The Acoustic Recording Process 1877 – 1925

For 50 years from the first demonstration of the Edison Phonograph (1877) till the use of the Electrical recording process in 1926, the Acoustric recording process was the method of capturing and reproducing recorded music. In 1926 sound-engineers in the USA made a technological breakthrough that completely transformed the recording of music. The earliest recordings, like the ones made by Caruso in the first years of the century, had used a simple acoustic system. The sound entered a large horn at the end of which was a diaphragm; the diaphragm vibrated, moving a stylus, which in turn cut a groove into a prepared cylinder or wax disc.This extremely primitive means of capturing sound worked surprisingly well for the human voice and simple instrumental sounds like an accompanying piano, but when it came to the richness of orchestral music it had nothing like the frequency range needed to record an accurate picture of the sound. It was the invention of an electrical means of recording that swept the acoustic system away. In the early 1920s, microphones were developed that could convert sound into electric impulses, and these could then be used to source an electrically controlled stylus cutting into a prepared wax plate. After 1926 recording was never the same again. Before that event…all we had was…..

The Acoustic Method: Columbia and Victor Beginnings

Sometimes designated the first record label because of the entertainment cylinders it issued, the Columbia label actually originated in the company’s primary function, as sales rep for Edison dictation equipment in the District of Columbia. In the mid-1890s, it was already on its way to being a household name when Emile Berliner was still raising the capital to launch the Gram-O-Phone records that, as flat discs, were to put the phonograph cylinder out of the record business over the next quarter of a century.The enterprises launched by Berliner soon became the Victor Talking Machine Company in the United States and the Gramophone Company in Europe. Their use of the waxmaster technology (which actually derived from Columbia’s practices) and their energy in attracting major stars to the recording horn left Columbia, and the various corporate identities to which it belonged, playing catch-up by the time the world emerged from the First World War. With the arrival of radio after WW I acoustic record sales dropped off alarmingly America was fascinated by its ability to hear people speaking, singing, and playing from hundreds of miles away with just the flick of a “cat’s whisker” across the crystal, and . Victor was stunned (eventually becoming “RCA Victor” as the Radio Corporation of America took them over.) Columbia was very nearly done in and would later become a part of the emerging CBS- Columbia Broadcasting System Corporation.

Berliner Horn

The Berliner “Flat Disc” Dominates after 1900:

Emil Berliner returned to the United States in late 1890 and set out to develop a disc record for serious commercial use. In April 1891, together with a small group of New York investors, he formed the American Gramophone Company. Berliner’s laboratory and studio were located in Washington, D.C., and it was there that he began his recording efforts. A few cornet, piano, and clarinet recordings that date from 1892 were eventually released, and these are probably the earliest surviving American-made disc records. It wasn’t until the end of 1894 that the company offered the first fifty discs to the American public. They were thin, flexible discs made of celluloid, with an engraved label and handwritten titles. The artists were rarely mentioned; at this early stage, no performers of note were recording. The 7-inch-diameter discs sold for 60¢ each (about half of what a cylinder recording cost at the time) and were accompanied by a paper sleeve containing the lyrics of the selection. The discs themselves enjoyed many advantages over their cylindrical counterparts. They were virtually unbreakable, as opposed to the extremely fragile wax cylinder, which could easily be broken just in placing it on or removing it from the phonograph. They needed far less storage space; nearly fifty discs could be stacked in the space required by only five cylinders. They could be duplicated easily, and between 500 and 1,000 pressings could be produced from a single master-recording. The early discs were also more consistent in quality than the cylinders, which had to be either an original recording or a copy recorded from an original, with the resultant loss in volume tone and fidelity. Finally, the discs were louder, even though they also produced a considerable amount of surface noise. Despite those advantages, the disc did not immediately replace the cylinder as the format of choice for the early enthusiasts of recorded music. For one thing, the cylinder business had a five-year head start. Sales agents were in place, a supply of phonographs and cylinders was in the field, and thousands of people had listened to their favorite band music or popular songs on cylinders in the phonograph parlors. While hardly yet an institution, the cylinder was America’s image of recorded music.

Make sure music lives forever, read our Importance of Music Education post.

The cylinders’ most important advantage over the discs, however, was the tremendous superiority of the machines available to play them. The cylinders were played on a device called the phonograph, while the discs were reproduced on a gramophone. The gramophone was a primitive device that relied on a handpowered crank to propel the turntable. Not only was a listener required to sit next to the machine and turn the crank while the record played, but the near impossibility of maintaining a constant rate of revolution caused annoying pitch fluctuations. In contrast, the phonograph of the early 1890’s was electrically powered and featured a mechanical governor to maintain a constant rate of speed. By 1896, spring powered motors would be employed in both machines, but until then the disc gramophone would appear to be a mere novelty compared with the refined cylinder phonograph. By 1901 (see photo), the now refined gramophone, dealt a death blow to Edison style cylinder sales.

Acoustic recording techniques:

Acoustic recording required playing your instrument almost directly into a large metal horns in small cramped recording facilities and utilizing orchestras reduced in size. See the photo of Edward Elgar recording his Cello Concerto in 1920. Notice the small orchestral forces and the closeness with which Beatrice Harrison (the cellist) is seated near the acoustic recording horns. The crude acoustical horn recording method was replaced the the far superior electrical method of recording in 1926 , which would dominate for the next 25 years, till it in turn was replaced by the magnetic tape recording process.