New technological forces reinvent the music industryIn 1924, the phonograph industry suffered the first decline in sales of both phonographs and records in its history, and the decline was precipitous. Interestingly, the fundamental reasons for the decline and the industry's response to the decline are closely interrelated, and that response changed the entire character of that business forever. Without the fundamental technological revolution that occurred in the following year, much of our country's traditional music heritage from that time period would be lost forever and the course of American music would be drastically different than where it is now.
The public's continued acceptance of the phonograph had grown annually since the inception of the industry 37 years earlier, as each year brought technological innovations that resulted in improved sound quality and lower cost phonographs and recordings. By 1923, the market for phonographs had stabilized with the 78 rpm laterally-recorded disc as the industry standard, and that year had been the biggest sales year in history for both phonographs and records.
Thomas Alva Edison's venerable cylinder record while continuously manufactured and improved since 1887 had ceased to be a prominent format after WWI, and his vertically-recorded Diamond Disc Phonographs and records (introduced in 1912), while technologically and sonically excellent, never achieved the market penetration of the relatively uncomplicated, cheap to manufacture, and easy to store 78 rpm laterally-recorded disc. Fundamental patents that allowed the "big three" phonograph companies — Edison, Columbia, and Victor — to exert a trust-like control on the manufacture, sales, and distribution of both machines and records for years, had begun to expire in 1917 allowing a number of other manufacturers — without fear of lawsuits — to further saturate the market. The greatest impetus for the sudden decline in sales in 1924 however, was the immense popularity of a new technology that made the mechanical technology of the phonograph as a means of reproducing sound seem stone-age in comparison. The new technology was electrical. It was radio.
A History of Acoustical RecordingPrior to 1925, all recording was done "acoustically", which is to say, "mechanically". The sound waves created by a voice or instrument were concentrated through a funnel-shaped "horn" in order to vibrate a thin membrane, or "diaphragm". The vibrating diaphragm had connected to it some sort of stylus or cutting point which engraved the motion of the diaphragm in response to the sound waves into a soft material such as wax. For playback, the process was essentially reversed, and the undulating groove manipulated the stylus, which in turn vibrated the diaphragm — reproducing what has been recorded.
There were two fundamental applications of acoustical recording technology:
Edison's method using cylinder-shaped recordings made initially of wax, and later celluloid, was based upon his earliest tinfoil phonograph research of 1877-1879. In this approach, known as "vertical" recording, the recording point moved up-and-down in a vertical motion engraving the undulations of sound on the bottom of the groove which wrapped tightly and continuously around the circumference of a rotating cylinder. Very similar experiments were independently conducted by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter that eventually resulted in the formation of Edison's largest competitor in the cylinder business, the Columbia Graphophone Company.
In 1887, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant living in Washington, D.C., who had been employed for a time in the laboratory of Bell and Tainter, developed an alternate recording method, in which similarly, a horn concentrated sound waves against a diaphragm, but this time, moving the cutting stylus in a side-to-side motion relative to the groove, and inscribing onto the surface of a revolving disc, rather than a rotating cylinder. Berliner termed this method "lateral" recording. Berliner named this machine the "Gramophone". Subsequent improvements in Berliner's methods and recording and reproducing apparati, primarily by Berliner himself, Werner Suess, Eldridge Reeves Johnson, Alfred Clark, Fred Gaisberg, William Sinkler Darby, Leon F. Douglass and others, eventually resulted in the founding and operation of the Victor Talking Machine Company from 1901.
Berliner's method was not as technologically "pure" as Edison's cylinder method since the surface speed of a disc at a given point in the groove decreases the closer that point is to the center of the disc resulting in diminished frequency response; the tangential angle of the stylus in relation to the circumference of the groove does not remain constant across the surface of the disc resulting in "tracking" error; the stylus, reproducer, horn, support arm, and any other part traversing the disc is constantly fighting centrifugal force as the groove draws it to the center; and the sideways movement of the recording stylus during loud passages often caused the stylus to blow through or deform adjoining groove walls.
Edison's cylinder format offered a constant groove diameter and thus a constant surface speed with no tracking error or centrifugal force problems, and since the recording was at the bottom of the groove, rather than on the sides, there was no danger of blowing through neighboring grooves. Cylinders had less surface noise than early lateral discs, but improvements in disc recording and pressing processes made them sonic equals by 1908.
The greatest advantages the disc had over the cylinder were in ease, speed and low cost of production for the manufacturers; and handling and storage for the consumer. Cylinders were more labor intensive and more expensive to manufacture, package and ship, and sold for less than discs, resulting in a lower profit margin for Edison.
For retailers and consumers, cylinders took up more space to store and were more delicate to handle than discs, especially fragile pre-1913 wax cylinder issues. Later advances, such as "unbreakable" celluloid cylinders and longer playing four-minute releases that matched the playing time of 12" discs, came too late to rescue the cylinder format. Edison's chief competitor in the cylinder format, Columbia, saw the writing on the wall and abandoned the format in 1909 to produce only lateral discs. By 1911, Edison was the sole cylinder manufacturer in the country, a format he doggedly continued to champion (and improve) until shortly before the phonograph division ceased production in October 1929.
Although the simple technological differences between vertical and lateral recording spurred countless inventive minds, generated hundreds of patent lawsuits, and both created and destroyed business empires, fortunes, and lives in the process, they were still both acoustical/mechanical processes. Much of the development of acoustical recording was by less than empirical science. Every possible variable that might affect the recording process, from the size, shape and material that a recording horn might be constructed, to the diameter, thickness and material that the diaphragm might be fashioned from, and every imaginable theoretical variant was tried in every possible combination until a satisfactory result was achieved. Different voices — mezzo-soprano, soprano, alto, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass — would require different horns and different recorders in different combinations. The same for various instruments, ensembles, bands, orchestras, whistlers, yodelers and elocutionists. Two different individuals with tenor voices might require completely different horns and recorders from one another, and different gear might be required to record the same subject on a different day, or even at a different time of day as temperature and humidity would change (in those pre-climate controlled days) and affect the density and character of the very air in the studio and the yielding quality of the wax recording blank. Securing a successful record was more of a combination of tinkering and alchemy than real science.
Very little was patented during this period lest a competitor learn what a company was up to and copy their secrets. Recording engineers were typically among the most highly paid employees of a company in order to prevent them from jumping ship and taking their secrets with them. The recording equipment, recorders, and horns were built by the engineers themselves and were considered proprietary. Break-ins and industrial espionage were commonplace. The recording lathe and associated apparatus were locked behind closed doors, only the recording engineer allowed to see it. Protruding through the wall would be the recording horn, or horns, into which the artists would sing or play. The recording engineer would frequently stand right by the performer, and physically move them nearer and further to the horn as the engineer saw fit, to avoid blasting through adjacent grooves during fortissimo passages.
Only certain instruments and voices with a certain "quality" were powerful enough to drive the diaphragm enough produce a successful recording. Softer instruments such as guitars, violins, autoharps, mandolins, etc., and "untrained" natural voices could not be effectively or consistently recorded using acoustical recording methods. In an attempt to capture the minute vibrations of stringed instruments, Augustus Stroh, an inventor and machinist who was active in phonographic innovation since its inception in tinfoil days, produced the Stroh Violin. Designed especially for recording purposes, the bridge rested on a diaphragm. From the housing of the diaphragm protruded two brass horns, one pointing toward the ear of the violinist, the other outward toward the recording horn.
The End of the Acoustic EraIn 1924, Victor released a record entitled, " The Wreck of the Old 97" backed with "The Prisoner's Song," sung by a light opera tenor from Texas named Marion Try Slaughter. Taking his pseudonym from the names of two towns in his home state, he recorded the song as 'Vernon Dalhart' on Victor's black label category of popular music. To everyone's surprise, the record became an instant hit and went on to rapidly sell one million copies (and eventually six-million copies). The Victor Talking Machine Company — the largest phonograph and record company in the world — had long cultivated the cultured segment of the market with its "Red Seal" series of grand opera and classical recordings, and the dollars generated by this surprise 'country' hit caused them to notice a segment of the market that they had previously ignored. Victor wanted more of this action, but its stolid A&R department did not have a sense of how to get it. They rather, continued to rely on Dalhart and a few other artists, who were not really rural musicians, but who conveniently lived in the urban areas where the studios were located, to interpret material that Victor felt would appeal to the rural record buyer. In the rare cases when a true rural musician was recorded, their records were not distributed nationally, but instead released back into the same market from where the musician hailed. In those nascent days, it did not occur that there might be any universal appeal for traditional music.
With the exception of "The Wreck of the Old 97" and a handful of others, 1924 was the worst year for record sales in the history of the industry. Not only was the phonograph market saturated, but it appeared that acoustical recording technology had reached its sonic zenith. Competition from the newest technology, radio, was sweeping the country. Entertainment on the radio was free, it could reach into the most remote cabins, as well as Fifth Avenue penthouses, it was immediate and live — there was a sense of presence — and, it sounded different. Microphones were sensitive enough to pick up the tiniest sounds. With the advent of radio, entertainment and information could literally be plucked from the air. Record and phonograph sales plummeted. Combination radio-phonographs were hurried onto the market, but the radio portion that used a speaker sounded different — if not better — from the phonograph portion with its purely acoustical-mechanical diaphragm and horn amplification. Something was needed to put the phonograph and the radio on an equal technological footing.
Experiments in electrical recording had in fact been undertaken since the days of the tinfoil phonograph, but primarily viewed as a way to record telephone conversations. One of the critical components not yet invented was an effective electrical amplifier, which was not successfully developed until the invention of the Audion vacuum tube by Lee DeForest in 1915. By 1925, a team of engineers at the Western Electric Company under the direction of Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison, and using principles described by Arthur Gordon Webster, and others, developed a practical system of electrical recording — collecting sound waves with a microphone, converting the sound waves to electrical impulses, strengthening the impulses with an amplifier, and using those impulses to drive an electro-mechanical cutting head to inscribe the vibrations into a revolving wax or acetate blank disc. Electrical recording had several distinct advantages over the old acoustical method: the sensitivity of the microphone could be adjusted to record any sound, soft or loud — no longer were only certain voices or instruments recordable; the dynamic range, frequency response, and signal-to-noise ratios were all improved over the acoustical method — that is, electrical recordings were louder, had more bass and treble (more realistic), and had less surface noise relative to the over-all volume of the recording; and, electrical recording equipment was portable — no longer would rural artists have to come to the recording studio, the studio could come to the artists.
The Technology of Electrical Recording(The reader may find this section highly technical).
The key to Maxfield and Harrison's work was the acoustical research of Arthur Gordon Webster between 1914 and 1919. Webster, whose field initially was ballistics, had studied the physics of gas pressures in the confinement of a gun barrel when it was fired. He noted that the concept of "impedance" as applied to electrical circuits by British scientist Oliver Heaviside, could be extrapolated to describe certain physical behaviors in the fields of mechanics and acoustics. Applying this concept to the work of G.W. Stewart, who had set about designing more efficient horn-type loudspeakers for the British government during WWI, Webster deduced three fundamental formulas that would mathematically describe the most efficient horn shape for a given desired response curve.
Maxfield and Harrison correctly reasoned that if the electrical force called "impedance" had a mechanical force equivalent, then other electrical forces must have a mechanical equivalent as well. The theory they developed is known as the 'Maxfield-Harrison Electro-Mechanical Model', or the 'Theory of Matched Impedance'. By using the electrical formula that describes the electrical forces of the recording process, it is possible to derive a mechanical formula that is equivalent. From the mechanical side of the equation, an optimal mechanical playback model may be inferred. A table to better understand the equivalence of electrical and mechanical forces is given below:
Mechanical Table of Correspondences
Force (dynes) = Electromotive Force (volts)
Velocity (cm/Second) = Current (amperes)
Displacement (cm) = Charge (coulombs)
Impedance (dyne sec/cm) = Impedance (ohms)
Resistance (dyne sec/cm) = Resistance (ohms)
(or mechanical ohms)
Reactance (dyne sec/cm) = Reactance (ohms)
(or mechanical ohms)
Mass (gms) = Compliance (cm/dyne)
Inductance (henries) = Capacity (farads)
Here are the two equations upon which the whole theory of the design is based:
The record surface is to be considered an approximate equivalent of a constant current electrical generator of infinite impedance.
fc = transmission system cut-off frequency in cycles per second
C = shunt compliance per section in cm/dynes
M = series mass per section
zo = characteristic impedance over the largest portion of the band range.
The value of M is a diaphragm of 13.5 cm with a mass of .186 gms.
Cut-off frequency chosen was 5,000 hz after which surface noise becomes a real nuisance.
In this particular example, the characteristic impedance is calculated at 2920 mechanical ohms.
Maxfield and Harrison ultimately settled upon a final design that resulted in a characteristic impedance of about 4500 mechanical ohms to produce acceptable volume.
Using those two numbers, a lever/transformer ratio of 4500/2920 was determined as necessary to produce the required resistance in the system.
The Victor 'Orthophonic' Victrola and RecordsThe Western Electric 'Westrex' electrical recording process developed by Maxfield and Harrison was licensed in 1925 to the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was desperate for something new to boost slumping sales. Victor designers, in cooperation with WE engineers, used the mechanical side of the electrical recording formula to design a mechanical phonograph to optimally play back the electrical recordings. Several models were designed and the flagship model was known as the Victor 'Orthophonic' Credenza — 'Orthophonic' being Victor's advertising term for the electrical recording process, and 'Credenza' after the type of furniture cabinet used to house the mechanism. The acoustical sound reproduction parts of the Credenza were designed to mirror the electrical process. The horn chamber split twice — vertically and horizontally — in order to 'fold' the horn upon itself so that it would fit into the cabinet, yet provide the precise volume air column contained within the properly tapering rate of expansion of the horn chamber, as specified by the Maxfield and Harrisons' formula.
The new process recordings played back on the new Victrolas were stunning in comparison to the older acoustical recordings — they were much louder and even more life-like than the upstart radio. Victor blitzed the print media with ads stating that something new would be in Victor dealerships the day after Thanksgiving, 1925 — just in time for Christmas. Crowds lined up around the block to hear the new Orthophonic Victrolas and records, and Victor took millions of dollars in orders, assuring the companies financial future until the stock market crash of 1929. Within months, every record company in the country either licensed the WE process, or went out of business. The electrical revolution was complete.
The Significance of Electrical Recording to Rural MusicAfter Victor tasted the success of Vernon Dalhart's "The Wreck of the Old 97" in 1924, the artistically stodgy company began to realize that there might be some money in these homespun tunes, but a citified company like Victor had little knowledge of where to procure more. In 1927, they turned to Okeh Records executive Ralph Sylvester Peer. Peer's company had recorded "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith, a black blues "shouter", and the sales success of that record, both to white and black audiences, made Peer aware that a market existed for niche recordings of artists other than those promoted by the mainstream Victor, Columbia, and Edison companies. In 1924, Peer had taken acoustical recording equipment to Atlanta at the behest of local Okeh dealer Polk Brockman. Brockman asked if Peer would try to record a local musician that he managed, Fiddlin' John Carson, largely as an experiment. Peer made the trip, and later pronounced the Carson recordings "pluperfect awful" sounding, and the experiment in field recording a failure from a technical standpoint. However, when the 500 copies of '"Cluck Old hen" that Peer provided Brockman sold out within weeks, Peer again realized that there was something worth investigating further in rural music, just as there had been in blues. Peer had Carson come to New York to record subsequent selections in the controlled environment of the Okeh studio. It is possible today to find later releases of Carson's first Atlanta recordings imprinted "Recorded In Atlanta" on the label, as Okeh did on later field recordings by other artists (i.e., "Recorded In Asheville" or "Recorded In Kansas City").
The deal Peer cut with Victor paid him a salary of $1.00 per year, with the provision that he own the publishing rights to any song he recorded. This lucrative arrangement paid off many times over for Peer and allowed him to found Peer Southern Music Publishing Company, now peermusic — the largest privately held music publisher in the world. The payment of royalties based on authorship and record sales as conceived by Ralph Peer is the basic business model for the entire music industry today.
Peer contacted his old associate, Ernest V. Stoneman, who had first recorded for Okeh in 1924, and asked him how to go about finding more rural music in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Stoneman recommended that Peer arrange an extended recording session in Bristol, a city straddling the Virginia and Tennessee border, centrally located in the hotbed of traditional American music that is the Southern Appalachians.
It was electrical recording equipment that Peer brought with him to Bristol in late July 1925. The significance of that fact cannot be overestimated. Electrical recording equipment was indeed portable, something that professional acoustical recording equipment never was, in spite of numerous attempts. By bringing the studio to the musicians, a broad scope of performers was recorded at Bristol — according to musicologists, a veritable cross-section of period American music from that region; an event that would not — and could not — ever be repeated. Peer returned to Bristol in 1928, but on the second visit, his ear was more jaded and he was seeking hits. The ethnomusicological purity of the traditional rural music and artists recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions will never be duplicated.
The sensitivity of the microphone allowed previously incapturable voices and instruments to be recorded — the sounds of native singers, native musicians, and native instruments. Prior to electrical recording, the banjo and violin had been the most successfully recorded folk instruments. Now, dulcimers, autoharps, guitars, jaw harps and other mountain instruments were recorded in sparkling clarity. Sara Carter's voice was put on record and she sounded for all the world just as she did singing on her porch in Poor Valley.
Because of the worldwide distribution capabilities of the mighty Victor Talking Machine Company, recordings made at the Bristol Sessions were heard around the world.