Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 7

Historical Recording Methods

by Geoff Martin / April 1, 2002

Version française...

Special on Caruso
As we've seen in earlier articles, we are currently waiting to learn which of two advanced digital formats, DVD-audio or super audio CD (SACD), will win the hearts and ears of the listening public. Oddly, in many ways we're in the same position that we were 100 years ago.

Back in the 1800's people invented all kinds of neat new things. One of the people doing a lot of the inventing was a guy in Nova Scotia named Alexander Graham Bell, and one of the things that he helped to create while inventing the telephone was the idea of a device that could record and replay sound. In 1877 Thomas Edison built the first working recorder/player. Originally this was a strip of wax-coated paper as recording medium and a needle stuck in a telephone diaphragm as both microphone and loudspeaker, depending on whether you were recording or playing. Later in the same year this device was upgraded, substituting a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil for the waxed strip, and the first "phonograph" was born.

About 10 years later -- after a number of nasty legal battles over who owned the patent to the phonograph -- a German immigrant to the United States named Emile Berliner developed a similar but slightly different system. His idea was to use a flat circular disk rather than a cylinder. The advantage was that the discs could be stamped out one after another using a metal plate pressed into hard rubber. Unlike the higher-quality cylinder-based system, mass production was now possible.

Fast forward another 10 years or so. It's 1900 and Berliner has moved his company from Philadelphia to Montreal. Although the rubber in his discs has been replaced by shellac, he is still in a format war with the higher-quality cylinders produced in the United States. There, the biggest cylinder company makes most of its money through leasing players to fairgrounds for use as jukeboxes. The mass market is yet to be born.

Then the Berliner company makes two smart marketing decisions and changes the history of recorded music. Up until now, its disks have been 7" in diameter with a playing time of about 2 minutes -- too short to use for use in people's homes. In addition, the discs are noisy and not good at reproducing low or high frequencies -- just the mid-range. This limitation is minimized by choosing the right program material. Since the human voice consists primarily of mid-range frequencies, and since opera singers are used to drowning out noise -- audiences, orchestras and other opera singers -- the young gramophone company set out to Italy to look for opera singers.

As is told elsewhere in this issue of La Scena Musicale (page 18), a Berliner employee named Fred Gaisberg recruits the young and unknown Enrico Caruso to do a recording session in Milan. Quality repertoire suddenly makes the shellac disks interesting. The size of the disks is increased to 10", doubling the playing time to 4 minutes and the Victor "Red Seal" record label is born.

Although an immediate sensation, this arrangement does not work equally well for all artists. Soprano voices sound thin and pipelike when shorn of their harmonics; bases sound weak and disembodied without their bottom tones. Dramatic singers have to give up their use of tone colour, dynamic range, and artistic freedom. Reaching the climax of a line, they pull back from the recording horn to avoid a "blast," in a similar manner to microphone techniques used by pop and jazz singers today. Many operatic arias are recorded audibly faster than on stage to achieve a finished time of four minutes.

Of course, doing a recording session in 1902 was quite different from what it is now. Today, a century later, recording engineers spend time carefully placing microphones and musicians in the performing space. This ensures that the recorded sound has the best timbres, perspective, spaciousness, coherence, and depth that can be achieved. Recording equipment is housed in a different room from the microphones so that only essential personnel are in the performing space. Performers thus enjoy a high comfort level and extraneous noise is kept to a minimum. (Today's equipment is exquisitely sensitive. I once had to interrupt a session in order to track down and remove a house fly spinning on its back on the floor of the church in which we were recording.)

In 1902, technical issues dictated the recording configuration. Remember that sound is essentially a very small movement of air particles. In the case of a phonograph, every small vibration of air is translated into a much larger movement of the recording needle in a groove on a rotating disk. A "horn" makes the amplification by acting as a funnel for the sound wave. Its energy is collected and funnelled down the horn through a smaller and smaller diameter until it reaches a moveable diaphragm to which a needle is attached. The needle "writes" the pattern of vibrations onto the plastic medium.

The horn or funnel is known to the technical crowd as an "impedance matching device" because it matches the acoustical impedance of the air at the narrow end of the horn with the mechanical impedance of the diaphragm, thus making the transfer of power most efficient. Unfortunately, however, it is far less efficient than the electronic amplification which replaced it in 1927. Consequently, instruments and singers had to be loud and be placed as close to the horn as possible. Unlike today -- where musicians can be even at opposite ends of a concert hall for some effects -- players and singers were crowded together around the mouth of a horn connected directly to a cutting needle. (For a photograph of a typical arrangement, see <www.npr.org/programs/Infsound/ gallery/ edison/4.html>)

For these reasons and more, the disk format offered poorer sound quality than that of the cylinder. Nonetheless the disk slowly won the battle. People were not interested in having two players, the discs were easier to store, the catalogue was popular, and, best of all, the players were built to look like beautiful furniture. The new Victrola was a welcome addition to the modern decor.

For more on this history, I highly recommend a visit to the Musée des ondes Emile Berliner, housed in the old Berliner factory at 1050 rue Lacasse, local C-220, near the Place Saint-Henri metro station in Montreal. On the web: http://osiris.teccart.qc.ca/berliner. Tel: (514) 932-9663. Also the BBC website, "The Story of Vinyl", at <www.bbc.co.uk/ music/features/vinyl>.

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale