The Birth of Electrical Recording — Part 2 (Compo, Brunswick, Edison, and the Minor Labels)

The Birth of Electrical Recording — Part 2
By Allan Sutton

 

>  Read Part 1

 

 

The Canadian Connection: Herbert Berliner’s Home-Grown
Electrical System

While the electrical conversion was getting under way in the United States, the Compo Company’s Herbert S. Berliner was developing his own electrical-recording system in Canada. The son of inventor Emile Berliner, Herbert had gone his own way after openly expressing dissatisfaction with what he saw as the Victor Talking Machine Company’s predatory relationship with Emile’s Berliner Gramophone Company. In the autumn of 1918, while still vice-president of Berliner Gramophone, Herbert launched the Compo Company as an independent pressing plant in Lachine, Quebec.

On July 7, 1921, Berliner made the first documented test recordings in Compo’s newly opened Montreal studio. They were followed on July 13 by what would be Compo’s first commercially issued recordings, two selections by the team of Tremblay & Germain. Apex, Compo’s flagship label, was formally announced on September 2, 1921.

By January 1924, Berliner had opened a New York studio, which initially was reserved for the production of Ajax race records for the American market. In the same month, he began making experimental electrical recordings in Compo’s Montreal studio, using equipment reportedly of his own design.

On December 4, 1924, Berliner began recording some commercial masters in both acoustic and electric versions. The switch-over to full-time electrical recording followed quickly, on January 22, 1925. Compo’s first electrical releases began reaching Canadian dealers in the early spring of 1925, just ahead of the first Columbia and Victor electrical releases in the United States. There was a mixture of acoustic and electric releases into the early summer of 1925, as the last of the acoustic masters worked their way through the system.

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Compo hints that something’s changed in the spring of 1925. Several months later, the company began marketing the new records as “Apex Electrophonic.”

 

Berliner’s New York studio appears to have been converted to electrical recording during February–March 1925, a period in which the Compo day books show no commercial recording in New York. After resuming briefly, New York operations were again suspended in April 1925, coinciding with the demise of Ajax.

The New York studio reopened on July 22, 1925, in a new location. Electrically equipped and now operating as the Berliner Recording Laboratories, it served for several years as an independent provider of masters to American companies that had yet to make the electrical conversion. It supplied many electrically recorded masters to the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation beginning in January 1926, primarily by Pathé’s higher-priced talent (more run-of-the-mill artists continued to record acoustically for Pathé at the same time).

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Recording ledger sheets for New York Berliner sessions commissioned by Gennett (top) and Pathé (bottom). Gennett subsequently substituted its own false master numbers for the actual Compo E-series numbers, which has caused some less-than-knowledgeable discographers to assign an incorrect recording date. For the George Hall session, true Pathé master numbers (107450 and 107451) were assigned from the start.

 

During the summer and autumn of 1926, the Starr Piano Company commissioned electrically recorded masters from Berliner that were renumbered within the Gennett master sequence, with the addition of a BEX- prefix (which is not shown in most modern discographies). However, Pathé was by far Berliner’s major client, commissioning a large number of recordings into early 1927 — at first Compo master numbers, but later assigning numbers  from Pathé’s own series. Compo files for the latter sessions often contain instructions to “Charge Pathé,” although some of the recordings were also issued on Compo-owned labels in Canada. Berliner’s last documented New York studio recordings were made in the spring of 1927. The studio appears to have been closed after Pathé began making its own electrical recordings, possibly having purchased the equipment from Berliner.

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Notice of Compo’s experiment with commercial releases from radio broadcasts (August 1925). Berliner’s off-the-air recordings were issued under a special Apex Radia-Tone label.

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Berliner also experimented with recordings from radio broadcasts during the mid-1920s, which he issued on the Apex Radia-Tone label in Canada. The first release consisted of two hymns by the choir and congregation of the American Presbyterian Church (Montreal), with pipe-organ accompaniment, as broadcast on August 9, 1925. In 1926, after much carefully documented experimentation, Berliner began recording pipe-organ solos by Norton Payne, which were transmitted by wire from Montreal’s Capitol Theatre to the nearby studios of radio station CKAC. The records sold well in Canada, prompting a 1928 follow-up series by Leo Le Sieur (performing in Montreal’s Midway Theatre) that also appeared on numerous low-priced American labels, sometimes under pseudonyms.

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Compo as a full-service provider of electrical recordings

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Brunswick’s “Light-Ray” Debacle (or, Western Electric to the Rescue)

Back in the U.S. the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company found itself shut out of the supposedly exclusive licensing agreements that Western Electric had recently negotiated with Columbia and Victor. Now the third-largest American record producer, Brunswick suddenly found itself in dire need of an electrical process. The company’s earlier in-house electrical experiments having come to naught (see Part 1), Brunswick vice-president Percy Deutsch turned to General Electric, hoping to license their photoelectric Pallophotophone recording system — the same basic system that Victor had tested and rejected in 1922.

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Charles Hoxie and the Pallophotophone (1922).

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Elmer C. Nelson, assistant manager of Brunswick’s Boston branch, described the process  in layman’s terms:

A powerful beam of light is centered on a minute crystal mirror (weighing one two-hundredth part of a milligram) very much smaller than the head of a pin. This delicate mirror, which is held in place by a magnetic force, is vibrated by sound waves and will respond to the slightest whisper. The mirror reflects the powerful light playing upon it … This dancing beam of light acts upon an electric magnetic wire, and a weak electrical impulse is set up. This electrical impulse is carried over wires to an amplifying unit, and thence to a cutting device which cuts the wax …

 

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A highly simplified explanation of the Hoxie–General Electric system as adapted for disc mastering, used in Brunswick’s promotional materials.

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In early 1925, General Electric president Harold Swope approved the licensing of Hoxie’s process to Brunswick through the Radio Corporation of America. Brunswick and RCA had been involved in cooperative efforts since late 1924, when Brunswick agreed to install RCA Radiolas in some of its phonographs and began sponsoring broadcasts of its recording artists over RCA’s radio station, WJZ (New York).

One immediate result of this agreement was the suspension of recording activity in Brunswick’s new Chicago studio, which had opened in February 1925 and was still operating only sporadically. Unlike the earlier in-house experiments, which had been carried out in Chicago, experiments with the new GE equipment would be conducted in New York, with its long-established studios, access to inexpensive freelance studio artists, and proximity to General Electric’s headquarters.

The General Electric equipment was first installed in Room #3 in  Brunswick’s Eastern headquarters at 799 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. The company’s first electrically recorded commercial masters were produced there beginning April 7, 1925, while a steadily diminishing number of acoustic sessions continued in Rooms #1 and #2. The last acoustic master intended for release in Brunswick’s main series was made in New York on June 1, 1925, an unissued recording of “Got No Time” credited to the fictitious Carl Fenton’s Orchestra. “Carl Fenton” was merely a pseudonym for Brunswick musical director Walter G. (Gus) Haenschen, who would struggle mightily with the new process before finally scrapping it completely.

Recording activity was suspended in the New York studios during July, presumably to accommodate conversion of the older studios. Still mixing electric and acoustic sessions, Brunswick began releasing a few electrically recorded discs into the monthly lists — unannounced as such, and interspersed with the far more numerous acoustic recordings — as early as June 1925.

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“Music by Photography” (1926). Brunswick musical director Gus Haenschen recalled the system was so flawed that it was eventually scrapped it in favor of a secret licensing deal with Western Electric.

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On May 2, 1925, Brunswick also began recording electrical masters for its recently acquired Vocalion subsidiary, although acoustic recording would remain the norm for most issues intended for Vocalion label (which Brunswick officials persisted in treating as the ugly step-sister) until October 23, 1925. The Chicago studio, idled since March, was converted to GE equipment during the summer of 1925. After some prolonged testing, regularly scheduled electrical sessions began in Chicago on September 22, 1925, yielding two unissued titles by the Abe Lyman and Paul Ash orchestras. However, the company continued to use the acoustic process for some Spanish-language recordings made on the West Coast as late as May 1927.

The changeover had not been easy for Brunswick, nor had the early results been promising. The photoelectric microphones proved to be highly sensitive to extraneous noise and vibrations, requiring heavy draping of the studio. Consequently, the earliest Light-Ray recordings suffered from low volume and a distant, muffled sound. In attempting to increase the volume, the engineers overcompensated and introduced sometimes-severe distortion. The results at first were a questionable improvement over Brunswick’s high-quality acoustic recordings. Gus Haenschen recalled:

What a mess it was!… The results were all over the place because that damned process was totally unpredictable.  Most of the time, the test pressings of the recordings had so much distortion that they were worthless.  The distortion might be in the bass in one test pressing, and then in the middle or upper range in another.  About the time we thought we had solved the distortion problem in one part of the range, it would be in another part [of the range]. 

The microphone we had to use may have been the source of the problem.  It looked like an oversized telephone.  It had a flared cup that funneled the sound into the internal parts of the microphone, like telephones were equipped with back then…. That microphone was mounted on a steel pole that could be adjusted up or down in height, and the cast-iron base was on casters so it could be moved around.  But no matter where we put the thing in relation to the performers, we couldn’t get consistent, distortion-free recordings.”

Haenschen and the Brunswick and GE engineers struggled to make the most of a highly flawed system. The worst distortion had been tamed by early 1926, although the results still fell far short of what Columbia and Victor were achieving with their Western Electric equipment. Despite the unreliability of their GE equipment, Brunswick began dispatching it from Chicago to remote locations in early 1926. After an initial trip to nearby Mundelein, Illinois in March, to record the St. Mary of the Lake Seminary Choir, the Brunswick engineers began to venture farther afield. A GE-equipped team traveled to Toronto in April, to Cleveland in May, and to St. Louis in June.

Like Victor and Columbia, Brunswick initially suppressed any public announcement of its new recording process. However, it was the first company of the three to announce its conversion, breaking the news in a press release on August 12, 1925. At that time, Percy Deutsch made the curious claim that Brunswick’s first electrical recordings would be issued in October, when in fact the company had been surreptitiously issuing electrics since June. Perhaps he was trying to distance Brunswick from the company’s earliest, horrendously flawed electrics.

The announcement was tied to the introduction of Brunswick’s new all-electric phonograph, the Panatrope. The first fully integrated, entirely electrical phonograph to reach market, the Panatrope was formally unveiled on August 25, in an open letter to the trade over Brunswick vice-president Percy Deutsch’s signature. (Some small manufacturers had already offered “electric” phonographs, but these were modified acoustic machines, usually involving the placement of a microphone on the acoustic reproducer or in the tone-arm, which was connected by wire to a radio receiver and external speaker. The Panatrope, in contrast, was a fully self-contained unit employing a true electrical pickup engineered for compatibility with the unit’s own electronics.)

An advertising blitz followed in anticipation of the holiday season. General sales manager A. J. Kendrick, positioning the Panatrope as an entirely new device, declared,

We are dropping the word “phonograph” except as applied to those phonographs which we will, for the time being, continue to merchandise, or until we have decided to entirely discontinue the production and selling of phonographs … the trend of the times, both in scientific development as well as public demand and tendency, is entirely toward electrical applications and progress.”

On November 11, 1925, Brunswick hosted a gala demonstration of the Panatrope at New York’s Aeolian Hall, enlisting the aid of David Sarnoff, Otto Kahn, and other New York businessmen, celebrities, and socialites. RCA president Alfred Goldsmith first addressed the audience by radio from Washington DC. Then, taking a page from Edison, the Brunswick executives treated their guests to a sort of modified Tone Test involving live-versus-recorded performances by pianist Leopold Godowsky, tenor Mario Chamlee, and other Brunswick Gold Label celebrities. The next day, Deutsch demonstrated the new machine and records to an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd in the Wanamaker Auditorium. While neither the Panatrope nor the Light-Ray records were technically very polished at that  point, Brunswick for the time being had soundly upstaged competitors Victor and Columbia in the advertising arena. The show was then taken on the road.

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Brunswick mounted a national advertising blitz for its flawed “Light-Ray” records (June 1926)

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Brunswick soon dubbed its new recording process “Light-Ray,” likening it to “music by photography.” Deutsch, flush with enthusiasm for his new product, announced that due to the “greater delicacy” of the groove produced by the GE process, Brunswick was able to produce a 500-line-per-inch groove that would allow playing times of up to forty minutes on a twelve-inch disc. If such records were made, there is no trace of them in the Brunswick files, and they never reached the public. Brunswick’s commercial releases had a maximum playing time only marginally longer than that of their competitors, a gain realized in part by adopting a slightly finer groove spacing, and in part by later reducing the label diameter, allowing the recordable area to extend closer to the center of the disc.

But Percy Deutsch was clearly aware of the Light Ray process’ shortcoming, admitting in October 1925 that “Mr. Hoxie’s invention has been modified considerably.” Ultimately, those improvements would still prove inadequate to keep pace with Columbia and Victor. In a move that remained a well-guarded industry secret until Gus Haenschen finally disclosed it to interviewer Jim Drake many years later, Brunswick officials secretly negotiated a licensing agreement with Western Electric:

We junked that “Light-Ray” thing and made a deal with Western Electric to be able to use their process instead.  Back then, it was possible to make confidential deals like that and have them stay confidential.  Anyway, from then on the sound quality of our recordings was on a par with Victor’s.

Given the delicate nature of that arrangement, no clue appears in the Brunswick recording files as to when the transition occurred, but the improvement in audio quality does indeed become quite apparent during the course of 1927. A few early Western Electric masters show an inconspicuous “W” in the wax, the only visual evidence that a change had occurred.

 

The Electrical Bandwagon

While the major American record manufacturers enjoyed the technical support of two major corporations in converting to electrical recording, the smaller companies were left to implement electrical systems — or at least, the appearance they were employing electrical systems — on their own. The result, at first, was a flurry of new brand names suggesting that electricity might somehow be involved, without actually claiming that such was the case.

In May 1925, General Phonograph Corporation president Otto Heineman announced that Okeh’s veteran recording engineer, Charles Hibbard, had perfected a new recording process. “However,” Heineman warned, “we are not quite ready to tell anyone about the details of this new process, which we must keep secret for the time being.” When a reporter for The Talking Machine World questioned Heineman on the system, Heineman replied “with the suggestion that the new process is not electrical,” and aural evidence supports that claim. Okeh’s Ralph Peer cagily reported that the process could “be applied to either acoustic or electric recording and has been of particular value in eliminating the uncertainties from electrical recording,” but stopped short of claiming that records made by the new Truetone process were actually electrical.

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Charles Hibbard in the Okeh studio, late 1925

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Sonically, the new process was a step backwards in some regards. Although the overall response curve was generally smoother, the new recordings suffered from a peculiar “boxy” sound. After its acquisition by Columbia in late 1926, Okeh was, of course, licensed to use the Western Electric system, which it did superbly in the talented hands of Hibbard, Tommy Rockwell, and others. The “Truetone” process was promptly abandoned, although Okeh’s earliest Western Electric releases still bore old Truetone labels and showed only an inconspicuous “E” in the wax, rather than the tell-tale circled-W indicating the  Western Electric process.

Pathé’s New Process Recording system, announced in the early autumn of 1925, was also acoustic, despite Pathé’s allusions to experiments in “electrical and photo-electrical sound wave reproducing methods.” In reality, it was nothing more than an ultra-low speed version of Pathé’s traditional acoustic dubbing process, which involved copying cylinder masters to disc by means of a pantograph. The process seems primarily to have increased the rumble and other mechanical noise that had long plagued Pathé’s pantographed disc masters, in exchange for a slight gain in high-end response.

When Pathé finally did decide to produce electrical recordings in early 1926, it contracted the work to Herbert Berliner’s New York studio, as noted earlier in this article. Pathé began recording its own electrical masters at some point in 1927, coinciding with the last of Herbert Berliner’s New York sessions for the label. Touted to the trade as “Pathéphonic” (a term that did not appear on the record labels, being reserved mainly for Pathé’s new line of phonographs), the process produced rather muffled-sounding recordings.

The Cameo Record Corporation’s electrical system produced even more murky-sounding results. Experimentation had begun in mid-1925, following Cameo’s merger with David Grimes Radio. Inventor of the Grimes Inverse Duplex Circuit, David Grimes operated an audio research laboratory and radio factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. Given that, it appears likely that Cameo’s electrical recording system (which was not otherwise identified as to source in the trade papers) originated there. After a few isolated electrical sessions, Cameo commenced full-time electrical recording around March 1926. Although Cameo’s electrical recordings sound muddy to modern ears, The Talking Machine World professed fondness for them, declaring “the bass notes are particularly ‘rounded’ in the manner that is at present so popular.”

Exactly what processes were employed by many of the other small companies will probably remain a mystery. Most apparently resorted to cobbled-together systems, with predictably poor results. The Plaza Music Company-Regal Record Company alliance — producers of Banner, Domino, Regal, and a large group of dime-store and mail-order client labels — issued several electrical recordings as early as July 1925, although it is not certain that they were Plaza’s own recordings. Regular electrical sessions began in late November 1925, and some electrical recordings of the crudest sort appeared among the March 1926 releases. The changeover was formally announced the following month, on the Banner and Regal labels. Plaza’s recording quality improved to some extent in 1927, after the Crystalate Gramophone Record Manufacturing Company of Great Britain acquired a part-interest in the company, but it remained substandard.

Even America’s shoddiest record producer — the Grey Gull Record Company, purveyors of gritty  20¢ discs that favored such artist credits as “Mr. X” — managed to cobble together an electrical system in the spring of 1926, which introduced distortion the likes of which have rarely been surpassed on commercially issued phonograph records.

 

Gennett: One Step Forward, One Step Backward

The Starr Piano Company’s Gennett records division lagged behind all other companies except Edison in converting to electrical recording. Like Pathé, Gennett commissioned some electrical recordings from Compo in early 1926. The company also recorded a few of its own electrical masters at about the same time, using General Electric equipment. The resulting records were issued with a small “GE” logo added to the standard Gennett label, and were of reasonably good quality. Gennett’s initial flirtation with the new process proved brief, however.

The Gennett files document frequent problems with the GE equipment. The Indiana studio proved to be especially problematic, with manager Fred Wiggins confiding to one performer, “We have been put out so many times in regard to the new electrical recordings that we have decided to put back our horn recording apparatus here in Richmond.” The “electric” notation disappears from Gennett’s New York and Richmond matrix ledgers in mid-March 1926. It does not reappear until October 1926, and then only sporadically at first, intermixed with the more numerous acoustically recorded masters.

With a small stock of electrical masters finally ready for release, the Gennett Electrobeam disc was formally announced in January 1927. The records, sporting a new label reminiscent of Victor’s scroll design, were touted as “Lightning Tuned to Music.” Some of the problems at the Richmond studio were resolved in early 1927, after Gordon Soule replaced E. C. A. “Eck” Wickemeyer as Gennett’s chief recording engineer.

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Gennett engineer Gordon Soule and unidentified assistant on the road in 1927 with a GE electrical set-up. The presence of the antiquated acoustic horn and reproducer is puzzling; the photo caption offers no information on what purpose they might have served.

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By 1927, the GE equipment was functioning reliably enough that Soule took it on the road to Chicago, Birmingham, and other locations, recording some exceptionally interesting local jazz and blues performers in the process. But the General Electric system still left much to be desired, being prone to distortion, and in 1928 Gennett turned to the Radio Corporation of America for help.

General Electric had recently transferred its work on optical sound-film recording to RCA, which announced its new Photophone film recording system in April 1928. The Photophone system was designed primarily to record variable-density film soundtracks. However, one component of the system — based on one of Hoxie’s 1921 Pallophotophone patents — was an electromagnetic disc cutter. Thus, the system was readily adaptable to disc-record mastering. On July 1, RCA licensed the system to Gennett. The deal pre-dated any large-scale use of Photophone in the motion picture industry, which began only after RCA spun off Photophone as a separate corporation in association with Keith-Albee-Orpheum and Film Booking Offices.

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Gennett announces its long-delayed conversion (1926)

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The Photophone Gennett masters were a marked improvement over what had been achieved with the balky General Electric equipment. Curiously, the RCA Photophone credit appeared only Supertone, a Sears Roebuck client label produced by Gennett, never on Gennett’s own labels.

 

Edison’s Reluctant Conversion

While even small operations like Grey Gull moved ahead with electrical recording of a sort, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., clung tenaciously to the acoustic process. Frank L. Dyer, one of Edison’s chief engineers, had patented an electromagnetic recording head as early as 1921, but apparently no effort was made to develop the device. Charles and Theodore Edison’s attempts to persuade their father to investigate both radio and electrical recording were rebuffed.

After conducting some experiments with electrical reproduction (but apparently not electrical recording) in the autumn of 1925, Charles and Theodore persuaded their father to hire Bertil Hauffmann, a Swedish engineer, to conduct similar experiments. By then almost totally deaf, Edison reportedly auditioned Hauffmann’s phonograph with the aid of an ear trumpet, pronounced the results “distorted,” and fired the engineer.

Development of an Edison electrical phonograph was put on hold. No electrical recording seems to have been attempted during Hauffmann’s brief stay, but the Edison files reveal ongoing experimentation with alternatives, including what was presumably the unauthorized acoustic dubbing of some electrically recorded Victor discs on several occasions, for unknown reasons.

Nevertheless, it was becoming clear that Edison would have to take some action in the face of an industry-wide electrical conversion. The late 1925 Tone Test tour had been largely ignored by the press for the first time, eclipsed by Brunswick’s public demonstrations of its new electrical phonographs and records. What followed was a series of technical and marketing disasters that included the purely acoustic Edison Dance Reproducer and the fine-groove but still acoustic Long Playing discs.

It had long been apparent to Charles Edison and others that the company would have to convert to electrical recording, and that to continue to introduce acoustic products that were obsolete before ever reaching the marketplace was simply postponing the inevitable. In addition to an alarming decline in sales that he attributed in part to the company’s failure to convert, manager Walter Miller noted that artists who had become accustomed to the microphone were now reluctant to continue working in front of primitive recording horns. In the spring of 1927, Charles Edison took the unprecedented step of going outside the company for help, inviting General Electric to conduct test sessions in the Edison studio. Such a move would have been unthinkable under his father’s management.

Testing of the General Electric equipment probably began in May 1927, when J. Donald Parker and B.A. Rolfe’s Orchestra were paid for unspecified experimental recordings at Edison’s New York studio. Electrical recording of commercial masters finally began on a sporadic basis on June 30, 1927, with a session by vocalist Juan Pulido. On July 1, acoustic sessions were resumed, and they would be intermixed with electric sessions for the next month. The acoustic process would not be fully abandoned until August 1927, making Edison the last American record company to adopt an electrical process. At some point, Edison switched to more reliable RCA Photophone equipment, the presence of which is confirmed in a 1929 insurance-company inventory of the company’s assets.

In September 1927, after offering hints to the trade for many weeks, the Edison company publicly announced a new acoustic phonograph, the Edisonic. The machine was designed to play Edison’s new electrical recordings, which were erroneously credited to “Mr. Edison’s secret process of recording.” If there was a secret at all, it was that Thomas Edison had nothing to do that process, which was entirely the work of General Electric. An all-electric Edison phonograph was finally unveiled in the summer of 1928, in conjunction with Edison’s purchase of a substantial interest in the Splitdorf Radio Corporation. Splitdorf’s flawed radio and electrical phonograph circuitry reportedly required a substantial expenditure to bring it up to company standards.

The company continued to champion the vertical cut even as it struggled to keep the Phonograph Division afloat. The sole dissenter was Arthur Walsh, the division’s vice-president and general manger. On April 25, 1927, he suggested what until then would have constituted heresy in the Edison organization—that the company produce “a disc record that plays on any phonograph” (in other words, a standard lateral-cut record). Confronted with steadily declining sales figures, management took his suggestion and in late 1927 and authorized the development of a lateral-cut disc, to be marketed as the Edison Needle Type. Charles Edison delegated the management of the project to Walsh, the company’s most progressive and outspoken executive.

An experimental electrically recorded lateral-cut master was recorded on October 1, 1927, and by the end of the year, forty-two lateral recordings had been assigned experimental numbers. Development got under way in earnest on January 6, 1928, with production of the first in a new series of N-prefixed lateral masters intended for commercial release. The vertical-cut Diamond Disc was to remain in production, so a split microphone line was installed, allowing vertical and lateral cutting machines to be operated simultaneously, thus avoiding the need to dub from one format to the other. However, the Edison engineers encountered many problems in working with the unfamiliar lateral cut, and hundreds of masters were rejected during 1928, often for seemingly minor flaws. Lateral-cut masters were not judged acceptable for release with any regularity until late in the year.

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Band-leader B. A. Rolfe and friends demonstrate the new Edison Needle-Type Electric discs and acoustic portable phonograph in 1929. The portables were manufactured by an outside vendor. (Edison National Historic Site)

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Following the same pattern that had marred its launch of the Diamond Disc in 1912–1913, and the ill-fated Long Playing records in 1927, Edison announced the Needle Type prematurely, then dribbled the product out in fits and starts over a thirteen-month span. The new records were first announced in the spring of 1928, and some sample pressings were exhibited to dealers. The company then went largely silent on the subject until January 1929, when it announced once again that release of the new records was imminent. Needle Type records finally began shipping to dealers in July.

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A 1929 promotional photo for the Needle Type Electrics
(Edison National Historic Site)

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The Edison Needle Type electrics garnered generally favorable reviews from the critics, although from a technical standpoint they fell short of the results being achieved by Columbia, Okeh, and Victor. Surviving files reveal that the company lowered its strict standards in an attempt to keep a steady flow of new lateral-cut discs coming, sometimes authorizing the release of substandard or previously rejected masters. Ultimately, Edison’s conversion to electrical recording and the lateral cut came too late to save the record business operation. By the early autumn of 1929, Edison’s managers were quietly preparing to dismantle the Phonograph Division.

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As the 1920s drew to a close, the acoustically recorded phonograph record was fast becoming a relic of the past. Columbia and Victor had begun disposing of their obsolete acoustic recordings in 1926. Victor announced a final solution of sorts in the summer of 1926, introducing an exchange plan it termed “a new proposition [that] will take care of surplus stocks of all mechanically cut records.” In October 1926, Columbia also announced an exchange plan intended to clear old material from dealers’ shelves by encouraging the exchange of obsolete acoustic stock for new electrical releases. By 1927, the Columbia and Victor catalogs had been purged of most acoustic recordings.

The acoustically recorded items that remained were primarily items by deceased operatic stars that were still of some commercial value (although even Caruso’s ghost would soon suffer the indignity of having his records “modernized” with new electrically recorded accompaniments), or were slow-selling children’s or “educational” records that would not have justified the expense of remaking. Columbia’s cut-rate Harmony–Velvet Tone line, the last to regularly use acoustic masters, finally switched to all-electric in late 1929.

While the new electrical recordings were earning accolades from technicians and reviewers, the general public’s response was sometimes quite the opposite. The overwhelming majority of phonographs in American homes were still acoustic, but even the most flawed of the new electric recordings boasted volume levels and frequency ranges that exceeded the capabilities of mechanical devices. The result was distorted reproduction and accelerated record wear — particularly with Victor’s primitive but ubiquitous Exhibition and Victrola No. 2 reproducers.

For those who could afford them, however, there were expensive new exponential-horn phonographs — still acoustic, but far more capable than their predecessors of reproducing electrical recordings — and a growing selection of all-electric models, many with built-in radios. For less affluent consumers, countless after-market manufacturers offered their new reproducers, needles, and gadgets — some acoustic, some electric, and many of dubious merit, but all claiming to be better suited to the new recordings. The phonograph industry was discovering the economic benefits of forced obsolescence.

 

Selected References

 

“And Now Full Volume” (Edisonic advertisement). Saturday Evening Post (June 19, 1925), p. 122.

“Announce the Electrobeam Gennett Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1927), p. 18.

“Banner and Domino Records Are Electrically Recorded.” Talking Machine World (March 15, 1926), p. 46.

“Brunswick Co. Announces Details of Merchandising Plan of its New Line.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1925), p. 6.

“Brunswick Panatrope Enthusiastically Received at Initial New York Presentation.” Talking Machine World, (November 15, 1925), p. 180.

“Cameo Record Corp. Has New Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (April 15, 1926), p. 80.

“Charles Edison Elected President and Chief Executive of T. A. Edison, Inc.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1926), p. 1

“Chas. L. Hibbard Perfects New Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1925), p. 1.

Compo Company day books and recording session sheets (transcripts and photocopies). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

Dannemann, P. E. Letter to Thomas A. Edison, Inc., concerning Photophone equipment (Dec 26, 1929).  Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, NJ.

“Demonstration of Brunswick Panatrope at Chicago Headquarters Arouses Enthusiasm.” Talking Machine World, (October 15, 1925), p. 150.

Drake, James A. Interview with Walter G. (Gus) Haenschen. From Gus Haenschen—The Brunswick Years. Mainspring Press Blog (2019).

“Edison Introduces Radio and Radio-Phonograph Combinations.” Talking Machine World (August 1928), p. 72.

Kendziora, Carl. Compo Company ephemera and research notes (unpublished). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

Laird, Ross: Brunswick Records, A Discography of Recordings, 1916–1931 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001).

“Lightning Tuned to Music” (Gennett advertisement). Talking Machine World (March 15, 1927), n.p.

Nelson, Elmer C. “Brunswick Electrical Recording.” Phonograph Monthly Review (October 1926), p. 19.

“Pathé Corp. Announces New Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (September 15, 1925), p. 188.

“Phonograph Records Made from Radio” (Compo Company ad). Montreal Gazette (Aug 15, 1925), p. 5.

“Revolutionary Sound Reproducing Method Announced by Brunswick Co.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1925), p. 58.

“Special Record Returning Privilege Is Announced by Columbia Phonograph Co.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1929), p. 192.

Starr Piano Company. Gennett matrix ledgers, 1926–1927 (photocopies). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

Sutton, Allan. American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (Denver: Mainspring Press, 2018).

Urner, Dave. “A Brunswick Dealer Sixty Years Ago.” Interview by Ron Dethlefson. Antique Phonograph Monthly (VI:4, 1980), p. 3.

 “General Phono. Corp. Uses New Recording Principle.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1926), p. 1.

“Victor Co. Announces New Record Exchange Plan.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1926), p. 6.

Walsh, Arthur. “Reviewing the Phonograph Situation” (report to Charles Edison, April 25, 1927). Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, NJ.

Wiggins, Fred. Letter to Doc Roberts, November 22, 1926, re electrical recording problems. Quoted in Kennedy, Rick. Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz, p. 159. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.