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A Word or Two About Historical Recordings

victrolaThe sound of the historical recordings (for convenience, let’s say those from 1900 through 1920) that you hear on this site are not necessarily what listeners of that earlier era heard. With early acoustical recordings, the singer stood in front of a cone-shaped horn and the actual sound waves that were produced caused a stylus to vibrate and cut grooves on wax. This method flattered some voices, but had great problems for others, especially soft voices in the middle range. Brass instruments recorded better than others which could give orchestras a “tinny” sound and capturing orchestral accompaniment could be an adventure.

Modern digital techniques have enabled sound engineers to recapture or recreate some of the missing or distorted sound, but a second factor also limited listeners of that era.

In the beginning, there were no standard recording speeds. Some records were recorded at 70 rpm, some “approximately” 75 rpm, and some even as high as 90 rpm. Home playback machines ran at a nominal 75 or 78 rpm but they had a speed adjustment lever and depended on a hand cranked spring for power, which added another variable as the spring slowly unwound. Caruso could sound like a baritone or Chaliapin like a tenor. There were two competing systems of reproducing recorded sound. Thomas Edison recorded onto cylinders while Emile Berliner recorded onto flat disks. The Master was then pressed into a mold to create the disks or cylinders that were released for sale.

Once records began selling in the hundreds of thousands, this system ceated another problem. Masters eventually wore out and artists had to re-record to create a clean Master (Al Jolson’s 1928 recording of “Sonny Boy” sold more than two million copies requiring at least three Masters – each slightly different.)

When Enrico Caruso’s records began to sell in the millions and people bought Gramaphone players to hear them, the cylinder system was doomed. Edison later abandoned the cylinder and produced records on wax-coated wood and even on glass disks, but it was too late. The Gramaphone & Typewriter Company merged with The Victor Talking Machine Company in 1903 and became the dominant record company. You know it today as RCA Victor.

Luckily, RCA and many other recording companies kept records of the speeds that were used in a given session which researchers have discovered and today’s preservationists (Ward Marston is a prime example) can match those speeds and give us very accurate representations of what the singers really sounded like.

Your comments or questions are welcome.