Ordeal by record
In 1918, just a few years before acoustic recording was to become obsolete, a treatise
on record manufacture
was published in England by Henry Seymour.
Although the rudiments of acoustics were well understood, recording at this time was not
quite a science nor an
art; it was more a matter of trial and error.
If you look carefully at this rare
photograph of a 1918 recording studio you can see the overhead steel wires and the two
doors leading to the recording machine. (Scientific American)
Seymour was a recording engineer, known variously at the time as a "record
taker," "recorder," or "recordist." And because the finished
product depended upon the skill of the recordist, the recordist didnt like to reveal
In the early 1890s records were produced by brute repetition. The musicans who were
paid by the roundwere placed in front of a bank of up to a dozen recording
phonographs syncronized by teen-age boys and the selection was played over and
over.Russell Hunting, for example, was paid $5 per round by Leeds and Catlin for his Casey
If the copy writers of early catalogues are to believed, some selections were recorded
over 25,000 times, meaning that the exhausted musicians could have done nothing else for
Serious stage artists didnt want to record for the phonograph. They could earn far
more at the opera house. Then too, there was a prevailing myth that the recording horn
"metalized" the voice, and a belief that they would run their voices raw.
Although brown wax records could sell for $1 -$1.50, the record industry didnt
become lucrative until pantography was introduced around the mid 90s, when around ten
duplicates could be made from a master. (The record companies tried to hide the new
discovery from the musicians.)
In 1902 Edisons gold molding process hit the market. By 1918, at the time of
Seymours book, the industry understood the intricacies of molding and electrotyping,
and a consensus of sorts had formed as to how to record a record.
The musicians entered a bare floored and bare walled recording studio around 20 feet long
and a dozen feet tall. There was disagreement as to whether the rooms corners should
be angled or rounded, but was agreed that a domed ceiling was a virtue.
If the musicians looked at the ceiling they would note a curious sight: just above head
level, across the room taut wires were stretched about one foot apart at a right angle to
the recording horn. These wires were supposed to vibrate in sympathy with the music; but
in practice the musicians hung inverted music stands upon them, which would have seemed to
defeat their purpose.
A military band making recordings
at the Edison laboratory in the early 90s. The recordist's identity appeared on each brown
wax record. (Courtesy Allen Koenigsberg)
The room was filled with benches up to six feet high, for different instruments had to be
recorded at the different heights. Even vocalists had to brought to the proper level: the
five foot tall Ada Jones had to stand on a stool when she recorded next to Walter van
Some instruments had to be modified for the recording horn. The piano never recorded well,
but was sometimes necessary. An upright grand was placed on a bench three feet high , its
back removed, and the pianist instructed never to use the sustaining petals.
Violins and violas, which recorded weakly, were replaced by Stroh violins and violas, with
a diaphragm attached to their bridges, and which looked for all the world as if they had a
horn sticking out of their bellies. The cello was sometimes substituted for by the
The orchestra was placed in a U-shape or semi-circle, being careful to be situate each
instrument the appropriate distance from the recording horn: flute and piccolo the
closest; then harp , clarionet, violins; then cello, oboe; cornet and trombones and tubas
bringing up the rear. Drums were placed close to the front. This led to some awkward
seatings: the horns sometimes had to follow the conductor in a mirror!
Vocalists were positioned close to the front, and if accompanied, received their own
Needless to say a lot of trial and error was involved to get a good recording. In his
studio, the methodical Edison put numbers on the floor to show the musicians where to go.
The recording horn jutted out of a small room or draped partition at one end of the
studio. This was to keep extraneous noises out of the record, but also to protect to
recordist, who preferred to keep his techniques a secret.
The recordist would remove a wax master from a heated cabinet, would place it on the
recording machine,and would crank up the weight of a gravity motor. Only a gravity motor
was so smooth as to be free of all fluctuation. This is one reason the recording studio
was sometimes found on a second floor. For cutting cylinders the topworks of an Edison
Triumph was preferred. Sometimes, with 78s, a buzzer told the musicians that the machine
had started and a second buzzer denoted when the lead grooves had been cut. The recordist
had to keep an eye on the way the wax shavings cleared the master; they were typically
blown off with air.
The special recording violin invented by Augustus
The recordist was at the mercy of the quality of the wax and of his
recorder. A bad batch of wax could spoil a days work. A finely honed India saphire
was important.Typically the recordist kept an assortment of recorders with diaphragms of
different thickness and diameter; some might work better on a soprano voice than an alto,
it was necessary to make several test records.
Once in a while for no apparent reason one recorder worked significantly better than
others, and this recorder was cared for and guarded like gold.
The bane of the recordist was "blast"he walked a tight line between a dull
record and a record that blasted.
To reduce blast, tiny holes were sometimes drilled in the bell of the recording horn or
the horn was wrapped with electrical tape.
Vocalists were trained to step back from the horn when delivering a strong note, or to
step forward when singing a weak note. Occasionally the recordist would poke or prod the
singer at the proper time, but this reminder didnt sit very well with some
A related problem was a singer with a particularly powerful voice. A powerful voice could
even shatter a glass diaphragm, which was frequently employed."We had to wear them
down by many repeats, and it often took hours," said Frank Capps, a famous
There wasnt any opportunity for correction with wax. If anyone made a mistake, the
process began again.
The recordist and artist would review the wax master, and when everyone was satisfied it
was sent off to the factory for electrotyping, ending the musicians ordeal by
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph. APM Press, 502 E. 17th, Brooklyn,
Seymour, Henry. The Reproduction of Sound.
Cochrane, Ira. The Phonograph Book.
Fabrizio, Tim. Rochester, NY. Interview.
Scientific American, 1918.