Acoustic and Electric Recording
A Firsthand Experience - by Paul Whiteman
Excerpted From "Memories in Wax: Records for the Millions,"
Hermitage Press, Inc. New York City, 1948

(Stroh "Viophon" Image Courtesy Mike Richter)

[Editor's Note: The following was from band leader Paul Whiteman's 1948 book on record collecting, "Records for the Millions," published by Hermitage Press, Inc., in New York City. This excerpt from the first chapter, entitled "Memories in Wax," was edited to facilitate the Web environment. It recounts Mr. Whiteman's firsthand experiences with acoustic and electric recording techniques in the 1920s. - G.F.]

I can remember as though it were yesterday the first time we recorded "Rhapsody in Blue." Normally we used nine men on a recording date, but for this record we needed twenty-five. We filed into a tiny, dusky room, barren, crowded and uncomfortable. The acoustics were far from perfect in the studios of those days.

In the middle of the room stood a tower, made up of four ladder-like supports tapering to a narrow point. This pylon was about eight feet high. Four recording horns, which looked like megaphones, were attached to the pylon in the form of a four-leaf clover. Four or five of us gathered around each horn so that we'd be close enough for the stylus (recording needle) to pick up the sounds we made.

My boys had to be athletes. When a solo passage was to be played, the musician would move up close to the horn and play directly into it. Then he had to back out in a hurry, dodging out of the way of the next man who was hurrying toward the pylon.

We had to start from the beginning to learn the best methods for successful disk-making. We discovered that ordinary drums could not be made to record properly. The tympani and snare drum were all right, but the bass drum created a fuzzed-up effect when other music was going. We found that the banjo, which until then had been kept in the background and had been heard hardly at all, was effective as a tune drum.

Stroh FiddleThe string section used "Stroh" violins, which strange-looking affairs totally unlike the string instruments you know. The Strohs were little more than fingering boards, with a horn and tone box attached to the metal bridge. These instruments made raspy noises, like the sounds you used to get from one of the old-time phonographs with the "ear-trumpet" amplifiers, but they were more effective than ordinary violins in vibrating the stylus.

As a rule we made two sides at a time, although on one occasion we made nine recordings in three days. Since we had to rehearse and make tests first, each side required about two hours of preparation.

Technical improvements in recording processes led us to explore new possibilities in instrumentation. The saxophone, for instance, had always been an understudy. In time, I added a full quartet of instruments in this group instead of the single sax which had been customary.

We reinforced the brass section with combinations of trumpets and trombones. At first the banjo was used simply to mark time, but we gave Mike Pingatore, my famous banjoist, a more important role in creating new effects.

The recording equipment included a long tin horn, which caught the pulsations of sound and transmitted them to a metal diaphragm that served as a cutting head. This cutting tool controlled the needle, which cut the sound vibrations into the wax.

I remember the jealousy with which the sole owners of the cutting heads at Victor guarded their secrets. They were three brothers, Charlie, Raymond and Harry Sooey. The elder brother had taught the other two the mysteries of the little instrument. In time, each of the men had worked out improvements. The brothers kept their cutting heads in little leather boxes which never left their possession, day or night.

We thought our recording conditions were tough until one day I met Billy Murray, who made some of the first recordings of popular songs. Our lot was easy by comparison with his.

When Billy had a recording date in those early days, he couldn't simply sing a song once for a master record from which copies would be made. If forty platters, [cylinders?] were needed, he sang the same song forty times. If a hundred were needed, he went into his song a hundred times. His pay was trifling and often he sang the same number, over and over again, day after day, for a week.

Yes, that was only yesterday. Recording was crude and unscientific by comparison with today's miracle of sound reproduction. We didn't know it at the time, but my boys and I were frontiersmen, pioneering a new science destined to grow into a tremendous industry.

The popularity of records could not have grown so swiftly and so vastly if it had not been for the great improvement in their quality. Record making has become a fine art, allowing for full scope of individual expression because every tone is faithfully reproduced.

The titanic success of the industry dates back to less than a quarter-century ago, when the electrical process of recording was born. I attended its birth, and almost fathered it. The story recalls the time when my band made its first trip abroad in 1923.

We had come to London at the invitation of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, cousins of the Prince of Wales. We met this friendly and charming couple in New York, when we played at a private party given in their honor. They loved to dance, and after that they would visit us often at the Palais Royale, a famous Broadway dance palace of that day. Lord and Lady Mountbatten became loyal friends of every boy in the band.

"You simply must come to London," Lord Mountbatten insisted. "The Prince must have a chance to hear the band - that's all there is do it." When he returned to England, Lord Mountbatten arranged a six-week engagement for us in a musical called "Brighter London." Londoners must have liked us. We stayed on for six months.

Lord Mountbatten gave a party for the Prince of Wales, at which only thirty-two guests were present. All were either direct descendants of the throne or related to the throne. The Prince, whom you may know better as the Duke of Windsor, went out of his way to put me instantly at ease with a flattering comment about our music. A warm friendship developed between us and I played at many parties at his request.

One day he told me about an acquaintance of his - "One of those inventor chaps, you know. Always fiddling with things. He makes gadgets, like hooking up his alarm clock to pull the shades and pour his tea." The Prince told me that the "inventor chap" had developed a new recording process, and said he was going to send him over to see me.

I had been making records for some time before our trip to Europe. My boys and I enjoyed experimenting and we had a group of engineers at Victor who shared our zest or new ways to improve recording.

As a result I was able to evaluate the invention shown to me by the Prince's friend. I knew immediately that he had hit upon something good. He had, in fact, made the first electrical recording I had ever seen, using a primitive mike. The quality of his reproduction was a great improvement over the acoustical method then in use.

I was so much impressed that I spent $6,000 of my own money to bring the inventor back to the United States with me. We tried to sell the new process to Victor, but we couldn't break through the lower executive echelons. We were reminded that Victor had their own research department, and that the new invention didn't have a chance.

Shortly after, Emile Berliner, who had invented the disk gramophone and lateral cut records, learned of an electrical process of recording developed by some friends of his at the Western Electric laboratories. The first electrically cut records were introduced in 1925, and they revolutionized disk history.

By a strange quirk of fate, Victor again lost out on exclusive rights to the new and vastly improved recording method. Eldridge Johnson, founder of the company, was confined to his bed by a month's illness and could not be contacted for immediate action on an offer of full rights to the process. Meanwhile Louis Sterling, a British executive of Columbia, heard of the development and rushed to New York. He persuaded Western Electric to make its patents available to the entire industry on an equal basis.

The recording industry was given up as dead in the late '20's, when radio began its spectacular rise, but the mourners sang their dirge too soon. When record players teamed up with radio, the partnership resulted in an ever-growing interest in the music you like when you want it. Today about 85 percent of all radios sold are equipped with record players.

I have seen many changes in the music business, since my career has extended through the eras of ragtime and jazz, swing and symphonic jazz - through burlesque and sound movies and now into the television age. I know that television will inevitably grow in popularity as it improves technically and as it presents better and better programs. I believe that recording will parallel this growth in popularity and in technical improvement.

The future of recorded music is greater now than it has ever been before. While we know that the black shellac disk and the spinning turntable will be around for many years, recording is always undergoing change and improvement.

The various recording companies, always seeking ways to present improved sound reproduction to the public, spend millions of dollars on research. They are studying such developments as tape recording, wire recording, and sound on film.

Recording company scientists foresee a day when they may be able to provide a half hour or more of your favorite music on a tape which will be wound on a tiny spool and will be played on a tape recorder. They are careful to advise, however, that this is a development for the future, so far as public use is concerned.

Yes, recording has come a long way since our first disk dates made history and opened the door to a musical world beyond the dreams of the most hopeful prophets. Records have become truly an art form for the millions. I hope, in the pages that follow, to guide you toward more fun and a greater appreciation of the good music that is available to you through this modern miracle of sound and song.

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