The James A. Drake Interviews: William S. Bachman on the Development of the Columbia LP

WILLIAM S. BACHMAN ORAL-HISTORY INTERVIEW
James A. Drake (Interviewer)

Friday, October 28, 1977    

Ithaca, New York

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How did you and Dr. [Peter] Goldmark divide your work on the Columbia LP project?

Well, we didn’t, really.  Peter was so involved in television [development] that he essentially turned over the LP to me.  He was senior to me, of course, so it was his project and I was his collaborator, but he asked me to run the LP development on a day-to-day basis.

 

To what extent was Mr. [William S.] Paley involved in the LP project?

Not at all until it came time to introduce it publicly.  Mr. Paley was never that interested in the Columbia Records division.  Visionary that he was, he knew that whichever company came up with the best color television system would dominate that industry.  He knew that RCA was working on a color system, and nothing gave Bill Paley more gratification than beating General [David] Sarnoff to the market with the best possible system.

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Although Peter Goldmark took credit for the LP, the actual development work was carried out by William Bachman and other CBS and Columbia Records staffers.

 

Do you know whether General Sarnoff was involved in the 45 r.p.m. system that RCA Victor introduced after your success with the LP?

I don’t want to say that Columbia and RCA had “spies,” but the engineering end of the commercial recording industry is not really that big, so it’s never that hard to find out some information—not all, but some—about what the competition is up to.  Now, I will admit that our two companies put out “junk rumors” every once in a while, just to get a rise out of the other [company]—but that was a waste of time because the engineers could tell in a heartbeat whether a rumor had any substance to it.

 

What was your impression of the RCA Victor 45 when you first heard one?

Well, they marketed a complete system, just as we did with the LP.  But the RCA 45 system was more complicated from a design standpoint because they had to develop a turntable with a changer that would operate faster than any 78 turntable operated.  They were able to do that because the 45 disc was a vinyl compound and therefore was unbreakable, so their turntable could change discs very fast compared to the standard 78 ones, because there was no risk of the disc that was being dropped onto the turntable would crack or break.

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Columbia’s LP-player  attachment (originally manufactured for Columbia by Philco Radio) was often discounted or given away with record purchases. That practice, along with Columbia’s decision to make the new format freely available to other labels, helped to quickly popularize the LP. (January 1949)

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I gather that RCA’s rapid changer was meant to give the consumer the impression that for classical-music recordings, the new changer would work so fast that the time lapse between the disc on the turntable and the one being dropped into place would be minimal.

That was a big part of RCA’s promotion—that and the fact that they had a stable of artists who were the top singers, instrumentalists, and symphony orchestras on their Red Seal label.  And RCA really pushed that promotional angle when they introduced the “EP,” or “Extended Play” version of the 45.  But we had the LP before RCA had the 45, and we also had Mitch Miller and [RCA] didn’t.  Mitch Miller created more careers of pop singers than you could count, and they were all on our label.  We ended up with our share of the great conductors and orchestras too, and we also had Lily Pons and some other great opera singers, but the classical market was never much when you looked at it from a return-on-investment standpoint.  The classical market was a prestige thing, but it never accounted for more than ten or maybe fifteen percent of [Columbia’s] revenue.

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Ads for RCA’s competing 45-rpm system stressed Victor’s stable of stars in the pop and classical fields. Ultimately, the 45 was solidly trounced by the LP in the latter category. (July 1949)

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When you began the LP project, did you go back to the RCA Victor long-playing discs of the early 1930s?

No, never.  Those Victors were a complete failure, you know. There wasn’t anything new about them, even when Victor launched them.  Maybe the grooves were a little bit narrower than the regular 78s that RCA was putting out.  But there was nothing new about the speed because 33-1/3 r.p.m. was already the standard for cutting [radio] transcription discs and also for the old Vitaphone discs.  So there was nothing new about the speed.  And the playback stylus specs were the same that Victor’s 78 players had in those days. 

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“A stale joke in the industry” — RCA’s failed 33-1/3 rpm Program Transcriptions of the early 1930s. (December 1931)

 

Thanks for clarifying that.  Occasionally, there are still some rumblings that the Columbia LP was sort of “inspired,” for the lack of a better word, by the Victor long-playing discs of 1932.  

Those Victors were already a stale joke in the industry, so we would have been wasting our time if we had started by going back to them.  But I will admit that we did pay a lot of attention to an earlier long-playing record, the one that Edison had developed in the mid-1920s.  Do you know about those Edisons?

 

Yes, but I’ve never actually seen or heard one.  

Let me tell you, those records were a masterpiece of engineering.  And not just in the lab, but in their commercial form.  I got two of those thick, long-playing discs from a friend of mine who collected old records.  They were vertical-cut records, like everything Edison put out.  And they were recorded acoustically, not electrically.  The groove specs were almost unbelievable when we put them under a microscope and had them measured.  Now remember, we were cutting the LP with a 1/200-inch groove.  But Edison had cut his with a 1/450-inch groove!  

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Edison’s long-playing 80-rpm discs, introduced in 1926, boasted total playing times of 24 minutes (10″) and 40 minutes (12″). A commercial failure, they were discontinued two years later.

 

And they played at the standard 78 speed, isn’t that correct?

Well, if I remember rightly, Edison used 80 r.p.m. as the standard speed for those old Diamond Discs.  And he didn’t vary the speed like Victor used to do in the acoustical days.  There’s a lady [Aida Favia-Artsay] who has done a study of all of the Caruso records that he made at Victor.  The recording speeds that they were using could vary as much as five r.p.m. from one session to the next. 

 

Yes, I know her, and know her book.  She even included a stroboscope disc with the book so that listeners could check the turntable speeds for themselves, and hear Caruso at score pitch.  

Back to Edison, do you know that the stylus he developed for those records, his diamond stylus, was elliptical, not round?

 

Did he file a patent on that?

No, but it’s there in his notebooks at West Orange.  And each side of those Edisons, by the way, played for twenty-five minutes.  At 80 r.p.m.!  Can you imagine that?  How the “Old Man,” as his staff always called him, could make recording lathes that would consistently cut 1/450-inch grooves is still amazing to me.  That’s one of the truly great engineering feats in the history of this industry.  But, of course, Edison had invented the phonograph, so I guess anything he did was bound to be the best. 

 

Did you ever know anyone who worked directly with Edison in the 1920s?

No.  But I certainly read all of the patents he filed about recording technology.  Do you know that he didn’t file a patent for one of the most important cutting styluses that he designed?

 

I don’t think I’m familiar with that.  What was its design?  

It was a heated cutting stylus.  It had a heating coil on it.

 

But don’t you hold the patent for the heated-coil stylus?

Yes, I do.  And I wouldn’t have that patent if Edison had ever filed one.  He had been using a heated cutting stylus before World War One.  I guess he thought it was so obvious that a heated stylus would cut a much better groove in a warm wax [recording] blank that he didn’t give any thought to patenting it.  But the heating-coil stylus is right there in his lab books at West Orange.  

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Whether Thomas Edison would have been “excited” over the Columbia LP is questionable, given the commercial failure of his company’s long-playing system two decades earlier. (August 1948)

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Do you have any idea why Edison resisted electrical recording?

I don’t know for sure.  That was a little before my time.  But Gus [Haenschen] might know because he was already a big guy when electrical recording came in.  You know, do you, that Gus is an engineer?

Yes.  He’s such an icon here that we know his résumé by heart.  So I know that he graduated in engineering from Washington University, Class of 1912.  

In mechanical engineering.  Which, you know, is one of the reasons why he was so successful at Brunswick.  He could “talk the talk” as a musician with the singers and the bands that he put under contract, and he could talk engineering with his recording engineers and technicians.  He had the respect of both sides.  And he was there when Brunswick switched to electrical recording.  In fact, he probably oversaw the switch.  

 

Yes, he said that he did oversee it with Percy Deutsch and Walter Rogers.

When are you going to see him next?  You have to ask him about the light ray.  He’ll get a kick out of that!  And tell him I was the one who told you to ask him about it.  

 

The Pallatrope?

Yes, or maybe it was the Panatrope.  The one was the recording process, and the other was the phonograph, I think.  Or maybe it was the radio part.  Anyway, Gus will get a kick out of it because that [process] was a debacle. The recordings were pretty bad, full of distortion.

Was the Brunswick light-ray process as innovative as the Western Electric one?

I wouldn’t say “innovative,” no.  It was just a selenium-cell process.  Edison and also Bell, I think, were experimenting with selenium cells in the recording process way back in the 1880s or 1890s.  So there was nothing new about that when Brunswick started pushing it in the 1920s.  Ask Gus was the poor guy who was partly in charge of it, but I don’t think Brunswick stayed with that light-ray system.  Even though [Brunswick’s publicity department] kept advertising it all over the place, I’m pretty sure they junked it and made a deal with Western Electric for the Westrex system.     

And I will also ask him about Edison’s reluctance to go electrical when Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick made the switch.  Did you know Maxfield and Harrison, the developers of the Western Electric process?

Not personally, no.  Again, that was a little before my time.  But the Westrex system that they developed at Bell Labs and Western Electric was a major step forward.  They took the frequency range from about 2,500 Hz in the acoustical days, to about 15,000 Hz.  Now, 2,500 Hz would have been on a very good day in the acoustical era.  And what a difference [their] new condenser microphones made.  Carbon mikes went by the wayside fairly quickly after that. 

Were you involved in the development of Full Frequency Range Recording, or ff/rr as it was called then?

No—that was [British] Decca’s.  The full frequency-range system extended the lows to about 80 Hz.  The highs were still around 15,000 Hz, but the signal-to-noise ratio was really low.  That’s was what set the ff/rr apart.  You can hear a big difference between an ff/rr and a standard recording.  That depends somewhat, of course, on what the content is.

 

On the Columbia “20/20” private album celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the LP, you say that some of the content of the first LPs was done by splicing tapes of 78s.  Is that correct?

Yes, in some cases.  We began making high-quality vinyl pressings of 78s in our “Masterworks” series so that we could splice them seamlessly for the LP if we had to. 

 

Did you tape-record the 78 vinyl pressings and then edit the tape to make the transitions seamless from one pressing to the next?

No, because that would have added a variable that we didn’t want.  If we had gone to tape and then edited the gap between one 78 and the next one, doing that would have introduced tape “hiss,” which we would have to correct with filters. So what we did was to use two studio-grade 78 turntables and we would stop the one [turntable] and start the other.  Our tech staff got so good at timing the starting and stopping of the turntables that there is no audible change in the content of the final LP recording.

 

One last question about the LP and the 45 disc and the so-called “War of the Speeds”:  at that time did you think the 78 record would continue to be a commercial product just as it had since the turn of the [twentieth] century?

Yes and no. A lot of us thought that the 78 would still be viable if it was pressed in vinyl.  I know for a fact that RCA thought that the 78 would disappear and that their 45 would replace it—and RCA had no doubt that the LP was going to flourish because of the obvious advantages it had over any other format.  In hindsight, we [i.e., Columbia] were rather dismissive of the RCA 45 because there was nothing really new about it, other than the speed—and we didn’t think much of the speed either.  We used to joke that RCA came up with 45 r.p.m. by subtracting 33 from 78!

                                                                

© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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For more on the development of the LP and 45, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History, the latest release from Mainspring Press.

 

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