How Recordings are Made in the Victor Laboratory

“Just nervousness!”

That was the answer Maud Powell gave to an interviewer who asked her how, lacking the inspiration of an audience, she could put so much emotional force into a record like the one she has made of the Sibelius “Valse Triste.” “Making a record is the most nervous work I’ve ever done in my life, “ she continued. “You watch that awful face at the window, waiting for the raising of the eyebrows which tells you to begin, and all the while you are wondering whether you’ll be able to find a single note or not.”

That is how Maud Powell, the world’s greatest woman violinist, feels about it, so what must be the sensations of less experienced artists? True enough, being an artist means that your nervousness will direct itself into the right channels and so accomplish the thing that the artist wants to accomplish, but almost every artist approaches the making of a record with apprehension.

Consider for a moment. There is no scenery, no lights, no “color” in one’s surroundings as there is on the operatic or concert stage. There is only a bare auditorium stripped of every bit of unnecessary furniture—like a gun deck or an operating room. The “awful face at the window” is that of the operator, for the recording instrument itself is in another room, only the horn projecting into the auditorium. Spoken directions cannot be given once the recording instrument is set in motion, for, if they were, they, together with the music, would be recorded. So communication between artist and operator is by signs.

The artist who makes a record sings or plays into the horn and sees nothing else except a bare wall and the face of the operator at a tiny window. Facing this cold, indifferent prospect, which is ominous in its scientific aloofness, one must dig deep into one’s own soul for the impassioned touch that is afterwards to thrill one’s hearers, and—it is something of an ordeal.

Your sins will find you out. There is no question about that. Does your finger touch by accident two strings of your fiddle when they should touch but one? It will show in the record, and so will every other microscopic accident.

Making a record It isn’t easy to make a record of any kind, but imagine the difficulty of making such a record as the “Sextette from Lucia.” Six voices to be recorded and balanced, to say nothing of the big orchestra. Every thread of melody or harmony must be interwoven and recorded without getting tangled up. This or that section of the orchestra must be restrained a little, or accentuated a little, just as the changing spirit of the composition may require. The solo instrument or voice must have just the right amount of prominence, and just how much it must have depends again upon what the solo instrument may be, for they do not all possess the same recording value. In the opera house or the orchestra concert room the conductor’s ear catches such things instantly, and they are instantly suppressed; but in a record? No. If one wrong note has been sounded it is too late to cover up or smooth over the mistake.

In many cases a single playing may suffice, but more often a song or an instrumental selection will be played over more than once before it is finally approved.

This article has been published in response to a great many requests from our readers, who want to know just what happens in the recording auditorium. If you yourself came to Camden to make a record your experience would be about as follows:

As you stepped from the elevator into the reception room, you would, first of all, feel the keen thrust of stage fright. Musical tradition? The place fairly reeks with it. It isn’t so much that you feel the presence of all the truly great artists of our generation. That, of course, goes without saying, but there’s a slightly uncanny feeling. You can never quite forget that here, perched high on the banks of the Delaware, the soul of a singer is caught in some glorious moment of achievement and crystallized on a disc for the sake of all the world—the world of to-day and of all the successive to-morrows.

In due time you would find yourself confronting the horn in the recording auditorium, with a whole big orchestra grouped about you, but it would be arranged like no other orchestra you ever saw. Just what kind of a horn you would sing into, and just how or where the orchestra would be grouped, would depend a good deal on you and on what you were going to sing or play—anyway, you know, we can’t tell too many tales out of school.

First, you would rehearse your song complete with the orchestra. Not once only, but two or three times, or even more, if necessary, to get your voice wholly en rapport with its orchestra accompaniment.

There would very likely be some shifting about of instruments or groups of instruments in the orchestra, and when the conductor was well satisfied you would sing into the horn a short test section of your song, with accompaniment. This is done to see that the desired effect is “registering”—and then you would be ready for the real ordeal.

The operator in the adjoining room would adjust the recording mechanisms, and from that moment there would be dead silence in the auditorium. You would watch the face of the operator looking at you through a tiny window—or you would watch for a flash from a tiny electric light. You might hear your own heart beat, but you would hear nothing else, till, at the signal, the downsweep of the conductor’s baton let loose the flood of sound.

Then you would sing, and you would try to sing as you never sang before, because you would know that not one audience alone, but all the world might hear your song.

The song finished, the same dead silence would grip the room again until the recording mechanism was stopped and the operator so informed you with a smile and a nod. And then, as you passed out of the auditorium, the orchestra might shower you with applause, or—it might not.

From: A new graded list of Victor Records for the home, kindergarten and school. Education Department, Victor Talking Machine Company, 1918.