Radio and the First Twenty Years of Electrical Sound Recording in Canada
by Bryan Dewalt
Figure 2. Herbert Berliner is pictured experimenting
with recording off radio (c. 1927).
From the first regular broadcasts in 1919, radio
FE had a profound impact on sound recording. In
response to competition from "wireless"
transmissions into the home, record companies in 1924-25
adopted improved recording systems that incorporated
microphones and electronic amplifiers. As it turned out,
electrical recording was only the first step in a far reaching
integration of the two media on a technical, a commercial
and an artistic level. I would like to discuss this
convergence by looking at changes in sound recording
technology between the years 1925, when acoustical-
mechanical methods were superseded by electrical
methods, and 1945, when electrical recording on discs
was about to give way to magnetic recording on tape.
Though a successful entertainment industry had
been built on the acoustical-mechanical recording
method invented by Thomas Edison, the technology
reproduced only a sketchy approximation
of original musical sounds. The recording system consisted of a
horn that concentrated incoming sound waves on a
small diaphragm located at its narrow end. As the
diaphragm vibrated, an attached stylus engraved a
corresponding spiral groove on a rotating wax disc or
cylinder. But the horn-diaphragm-stylus configuration
had a low sensitivity; it simply did not register weak
sounds. With a range of just 220 to 3,500 Hz (or
worse), the frequency response was no greater than the
telephone and far less than the 16 to 20,000 Hz that
encompassed the audible range of music. Thus, in addition to having a poor dynamic range, the final recording was stripped of many bass and treble frequencies that gave music its depth, its fullness, and its detail.
Conditions in acoustical recording studios did
not help matters. Because the recorder was directly
dependent on the power of the incoming sound waves,
"laboratories" were tiny. While an abbreviated
orchestra huddled around a single large horn, a soloist
sang or played into a second horn coupled to the first
by a Y-tube. Balance between these sound inputs was
adjusted in a crude way by sliding a disc across the outlet end of either horn. Sounds within the orchestra
were balanced by placing the loud brass instruments
furthest from the horn and clustering the weaker
strings closer (Figure 1). The "Stroh violin," an odd
stringed instrument fitted with diaphragm and horn in
place of the wooden sound box, frequently replaced the
standard violin. Sometimes, woodwinds were subsituted for viola and cello parts.
During the early 1920s these technical constraints
became serious liabilities for record and phonograph
companies. Generally depressed economic conditions
after World War I were limiting the demand for their
products, and free musical broadcasts on radio were
becoming popular. Between 1920 and 1925 record
production in Canada fell from 4.4 million to 2.9 million units. Phonograph production in 1925 stood at
just more than one third of 1920 output. Innovations
were needed, and, ironically, they came from radio.
On Armistice Day 1920 in London a Canadian
and an Englishman made the world’s first known
commercial electrical disc recording. In a truck outside Westminster Abbey, Horace O. Merriman, who
later had a long career with the Radio Branch of
Canada’s Department of Transport, and Lionel Guest
recorded the funeral service of the Unknown Warrior.
The signals from four microphones within the church
travelled by wires to an amplifier unit in the truck.
The boosted signal was then fed to an electromagnet
that caused a recording stylus to vibrate, cutting a
groove into a wax disc.
Figure 1. Studio layout for Compo acoustical session with
Harry Crout (saxophone), February 23, 1922 (National Library of Canada, Compo Ledgers).
The quality oft his recording, pressed and sold by
the Columbia Graphophone Co., was abysmal. Because
of their wide separation within the Abbey, the choir and
band sounded as if they were out of time. The recorder
received signals from the band’s and the choirs microphones simultaneously. But because electrical currents
travel faster than sound waves, the choir did not actually hear the band until a split second after it had begun
to play. In addition, the session was probably recorded
with carbon-button microphones that were little better
than telephone transmitters. And probably no attempt
was made at equalization to compensate for the uneven
frequency response of the apparatus. Clearly, the best
acoustic recordings far surpassed this effort. But it is also
clear that acoustical recording would have been impossible in the cavernous spaces of Westminster Abbey.
Four more years elapsed before an American group
headed by Joseph Maxfield at Western Electric introduced the first truly commercial electrical sound recording system. The Western Electric system, unveiled in 1924, employed the new condenser microphone, which
had much greater sensitivity and a far superior frequency response than the acoustic horn and diaphragm or the carbon telephone transmitter. The high-fidelity but weak electrical signal was then boosted by a
vacuum tube amplifier calibrated to smooth out irregularities in the frequency output. Because the amplified
signal that drove the electromagnetic cutter also had far
greater energy than anything possible from a vibrating
diaphragm, a phonograph pickup tracking the electrically cut grooves could reproduce much higher sound levels and a wider dynamic range.
In Canada, Herbert Berliner of the Compo Co.
was quicker than his American competitors to embrace
electrical recording. Laboratory notebooks still exist for
"Electrotone Tests" dating as early as June 1924 (Figure
2). On December 4 of the same year,the first
electrical session appears in the company’s main recording ledger. These masters do appear to have been released, but some time in the following months
electrically-cut records began to appear under Compo labels.
In the United States, Columbia and Victor's first electrical releases were not recorded until March 1925 and
were not issued until May and June. The American
companies did not formally announce their new process
until October 1926, but competition from Compo
spurred Victor's Canadian affiliate to go public on July
9, 1925. We do not yet know the date of Compo's first
electrical release. Apex 686, by Ernest LeMesurier
("Yum-Yum-Yum" and "Gee [ Wish I Was a Kid Once
More") was recorded electrically in Compo's Lachine
studio on February 14, 1925 and was already on sale
beside later releases on July 6 when Herbert Berliner
advertised that recent "astonishing improvements"
in Compo's "laboratories" were producing records with
"wonderful volume and purity of tone".
Compo did not begin recording exclusively by
electrical means until 1927. Compo technicians, like
their counterparts in competing studios, tinkered with
their new equipment to coax out the desired output.
Microphones, for example, possessed directional characteristics that could change the sound output depending
on their positioning vis-a-vis the artists. For a Vera
Guilaroff recording of "I'm Sitting on Top of the
World" (Apex 729-8) on December 11, 1925, studio
personnel placed the microphone at right angles to the
piano. For "Sleepy Time Gal" (Apex 729-A), recorded
by Guilaroff at the same session, the microphone faced
the piano. This produced a perceptibly louder and
clearer sound. Once engineers had mastered the new
apparatus, electrical recording produced not only
greater sound volume but also captured a range of previously muffled fundamentals and harmonics. By 1930
the frequency range of records was, at so to 6000 Hz,
at least double that of acoustical recordings. By 1934
the record companies had further boosted this range to
30 to 8,000 Hz.
Despite an immediate lift they gave to sales, the
improvements wrought by electrical recording only
briefly revived the fortunes of record and phonograph
makers. Within a few years phonograph and record
production throughout North America would be
largely in the hands of radio interests. By 1930, virtually
the only record players being sold were phonograph-
radio combinations that ran the output from a phonograph pickup through the amplifier and speaker of a radio
receiver. The shift from essentially a resonant
wooden box made by piano companies to a complex
electrical system made by radio manufacturers was
rapid. In 1929 the musical instrument industry manufactured 28,320
phonographs. The following year, in
1930, it made just 402. That same year, Canada’s radio
manufacturers sold 26,470 radio-phonograph combinations. Any hope that the phonograph and record
industries had in competing against free radio entertainment were dashed in the Depression of the 1930s. In Canada, production of records peaked in 1929.
By 1933 output had plummeted to just one tenth of this level.
In 1929, meanwhile, Victor Talking Machine had been
forced to merge with the Radio Corporation of
America (RCA), which had interests both in manufacturing and, through its ownership of NBC, in broadcasting. In 1938 the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), owned by Westinghouse, took over what was left of the
Columbia Phonograph Co.
Although radio interests had throttled the record
industry with live broadcasts, they had, in fact, from the
beginning exploited disc recordings to fill out their
schedules. In 1925 the federal governments Radio
Branch banned the broadcast of records during the
prime evening hours. Scratchy records played over an
acoustic phonograph placed next to a microphone were
deemed unworthy of an infant radio industry whose
promise seemed to reside in live musical broadcasts. By
1930 the broadcast quality of recordings was improved
greatly by the use of electrical pickups linked directly to
the radio transmitter. When U.S. advertising agencies
began offering pre-recorded programs on disc, smaller
Canadian stations succeeded in getting the Radio
Branch to relax its restrictions on records. The first of
these 15 minute "electrical transcriptions" were broadcast in Canada in
1929. During the 1930s many radio stations acquired their own disc
recorders to facilitate delayed broadcasts.
The majority of popular records
in Canada during the 1930s were
domestic pressings of hits by
American radio stars. The most
notable exceptions to this import situation
were in French Canada, where
Compo served a devoted audience for
traditional music by the likes of La
Bolduc. Folk music, in the commercialized form of country and western, was also popular in English Canada. Maritimers Wilf Carter and Hank
Snow, who later enjoyed radio and recording careers
in the United States, made their first recordings for
RCA Victor's Canadian subsidiary during the 1930s.
Later, dance bands like Mart Kenney and his Western
Gentlemen and musicians like Oscar Peterson enjoyed
careers that spanned radio broadcasts and recordings
with RCA Victor. The cutting lathe and mixer used in
RCA Victor's Montreal studio during this period is now, thanks
to a donation by CAPS member Harry
Bragg, in the collection of the National Museum of Science and
Not only did electrical recording
herald a major aural
methods, but its also greatly expanded the
scope for technical creativity in the
studio. In order to convey "concert
hall realism," orchestras recorded
classical music in large, resonant studios equipped with just one or two
microphones (Figure 3). Under the influence of engineers and performers trained in radio, on the other
hand, popular music was frequently recorded in smaller,
acoustically "dry" or "dead" studios. Groups of performers clustered around one of several microphones. Seated
at a mixer, the recording engineer adjusted the balance
of the blended signal to accentuate one particular
instrumental section or to highlight a soloist (Figure 4).
The sonic isolation of elements in a musical ensemble
was made easier by the introduction of reliable directional
microphones in the 1930s.
Once sound had been converted into electrical signals, the engineer and producer could enlist all the techniques
of electronic communications to enhance
the amplitude (volume) and the frequency profile
(pitch and timbre). To some traditionalists, the sounds
that finally emanated from the loudspeaker were
contrived effects, rather than documents or records of
original sounds. For them, the use of the microphone
destroyed a certain authenticity that acoustical recordings had. Singers, for example, once had to know how
to project their voices into the horn if a proper recording was to be had. To sing in the studio meant that one
could sing in a theatre. But electrical recording and the
changed that. The era of the crooner,
whose career was built on the assistance of a micro-
phone and exposure on the radio, had begun.
The next wave of technical innovation in the
sound recording industry occurred soon after World
War II. New materials and cutting methods were introduced, but the most revolutionary development was
that of magnetic tape recording. This technology would
allow for post-performance manipulations that made
the heretofore modest tinkering with microphones and
mixers seem insignificant. At around the same time,
radio became dependent on records as television
usurped audiences for dramatic and variety program-
ming. The ongoing story of radio and records, from
Elvis Presley to multi-track recording to the Beatles and
beyond,is, however, the subject of another essay.
What Was Heard
- Harry Crout, "Somewhere a Voice is Calling," Star Gennett 507-a
- Choir and Congregation of Westminster Abbey with Band of
H.M. Grenadier Guards, "Abide with Me," Columbia
Graphophone (November 11,
- Ernest LeMesurier, "Yum-Yum-Yum-Yum," Apex 686-a (February
- Vera Guilaroff, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," Apex 729-8
(December 11, 1925).
- Vera Guilaroff, "Sleepy Time Gal," Apex 729-a
(December 11, 1925).
- Choir, American Presbyterian Church, Montreal, "The Love of
Christ Which Passeth Knowledge," Apex Radia-Tone 25000
(August 9, 1925).
- La Bolduc,"La Servante," Starr 15679-A (January 18, 1930).
- Wilf Carter, "The Capture of Albert Johnson," Bluebird B-4966-A
(December 20, 1933).
- Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen, "The West, A Nest and
You, Dear," rca Victor 216593-a (May 25, 1938).
- Oscar Peterson, "1 Got Rhythm," RCA Victor 56-002-a (April 30,
- For interesting details on acoustic recording techniques at their
apex,see the early recording ledgers of the Compo Co., with
accompanying notes by caps member Jack Litchfield: National
Library of Canada, Music Division, Compo Co. Ltd. Collection,
File 1971-5, Box 1; Jack Litchfield, Report on Database for Compo
Ledgers, unpublished, National Library of Canada.
- Canada, Dominion Bureau of Statistics
(DBs), Musical Instrument
Industry in Canada, 1919-1925, Catalogue No. 47-203.
- H.O. Merriman, Notes
Regarding the Guest-Merriman Process of
Recording Sound, (unpublished, 1970), National Library of
Canada, Music Division.
- National Library of Canada, Music Division, Compo Co. Ltd.
Collection: "Test Recordings," vi,1-v1,3; Recording Ledgers, Box
1, File 11,File 19; Jack Litchfield, Report on Database for Compo
Ledgers. This database is now complete and allows for ready cross
reference ofartists, titles, and details of their recording sessions.
- Quoted in James R. Tennyson, "OH CANADA!" A Tale of
Orthophonic Recording, Victor Radio, and Two Aggressive
Brothers, Part 2" cars Newsletter (March 1988), p. 7.
- Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph,
1877-1977, Second Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1977), p. 270.
- DBS, "Musical Instrument Industry in Canada," 1924-1933,
Catalogue No. 47-203; Bs Production and Sales of Radio
Receiving Sets in Canada, October, November, December
1934, Catalogue No. 43-004.
I would like to thank Richard Green and Gilles St-Laurent of
the Music Division of the National Library of Canada
(Ottawa, ON) for their assistance in selecting, documenting and
transferring to tape the recordings used in my original presentation and cited in this material.