The RCA Victor Program Transcriptions • A History and Free Downloadable Discography

THE RCA VICTOR PROGRAM TRANSCRIPTIONS
Complete Discography
By John R. Bolig

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The latest addition to the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library is a landmark in discographical research. Compiled by John Bolig from the RCA Victor files, it documents the original long-playing masters that were made especially for release as Program Transcriptions, as well listing full details of the 78-rpm source recordings that were used in assembling the more numerous dubbed masters.

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The RCA Program Transcriptions Story
By Allan Sutton

 

Only seven million Victor records were sold in 1931, an 80% decline from 1929. [1] In the struggle to keep its record division afloat during the early Depression years, RCA executives instituted widespread layoffs and salary cuts, refused to renew any but the most profitable artists’ contracts, slashed or eliminated advances and royalties, gave in to distributors’ demands that it take back unsalable records in quantities far exceeding what was normally allowed, [2] and even began to entertain the notion of producing inexpensive records for the dime-store trade.

Against such a dismal backdrop, it might seem counter-intuitive that RCA engineering and marketing personnel were quietly planning to introduce an expensive new long-playing record. But while the Depression had squelched much of the demand for records, pockets of affluence remained, as evidenced by continued strength in Victor’s premium-priced Red Seal line. By the autumn of 1931, rumors were circulating that RCA was experimenting with a new type of record that would target that market.

News had leaked of an unusual Philadelphia Orchestra session, conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the Academy of Music, during which Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was recorded without the usual side breaks at four-minute intervals. [3] As would soon be revealed, this was the first recording session for what would come to be marketed as the RCA Program Transcription. The results won a glowing endorsement from Stokowski, who reported shortly after the session,

We heard the complete symphony from the proof pressings and after the symphony was ended I realized that I had forgotten where I was, so intense was the state of the feeling and so sustained was the mood created. Now that the longest movement of a symphony can be played without interruption, recorded music can offer one of the best ways of listening to music…” [4]

Following a private demonstration in Victor’s New York studio, the Program Transcriptions and player were formally unveiled at New York’s Savoy-Plaza Hotel on September 17, 1931, to an audience of more than one-hundred prominent executives, performers, and reporters. RCA Victor president Edward Shumaker was on hand to greet Stokowsi, John Philip Sousa, and the other celebrities.

The carefully staged presentation began with a review of what were termed “musical milestones in the development of the phonograph.” [5] A Sousa march was played first on a Berliner Gramophone, which gave forth what one reporter described as “an indistinguishable squeak of varying pitch.” It was followed by the same selection as played on an acoustic Victrola, then on an Orthophonic phonograph, and finally on what was termed a “massive home entertainment instrument,” on which the new long-playing discs were demonstrated. [6]

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Silver labels (top) were reserved for the most expensive Program Transcriptions, employing Red Seal artists. The less-expensive gold-label series comprised a mixture of standard, popular, and light classical fare, and a few releases in this series were also pressed in standard shellac rather than the more expensive Victrolac. Program Transcriptions were also marketed by Victor’s Canadian branch (bottom), and some late releases were listed only in Victor’s export catalog.

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The Program Transcriptions were unlike any commercial disc records on the market, recorded at 331/3-rpm and (aside from a few anomalous shellac specimens) pressed in a thermoplastic resin that RCA named Victrolac. [7]  In the spring of 1931, F. C. Barton described the collaborative process RCA undertook in determining what material would be best-suited to then new discs, without disclosing who the collaborators might be:

Approximately a year ago, [a resin] that seems to hold promise of having the desired characteristics was found. The chemical engineers responsible for the development of this resin were called into conference with the engineers of the record manufacturers and a cooperative program was laid out in which the technics of the two groups were combined to further the development of the resin an to combine it successfully with other materials, to the end that a satisfactory record material might be evolved. A number of months of concentrated effort resulted in the production of the compound now known as Victrolac. [8]

Victrolac, as confirmed by later RCA advertising, [9] was simply a form of vinyl, the formulation of which was licensed by RCA from the Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corporation division of Union Carbide. James Hunter assisted with the development and testing of the new material at RCA, [10] but it was Barton who first publicly disclosed the details.

Victrolac, Barton claimed, was much better suited to a finer groove than that of the standard shellac 78-rpm disc (which averaged 90 turns per inch). Although Barton’s recommendation of 120 to 130 turns per inch was not a true microgroove, it was still fine enough to provide playing times of up to ten or fifteen minutes per ten- or twelve-inch side, respectively, on a 331/ 3-rpm disc.

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RCA acknowledges that Victrolac and vinylite are one and the same (Broadcasting, February 1936)

 

A major advantage of Victrolac was that tracking weight could be reduced to three ounces — quite heavy by modern standards, but still a substantial reduction from normal tracking weights of the day. Unfortunately, RCA’s engineers did not address the issue of a permanent or even semi-permanent stylus, opting instead for  special chromium needles that required frequent changing. [11] By the autumn of 1931, RCA was also advertising its use of Victrolac in synchronized film soundtrack discs. [12] Victrolac pressings of a few Red Seals were made in 1932, but this appears to have been a short-lived experiment. [13]

Program Transcriptions and the equipment on which to play them went on sale a month after the Savoy-Plaza demonstration — the phonographs on October 10, followed by the records at the end of the month. The initial release was the Philadelphia Symphony’s recording of the Beethoven Fifth, from the session that had been leaked to the press. Retail prices initially ranged from $1.50 to $3.00 per disc — less than the cost of the same material on multiple 78s, but still beyond the reach of many. A columnist for The Phonograph Monthly Review blithely dismissed the cost factor, stating. “In some ways it is unfortunate that this development should come at a time of impaired public purchasing power, but the Depression will not last forever.” [14]

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Phonograph-radio combinations equipped to play the Program Transcriptions did not come cheaply. The Model RAE-26, with changer mechanism, originally listed at $247.50 (top), but dealer discounting became increasingly common as sales lagged.

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Unlike the Edison long-playing discs of 1926–1927, which had been cobbled together from 80-rpm masters, the recording of Beethoven’s Fifth (and of some other extended classical works that followed) was made specifically for release in long-playing format. Such was generally not the case, however, especially with the popular releases, most of which were compiled by dubbing from existing 78-rpm masters.

A new popular-series line was launched in early 1932, featuring two selections per side, but pressed in single-sided form. [15] Retailing for 85¢ (10¢ more than the same material on a double-sided ten-inch 78), the records had few takers. A plan to record complete Broadway shows never materialized.

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Releases like this sampling from The Mikado were typical of the lower-priced Program Transcriptions.

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Once the initial excitement over RCA’s Program Transcriptions subsided and records began to reach consumers, the complaints began to roll in. In July 1932 New York Times columnist Compton Pakenham conceded,

When the long-playing record first came to light we were accused of overstating the case for it. It might as well be admitted now that we have not heard it engage anything equal to the demonstration given at the New York laboratories of the Victor Company, and that certainly the various public expositions fell far short of it.” [16]

To make matters worse, RCA encountered delays in producing a promised low-cost adapter that would enable use of these records on existing phonographs, leaving potential customers no choice but to purchase a costly new outfit. RCA’s marketing department at first insisted that it had never promised such a device, then reversed itself after having been called out in The New York Times. In July 1932 the company announced that a $7.50 replacement motor board was finally in production, but the public-relations damage had already been done.

A January 1932 internal report termed sales of the long-playing records “surprisingly good,” considering their short time on the market and the shortage of phonographs on which to play them, and noted that they comprised 10% of record sales. However, the flow of new Program Transcriptions had begun to slacken. In February of that year, the English journal Gramophone observed,

The RCA Victor long-playing records continue to arouse much discussion, largely severely critical, but fail to show great sales strength. Only four have been issued recently, all single-sided ten-inchers… [17]

Stung by similar criticism in the U.S. press, RCA in the spring of 1932 announced that all new recordings of extended works scheduled for release as 78s would also be offered on specially made Program Transcriptions. In what would prove to be an expensive miscalculation, those works were to be recorded twice —  once in standard 78-rpm form, and once in long-playing format.

The most ambitious undertaking under the new plan was the recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder, by the Philadelphia Orchestra and various vocalists under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. After committing the work to standard 78-rpm masters over four days in early April, the entire performance was repeated for the corresponding Program Transcription release in a single non-stop four-hour session. Compton Pakenham damned the effort with faint praise, writing in The New York Times, “Prior to the Gurre-Lieder…there has not been a long-playing disk of sufficient significance to justify anyone objecting on the score that they have missed something.”  [18]

Victor officials adhered to the dual-recording plan for just a few more releases before conceding the costs of recording an identical work in two formats could not be justified. Many of the other extended works scheduled for release over the following months never materialized in Program Transcription form. For those that did, RCA’s engineers reverted to dubbing from the 78-rpm masters.

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The standard Program Transcription sleeve

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Whatever hopes RCA might have held out for the Program Transcriptions were dashed as economic conditions continued to deteriorate. An internal report noted in early 1932 that “due to absence of public buying, sales [of Program Transcriptions] have been low.” On the third anniversary of the Wall Street crash, RCA’s president admitted to the company’s board of directors,

The market for radio sets, records, and similar devices is buoyant in opinion but procrastinating in performance. The actual buying by distributors and retailers is on a hand-to-mouth basis. … The outlook for sales of radio sets and records does not look hopeful. [19]

The Program Transcription’s end came following Edward Wallerstein move from Brunswick to RCA in the summer of 1933. Wallerstein recalled,

When I became general manager of the Victor Division of RCA on July 1, 1933, my first act was to take [Program Transcriptions] off the market. The idea was good and they might have sold, but there were technical problems… The complaints from customers all over the U.S. were so terrific that we were forced to withdraw the LPs. [20]

The withdrawal was not as sudden or decisive as Wallerstein recalled, however.  New Program Transcription releases continued to appear with some regularity through December 1933, then with decreasing frequency through late 1934, as can be seen in John Bolig’s discography. Some of the 1934 releases were were listed only in the export catalog.

Only a few Program Transcriptions remained in Victor catalogs by 1936. Wallerstein would revisit the long-playing concept in 1939, as president of the newly created Columbia Recording Corporation. Determined not to repeat RCA’s mistakes, he assembled an outstanding engineering team, who were given the task of developing a true microgroove long-playing disc and player suitable for the mass market. Some progress had been made when work was stalled by the United States’ entry into World War II, but development resumed in earnest in the later 1940s. The resulting Columbia Microgroove LP, introduced in 1948, took the market by storm and signaled the beginning of the end for the 78-rpm record.

 

Notes

[1]    “Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units, Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive.” Exhibit in U.S. District Court, S.D. of N.Y. (Jan 26, 1943).

[2]  RCA Victor Co. Managers Committee Meeting (minutes, Jul 2, 1930), p. 3.

[3]  Observer (pseudonym). “Program Transcriptions.” Phonograph Monthly Review (October 1931), p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] “Phonograph Disks Run for Half-Hour.” New York Times (Sep 18, 1931), p. 48.

[6] “R.C.A.-Victor Co. Demonstrates New Record That Plays for Thirty Minutes.” Music Trade Review (Oct 1931), p. 27.

[7] The Victor L. Roeder Company (Philadelphia) had previously registered “Victrolac” as a trademark for an unrelated lacquer product (U.S. label registration # 29,920, published October 15, 1925). RCA subsequently copyrighted the Victrolac name for the vinyl compound, but a formal trademark filing has not been located thus far.

[8] Barton, F. C. “Victrolac Motion Picture Records.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Editors (Apr 1932) , pp. 452–453.

[9]  “Four Years Ahead! Under the Copyrightred Name ‘Victrolac” RCA Victor has been using “Vinylite’ Since 1931!” (ad). Broadcasting (Feb 15, 1936), p. 48.

[10]  Wallerstein, Edward. “The Development of the LP.” High Fidelity (April 1976).

[11]  Barton, op. cit., pp. pp. 452–460.

[12] “Victrolac — The New 12-Inch, 4-Ounce Disc for Sound Picture Reproduction.” Motion Picture Herald (Oct 24, 1931), p. 31.

[13]  Victrolac pressings of Carpenter’s Song of Faith (Victor 1559 – 1560) are in the author’s collection, and other Victrolac Red Seal releases of the same period have been reliably reported.

[14]  “Program Transcriptions,” op. cit., p. 5.

[15]  RCA Victor Co., Inc. “Report to the Board of Directors” (Jan 15, 1932), p. 2.

[16]  Pakenham, Compton. “Newly Recorded Music.” New York Times (July 3, 1932), p. X5.

[17]  “Americana.” The Gramophone (February 1932), p. 44.

[18]  Pakenham, op. cit.

[19]  Radio Corporation of America. “Report to the Board of Directors at Meeting of October 28, 1932,” pp. 5–6.

[20]  Wallerstein, op. cit.

 

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

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