Recording Studios and Developments in Recording Technology
The exact location of the earliest Brunswick recording studio (which was probably in operation by late 1916) is not known. It is believed to have been somewhere in New York, but there is no surviving documentation known which gives any indication of the location of Brunswick’s recording studios prior to 1920. In 1920 new recording studios were established on the top floor of a new building at 16 W. 36th Street. There was a break in recording activity between March and May of 1920, and this certainly indicates that the location of the studios was changed at this time.
In April 1924 new studios were constructed on the upper floors of Brunswick’s own building at 799 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Initially there was only one “recording room” (as studios were originally known) at the new building and it was not until July 17, 1924 that an additional studio was brought on line. This was known as Room #2, and at first it was allocated its own master series with a “B” prefix. After 108 masters in the “B” series, room #2 simply used blocks of masters in the same master series as the other studio, but from November 28, 1924 the ledger sheets usually specify whether Room #1 or Room #2 was used.
After the acquisition of the Vocalion label from the Aeolian Co., Brunswick soon began a specific matrix series for recordings intended for release on that label. This series began at 100 and the first allocations were made on December 11, 1924. Some earlier masters were later reallocated numbers in the Vocalion series, and the practice of re-numbering Brunswick masters into the Vocalion series (and Vocalion masters into the Brunswick series) was very common until the Vocalion matrix series was discontinued at master E7514 in July 1928.
A third studio (Room #3) was inaugurated on April 7, 1925 and was initially used for experimental recordings using the new electrical recording process. At the same time Room #1 was reserved for recordings using the old mechanical (acoustic) recording process.
There was another break in recording activity from July 1 to August 3, 1925, but the reason for this is unknown. Possibly some work was being done to install electrical recording equipment.
Under the heading “Revolutionary Sound Reproducing Method Announced by Brunswick Co.” the Talking Machine World published a full-page article in the August 1925 issue, which read:
P. L. Deutsch of Chicago, vice-president of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., announced in New York on Wednesday, August 12, that his company, the General Electric Co., the Radio Corporation of America, and the Westinghouse Electric Co. had jointly perfected a new sound-reproducing instrument which represents a radical development in sound recording and reproduction. This invention, which has been named the Panatrope to indicate it reproduces all octaves, is a combination of radio and talking film developments with the phonograph.
The recording of sound waves is done, it was said, with infinite delicacy by means of the process used by recording sound in the talking film, or Pallotrope, invented by Charles A. Hoxie, of the General Electric Co., which differs in detail from the Phonofilm of Dr. Lee De Forest.
After the record has been made in this manner it outwardly resembles the ordinary disc record. It is played with a needle but the vibrations are changed into electrical current and then stepped up by vacuum cells as in radio to the required volume, and then reproduced by a vibrating disk, instead of a horn.
The grooves in the ordinary phonograph record are cut at 80 to an inch, and the 12-inch record runs for approximately five minutes. So much greater delicacy is achieved in the Pallotrope records, according to Mr. Deutsch, that the grooves have been cut 500 to an inch and 12-inch disc records have been made to reproduce whole symphonies, the record lasting for about forty minutes.
The forty-minute record is a laboratory article at present and will not, for commercial reasons, be introduced for some time to come... The first records by the new process will be issued in October. They are designed to be used either on existing phonographs or on the Panatrope, the first examples of which will be [also] placed on the market in October. On this account the new records are made to run four or five minutes, with grooves of the ordinary width.
“This instrument is the result of heartiest co-operation between the radio and phonograph interests,” said Mr. Deutsch. “It has been largely developed by radio engineers with the help of radio patents. There is entire harmony between the two interests..." There will be a public demonstration of the new instrument in perfected form at Carnegie Hall in October, when the instrument will be ready for the market. By the use of vacuum tubes, the volume from the instrument may be varied from that suitable to a small room to that necessary to fill an auditorium.
In spite of the vacuum tube amplification equipment, the cabinet for the Panatrope will be slightly smaller than the ordinary phonograph cabinet. It can be run either with batteries or by connection through the electrical socket. The cost of running it is very cheap, considerably less than that of running a small electric fan. The vacuum tubes will last from three to five years. The prices of the instruments, which will be placed on the market in October, will run from $200 to $.500, largely depending on the style of the cabinet...
The Pallotrope, which was developed by the General Electric Co. to photograph sound, has been modified considerably for its use in recording sound waves on discs. The sound waves produced by the speaker, singer or musical instrument are made to vibrate a light. The variations of the light are changed by the photographic cell into variations of electrical current. These are amplified by tubes until they are powerful enough to operate the engraving tool which cuts the sound wave pattern in the grooves of the phonograph disc...
The records made by this process, which will be issued in October, include the intermezzo and prelude to the “Cavalleria Rusticana” by the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Papi; Schubert’s “Marche Militaire” on the piano, by Godowski; “Irish Lament” and “Serenade” by Arensky on the violin, by Piastro; a soprano solo by Virginia Rea; Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Hymn to the Sun” by the Brunswick Salon Orchestra; “Ben Bolt” and “Robin Adair,” by Elizabeth Lennox; a harpsichord solo by Lewis Richards; “Unclouded Day” by the Criterion Male Quartet; “Forge in the Forest” and “Anvil Chorus,” by Walter B. Rogers and his band; a piano duet by Ohman and Arden, and a number of pieces of dance music. The series was made as inclusive as possible to show the performance of the new instrument over a wide musical range...
The announcement when received by the trade in the East created little short of a furor, for it was the first tangible information that has been offered regarding those new developments in recording and reproduction which have been heralded so persistently for months past, but regarding which so few facts are available to the industry.
Particular gratification was found in the fact that although the new instrument is deemed to be little short of sensational, arrangements have been made to protect the public and the trade by making the new recordings, to a substantial extent, at least, available for use on phonographs already on the market...
From the foregoing, it seems that the term “Light Ray” recording process had not yet been developed as it does not appear anywhere in this quite lengthy article. It is also interesting to note that the announcement mentions a concern to “protect the public and the trade” from a process which had the potential to render all previous recordings and reproduction equipment obsolete overnight. In the event the new process recordings released in October were indistinguishable from previous records in that the label design remained exactly the same, there was no mention of the new process in the labels, and there was no way to tell a new process record from a disc made by the old mechanical recording process without actually playing it.
The September 1925 issue of Talking Machine World contained another article which includes a rare description of how an audience responded to a demonstration of the new process:
The announcement made in the World last month of the new sound-reproducing instrument and recording medium perfected for the market by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. naturally aroused wide interest in trade circles, and this interest was further heightened when shortly thereafter the Brunswick Co. gave a demonstration of the new instrument, called the “Panatrope,” at the Eastern headquarters of the company in New York City, where there was a large gathering of newspapermen and prominent members of the trade.
The demonstration served to convince those privileged to witness it that there was still room for some wonderful development in the phonograph, and that that instrument had not by any means run its course as a factor for entertainment and education...
In carrying on the demonstration, a number of selected records were played on the standard Brunswick phonograph... and then played on the Panatrope... The difference in tone quality, and particularly in volume, was striking, for it is possible on the latter instrument to step up the volume according to desire, a control being provided which permits of five degrees of amplification. The reproduction of both vocal and instrumental selections on the Panatrope appeared to make a strong impression on those who witnessed the demonstration. The first record demonstrated, particularly when placed on the Panatrope after having been played on the ordinary machine, proved a genuine surprise to the audience and was received with much applause.
At the start of the proceedings, H.A. Beach, Eastern manager of the phonograph division of the Brunswick Co., made a brief address outlining the purpose of the demonstration and then introducing Ralph H. Townsend, one of the engineers of the Brunswick Co., who has been largely responsible for the development of the new recording method and the new reproducing instrument, and who explained some of the details of the Panatrope.
Following the demonstration, D. P. Pieri, radio expert with the Brunswick Co., went into further details regarding the features of the instrument, explaining that it was not designed to compete with or replace radio, but rather to help it. He explained that the outstanding features of the new development were: first, electrical recording by a new process; secondly, magnetic reproduction; third, the use of a cone made of paper and operated by electrical impulses in place of the usual horn, which he declared was now obsolete; and fourth, the inclusion of a special jack by means of which any radio may be attached to the Panatrope, the cone of which acts as an ideal loud speaker...
In reproducing the records made by the electrical recording process, and which in appearance resemble the ordinary type of records, the soundbox is replaced by a special unit in which a needle of the ordinary type is inserted. This needle, it was explained, picks up the mechanical vibrations from the record and through the medium of a reed and suitable magnets in the reproducing unit transforms the mechanical vibrations into electrical impulses. These impulses are amplified through the use of radio tubes, and sent out into the air through the medium of the cone. The instrument is, in a general sense, a combination of the principles of the radio and the phonograph...
A further article on the new recording process, titled “Brunswick Electrical Recording,” was written by Elmer C. Nelson and published in the October 1925 issue of The Phonograph Monthly Review. At this time Nelson was Manager of Brunswick’s Boston branch. This article reads:
The record lover marvels at the difference between the record of today and that of five years ago, and is told that the new record is made by an “electrical” process. Electrical recording is an achievement of the highest possible significance to every man, woman and child, interested in home, happiness, fun and progress. It marks a milestone in mankind’s advance through the ages in search of the beautiful in sound.
More and more we are coming to a realization that ours is an electrical age. The tremendous accomplishments made possible by electricity in the past decade lead us to believe that almost anything conceivable can be accomplished electrically. The adaption of this tremendous force to the art of sound recording—the mere mention of the fact that records are recorded electrically—leads us to expect an improved record. Without being technical, let us then determine how electricity makes possible a better record. The old method of recording, the mechanical method, consisted essentially in: first, a horn which received the sound waves to be recorded; second, a diaphragm which was vibrated by sound waves; third, a stylus attached to the diaphragm and vibrating with the diaphragm which actuated; fourth, a cutting device. This cutting device made certain indentations in the wax which had been placed on the recording instrument. This, essentially, was the principal [sic] upon which mechanical recording was based. One can easily see that there was bound to be considerable lost on the record, inasmuch as the sound waves were impeded in their progress, first, by contact with the walls of the recording horn; and second, by contact with the diaphragm. In addition to the loss sustained by the sound waves passed through the recording instrument, there were certain mechanical limitations placed upon those engaged in the work of sound recording.
Science tells us that audible sound extends in vibrations from around 16 per second to 21,000 per second, depending on the pitch and timbre of the sound... We can readily appreciate the handicaps under which both artist and recorder worked in the days of mechanical recording, for, because of mechanical limitations, nothing below 128 vibrations per second or above 2,000 vibrations per second could be recorded.
It was necessary to re-arrange all compositions to come within these limitations. The artist who had studied for years to perfect his art could not perform naturally. His interpretation had to be changed to fit the limitations of the mechanical method of recording. In recording an orchestra there were certain instruments which could not be used at all—the drums, tuba, and bass were very difficult to record...
The advent of electrical recording made it possible to record in a natural way without the severe limitations of the old method. There are two essentially different types of electrical recording: One, the light ray method used exclusively by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, and the other, the microphonic method used with variations by other record manufacturers. The microphonic method is very similar to the manner of broadcasting through a microphone in a radio studio, only, of course, the sound waves are permanently preserved on a record instead of being sent out on the air.
The light ray method is by far the most sensitive and flexible method known to science. It has enabled the recording of 30,000 childrens’ [sic] voices singing a Mass at the time of the recent Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. It will record vibrations as low as 16 per second, and as high as 21,000 per second—any audible sound. The recording instrument used in making a record under the light ray process is called the Palatrope—Palatrope meaning “dancing beam of light.”
The sun at its meridian height sends powerful beams of light through the window, and you marvel at the dust particles which you can see dancing through the light rays. Can you imagine photographing those dust particles? It would indeed be a sensitive operation, and yet, the operation of the Palatrope does almost that. A powerful beam of light is centered on a minute crystal mirror (weighing one two-hundredth part of a milogram [sic]) 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, and as the sound waves vibrate, the mirror of reflected light dances to and fro. 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, although it takes a few moments to describe the process—the action is instantaneous. The cutting device and the little mirrors are vibrating in positive sympathy, just as the pulse beats in sympathy with the heart, and the resultant record is so near the original interpretation of the artist that when reproduced with the same measure of perfection, one cannot be sure whether the artist of the record sends the music to the ear.
Just as the telephone—the phonograph—the radio—electricity itself—were in their days amazing new revelations that advanced by giant strides ahead of previous achievements, so the new process of recording electrically steps far ahead of the old mechanical method and enables us to enjoy the music of our choice without any limitation whatsoever.
Brunswick did not commence electric recording from a specific date, but rather seems to have experimented with electric recording throughout April and early May 1925. Some sessions during this period were recorded electrically, while other sessions continued to be made as acoustic recordings. At some recording sessions the same titles were made by both the acoustic and electric processes.
The first (unreleased) electric recordings made by Brunswick were recorded on April 7, 1925. The earliest released electric recording was the “Prelude from Cavalleria Rusticana” (Brunswick 50067) recorded on April 8, 1925 by the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra.
The earliest electric recording in the popular series was Brunswick 2881 by the Brunswick Hour Orchestra (recorded April 15, 1925). The next electric recording in this series (in catalog number sequence) is Brunswick 2900 by Vernon Dalhart. There were still some acoustic recordings later in the numerical sequence, the last being Brunswick 2934 by Abe Lyman’s Orchestra (recorded in Los Angeles where acoustic equipment was still in use).
Most of the later acoustic releases were Los Angeles recordings. This was because before a permanent studio was set up in Los Angeles all West Coast recordings were made by portable equipment on various field trips. The last such field trip (still using acoustic equipment) was in May 1927 which produced only Spanish language recordings (issued on Vocalion 8088 and 8089). When a Los Angeles studio was established in December 1927 (with electric equipment) the LAE mx. series was introduced. The earliest issued Los Angeles studio recordings were on Vocalion 15641 by Sonny Clay’s Orchestra. The “E” in the LAE Los Angeles master series was finally dropped in December 1930 and it became the LA master series.
The number of acoustic recordings made in the New York studio for Brunswick release gradually decreased during May 1925 (with the last acoustic session intended for Brunswick release being recorded on June 1, 1925 in Room #1). However, the same studios were still making acoustic recordings for release on Vocalion. The first electric recordings issued on Vocalion were made on May 2, 1925 but the last acoustic session recorded for release on Vocalion was made in Room #1 in October 1925 after which Room #1 was equipped for electric recording.
Room #2 seems to have been the largest of the three studios, and was used mainly for acoustic Vocalion recordings between April 10, 1925 and October 23, 1925. From October 1925 it appears that Room #2 was not used and it was not re-equipped with electric recording equipment until early 1927. From February 1927 all three studios were in regular use and apart from a few sessions recorded by land-line from locations such at Leiderkranz Hall, Steinway Hall, the Lexington Theatre, or the Skinner Organ Company, all of Brunswick’s New York City recordings were made at 799 Seventh Avenue until the end of 1931.
There were significant periods with no recording activity between August 6 and August 25, 1926, and between July 22 and July 28, 1927. The reasons for these breaks in continuity are unknown, but these dates coincide with a recording expedition to Los Angeles in August 1926 and to Chicago in July 1927 so there is the possibility there was some connection between these events. Similar breaks in recording activity are not evident during other field trips so this theory is only speculation.
After A.R.C. acquired the Brunswick label at the end of 1931, new recordings made for release on Brunswick were recorded at A.R.C’s existing studios at 1776 Broadway, in New York City. The old studios at 799 Seventh Avenue continued to be used by Brunswick Laboratories for the production of 16” transcription discs. Apparently this part of the operation was retained by the Brunswick Radio Corporation after the Brunswick label had been sold off to A.R.C. It is not known exactly how long the post-Brunswick use of 799 Seventh Avenue continued as no ledgers from this period seem to have survived. A 1930 newspaper article states that Raymond Soat, founder of the National Radio Advertising, Inc., which had for some years being using Brunswick to record and press its radio transcriptions, had sold the business to Brunswick (then owned by Warner Brothers) but was to stay on as president. A Brunswick Radio Corporation inventory of furniture and sundry equipment still located at 799 Seventh Ave., dated 1934 in relation to the sale of the premises to Decca Records lists several items under the heading “Mr. Soat’s Office.” So these few clues do seem to suggest that Soat was active at 799 Seventh Avenue in the period 1931-1934. Other documents give the date of sale of the studios to Decca as August 14, 1934.
The last master recorded by pre-A.R.C. Brunswick at 799 Seventh Avenue was E37525 on December 21, 1931. The block of masters from E37475 to E37524 were allocated to another studio, and were not used until early 1932. The few items known from this block are 16” transcriptions. This series continued to be used during 1932-34, and was continued by Decca after they took over the studios in 1934 (without the “E” prefix). The earliest number in the Decca ledgers is 38273—and this is also a custom recording not intended for commercial release. The series ran until 39999 which is part of Jimmie Lunceford’s September 23, 1935 session, and the last two selections made at this session are allocated the first two masters in a new 60000 series.
Despite Chicago being the headquarters of the Brunswick-Balke Callender Co. the record division does not seem to have had any permanent studios in that city until early 1928. It is not known what studios were used between August 1923 (when the first Brunswick recordings were made in Chicago) and early 1928 (from which time fairly continuous recording activity took place). Certainly, the earliest recordings were made with portable equipment, so it is probable that a hotel ballroom or some similar location was utilized. The recording ledgers do not specify any location.
From April 1926 recording activity in Chicago increased in terms of the number of masters being cut, but there were still long periods of a month, or even several months, during which no recording activity took place. This suggests that no permanent studios had yet been established.
By about March 1928, recording activity in Chicago had become more or less continuous, and the studios were apparently located at the Brunswick headquarters building. It is possible that there were studios at this location since 1926 or even earlier, but that they were only used for short periods as new masters were required.
The National Radio Advertising Co., Inc. of Chicago pioneered the production of pre-recorded radio programs, and used Brunswick’s studios extensively from the late 1920s to record these masters. It was in Brunswick’s Chicago studios (in whatever form they existed at that time) that the first known syndicated recorded program series was produced by this company in December 1928.
In the May and June 1929 issues of Talking Machine World there are reports concerning the relocation of the studios from the Brunswick Building to the 21st floor of the Furniture Mart at 666 Lake Shore Drive. Eventually there were two studios in operation—Studio A and Studio 8—but is not known exactly when the second studio was established. The recording ledgers do not make any reference to a specific studio before October 1929—so the second studio was probably established around that time.
The new studios operated under the direction of Jack Kapp, and were equipped with state-of-the-art lathes which could record 10”, 12”, 16”, 17’’ and 18” masters at at 33-1/3 rpm. From early 1930 the Chicago studios were pioneering these formats, while the New York studios produced no 16” or larger masters until 1931.
The Chicago studios were also the first to use 16” and 17” masters, which began to be recorded from April 1930.
The earliest Los Angeles recordings (July 1923 to May 1927) were all made using portable equipment. There were no permanent studios on the West Coast until December 1927. Los Angeles phone books of the period show 2481 Porter Street as the address of Brunswick Recording Lab., and the same address is shown prior to 1929 as a Brunswick Warehouse.
It is worth noting that West Coast pressings (easily identifiable by use of a different type-face to that on other Brunswick pressings) were the only Brunswick records to actually refer to the light-ray recording process on the labels. For a period of about one year from late 1926 to late 1927
Brunswick’s West Coast pressings carry the legend “Light-Ray Elec. Rec.” (and the same applies to West Coast pressings of Vocalion records as well).
Even after the practice of crediting the light-ray process on West Coast pressings was discontinued, there are numerous examples where label credits varied between West Coast and other pressings. For example, East Coast pressings of Harry Richman’s Brunswick 4678 credit the accompanying orchestra as “Earl Burtnett and His Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra” and add the legend that the song performed (“Singing a vagabond song”) is “From the motion picture Puttin’ On The Ritz.” By comparison, West Coast pressing[s] credit the orchestra as “Earl Burtnett’s Biltmore Orchestra” and the legend reads “From the United Artists Picture Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Before 1923, all Brunswick recordings were made in New York. and any artists not resident in New York were brought there for recording purposes. The first attempt Brunswick made to record outside New York was a field trip to Los Angeles during July and August of that year. Contemporary press reports mention that W. G. Haenschen, Director of Popular Music, made this trip with a group of technicians from the Brunswick laboratories. The recording engineers were obviously drawn from the regular staff of the New York studios as no recording activity took place in New York between mid-July and early September 1923. On the return trip from Los Angeles further recordings were taken in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. An article in the September edition of Talking Machine World which was obviously written in August 1923 also mentions Portland, Oregon as being on the itinerary, but no masters were allocated to recordings from this location, so either any recordings made there were not selected for mastering (or perhaps plans were changed).
Following this first significant field trip, the main centres of on-location recording were Chicago and (to a lesser extent) Los Angeles. It is not known where Brunswick’s recording activity in Chicago took place before pem1anent studios where established in that city during 1928. It is very likely that recording engineers were sent to Chicago from the New York laboratories as required, and the logic of this scenario is reinforced by the fact that from October 1924 onward other locations (mainly St. Louis and Cleveland) were usually visited at the same time as each batch of Chicago recordings were made.
The recordings made in or en route to Chicago constitute the bulk of Brunswick’s recording activity outside New York from early 1924 until early 1928. The only exceptions were several field trips to Los Angeles (one each in 1924 and 1925, three in 1926, and one more in 1927).
Brunswick began what was to become an extensive program of field trips to a wide range of less well-visited locations in February-March 1928 when a team visited Ashland, Kentucky and Atlanta, Georgia. An insight into how these field recordings were organized is given by a surviving letter from James O’Keefe of Brunswick Recording Laboratories to William Sievers, one of the musicians recorded in Ashland, which is dated January 25, 1928. It reads:
Dear Mr. Sievers,
We wired you on January 19th, as follows:
Offer you one hundred dollars a record for twelve selections six double faced records and travelling expenses for Tennessee Ramblers stop if this proposition acceptable wire immediately and will specify which selections you are to prepare for early recording at Ashland Kentucky and will send contract.
To which you replied as follows:
Accept your offer in your wire date for twelve selections six double faced records and travelling expenses.
We again wired you on January 21st as follows:
Setting aside February seventeenth and eighteenth for you to do six double faced records twelve selections at Carter’s Phonograph Shop 217 Sixteenth Street Ashland Kentucky advise immediately you accept these dates and will be on hand letter follows.
To which you replied as follows:
Will be in Ashland Kentucky February seventeenth and eighteenth for recording.
We shall expect to record you as we have previously stated in Ashland, Kentucky, at Carter’s Phonograph and Music Shop...You begin your work for us on February 17th at nine-thirty a.m. Kindly have your organization thoroughly prepared on various selections we specified in recent communication to you so that we may execute this job with a maximum of efficiency in a minimum amount of time.
Keep an itemized list of expenditures and railroad fares, etc. on your trip from Clinton to Ashland and we will reimburse you immediately on arrival at Ashland when you present your bill for your expenses.
Very truly yours, James O’Keefe
This letter is very interesting as it clearly shows that the field recordings were organized well in advance and that these arrangements extended so far as to the specific selections to be recorded.
At around the same time as the Ashland/Atlanta field trip a recording expedition from the Los Angeles studios spent a week or so in Hawaii. An excellent account of this event was published in the Honolulu Advertiser, and it provides the first detailed report of how Brunswick remote recordings were undertaken. The article is headlined “Brunswick Sends Men to Honolulu to Make New Hawaiian Records,” and reads as follows:
Twenty-five double records of Hawaiian music interpreted by Hawaiian artists are to be made by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company, and placed in every music market throughout the world.
The recording apparatus, consisting of a “mike,” many hundred feet of wires, the “cutting machine,” and other technical instruments, has been at work night and day in the Gold Room at the Young Hotel carrying out this program.
Mainly old-time standard Hawaiian numbers were recorded. Artists from all over the island group were assembled by Johnny Noble, director of the Moana Orchestra, who supervised the rehearsals. Charles E. King, author of many popular Hawaiian songs, was the musical director.
F. H. Winters and E. Avery, direct from the Brunswick plants on the mainland were in charge of the technical features of the work. They came to Honolulu last week, and they sailed yesterday on the City of Los Angeles.
The business details of the Brunswick pilgrimage to Hawaii were arranged by James W. Bergstrom, treasurer and manager of the Honolulu Music Company.
It is the first time in the history of the territory, it is announced, that an electrical recording apparatus has come to Hawaii to make phonograph records. It is the first time that any apparatus of any kind has been here within the last 18 years, it is further stated.
Seclusion was the keynote of [the] recording process. Only artists, and others directly interested, were permitted in the room. It was the aim of Winters and Avery to obtain the very last word in Hawaiian interpretation, and for that reason no element was allowed to enter the room that would distract the artists, or suggest something different from the program agreed upon.
A canvas room was constructed to eliminate echoes and extraneous noises. The artists grouped within this enclosure and played into a microphone. Electric impulses carried the music to a recording machine, equipped with “cutting needles,” or something to that effect.
These made indentations in a wax disc and this is then employed from which “negatives” are produced.
Many rehearsals were required before recording was begun. “Timing” was an important element. A record ordinarily runs about three minutes.
Stringed instruments, solos and chorus were featured. “We want this music recorded exactly as it is played here in Hawaii, and not as the theatrical manager back in New York would probably suggest,” said Avery, before sailing. “We are also selecting old-time standard numbers, because they have proven their popularity, and they will be enduring.”
Sometime ago Johnny Noble suggested to the Brunswick people the making of records in Hawaii. Shortly thereafter Avery came through Honolulu enroute to the Orient, and while in Honolulu he conferred with Noble and Bergstrom. Then came a visit from the Pacific Coast representative of Brunswick, who signed Noble to a contract to supervise all Brunswick records to be made in Hawaii over a three year period. When this contract became effective, Avery and Winters arrived to make the first quota of the three-years’ output.
The records, when released, will bear Noble’s name as having supervised their production. “Hawaiian music is in tremendous demand everywhere in the United States, as well as the remainder of the world,” Avery continued. “It will be difficult to say just how many copies of each number will be made from the twenty-five negatives recorded here, but they will probably run into the millions. One man, operating a finishing machine, can in an eight-hour day make about 900 records. Several machines will be at work on this assignment, and the first releases will probably be out in April or May. The Brunswick people are erecting a factory in Los Angeles that will cost $300,000, and that is one of the reasons I must hurry back to the Coast.” They require twenty-three big trunks in which to facilitate the transportation of the recording outfit...
In fact, 1928 saw a rapid expansion in the number and diversity of Brunswick field trips. Following the Ashland/Atlanta and Honolulu expeditions, various other destinations (including many never visited by Brunswick before) were the scene of “road” recording sessions on an almost monthly basis until mid-1930. Cities visited by mobile recording teams during this period included Plattsburg, Indianapolis, West Point, Dallas, New Orleans, Birmingham, Memphis, San Antonio, El Paso, Detroit, Minneapolis, Knoxville, and Kansas City. From the Los Angeles studios the first of several visits to San Francisco occurred in September 1928 (followed by five further visits between October 1928 and September 1929).
The Knoxville sessions were very fortunately documented in several newspaper articles published in the local News-Sentinel during 1929 and 1930. These and other related documents were reprinted in an interested article by Charles Wolfe published in Old Time Music. The first article was printed on August 27, 1929 and is titled “Local Artists Make Records: first phonograph recording is started here.” The text reads as follows:
Phonograph records are to be made in Knoxville for the first time, and by local talent. Recording of a number of Vocalion records will start today at Sterchi Brothers broadcasting studio in the St. James Hotel and will continue all week. The records will be made by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company. The records made by Knoxville and East Tennessee artists will be distributed nationally, and those artists proving to be the most popular will probably be put under contract by a phonograph recording firm.
Sterchi Brothers is a jobber for Vocalion records. R. F. Lyons, of Chicago, has come to Knoxville to have charge of the making of the records by the following well known artists: University of Tennessee Trio; Maynard Baird and His Southern Serenaders; Tennessee Ramblers; Euclid Quartet; Will Bennett, negro, of Loudon; Hugh Ballard Cross; Oliver Springs; Haskel Wolfenbarger; Cal Davenport and His Gang; Ridgel’s Fountain Citians; Wise String Orchestra; Southern Moonlight Entertainers; Frank Murphy; Harry Van Gilder; Ruth Pippin; Thelma Davenport; Senior Chapel Quartet (negro); and others.
Since the above story was published on the day the 1929 Knoxville sessions began, it is apparent that most of the talent had been lined up in advance (presumably by Brunswick field scouts, or possibly by the local Vocalion jobbers, Sterchi Brothers).
The next day, another story appeared in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and this item was headlined “Mountain Melodies Are Preserved On Machine.” The text of this article runs:
Southern mountain tunes handed down from fiddler to fiddler since the days of the early settlers were the first sounds to be recorded yesterday on the records being made by Sterchi Brothers at their St. James Hotel broadcasting station of WNOX.
The Tennessee Ramblers, old time orchestra, faced the microphone first. Someone walked into the sound proof room while they were performing and the creak of the door ruined the record. It was taken over.
Records of people, voices, children’s prattle, speeches, anything, will be made, Richard Voynow of Chicago, who is in charge of the record [sic], announced. But thus far only musicians have made engagements.
Maynard Baird’s orchestra were to record today. The U-T trio, Misses Frances Elmore, Muriel Parrette and Mrs. Mildred Martin Patterson will make records tomorrow. The Southern Moonlight Entertainers came to town from Coal Creek to record some of their old time music.
To make the records the musicians go into the soundless broadcasting room and face the microphone. Voynow sits just outside the room, looks thru a glass window and directs them by means of lights.
The music is carried outside the room to the recording instrument where it is picked up on a soft wax record. It is also broadcast thru [sic] a speaker by the director’s side so that he may know just what is being recorded.
At the signal of a red light the musicians get ready. The yellow light means all quiet and the green light means begin...
This article provides detail[ed] evidence that these “road” recordings were not always conducted in the back rooms of music stores, or in hotel ballrooms, but could also make use of studio facilities not unlike those in the major centers.
The first expedition dispatched from the U.S. to locations in foreign countries took place in May 1928 when recordings were made in Havana and Mexico City. Further trips to Havana took place in September 1929 and June 1930. In November 1929 another expedition went as far as Canton in China and Manila in the Philippines (while a second visit to Manila in February 1931 also went as far as Hong Kong and Amoy in China).
The 1929 sessions in Knoxville seem to have been successful in both commercial and artistic terms as a return visit to that location was made in March/April of 1930 (at the end of an expedition which took in Memphis, San Antonio, and Atlanta). A week after the Knoxville session a most detailed account known of a field recording session was published in the local newspaper under the title “Perpetuating Our ‘Hill-Billy’ Harmonies: Process of recording described.” This and several substories occupied the entire front page of the Knoxville News-Sentinel on Sunday, April 13, 1930. The main story read:
Records were made—and broken—in Knoxville last week. No gridiron battles were fought, no pugilistic champions were born, no race track sprang to the front page, no airplanes reached new heights or made new distance records. The records made here were wax, and in a few weeks will be in Knoxville homes.
There was bustling activity at the St. James Hotel, as old-time fiddlers, banjo pickers, guitar players, and songsters trekked up the steps, to the WNOX broadcasting studio. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. was there catching the voices and instruments of this part of the South’s distinctive musical product—the mountaineer song.
Maynard Baird and his orchestra recorded two dance numbers, an orchestra from Nashville recorded one, there was some negro music, and a Kentucky feud was acted and the dialog spoken, taking up four records. All the rest—over a hundred—were of the type known to the trade as mountaineer songs or old-time tunes, and to the recording companies as “hillbilly music.”
Cumbersome equipment—$28,000 worth of it weighing 1600 pounds and requiring 11 special trunks and large boxes for its shipment—was brought from Muskegon, Michigan, the Brunswick record factory, and was set up in the St. James Hotel studio of WNOX, by arrangement with the owners, Sterchi Brothers, who are distributors for the records.
Let us see together how the recording is done.
The artists sing or play before a microphone in the draped studio. The sound, changed into electrical impulses in the microphone, travels from the studio to another room, where amplifiers similar in principle to radio amplifiers, increase them to the required power.
They then go to the recorder. This machine has a turntable, like a phonograph, on which the warm wax disc turns. An electric needle rests on the soft wax, and as it turns, cuts into it the grooves that will reproduce the sounds.
A tiny room adjoins the studio proper, connected to it by a sound-proof glass window. In this room sits Richard Voynow, musical director of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. He watches thru the window, and listens by means of a loud-speaker for any musical error. If he hears one, he immediately stops the piece, and it is played over again, while the faulty recording is discarded.
H. C. Bradshaw sits before the amplifier panel, listening with head phones. It is his job to see that the right amount of volume goes into the record. Too much is as unsatisfactory as too little, when the finished records are played on the ordinary phonograph in the home. Often two or three recordings are necessary to get the perfect record that is needed.
R. Chelf operates the recorder. Taking the warm, soft wax from the oven, he places it upon the turntable, sets the needle down near the edge, allows the wax to tum a few times, then examines the “cut” with a microscope. If all is well, he moves the needle to the proper place to begin the 10-inch record, starts the machine, and signals “let’s go.”
W. J. Brown... sits near the artist while the recording is going on, giving suggestions and making changes. It is he who finds the artists, and gets them in a for a try-out.
"We call the material of the disk 'wax,' Bradshaw explains, "but there is no bees-wax or rosin in it, although it looks like either. Different companies used different kinds; some using a kind of metallic soap for the 'wax.' It is very soft, when warm, and very smooth of texture. The recording stylus, you see, cuts it very easily. The thread which is cut out is sucked up by a vacuum, so that no piece of it can remain on top of the wax, or in a groove.
"The wax is, when new, one and one-eighth inch thick, and two inches larger in diameter than the size record we are making. The wax is used over and over again, after having been given a new polish on a lathe.
"After they are 'cut' we send the disks to Muskegon, Mich. There they are either dusted with extremely fine graphite, or dipped in a peculiar acid solution [which] will give them a conducting surface. Then they are placed in an electroplating bath, and a layer of copper deposited on them.
"The wax is broken away after the copper has been deposited to the necessary thickness. The copper is called the 'mother,' and it is this 'mother' that is kept and guarded carefully in our files."
This “mother” plate is really a matrix or negative of the record. The wax disc contains grooves like those of the finished record. The electroplated metal, however, fills up these grooves so that is has ridges instead of grooves and is the reverse of the original impression. The “stamper,” explained later, is just a duplicate of this negative record so that when it stamps the finished record its ridges produce grooves corresponding to the original record...
The expedition which ended with the Knoxville sessions described in the above article was the last for several months. Apart from a further Havana trip in June 1930 there were no other “road” recordings made between early April and mid-November 1930.
Despite the worsening economic conditions, field recording resumed in late 1930, but there was a significant reduction in the number and range of recording expeditions sent out over the next twelve months or so. A late 1930 expedition made visits to Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas and San Antonio. During the whole of 1931 only four different expeditions were sent out. One to Manila and China (as mentioned above), one to Omaha, a third to Montreal and Toronto in Canada, and a final team went to San Antonio and El Paso in August/September of 1931. The Omaha recordings were produced for the National Radio Advertising Co., Inc. in the home town of the company’s founder, Raymond Soat (and it is assumed he arranged for these recordings to be made as they are not conventional “road” recordings made for commercial release). No “road” recordings were made in the last few months of 1931 (possibly as a consequence of uncertainties resulting from the sale of the label to the American Record Corporation, which was being negotiated at that time).
Brunswick Records: A Discography of Recordings, 1916-1931 (4 vols). Compiled by Ross Laird. Reprinted by permission.