave a bit of noise and leave more music. Let people decide on their own whether they want to turn down the high frequencies or do what they want to do with the sound.

    JO: What is the earliest recording in LAC’s music collection?

    GS: The earliest recording is from 1889 and it’s a small 5-inch record and this one here is a guy making animal sounds with his mouth. It’s very bad, but very entertaining.

    JO: So can you tell me where these sound recordings originally came from?

    GS: Well, the collection started in 1967, the recorded sound collection. The records originally came from a guy named Ed Moogk who started the collection in 1967. This is a man who had worked at the CBC, who had a show, and was very passionate about these older records. Then after that we would acquire collections, either collectors would sell them to us, we would get them through auctions, dealers, whichever way we can acquire these old records. Of course these records weren’t sold in record stores per say because of course they were far too old for that to happen.

    JO: What are the highlights of the collection? Does it include any unique recordings or companies?

    GS: I think overall the collection really does give us an overview of the production of recording here in Canada and that’s the interesting thing. We really captured who were the artists of the time, who were the great singers. So therefore, just to mention a few things, we have Harry Mcdonough who was one of the more famous singers of the era. We have his recording, the 1899 recording of “My Little Georgia Rose.” To think that’s a 7-inch 78 because they were a little larger after—I would say about 1910. The 7-inches are at least smaller, they almost look like CDs and in fact they were only recorded on one side too. It’s interesting how things kind of go around in a full cycle. Of course the famous, “Maple Leaf Forever,” which almost ended up being Canada’s national anthem, but didn’t. But we have that performed by the Kilties band, recorded in 1902 and it’s a fairly rare Canadian Tartan label. Tartan was one of the labels on which recordings were re-done. And the interesting recording by Joseph Saucier, he recorded classic and religious music, “Panis Angelicus”, but he is the first Franco-Canadian to have made a recording, so we have that recording in the collection. Those are some of the highlights. We also have Madame La Bolduc, one of the more famous, popular singers in the 1930s in Quebec. She had a particular style that came out of folklore music mostly, and we can say we now have every single original copy that she ever put out. That’s pretty interesting.

    JO: Are there any other notable Canadian artists included in the Virtual Gramophone?

    GS: Yes, I have to mention Emma Albani who was probably one of the more famous sopranos at the end of the 19th century—became a very good friend of Queen Victoria apparently. Most of her career was in Europe when she left Quebec. She really went on world tours, was really renowned. We have her recordings, which were all done later in her career, so we didn’t kind of catch her at her peak. Nonetheless it’s a wonderful encapturing of the voice that made such an astounding impact on Berlin music in the 19th century. So Emma Albani is definitely one, a few other classical ones are Pauline Donalda, Sarah Fischer and Hubert Eisdell. These are all names for people to discover because perhaps we don’t know them today, do we? But they are in our collection therefore they are a record—no pun intended there—but there is a record of our music history. Quite important for us.

    JO: Does LAC have any particular tools available to find sound recordings on the Virtual Gramophone website?

    GS: There is the search engine, of course, on Virtual Gramophone you can find by topic, by name, by title. We have a few articles which would be of interest to people coming to the site because they will provide a nice overview of the recording industry in Canada—how it began, you know of course Berliner was at the source of that. They will be able to read up and see just how Canada really always seemed to have a fairly strong presence in the development of the recording industry. Of course it was starting in the United States at the same time with Edison and Columbia, but Emile Berliner kind of kept his turf and protected his turf in Canada. Thanks to him we ended up with quite the collection of anglophone and francophone performers here in Canada.

    JO: Excellent. What can the music recordings found in the Virtual Gramophone tell us about Canadian identity and culture and history?

    GS: Definitely it covers events. I mean when you are look at the songs that you are listening to, they cover historical events.

    JO: There are certain themes that come through.

    GS: They come through. World War I—I mean if you check under “war” on the Virtual Gramophone you will find about 600 songs. So we’re not short on those and of course a lot of them are recruitment songs and other. A lot of them were songs about a mother waiting for her son to come back from war, and of course the love songs as well. Many of them are also dedicated to regiments and so you would see this nationalism. You do capture where Canada was politically at that time because it was a much closer relationship with Great Britain. We were still part of the Commonwealth, but we don’t have the same dynamic today as we did then. A lot of the songs will talk about going off to war for king and country. I’m not sure that it would be as strong today, but it’s capturing the spirit and I think all of that lies as well in the words. You can just do a study of the words and see what the social values are—this comes through with sheet music as well.

    JO: Right. So you can definitely see there is a distinctly Canadian flavour to it.

    GS: There is and another thing that really emerges is that a lot of the songs are bilingual. They have French words as well. Roméo Beaudry was with one of the major labels in Montreal for years. He must have put French words to at least a hundred popular songs, many of them American. It’s quite interesting to see how they were dealing with 2 markets of course, so therefore of course, they made sure there were French words to many of these popular songs.

    JO: Do we have collection material from artists beyond Virtual Gramophone’s scope? Older or more contemporary?

    GS: More contemporary of course because when I mentioned earlier the 200,000 recordings, of course that covers everything from Rock to what have you. I think there is something for everyone in the collection and like I said earlier we’re also still accumulating through Legal Deposit and more recordings are coming to us automatically as well. We have to sometimes go after them, but most of the time they do arrive. The collection is perpetually getting bigger and bigger and so we’ll have a challenge in years to come, but I think it will be a good one. We’ll just keep on capturing all of the sound recording industry.

    JO: What do you think is the biggest difference between these musical recordings and musical recordings of today?

    GS: I mean it’s really a night-and-day difference in terms of sounds quality.

    JO: This is the modern aesthetic you are talking about?

    GS: Well no, it’s not even so much the modern aesthetic. For instance the physical size of these records, the shellac discs on their own can weigh quite a bit, but then you get a classical work like Handel's Messiah that would take up, you know, 20-30 discs and 20-30 acetate discs weigh quite a bit. Then you can get the same thing on a USB stick and sound clearer, no background noise and it’s just so transportable. I mean I wouldn’t want to work in a record store turn of the last century, those things you know were very heavy. And of course the sound quality now is so much better and much more open.

    JO: So much more accessible to our…

    GS: It’s more accessible…

    JO: It’s pure?

    GS: Well, it’s more pure, but that’s what our ear has gotten used to. So back then, in like the 1920s, I saw an advertisement and they had hidden a gramophone and a singer behind a curtain and people couldn’t tell the difference between the two. Today of course you would hear the difference in a heartbeat, but it’s just because of the ear training that has gone on. We have just gotten so used to good sound that it’s something that we all take for granted. Another thing too is that all of the recordings back then were live recordings. Now of course everything is done to computer and if someone flubs one note you can go in there and repair the one note, electronically repair it or just start that line over again. So now it is a much more perfect recording, for better or for worse, it is certainly the individual’s choice, but certainly the recording is perfect on much more levels than before.

    JO: The Virtual Gramophone website is basically showcasing all of LAC’s music collection. How widely used is the website?

    GS: First of all it is not the entire collection and it is only material that is in the public domain, meaning that there is no more copyright attached to the songs. So all those songs, as many as we can over the years, have been digitized. As an instance, last year 8 million songs were listened to from that website. The really remarkable thing is that we are not talking about popular music from today, there is a real keen interest in the older material. We have heard from people, filmmakers or television show producers who use the music all the time for their sets or for the material that they are working with. Film students, music students, you know the performing styles have changed over the years so it’s very interesting for music students to compare the older versions to the newer versions. Also on the Virtual Gramophone there are notes for teachers, so the teachers would say, how does this music sound different from today? Or how is the interpretation different from today? Which has apparently been very welcomed by the teachers.

    JO: Can you tell us about the most challenging digitization project you have worked on to date?

    GS: I had a 78 that was actually made on very thin plastic that you used to find in National Geographics or they used to give them away in cereal boxes, but what had happened with the record is that it had been folded in half. Someone must have dropped it in an envelope and sent it off somewhere. So every half winding of the record it would skip, so what I would have to do is to record half of it and try to get the other half, and work my way all the way around. After dozens if not hundreds of edits I was able to stitch the whole performance back together, winding by winding, and remove as much as possible the noise it made whenever it skipped or jumped. The song is “Hush-a-ba-birdie”.

    JO: What is the greatest difference between these musical recordings and musical recordings of today from a collection perspective?

    GS: From a collection perspective, that’s an interesting thing. I guess there wouldn’t be much of a difference as you still want to capture all of these things coming out. Perhaps the challenge today is that there is more coming out—definitely more—and the way that it is being disseminated, it makes it all the more a challenge to capture it because we are collecting now these CDs, hard copy if you like. All the digital age era is just proving a whole other level of challenges that we will be responding to in the next few years for sure because that’s our purpose is to capture all of that. The format is of course, the digitization, opens up all the possibilities of how we can also preserve it in our collection because it is not captured the same way. The way as well to make it available to Canadians coming in and wanting to listen to digital recordings, that will be a challenge for us because there are matters of copyright, so all of that has to be dealt with, which we will in the next few years. I guess every era provides their challenges to preserve the copies as best as we can and this is one of the reasons why we have the Virtual Gramophone website put up, so that Canadians can actually consult it online and we can avoid actually using the original copies, the original 78s. Which in many cases are rather brittle and although they may be in fine condition, they are definitely brittle, so with the slightest slip they can crack and never be put back together again.

    JO: What do you think are the future challenges that we face for the physical collection?

    GS: The biggest challenge—and this isn’t just us, it’s worldwide—is the entire question of equipment obsolescence. We’re lucky in that records, that the groove is a fairly simply technology that can easily be rebuilt. For instance we have a cylinder player—again technology that was originally invented in the 1870s, but we have a modern player you know built out of aluminum, beautifully machined, that’ll play back these discs. The real challenge would be dealing with more modern material like reel to reel tapes or some of the early digital media where you can’t rebuild it. You’d have to rebuild IC chips, all kinds of machinery to rebuild it and what I’m seeing is so many archives across the country and around the world just don’t have the money to do it. They aren’t making these machines anymore, they haven’t made them in 20 or 30 years, so what do you do in 50 years from now—you have a room full of tape you can’t play.

    JO: So is digitization the only option for this particular part of LAC’s collection?

    GS: Digitization is the only way because what it allows us to do is to store a lot of information in fairly small containers and then we can automate the process of copying the information later. Once it’s copied once at a high resolution, then it’s just a matter of refreshing the medium to something that is a bit more stable.

    JO: So does that mean that you’re constantly going from one medium to the next as things change?

    GS: Well, what we do is we will go to a disc for instance to an audio file. Once it’s a digital file then it’s stored onto computer storage and it’s up to the computer people to make sure that everything gets done properly and that we have the equipment to playback the old digital files.

    JO: Well, thank you for joining us today. It was great to have you here and hear about all of the recordings.

    GS: Thank you.

    JO: To learn more about using the Virtual Gramophone website read our blog post called Listen to Canada’s Musical History with the Virtual Gramophone at If you’d like to explore Library and Archives Canada’s music collection, visit Music, Films, Videos and Sound Recordings

    Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Gilles Leclerc and Gilles St-Laurent.

    For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at


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