Limitations of the Acoustic Recording Technique

Introduced by Robert Morrison

[Editor's Note: Robert Morrison provided the following articles, extracted from various sources, explaining the limitations of acoustical recording and the transition to electrical recording. None of the articles discusses G&S per se, but the conditions described would have obtained for any recordings made during the era.]

Joseph Batten

In the following extract from his memoirs, Joe Batten relates the limitations of the acoustic technique when trying to record instrumental accompaniments, and why musical arrangements had to be specifically orchestrated with these limitations in mind. (N.B. Batten started out as a piano accompaniest in the studios and went on to become a conductor, orchestrater, arranger and Record Producer for various companies.)

JOE BATTEN'S BOOK : The Story of Sound Recording
[Rockliff, London : 1956]:

"My early years in the recording studios coincided with the transition from the cylinder made of soft wax to the single-sided and then double-sided discs of shellac. Experimental sessions took place daily and I must at this time have accompanied hundreds of songs which, owing to wax or processing difficulties, never reached the public. A stage had been reached where it was possible to record singers with orchestral accompaniments. But it was not very successful, the recorded effect suggesting muted strings against blatant brass. The average listener would have hazarded that he was listening to a military band and not to an orchestra. In fact this recording problem was only finally solved with the advent of electro-microphonic recording. Thus it was that conductors and arrangers were continually confronted with what seemed insuperable difficulties in their quest for something approaching actuality in recording the varying tonal idiosyncrasies peculiar not only to each instrument of the orchestra but even to the voice and the piano.

The strings of the orchestra were one of many problems. Of necessity relegated to the background because the singer occupied most of the space immediately in front of the very small recording horn, the recording of the violins, violas, 'cellos and basses in these early records was, as already suggested, but a pathetic and ghostly murmur. This trouble was only partially overcome with the invention by Augustus Stroh of the device which was named after him, and which consisted of a sound-box, similar to that used on the tone-arm of the old gramophone machine, attached to the belly of the violin. By this contrivance the tone was amplified by projection through a metal horn which could either be raised or lowered to focus the sound in a direct line with the recording horn. Surrounded by these fortuitous gadgets of sound-concentration, the lot of the recording artiste in those days was hardly an enviable one. Illustrative of the dilemmas is a newspaper cutting of December, 1904, which announces: “Kubelik has made two records with his own Stradivarius, not a Stroh."

The accompanying orchestra consisted of this combination: Stroh first and second violin and viola, one of each, one flute, two clarinets, one bassoon playing 'cello part, one brass tuba playing bass part, two cornets, two trombones and a drummer whose activities were confined to the cymbal and wood block and with a roving commission to “fill in” as he thought desirable! The parts were fully scored for each instrument, no bars rest, and although the accompaniment sounded overwhelming in the studio, little of it got through to the wax. The brass bore the brunt of the work and a three-hour session was more than enough.

The real perplexity of a recording session was to get singer and instrumentalists as close to the all-too-small horn as possible. The singer had the premier place, but his discomfort was always apparent, with the violins a foot away, the bassoon midway between his mouth and the recording horn, the clarinets perched on high stools eight feet from the ground with the bells of each instrument six inches from his right ear, and the flute standing a foot behind him. Only the cornets and the trombones were kept at a respectable distance, the cornets standing ten feet away, and the trombones, perched on stools like the clarinets, twelve feet away.

In those days the singer never knew what might happen to him. Peter Dawson told me that when recording a descriptive scene, “The Departure of a Troopship", one of the effects “off” was thunder, this being suggested by the blows of a hammer upon an iron sheet. When his cue came, the man missed the sheet and struck Dawson on the head with the hammer with such force as to render him unconscious.

The side-drum recorded well, but the timpani were reluctant, the big drum sounded as if the needle had passed over a small hole in the record. On one occasion when recording “The Death of Nelson", at the words “At last the fatal wound", the drum gave a truly impressive boom; but all that was heard on the record being played was a click that sounded as if there had been a misfire!

The percussion man had to work out his own position, which, however, could never be less than a yard or so away, otherwise the wax would have ignored his presence. But, with his roving commission, he was always very much in evidence, and his disappointment obvious when in a quiet song like Tosti's “Goodbye", which needed no noises “off", he was not required. Hence his predilection for Harry Champion rather than Ben Davies, although financial and not aesthetic can be understood.

It was this difficulty of realistic recording which led in those days to every catalogue being overweighted with selections of banjo, concertina, cornet, glockenspiel, piccolo and xylophone solos. These certainly conveyed a certain air of verisimilitude. Not so the piano. This, strangely enough, in combination with other instruments, sometimes recorded exceedingly well, but as a solo instrument it was invariably a failure, the effect suggesting that the hammers had come in contact with tin cans instead of strings. Fortunately for the future of the gramophone, the singing voice presented little difficulty, with the exception of the contralto, which always was, and still is, although in a lesser degree, the bugbear of the recording operator. And it was the recorded voice which first began to attract the attention of serious musicians.

Fred Gaisberg

American Fred Gaisberg was another pioneer of the British recording industry. Soon after the invention of gramophone disc recording by Emile Berliner, Gaisberg joined Berliner's laboratory as an assistant, playing piano accompaniments and supervising some of the earliest disc recordings in 1894. In early 1897 Gaisberg established the first gramophone recording studio in Philadelphia and, in 1898, travelled to London to make the first European recordings for the gramophone. From then until his retirement in 1939 he was the senior recording expert for The Gramophone Company ('His Master's Voice'), and maintained an active interest in the recording industry as a consultant until his death in 1951.

The Gramophone Of Fred Gaisberg 1873-1951”,
Jerrold Northrop Moore, [Hamish Hamilton Ltd., London: 1976]

[In the following extract Fred Gaisberg compared the limitations of acoustic recording with the improvements in sound fidelity available with electric recording; which he first found out about from his old friend, Russell Hunting.]

"In 1925 the electrical broadcasting microphone was introduced into gramophone studios. Because of its enormously greater range and sensitivity the microphone revolutionised gramophone recording overnight. Thinking about recording methods as they had been during his entire career up to 1925, Fred Gaisberg wrote:

In some ways acoustic recording flattered the voice. A glance at the rich catalogue of that period will show that it was the heyday of the singer.... The inadequacy of the accompaniments to the lovely vocal records made in the Acoustic Age was their great weakness. There was no pretence of using the composer's score; we had to arrange it for wind instruments [largely] ... and all nuances (such as pianissimo effects) were omitted ....

Acoustically recorded sound had reached the limit of progress. The top frequencies were triple C — 2,088 vibrations per second — and the low remained at E — 164 vibrations per second. Voices and instruments (especially stringed instruments) were confined rigidly within these boundaries, although the average human ear perceives from 30 to 15,000 vibrations per second, and musical sounds range from 60 to 8,000 vibrations.

Electric recording encompassed this and more. A whisper fifty feet away, reflected sound, and even the atmosphere of a concert hall could be recorded — things hitherto unbelievable. On this revolutionary sound-recording system the Western Electric people were secretly at work. One of the most alert of talking machine personages of that day was the old pioneer Frank Capps, inventor and associate of Edison.... He and his friend Russell Hunting were then in charge of the Pathé recording plant in New York City, and to this plant the Western Electric people arranged to send their wax records for processing.

Capps and Hunting were curious enough to play over the sample pressings before sending them to the Western Electric people. What they heard coming from the records took them completely by surprise. For the first time they heard sibilants emerging from the trumpet, loud and hissing!

One day in the autumn of 1924, I received a telephone call. It was from Russell Hunting, who had just arrived at the Hotel Imperial, Russell Square. He said: 'Fred, we're all out of jobs. Come down here and I'll show you something that will stagger you.'

When I reached his rooms he swore me to secrecy before playing the records. They were unauthorised copies of the Western Electric experiments and, as Hunting predicted, I saw that from now on any talking machine company which did not have this electric recording system would be unable to compete with it.

When the Western Electric achieved electrical recording as a side-line to their research in telephone communication, a mine was sprung in my world. My colleagues, versed only in the simple acoustic methods of recording, had to begin all over again by studying electrical engineering. With dismay they saw young electricians usurping those important jobs of theirs, the reward of long apprenticeship. However, a few of my old associates were equal to the emergency and mastered what was to them a new science.

W. S. Barrell

W. S. Barrell began his career working with various wireless companies, including Marconi, before joining the Columbia Graphophone Co. in 1925 as Chief Engineer to the Recording Department. After the merger of H.M.V. and Columbia in 1931 he took charge of the engineering department of the Group. In 1946 he was appointed a Director of E.M.I. Studios, being responsible for the technical recording activities of the E.M.I. Group until his retirement in late 1957. In 1958 he wrote a series of articles for The Gramophone about his experiences in the recording industry entitled “I Was There”.

In the following excerpt from the first article, he describes the mechanics of the acoustic recording technique, which he first encountered in 1913 when he was invited to attend a recording session:

[THE GRAMOPHONE, June, 1958, (Vol. XXXVI); pg. 41]

"On arrival I found that the room had been partitioned by a large curtain through which a large metal horn projected. In front of this horn the artiste performed and although from time to time I heard a noise indicating that someting was being wound up I was not permitted to look behind the curtain. What was the nature of this wonderful machinery? I now know that it did not consist of very much, which was probably the reason for the secrecy.

At the time recording was carried out by what was known as the “acoustical process”. The records were cut by means of the available power from the performers. The live sound was picked up by one or more horns and caused the glass diaphragm of the recording instrument to vibrate accordingly. A saphire cutting tool was attached to the diaphragm which cut a groove in a rotating heated wax which was driven by a weight motor. The horns in general had one major and two minor resonances. The major resonance was usually around 1500 to 2000 cycles per second. As the acoustical power from the performers was often quite small it was frequently necessary to bunch them closely together and this was not altogether conducive to artistry. As a rule a recording engineer made his own cutters and each man had very definite ideas about the thickness of the glass and the method of attaching the cutting tool to the centre of the diaphragm.

[In the following excerpt from the second article, W. S. Barrell describes the changeover to the electrical system and how this affected the whole technique of recording]:

[THE GRAMOPHONE, August, 1958, (Vol. XXXVI); pg. 134]

The Introduction of Electrical Recording

In 1924 broadcasting was getting firmly into its stride and this had a serious effect on the sale of gramophone records. By present-day standards the quality of broadcast reproduction was poor but the impression of space and more open tone, gave a much more satisfying sound than was to be obtained from the gramophone. So, record sales slumped — but not the enthusiasm of those in control of the Industry. Within a short time the major record companies in this country established experimental departments to adapt as far as possible the principles of broadcasting to recording.

In the acoustical or mechanical recording system the actual sound waves produced by the artist operated the recording mechanism which cut the groove on the master wax. In the electrical system the sound waves do not operate the recording mechanism direct. A microphone diaphragm receives them and the amplified electric currents operate a special cutting head.

As the microphones and amplifiers were common to both broadcasting and recording the special problem confronting the gramophone companies was the development of a suitable electrically operated cutter.

Although considerable progress had been made we were still very much "experimental” when the Western Electric Company of America solved the problem in a most ingenious way. By applying filter principles they were able to produce a cutter covering a much wider frequency range than hitherto and without the resonances of the old mechanical cutter.

An agreement was made with the Western Electric Company and engineers went to New Jersey for technical instruction prior to taking delivery of the equipment. Thus a new era in the recording of sound began.

These early recording outfits were quite simple, a single microphone with attendant amplifier, a voltage amplifier with a gain control and a power amplifier to drive the cutting head. But from the operating point of view, the technique of recording had changed completely. Gone was the necessity for bunching the performers close together; the use of a sensitive microphone allowed them to be grouped more or less as for a normal concert performance. But this spreading out at a distance from the microphone brought to light for the first time the importance of studio acoustics, a problem we have had with us ever since.

This complete change in operating conditions naturally meant a lot of work and concentration for the operating staff, but realizing the possibilities, they quickly adapted themselves to the new conditions and soon became “tolerant” of the newcomers, the electrical engineers whose job it was to maintain and set up the equipment. In the days of acoustical recording each recording engineer made his own cutter and so it was at first with some diffidence that they used an instrument which had been calibrated by “one of those electrical blokes". Confidence was, however, soon established to the advantage of all concerned. We worked in pairs, a recording engineer and an electrical engineer . . . .

The introduction of electrical recording meant hard work and long hours, for not only was the existing catalogue largely obsolete and had wherever possible to be remade, but the new system opened up an entirely new field of recording.