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Radio and the First Twenty Years of Electrical Sound Recording in Canada
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by looking at changes in sound recording technology between the years 1925, when acoustical- mechanical methods were superseded by electrical methods, and 1945, when electrical recording on discs was about to give way to magnetic recording on tape.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 Technology.

Not only did electrical recording herald a major aural improvement over acoustical-mechanical 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 microphone 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

  1. Harry Crout, "Somewhere a Voice is Calling," Star Gennett 507-a (1919).
  2. Choir and Congregation of Westminster Abbey with Band of H.M. Grenadier Guards, "Abide with Me," Columbia Graphophone (November 11, 1920).
  3. Ernest LeMesurier, "Yum-Yum-Yum-Yum," Apex 686-a (February 14, 1925).
  4. Vera Guilaroff, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," Apex 729-8 (December 11, 1925).
  5. Vera Guilaroff, "Sleepy Time Gal," Apex 729-a (December 11, 1925).
  6. Choir, American Presbyterian Church, Montreal, "The Love of Christ Which Passeth Knowledge," Apex Radia-Tone 25000 (August 9, 1925).
  7. La Bolduc,"La Servante," Starr 15679-A (January 18, 1930).
  8. Wilf Carter, "The Capture of Albert Johnson," Bluebird B-4966-A (December 20, 1933).
  9. Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen, "The West, A Nest and You, Dear," rca Victor 216593-a (May 25, 1938).
  10. Oscar Peterson, "1 Got Rhythm," RCA Victor 56-002-a (April 30, 1945).

Endnotes

  1. 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.
  2. Canada, Dominion Bureau of Statistics (DBs), Musical Instrument Industry in Canada, 1919-1925, Catalogue No. 47-203.
  3. H.O. Merriman, Notes Regarding the Guest-Merriman Process of Recording Sound, (unpublished, 1970), National Library of Canada, Music Division.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877-1977, Second Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1977), p. 270.
  7. 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.

Acknowledgements

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.