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Sound Media: Part II – Backwards history

Theoretical introduction to sound media

Part I – The present time

Part II – Backwards history

7. Tape control: A revolution in recorded music, 1970s – 1950s
8. The acoustic nation: Live journalism, 1960s – 1930s
9. Microphone moods: Music recording, 1940s – 1930s
10. Atmospheric contact: Experiments in broadcasting, 1920s – 1900s
11. The repeating machine: Music recording, 1920s – 1870s

7. Tape control – A revolution in recorded music, 1970s-1950s

If the term ‘revolution’ is to be used at all in this book, it should describe the introduction of micro-electronics and magnetic tape in Europe and America. In the 1970s there was a wholesale uptake of synthesizers, tape effects and multi-track recording, and the musical soundscapes of the West were changed forever. It is always dangerous to proclaim revolutions, but I will present three case studies that support my argument well. Firstly the Residents play a weird, tone-generated melody in 1974; secondly, Sly and the Family Stone play a densely produced funk track in 1973; and lastly the British rock experimentalists Traffic making psychedelia in 1968. All this music is heavily edited (cut up), and has nothing to do with the old ‘live on tape’ performances of the 1950s and before. The documentary realism of live recordings was marginalized in a matter of years. This change towards densely cut up and rearranged tape is the revolution I am talking about.

Backwards history
Now the backwards history will begin in earnest, and I anticipate a level of scepticism among some of my readers. But the move backwards from the present time to the past is quite simple; I jump from the digital media of our own time to the analogue media in their final configuration before they became obsolete. All the remaining chapters discuss analogue media in one way or another.

First I will sketch the general background atmosphere during the 1970s and 1960s. The period was highly advanced in technological terms, as the NASA moon landing in 1969 demonstrates. The Cold War was at its coldest, and the USA had strengthened its position with the Apollo programme (Hobsbawm 1994: 231ff). On the cultural front grave old men had always dominated the public sphere, but now young people started making a claim to dominance. In the USA in the 1960s new rights were gained for women and racial minorities, and there was a more open and informal society, at least at the everyday level. It was a better time to five in both the USA and Europe for more people than ever before. Although bad things were happening, for example the Vietnam War, people’s living standards went up in all countries of the West (see Marwick 1998 for a comprehensive study of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s). Consumer comfort eased the strain of living with the impending threat of nuclear annihilation, and the era was marked by cultural optimism.

In 1974 the media environment was very different from ours. There were no mobile phones, no personal computers and no internet. Computers were used only in banks, insurance companies and universities. But we should not underestimate the richness and attraction of this earlier media environment.

Figure 7.1: Timeline of magnetic recording media.
Figure 7.1: Timeline of magnetic recording media.

Figure 7.1 shows the platforms on which this chapter focuses in black. There were four essentially different platforms: magnetic tape, which was used mostly in professional production milieus; singles and LPs, used for the mass distribution of music; compact cassettes, used both for mass distribution and for personal recording of media sound; and the short-lived quadraphonic sound system. I will focus here on magnetic tape and the LP. Notice that LPs and cassettes are still available, although they are marginal compared to CDs and computer files such as mp3. The platforms that preceded and came after these analogue platforms are listed in figure 7.1 below the arrow. Computer recording is discussed in chapter 3, while electrical recording is treated in chapter 9.

However, there were several influential recording media in the mid-twentieth century. From the late 1920s sound film inspired creative developments in sound editing on celluloid film, and there was also advanced tape editing in radio plays and reportage quite early on. When television was introduced in the 1950s yet another platform for complex edited narratives came about (see Barnouw [1975] 1990; Winston 2005: 330fft). Although these media worked independently of each other, there were many creative inspirations between them.

For the domestic media consumer in Europe and America there was colour television, and there was transatlantic telegraphy, telephony and telex (with its ticker tape to throw at the parade). There were 3D sound films from Hollywood, dozens of radio stations on AM, newspapers, magazines and books. As well as colour 35 mm stills film there were cheap, portable cameras for people to record their family history with.

Ordinary people in the West had acquired a very relaxed and natural attitude towards the mass media and the music industry. Young people would enjoy music on the stereo, blasting it out into the neighbourhood without any worries. Starting in the mid-1960s, recorded music entered a stage of explosive cultural activity, and artists such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles put their stamp on cultural history almost as forcefully as Shakespeare did four hundred years previously. Electronic media and their noisy pop cultures were slowly recognized as an important part of the cultural heritage, not only in the public eye but also among academics (for positive and negative perspectives, see Boorstm [1961] 1985; McLuhan [1964] 1994; Ellul 1964; Barthes [1972] 1993).

Musicians were increasingly technology savvy. If an artist had success, they would be allowed increasing creative control and high-tech recording equipment. This allowed them to break with traditional ways of doing things, and increased the potential for originality with the aid of high-quality sound, stereo and tape cutting and splicing. During the years of psychedelia and counterculture there was an increasing popular acceptance of the expressive character of recording. Producers such as Phil Spector and George Martin became cultural icons in their own time (for studies of rock and popular music in this period, see Gracyk 1996; Jones 1992).

Not everyone liked the new production values. When Bob Dylan went electric in 1965 there was outrage among his fans in the folk song movement. Pete Seeger disliked the loud electrical sound so much that he said he wanted to pull out the electrical wiring system to stop the music (Shelton 1987: 302—3). This was an outcry against a certain type of sound just as much as against the commercial potential of Dylan’s turnaround. It says something about the unnerving character of the electric guitar, bass and miked-up drums.

Recording signature, 1974
Now I will begin the analysis of music production with magnetic tape. Artists could choose between two production aesthetics: shaping sound in support of a live performance image, or shaping the recording as an artistic message in its own right. Along these lines William Moylan (1992: 77) argues that ‘the recording process can capture reality, or it can create (through sound relationships) the illusion of a new world. Most recordists find themselves moving about the vast area that separates these two extremes.’ Before the introduction of tape, artists had no choice but to support the live performance, and this seventy-year long state of affairs will be described in chapters 9 and 11.

The favoured style of music in the 1960s was a composite one which had the sound of something fragmented or cut up. The artists could choose the best of many partial performances during a prolonged recording process, and construct just one authoritative master that would be exactly as the producer wanted it to be; this is what I call the recording signature. Rock music production involved a complex repetitive process, tracks being assigned and filled with layer upon layer of sound elements, and small parts of performances would be redone regardless of whether the whole band was present. Like a literary text, the recording is aesthetically and rhetorically well organized.

Some rock groups pushed the new timbres and technologies to the limit. The first case study in this chapter is by the Residents, who used electronic tone-generators and rhythm boxes to create eerie melodies on the LP Not Available (1978).They played alternative synth and drum machine rock, and are still well known among lovers of alternative rock and art music. The album is among the best in the Residents’ catalogue and was recorded four years before its release. I chose this track because it displays the equipment sound in a way that is parallel to the style of Autechre (track 11). Listeners in the 2000s may not find these sounds as eerie as listeners did in 1978.

In 1974 the production values of recorded music were very high, something that such contemporary artists as Steely Dan and Pink Floyd demonstrate. It was the peak of innovation in analogue technology, and the next step would be digital. Tape equipment had an aura of advancement, and it appeared in movies such as The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) and Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971). The Residents exposed the medium’s potential for creating synthetic acoustics, a world that only exists because of electronic tone-generators. ‘Never Known Questions’ is a weird intonation of concerns, and the words are just as redundart as the melody, making the track sound like a kind of tribal incantation.

Track 20: Residents: Sever Known Questions, 1974 (1:20).

Falling guards and winking bards are just a need today.
Falling guards and winking bards are just my needs. Okay?
Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.
Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.
Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.
Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.
To show or to, to be shown is,
A question never even not known,
By many to exist.
To show or to be shown,
A question never, never known,
not even by many to exist.


There are at least five instruments involved: piano, drums, synth/organ, horns, and a singing voice. The synths and voice all have the same wailing and hypnotizing sound, but the song after all conforms to traditional norms of melody, vocal performance and rhythm. This recording is not as extreme as the Residents’ album Eskimo (1979), which departs completely from recognizable chord progressions. In the 1980s groups such as Tuxedomoon and the Cure would have success with sounds similar to ‘Never Known Questions’.

It is not easy to hear what techniques the musicians have used. Even the most well-informed of listeners would be at pains to find out what was done in the studio just by listening to the album. We need the stories of people attending the recording sessions, we need a studio log and, most importantly, we need to know what equipment was used. Music lovers would increasingly attempt to disclose the techniques that were used in the recording studio and make sense out of all the different types of strange sounds. At the artistic end, mixing consoles and multitrack recording have become instruments in their own right. More to the point: this equipment has become an instrument in its own right. The medium of recording no longer just produces a good reproduction of musical events: ‘The technical equipment is seen not as an external aid to reproduction but as a characteristic of the musical original, employed as part of the artistic conception’ (Middleton 1990: 69).

The Residents and other artsy rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, learnt brand new musical techniques (Watson 1993). Paul Théberge (1997: 220) argues that, in order to work creatively in the studio, ‘musicians and engineers had to acquire both a basic theoretical and a practical knowledge of acoustics, microphone characteristics, electronic signal processing, and a variety of other technical processes.’ Listeners responded favourably to the new sound. Simon Frith (1998: 244—5) claims that ‘we now hear (and value) music as layered; we are aware of the contingency of the decision that put this sound here, brought this instrument forward there. It’s as if we always listen to the music being assembled. ‘The process of modification was now an integral part of the aesthectic product, and the recording equipment was becoming as important as the musicians and their instruments. Remember that this structure of experience has now been in place for about forty years, and it difficult for us to imagine it as an untried thing. Nevertheless this is what I am attempting to do in this chapter.

As musicians and producers came to learn new techniques of producing sound, listeners came to learn more sophisticated ways of listening to that sound. Simon Frith describes the distinctly hermeneutical attitude that was taken towards these montages in order to be able to hear them as recognizably real.

I listen to records in the full knowledge that what I hear is something that never existed, that never could exist, as a ‘performance’, something happening in a single time and space; nevertheless, it is now happening, in a single time and space: it is thus a performance and I hear it as one.

(Frith 1998:211)

From the early 1970s there were few expectations of documentary realism among popular-music listeners. However, the act of listening became more complex, and now had room for new uncertainties that could create a sense that the value of musical performance as such had been weakened. But in the end the techniques of multitrack sound became so widespread and so influential that it came close to being perceived as a neutral feature, appearing to be the ‘natural way’ of doing things, and seeming to be exclusively a matter of social appropriation rather than of material determination.

Continuity realism, 1973
One expectation in particular is almost ineradicable among listeners.This is the expectation that a song has a straightforward verse and chorus, bridges, harmonies and solos, and that it lasts approximately three minutes. Technology meant that live performance was no longer required, but the concert scene had a conservative influence in this regard, and a groove or beat that is not too extreme in aesthetic terms is also required for dancing. Both disco and funk in the 1970s demonstrate the need for straight continuity very well.

My point is that the traditional organization of songs was required for cultural reasons, just as it had always been. At the great festivals of the 1960s, such as Woodstock, the music from the LPs was played live. Audiences expected to hear the songs they loved more or less as they sounded on the stereo LP, but with extended solos and other embellishments. However, there was a subtle change going on in this regard.

It has something to do with the fact that multitrack recordings didn’t need to convey a continuous event. The resulting recording could end up like the McLuhan LP, where all kinds of sounds were mounted on top of each other in a flow that bears little resemblance to traditional performances of speech or song. Hearing multitrack music, the public could not as easily relate the qualities of the finished piece to traditional musical qualities, such as good improvisation skills, a good mood in the band and other human aspects always associated with live performance. Among musicians there was an increased tolerance towards experiments on the part of the engineers, original editing and mixing decisions, and all kinds of experimentation with pitch, echo, reverberation, and so on. In short, the band might not be able to pull off a good live performance even if they wanted to. They had become good at something other than being a tight combo. In 1966 the Beatles stopped touring, and one of the reasons given was that it was impossible to produce live performances of the songs on Revolver (1966) and later Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

The obvious way to avoid this dilemma was to use post-production techniques to create an extra rich and varied continuity recording. The next case demonstrates this strategy well. Sly Stone was an African-American vocalist and bandleader well known to lovers of funk and rhythm and blues. One of his best LPs is Fresh (1973). Here Sly and the Family have created a series of densely layered songs which are nevertheless quite straightforward sounding, and comfortable to listen to. The album was recorded on eight- or sixteen-track stereo tape.

Track 21: Sly and the Family Stone: If You Want Me To Stay, 1973 (1:26).

If you want me to stay
I’ll be around today
To be available for you to see
I’m about to go
And then you’ll know
For me to stay here I’ve got to be me
You’ll never be in doubt
That’s what it’s all about
You can’t take me for granted and smile
Count the days I’m gone
Forget reaching me by phone
Because I promise I’ll be gone for a while
When you see me again
I hope that you have been
The kind of person that you really are now
You got to get it straight
How could I ever be late
When you’re my woman takin’ up my time
How could you ever allow
I guess I wonder how
How could you get out of pocket for fun
When you know that you’re never number two
Number one gonna be number one
I’ll be good
I wish I could
Get this message over to you now


The Family Stone was a large band, with at least ten different instruments and almost as many musicians. There is a trumpet, several saxophones, drums, bass, electric organ, electric guitar and piano, plus of course Sly’s singing voice. The lyrics are easy to sing along with, in contrast to the Residents’ track. The group of musicians is expressive and energetic, typical of early funk (Danielsen 2006).

Sly Stone is at this point in his career on a downward spiral of drug use and other standard rock-star behaviour, but this has not weakened his performance. He has a powerful and characteristic voice, which flexes and flows along with the dense accompaniment. Sly sings quite cynically about male—female relationships, and avoids political topics of his day such as the Vietman War, the liberation African Americans and women, etc.

My main reason for presenting ‘If You Want Me to Stay’ is that it is a good example of continuity realism. Like most musicians Sly was economically dependent on going on tour to promote his records and earn money. As suggested, the live concert scene required a kind of conventional performance of the kind Sly’s funk song is fully capable, while still exploiting the new production techniques to the full. In contrast, Stevie Wonder, on Innervisions (1973), camouflaged the extreme discontinuity of the recording process. He actually plays all the instruments on the track ‘Jesus Children of America’, and also sings all vocal parts and has arranged and produced the album himself, but it sounds like a full band of musicians playing enthusiastically together. This all goes to show that complex production can be arranged so that it becomes inaudible, and the unsuspecting listener would never hear it as the cut-and-paste production of a one-man band.

The strategy of continuity realism involves a tacit understanding between the producer and the listeners: the more the producers camouflage the multitrack characteristics of the recording, the more the listeners will acknowledge the musical qualities as authentic and skilful. This is inaudible recording: it tries to hide the discontinuity of multitrack production techniques and to pose as old-fashioned ‘live on tape’ recording.

Flaunting the montage, 1968
Psychedelic music displays well another approach to the magnetic tape medium. As I have stated, it had so many opportunities for post-production that continuity realism no longer had to apply. This feature was of course willingly exploited, for example in an extreme way by the Beatles on ‘Revolution no. 9’ (1968), and in a beautiful way by the Beach Boys on ‘Good Vibrations’ (1966). However, in purist milieus such as classical and folk music there was considerable consternation over the new production methods. They were considered radical and destructive.

Traffic was a rock group from England, and it is still well known to fans of 1960s music. The next case study is rather obscure, although it can be found on Traffic’s breakthrough album Mr Fantasy, issued in 1967, the summer of love and psychedelic music. The British invasion was over, although several bands – the Beatles, Cream, the Who and Steve Winwood’s Traffic – survived the change in music trends.

Track 22: Traffic: Giving to You, 1967 (1:15).

Listen baby, do you see this town … baby someday this can all be yours. Hey, Sweetheart … I mean … you know … I mean … it’s like … you know … it’s jazz man … I dig jazz … it’s got … its like … it’s jazz … is … is … you know … where it’s at … you know where I’m at … I mean jazz.

The group only has three members, who play all the instruments and contribute all the vocals. It sounds as if there are three different voices, electrical guitar, bass, drums, electric organ and flute. It is difficult to say how many instruments there are, since of course one musician could be playing several different instruments on the completed recording. The piece begins with a soft electric guitar that is drowned out by the montage of simultaneous bits of speech and scatting. The babbling is mixed up loud, but an up-tempo beat with an organ lies underneath and rises slowly as the recommendation of jazz progresses. With an electronic beep the jazz’ takes over, and three minutes of polished jazz flute follows. My excerpt fades out after a minute, but at the end of the piece the dense babbling comes back, and suggests that the element of continuity realism during the jazz proper is really dependent on the new multitrack regime.

The first part of ‘Giving to You’ is an exemplary piece of multitrack tape music from the mid-twentieth century; it resembles track 1.1 with Marshall McLuhan, and is archetypal of early multitrack productions. This piece is primarily a texture of sound, and only secondarily is it a reference to a set of external events. The kind of voice manipulation used became more normal in the wake of Elvis Presley’s early recordings:’Elvis Presley’s recorded voice was so doctored up with echoes that he sounded as though he were going to shake apart’ (Chanan 1995: 107). In sum the listener is presented with a highly realistic impression of something impossible, what Evan Eisenberg (1987: 109) calls a ‘composite photograph of a minotaur’.

But, in contrast to the Residents’ track, it is quite easy to hear that the musicians are cutting up and splicing tape at full tilt. The so-called cut-and-splice technique which is used at the beginning of Traffic’s ‘Giving to You’ was more widespread in film production and radio reportage. Such techniques lay the sound signal bare in a way that the gramophone could never accomplish. The reels and tape and wiring opened up recorded sound so that it could be touched and handled at length.

The magnetic recording medium
I will now discuss the technological basis of the new music culture. At one level there was nothing new. The magnetic recording medium was completely asymmetrical, just as the gramophone medium had been. Of course it inherited the structure of the industry, with professional distribution of music to dispersed listeners.

Figure 7.2: Model of the magnetic recording medium.
Figure 7.2: Model of the magnetic recording medium.

Figure 7.2 displays the main interfaces, platforms and signal carriers of the set-up I am investigating in this chapter. The recording studios were more complex than before, and there could be several multitrack tape recorders and mixing boards. The studio involved not just singers and musicians playing into a microphone, but also analogue synthesizers such as the Moog. The complexity of the medium is further shown by the fact that three different recording platforms were involved in the communication between producers and listeners: the professional tape system in the studio, plus the industrially copied singles and LPs and the industrially copied cassette tapes. The domestic stereo set with two rather big loudspeakers, a turntable and an amplifier was to dominate music consumption for twenty years, from the 1960s to the 1980s.The cassette player was often in mono only, and was typically not used for high-quality listening experiences, but it was portable and offered a far more versatile way of listening to music than the LP stereo set.

All the platforms required electrical amplification. This meant that the LPs and singles were unplayable on the mechanical gramophones from the 1950s and before, and these playback devices quickly became obsolete. As the gramophone recording industry adapted to the magnetic production platform, there arose a distinct difference between the production equipment, with its enormous creative scope, and the domestic equipment, with its limited possibilities but high-fidelity experience. This was a process of professionalization, with a difference arising between the technical skills of producers and musicians on the one hand and the enjoyments of music lovers on the other.

The analogue signal carrier is a crucial feature of this medium. In contrast to the chapters of part I in this book, part II deals only with analogue recording, and this concept must be explained. To say that a signal is analogue means that the electro-mechanical movements for storing the signal are continuous with the vibratory movements at the microphone. The duration of the recording is physically proportional to the distance along the groove or tape band, and if the speed is not kept the same during playback as it was during recording the analogy will be lost. Analogue sound is also degenerative, meaning that it cannot be stored for a long time without deterioration, or copied to new discs or tapes without noise being added.

It is worth mentioning that magnetic tape is a very tactile material, and engineers worked with a hand—ear coordination that bypassed vision. The tape has other interesting qualities. While one second of sound on a 78 rpm record was contained in a little less than one lap along the circular groove (77 per cent of one lap, to be exact), one second of tape at 7.5 inches per second (ips) was contained in a straight strip the length of a grown man’s hand from wrist to fingertip (Gelatt 1977: 299). While the 77 per cent of a lap on the turntable was virtually untouchable, the 7.5 inches of tape could be pulled out from the reel, cut free from the rest and stand alone as a tangible container of that second of sound. Consequently, the producer had no problem handling elements as short as one-tenth of a second. This kind of manipulation was impossible with the gramophone, where, as Roland Gelatt (1977: 299) points out, any splitting up of the recording would result in its destruction.

Gelatt sums up the developments in tape by comparing it with the older gramophone disc cutter, which had dominated the recording business up to that point: ‘A compact, lightweight reel of tape would play uninterruptedly for half an hour; a bulky and heavy record for four minutes. Tape did not wear out; records showed evidence of real deterioration after thirty or so playings. A broken tape could be spliced quickly and easily by anyone; a broken record could be tossed into the trash basket’ (Gelatt 1977: 288). And he points out that the maximum frequency response of a sound recording had been extended to a range of 20 to 20.000 Hz (ibid.: 299). It seems that the electromagnetic analogue could contain more of everything that was valuable – longer performances, more frequencies and more loudness – and in addition it became less degenerative.

By the late 1950s the tape machine had been improved from one track to two track, and this separation of tracks along the length of the tape made it possible to introduce stereo to the mass market (in combination with stereo pickups and new amplifiers). The two strands of sound had to be kept separate all through the mediation process, starting with two microphones routed through two channels on the mixing console to two separate tracks on a tape recorder. For playback the listeners needed an LP with two separate signals engraved and picked up by two pickups and amplified to two loudspeakers.

Michael Chanan (1995: 144) describes how frequently the electronics industry launched new versions of the tape technology. Indeed, it resembles the way in which that computer software is regularly updated. Companies such as Nagra and Ampex introduced multitrack recorders, first with two tracks, then with three and four, before 1960. During the 1960s eight- and sixteen-track machines became industry standard. For each track there had to be a dedicated play- and recording-head, and on the tape itself there had to be guard bands to prevent sound from spilling over from one track to another. Furthermore, each play-head had to function independently from the others, so that, for example, one could record the drums and bass on two tracks without recording anything on the other two, and later record on the latter without recording on the former.

The functionalities of tape were convincing as far as the music industry in the USA was concerned. From 1947 there was a landslide towards tape in the radio industry, and magnetic recording soon became a standard tool for producing documentaries, for delaying the airing of programmes, and for storing sound in archives/The old disc recording instruments previously used for broadcast transcriptions were unsentimentally abandoned. In a short and significant contest, tape had prevailed decisively’ (Gelatt 1977: 288). The same dramatic replacement soon took place in the music recording industry, at least in the USA. ‘Tape’s invasion of the recording studio, begun early in 1949, proceeded so implacably that within a year the old method of direct recording on wax or acetate blanks was almost completely superseded’ (ibid.: 298-9).

Proliferation of techniques
The most striking new technique was that of the producer star. From the time of Thomas Edison the sound engineer had been an equal partner with the performers, meaning that sound quality had just as great an influence as musical quality on how things were to be done in the studio. Engineering was not recognized in a positive, creative way until the advent of advanced recording processes in the 1960s. Before then, the engineer spent all his time improving the signal chain instead of aiding the artist to take advantage of creative potentials at the interface.
By now album sleeves referred to engineering as the craft of securing the best possible sound quality, while production was the craft of making aesthetic decisions about mixing and editing processes. And, increasingly, the musicians were their own producers. Steve Jones describes the double achievement: ‘The evolution of recording equipment moved … toward [both] greater accuracy in the preservation of the space and time of the event and greater flexibility in subsequent manipulation of that event’ (Jones 1992: 47-8). The creative artists were at the helm of this two-pronged innovation.

Editing is a very important new technique. As I have described, tape could be recorded on, rewound and played back immediately without noticeable detriment to sound quality. Such immediate playback was crucial to the art of multitrack recording, as it allowed the recording to be built up using layers of overdubs. ‘On the horizontal, one moment of sound could be followed by another that did not follow it in real time; on the vertical, any sound might be overdubbed with another that was recorded at a different time’ (Gracyk 1996: 51). In order to edit a single track without destroying the signal on the other tracks the technique of ‘dub editing’ or ‘punching in’ or ‘flying start’ became the norm (Chanan 1995: 144). For example, if two seconds of drumming had to be redone, but the guitar and vocal tracks were to be untouched, the tape would be wound to the right position, the faulty performance would be erased, and the new drum part would be punched in.

There were also new techniques for musicians. Studio musicians and band members would know in advance that their contribution was only partial, and that it would probably be used in a different way on the finished master. A guitarist might have a three-second contribution to a given song. Paul Théberge (1997: 216) says that ‘individual performances became less important than the manipulation of individual strands of recorded sound material.’ Studio musicians first supplied the raw material for the recording, and subsequently the producers did the job of making it all fit together. In many cases the musicians were reduced to the role of manual workers in a production controlled by one person, for example in the case of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

The techniques of balancing or mixing the sound also gained a new complexity. In the studio the microphones were placed in optimal relation to the sound source, and the signal was routed into the mixing console in the control room. Here the mixing engineer would monitor all sounds and adjust parameters such as frequency response, reverberation and volume. This set-up had basically been in place since the late 1920s, but now each microphone (or electronic source) could also be assigned to a separate track on the multitrack tape machine. Mixing would generally refer to the later stages of recording, where the basic tracks were calibrated in relation to each other on each pertinent parameter, and when everything was just right it would be recorded on a master stereo tape. In the gramophone era there was no such thing as the ‘later stages’ of recording.

Home stereo
On the domestic end of the medium there was a significant change of equipment, and increased interest in the technologies of sound. The LP was ushered in on the market in the late 1950s, and it could contain up to twenty minutes of music on each side. This was in itself a striking improvement, especially for lovers of classical music, who could now hear much longer stretches of a symphony without interruption (Millard 2005: 204ff).

In the 1970s young adults bought their own stereo systems, and they had more powerful amplifiers and better loudspeakers than before. The term hi-fi freak denotes people who are obsessively concerned with their technical setup and often less concerned about the music. People could play their good sound very loudly, and gather with friends to enjoy the music. Stereo sound soon became a popular new fixture of the home (Chanan 1995: 94).

Stereo means that two different tracks are separated through the recording and playback process, and different sound sources (instruments and vocals) can be placed in the different channels. I will return to Traffic (track 22) from 1968 to demonstrate the point. Traffic placed some instruments entirely in the right and others entirely in the left channel; for example the flute is in the left channel. This seemingly crude mixing is a symptom of how new stereo was. The musicians and producers had not really found a good way of using stereo, so they separated everything fifty-fifty in the two channels. Early Beatles recordings, for example Help (1965), also had very crude stereo effects.

In the 1960s stereo records were often played on simple mono equipment, and none of the stereo effects could be heard. Those who actually owned a stereo system with two speakers would notice that the music was more powerful and impressive in the wow. ‘Essentially’, Roland Gelatt argues, ‘stereo aimed at reproducing the spaciousness, clarity, and realism of two-eared listening’ (1977: 313).’Because the sonic image emitted by each speaker differed in slight but vital degree, an effect was re-created akin to the minutely divergent ”points of view” of our own two ears’ (ibid.: 314). He goes on to say that that no one hearing stereo tape recordings for the first time could fail to; be impressed by ‘their sense of spaciousness, by the buoyant airiness and “lift” of the sound as it swirled freely around the listening room’.

In chapter 3 I discussed the analytic attitude of the music lover in the 2000s, when the synthetic sounds of computers had supplied new variables to listen to. In the 1960s it was stereo that supplied new variables. The listener could now balance two signal outputs to his own liking, steering the sound towards a sweet spot by loudspeaker placement as well as electronic balancing on the amplifier. This allowed people to listen to music in a new way, ‘savoring its breadth and depth as well as its melodic outlines and harmonic textures’ (Gelatt 1977: 314-15). If the listeners were seated in a fixed position in their living room, the sweet spot, they could locate different sound sources in the recording on a horizontal line between the left- and right-hand side of the stereo system.

Stereo created an image of better sound also in the commercial sense of the word. The record company rhetoric continued to be one of superlative recommendation of a new sound experience, just as with electrical recording in the 1930s and with CDs in the 1980s. In 1960 RCA Victor stated that what they called ‘Living Stereo’ creates a ‘more natural’ and ‘more dimensional’ sound: ‘For the first time, your ears will be able to distinguish where each instrument and voice comes from — left, right or center. In short, enveloped in solid sound, you will hear music in truer perspective.’ In the 1970s Quadraphonic surround sound, which relied on four separate channels throughout the recording and reproduction process, was also introduced. For various reasons this initiative failed to enter the mainstream markets (see Harley 1998: 290).

Stereo loudspeakers could be seen as a way of making recorded sound even more realistic than before, since it resembles human bidirectional hearing. But in perceptual terms this notion was problematic. The problem had long been encountered in movie production. In 1930 a film sound technician, frustrated by the spatial signature resulting from the use of multiple microphones, described the blend of sources as creating a listener construct ‘with five or six very long ears, said ears extending in various directions’ (Airman 1992b: 49). Instead of realism, what was added was a bigger and more impressive spatiality, noticeable in the greater precision of sound placement and the greater dynamics of volume. But there was no increase in the documentary realism of sound. Evan Eisenberg points out:

That many listeners are still uncomfortable with stereo is evident from the way they place their speakers: pointlessly close together, or else on opposite walls. The latter arrangement is even more comfortable than monophony, as it creates no focus of attention, so no illusion of human presence, so no disillusionment.

(Eisenberg 1987:65)

From being relatively true to the central perspective of sitting in the best seat in the concert hall, recordings were increasingly catering to a subjectively pleasing experience for listeners. The aesthetics of recording turned away from the ideal of perfect reproduction of performances at the microphone, and further towards an ideal of perfect balance of sound at the loudspeaker.

Music lover with stereo system. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.
Music lover with stereo system. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.

There is an interesting environmental dimension to stereo sound. Glenn Gould, writing in 1966, argued that domestic ‘dial twiddling’ ‘transforms that work, and his relation to it, from an artistic to an environmental experience’. ‘The listeners’ encounter with music that is electronically transmitted is not within the public domain’, Gould claims. ‘The listener is able to indulge preferences and, through the electronic modifications with which he endows the listening experience, impose his own personality upon the work’ (Gould 1984: 347). He elaborates on the sense of intimacy that high-quality recording gives: ‘The more intimate terms of our experience with recordings have since suggested to us an acoustic with a direct and impartial presence, one with which we can live in our homes on rather casual terms’ (ibid.: 333).


8. The acoustic nation – Live journalism, 1960s – 1930s

If there is such a thing as an enlightened public, in the mid-twentieth century it was informed more by sound than by light. Television was not established, and radio was a paternalist voice in the life of the West. This was the golden age of sound radio, and it could reach 50 to 60 million people in countries such as the UK, France and Germany, and even more in the USA. In 1969, Americans owned 268 million radios (Schafer [1977] 1994: 91).

I will tell the story of radio’s auditory rhetoric by providing case studies of dominant broadcasters over a time span of thirty-eight years and going into the production procedures of NASA, NBC, the BBC, CBS and Swedish Public Radio. All had a conservative production culture that focused on live programming. This was easy to exploit for nationalistic purposes, and every nation of the world did so.

Backwards history
The ideological setting for broadcasters was challenging. Graham Murdock (2005: 219) argues that European governments were fearful of popular insurrections m the 1920s and 1930s, and in response they set out to make the nation the primary source of social identity. The BBC and other national broadcasters played a particular role in this symbolic nationalization. Looking at the world stage from the 1970s and backwards, there was a constant state ot conflict – in the post-war era between the free world and the communist world, and before that between the Allies and the Axis during World War II. Broadcasting had been used as a large-scale propaganda tool also before the war, in Germany in particular, where Adolf Hitler had the dark genius of Joseph Goebbels to guide him. There was a constant war of words in sound radio (Briggs and Burke 2002: 217).

During the war the public mood in European countries and North America was very tense, ranging from fear and hatred to self-confidence and pity. In Europe at least, citizens had to endure a blackout every night for close on six years. The desire for safety and comfort within the home was strong. Radio had a double function in this regard. It was an imposing presence that could bring bad news – for people in Europe there was a great chance that such news would affect them directly (being enlisted in the army, having to flee from imminent bombing, more death and no end in sight) – but it was also a comforting presence bringing music, entertainment and the good mood that broadcasters tried to spread among the population. There are many studies of radio’s role during the war; see, for example, Barnow 1968; Briggs 1970; and Bergmeier and Lotz 1997.

Figure 8.1: Timeline of analogue radio.
Figure 8.1: Timeline of analogue radio.

As the black boxes in figure 8.1 indicate, this chapter deals with a remarkably stable period in broadcasting history. From the mid-1920s all the way up to the 2000s people listened to analogue radio with loudspeaker receivers, represented either by big cabinets placed in the living room or by portable transistor radios. Essentially, people didn’t have to buy new receivers unless they broke, although FM radio was introduced in the 1960s and induced many people to buy new equipment. Notice that the crystal set is placed under the arrow, because it really belongs to the pioneering age, and not to the mature radio medium that this chapter will describe.

During this long period radio was firmly established as a popular medium in Western countries. These forty years of development in media also spawned television, telex, sound film and radio. After the war there was a great increase in the production and purchase of consumer electronics, because parts of the huge production capacity that had been developed to fight the war was redirected to the needs of civil society (Chanan 1995: 92).

If we go all the way back to the pioneer days in the 1920s, when the BBC and other early broadcasters were established, not even radio was a proper media environment. There was less of it in time per day, and therefore it was a scarcer communicative resource. More importantly, listening techniques were less rooted in the cultural and domestic environment than they are today. The whole form of communication was less ordinary and more serious than it is now. Although there were great advances in every direction, this impression of radio as a spectacular new medium lived on until television took over from it in the 1960s.

During this period it dawned on the industries of culture that wireless was becoming a new profession alongside the old ones, such as newspaper journalism and movie making, and this meant that it was more attractive to culture workers. As employees in the new medium gained experience and self-confidence they continued to perfect the new craft with a sensitivity and common direction lacking before. From this early approach there emerged a skill with an expressive identity of its own: radio journalism.

Sounds from the moon, 1969
Before going into the national sounds of radio, I will present a case of global broadcasting. In the 1960s it became normal for broadcasts to have several hundred million people listening or watching, a good example being the transmission from John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 (Dayan and Katz 1992: 126). The USA showed its superiority in both technology and mass mediation with the NASA moon landing in 1969. It was called ‘the greatest show in the history of television’, and was watched by 125 million Americans and 723 million other people around the world (Briggs and Burke 2002: 253). The historic relay from the Mare tranquillitatis to Houston, Texas, was arranged by American technologists and astronauts in July 1969 and demonstrates well the great reach of broadcast media. This giant leap of electronic mediation had been facilitated by almost a hundred years of innovation, and the step onto the moon was the final proof of the unnatural capacities of these innovations. As suggested, most people watched and heard the moon landing on television. Radio had been marginalized by television as the main national arena for big events such as this. If Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the global village was ever pertinent, it was during the hours of this transmission, when millions of people were tuned in to the same sounds and images, their movement concerted into shared attention to their receiving apparatus, and a lifetime of memories was set in motion for many different people based on the same sounds and images. The lunar transmission demonstrates perfectly the documentary realism that live broadcasting facilitates – the sense of getting perceptual access to a world somewhere else through technology.

Track 23: NASA: Neil Armstrong on the Moon, 1969 (1:19).

[Heavy electronic noise throughout. Bursts of distortion.]
– Buzz, this is Houston. F2 one-one-sixtieth seconds for shadow photography on the sequence camera.
– I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LEM footbeds are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches. Although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder,
[long pause]
– I’m gonna step off the LEM now.
[long pause]
– It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


There is an interesting acoustic architecture to these sounds. Initially, the words were formulated inside a helmet with rather poor acoustics. Since there are no sounds in the vacuum of outer space there is no acoustic space to reproduce and represent. Indeed, the sounds from the moon came exclusively from within Neil Armstrong’s helmet, and were facilitated by microphones and amplifiers brought to the moon by the astronauts.

The audio signals were beamed back to earth across the approximately 240,000 miles of empty space, picked up by satellites orbiting over the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and relayed to the primary reception station at Mission Control in Houston (Goodwin 1999). From Texas they were further relayed to national stations all over the globe, and finally the connections into living-room receivers were made from aerials on mountain tops or tall buildings. This complex process made it possible for Armstrong’s words to be heard in millions of homes. In listening locales the ambience was further determined by the quality of the listeners’ equipment and the individual room acoustics. These details suffice to show that the moon transfer was obviously a non-local event (Aarseth 1993: 24) entirely lacking in geographical limitations.

What about the temporal dimension? This event was live at the point of transmission, but since it was sent from the moon its temporality was if possible even more confused than its ambience. Admittedly, there was an unbroken contact between the events on the moon and the perception of them on planet earth, so in a strictly physical sense one could say that the Armstrong quote took place on the moon and all over the world at the same time. But since for all practical purposes there is no ‘moon time’, the event had to be planned for a suitable ‘earth time’, and since the Americans controlled the presentation they arranged it for US prime time on the evening of 20 July. In Norway it was an early morning event on 21 July, while in some other parts of the world it was a lunchtime or afternoon event (Bastiansen 1994). The crackling sounds from the live broadcast naturally lent the quality of immediate disappearance, relaying a contingent event that could only be experienced right then, by the people living and listening in on that quite memorable Sunday/Monday.

Neil Armstrong on the moon. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.
Neil Armstrong on the moon. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.

I will also comment on the soundbite rhetoric of Armstrong’s statement (Scheuer 2001). The sounds and images from the lunar event were of course recorded on tape, or else we would not be able to hear them now. The transmission was recorded for documentary purposes, centrally by NASA, nationally by hundreds of radio and television stations, and privately by thousands of listeners. News services all over the world repeated the soundbite ‘A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind’. But Armstrong pronounced it wrong. He should have said: ‘A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind’, which would have brought out the difference between himself as a mortal individual and the larger society of humans that he represents. Armstrong later claimed that this phrase was something he came up with of his own accord, but the phrase is so appropriate to the occasion that it would probably have been chosen regardless of who actually stepped down first. NASA is the real producer of these words, while Armstrong is a replaceable actor-astronaut.

This NASA case illustrates a critical point made by Murray Schafer ([1977] 1994: 77), namely that a man with a loudspeaker is more imperialistic than one without. Schafer is concerned with the dominance that can be gained by sheer media volume, and there is no doubt that the NASA transmission was a form of imperialism also at the level of sound. The rocket noises and flames and smoke of the huge technological set-up infused the event with extra credibility and authenticity. The machine hum, microphone noises and the other scrambling, crackling, hissing, fluttering disturbances added on the long transport through space made it abundantly clear to audiences across the world that there was an unprecedented technological feat taking place. This means that the poor technical fidelity of the NASA sound feed gave listeners good reason to acknowledge this as a transfer from the moon, and here is a subtle form of noise imperialism. Notice that there are many conspiracy theories about the moon landing in 1969, and there is much evidence and counter-evidence regarding it (Phillips 2001).

The national radio public
The next case takes us back to earth, and helps to clarify radio’s status in the 1960s. At that time listeners could take several features absolutely for granted. There would be a constant offer of programmes from multiple stations, and some stations even ran for twenty-four hours a day. And they would serve up a sound quality of little or no distortion, so that the soundscapes were very comfortable in the home.

Radio journalism consisted, for example, of national sporting events, Saturday night programmes, and news events on a regional and national level. This was a public sphere that people could not choose; they lived in the midst of it whether they liked it or not. Radio’s national public is at the heart of this chapter. It was already on the wane in the 1960s because the pressure from television meant that both listeners and producers were looking for something new, and radio stations started airing pop music and other forms of lighter, more commercial content that would not involve the same collective spirit.

Remember that the BBC had been defining British home communications since the 1920s (Briggs [1961] 2000,1965,1970). Traditionally, radio was at the centre of the home, and the programmes were solemn and serious. Another way of putting it is that public service broadcasting was dominated by a coercive or authoritative address. In contrast, commercial broadcasting in the USA and on the European mainland was dominated by a more inviting or agreeable presentation. In 1967 the BBC changed its overall stance and adopted a more informal delivery than before. Radio was under pressure from television, and in a move to counteract this the BBC reorganized its output into four channels. Radio 1 was the real novelty, because it broadcast nothing but pop music; it was to become the teenage pop music station, and stop the audience leakage to Radio Luxembourg and pirate stations such as Radio Caroline (Crisell 1997: 140; Briggs and Burke 2002: 227; Hendy 2007).

The next case study is a jingle or promo from the very first day of BBC’s Radio 1, with Robin Scott and Tony Blackburn in the studio (Brand and Scannell 1991). It exhibits a cheerful mood, and several musical styles are mixed together with sound effects on top. It demonstrates well the new sound of an old medium.

Track 24: BBC Radio One: Promo, 1967 (0:27).

[American style choir] The voice of Radio 1
just for fun
music [altered]
too much
– And good morning everyone, welcome to the exiting new sound of Radio 1.
[Up-tempo beat, trumpets, dog barks]


Notice that the jingle is produced in the style that I discussed in chapter 7 as ‘flaunting the montage’. This is supposed to sound advanced, playful and slightly reckless. The live show was fast-paced and entertaining, and used all kinds of verbal effects that were really invented by American radio DJs. It had been taken up by Radio Luxembourg and pirate music stations of various types, and now it was also taken up by the BBC.

The sound of this jingle signifies a dramatic shift in the style of radio. During the 1950s and 1960s there were two crucial changes in the media infrastructure of domestic life that meant radio programmes came to be regarded as background noise. As I have already pointed out, television pushed listening habits out of the evening prime time and into the morning and afternoon. Second, the cheap, lightweight transistor radios that had come on the market in the 1950s meant that radio programmes could be listened to in many more everyday situations than before, so that it would not be a big deal to have radio sets in the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, the bedroom, the car and the office. The fact that, in 1979, 95 per cent of all cars on the road in the USA had radios (Fornatale and Mills 1980: 20) suggests the level of penetration.

Formatted programmes meant that radio was even was more predictable than before. Scheduling consists of making the flow of programming predictable on a hourly basis (Ellis 2000), and stations followed their fixed schedules and seasonal events slavishly. Commercial stations in the USA perfected this strategy long before the monopoly stations in Europe. During prime-time hours, schedules tended to be split into fifteen- or twenty-minute segments, with four of five musical and spoken numbers in each segment (Barnouw 1966: 127), and commercial stations would insert commercial messages between each song. Typically, there was an alternation of vocal and instrumental numbers, which brought some variety to the broadcast output. In this way both variation and predictability were accomplished.

Radio was in a sense becoming less important and more available at the same time. This gave station strategists good reason to orient programming towards a less attentive form of listening. In the USA this strategy is shown clearly in the ‘formula radio’ that was first established in the late 1940s, and mainly played Top 40 pop music (Fornatale and Mills 1980: 13).This is the first inkling of what is generally called ‘format radio’, or ‘wallpaper radio’, and that generally refers to the industrial production of social surfaces in sound. This was a careful construction of inconspicuous programming, and it was all planned so that it would not be reflected on; it engaged the listener by semiconscious invigoration and moods rather than by explicit attention to content.

Kraft Music Hall, 1943
Entertainment was a staple of radio in the early period, and it required quite specific techniques. By the 1930s every programme was expertly staged for sound alone, and the listeners were becoming used to this specialized expressive form. There was no need for imaginative supplements to something that was lacking in the broadcast. Rudolf Arnheim ([1936] 1986:135) states categorically that nothing is lacking in good radio/For the essence of broadcasting consists just in the fact that it alone offers unity by aural means.’ If a programme demanded supplementation by visual imagination it did not properly utilize the medium’s own resources.

The bigger setting of five orchestras, entertainment shows and theatrical performance can be called the resounding studio. Live music was needed at all hours, and small combos, duets, trios and quartets came through the studios by the hour. There were station orchestras of various sizes depending on the size of the studio, often up to twenty musicians (Briggs [1961] 2000: 253).The biggest studios could have an audience present during the show, something that would lend it a live eventfulness lacking in the smaller studios. Foley artistry was an important part of the resounding radio studio. Although the concept comes from the movie industry, it generally refers to the creation of sound effects five in the studio (Mott 1990). Foley artistry was part of many genres, for example episodes, skits, situation comedy, radio drama and dramatized news reports. It had both humoristic and serious potential. In terms of acoustic architecture, the resounding studio shows invariably enacted what Edward Hall (1969) calls the ‘social distance’, and not the ‘intimate distance’.

The next case study takes us back to World War II, just before Christmas 1943.The performer is the great radio star Bing Crosby, with his big-budget production and high-quality sound. He was a successful performer who made films in Hollywood and had shows on national radio, and now he had enrolled as an ideologist in the war effort, with the task of entertaining people. The grandeur of the resounding studio is well demonstrated with this excerpt from NBC’s Kraft Music Hall in 1943.This was a very popular Saturday night show with several million regular listeners, and it was aired from 1933 to 1949 (Wikipedia 2007,’Kraft Music Hall’). During December 1943 the war had turned in the favour of the Allies, and there was more optimism than before. Bing Crosby could sing ‘Happy Holiday’ with enormous resonance in the home.

Track 25: XBC: The Kraft Music Hall with Bing Crosby, 1943 (1:46).

The Kraft Music Hall with Bing Crosby, Trudy Erwin, John Scott Trotter and his orchestra, the music maids and Lee,Yoki, the charioteers, and Bing’s guest for this evening, Paramount star of the Technicolor musical Riding High, Ms Cass Daley. And here’s Bing Crosby:

Happy holiday, happy holiday,
While the merry bells keep ringing
May your ev’ry wish come true.
Happy holiday, happy holiday.
May the calendar keep bringing
Happy holidays to you.
If you’re burdened down with trouble
If your nerves are wearing thin
Pack your load down the road
And come to Hobday Inn.
If the traffic noise affects you
Like a squeaky violin
Kick your cares down the stairs
And come to Holiday Inn.
If you can’t find someone who
Wih set your heart a-whirl
Take a little business to
The home of boy meets girl.
If you’re laid-up with a breakdown
Throw away your vitamin
Don’t get worse, grab your nurse
And come to Holiday Inn.
[Repeat chorus]


We hear a big orchestra which is miked-up very carefully. There are vocals, whistling, a choir, trumpets, guitars, violins, a piano, and not least the wonderful applause of the audience. The melody is fast-paced with snappy lyrics, and the sound of the orchestra is lush and inviting.

The grand, reverberant sound was the signature of entertainment. The studio audience was important both for inspiring the artists to perform naturally and for creating a lively atmosphere in the home. Cantril and Allport point out that the hosts needed the audience in order to settle into the public mood of radio, as was for example the case with comedians: ‘Since radio comedians almost invariably have stage training, they know how to take cues from the audience whose responses they can both see and hear.’ But radio permits of no such feedback, and therefore the social basis of laughter is destroyed and humour itself is put at risk, they argue. This is why the studio audience is so important. It ‘restores to the comedian some of the advantages lost when he forsook the stage for the studio. Nowadays few radio comedians dare work without a studio audience’ (Cantril and Allport [1935] 1986: 222).

Consequently, audience responses were considered an essential part of the studio atmosphere, and microphones were used to build up the laughter and applause. Barnouw (1968: 99) describes how there was typically a warm-up session by one of the comedians so that the audience could be drilled to give the appropriate response. ‘Come folks, I can’t hear you! You can do better than that!’ He held up the sign: “APPLAUSE!” […] Echoing with the roar of laughing crowds, these theatres gave the impression of a continuing vaudeville tradition.

Bing Crosby comes across as a cheerful singer, fully in command of his art and his orchestra. But in a sense it was the live studio audience, represented by the applause after the performance, who were the mam protagonists in this type of show. Cantril and Allport’s listening survey from 1935 suggests that the laughter and applause made the programme more enjoyable for listeners. They felt less foolish when joining in a gaiety already established in the studio, and were ‘drawn still further into the atmosphere of merriment’ (Cantril and Allport [1935] 1986: 223). It is quite clear that the studio audience was important for inspiring the domestic listeners to go along with the show and have fun. Overall, it seems that the reverberant acoustics of the studio influenced the listeners’ reactions in a ‘deep-lying and for the time being quite unconscious’ way (ibid.).

Radio personalities
The next case study is also an entertainment programme, but it is quite unlike The Kraft Music Hall. The show was called ‘The Brains Trust’, and it consisted of a lively dialogue between studio speakers based on questions sent in to the BBC by the listeners. The Britons had been bombed by the Germans for some time, and programmes such as ‘The Brains Trust’ were a wonderful pastime during this ordeal. During the years many speakers appeared, but the core team was the philosopher C. E. M.Joad, the biologist Julian Huxley and the retired naval officer A. B. Campbell. The host was Donald McCullough. We hear them discussing the question ‘What’s the difference between fresh air and a draught?’

Track 26: BBC: The Brains Trust, 1943 (1:06).

– Next question, I’m afraid the last one, from Miss Moore of Southgate. What is the difference between fresh air and a draught? [mild laughter] Are we going to get at this from a philosophical, a medical, a scientific or a physical point of view? Medical? Doctor, could you give us an idea do you think? Fresh air and a draught?
– I think that what is meant … what is behind this question er is … [laughter] … a prejudice. In other words the person really feels that the draught is an evil thing, but a draught really is only a small installment of fresh air. —- – Your idea?
– Surely a draught is fresh air coming through a little hole and impinging upon a little bit of yourself, that’s to say it’s not affecting you equally [mild laughter].
– Gould?
– Surely the distinction is this: It is fresh air when you put the … window down yourself and it is a draught when the person [the words drown in laughter].
-Yes, I think we’ll close on that heavy blend of sociology, philosophy and psychology.


There are four men around the table, and they all carry themselves very consciously in relation to the microphone. There is also a small studio audience that laughs softly at times. The speakers engage in a quite sophisticated verbal artistry, and, although it is produced with the same resounding acoustics as Bing Crosby’s entertainment show, there is little resemblance in the overall mood. The task for each speaker is to sound interesting and smart and funny, and in short to be a radio personality.

Although the conversation must have been rehearsed before going live on the air, the panelists succeeded in creating a good-natured and seemingly spontaneous conversation. They challenge each other with their wit, and create subtle verbal points in the typically English style of understatement. There is lots of sloppy articulation and instability in the pitch and volume of the speakers’ voices, and the conversation is constantly interrupted. This form of talk bears little resemblance to contemporary radio genres such as news reading or lectures, but it certainly resembles everyday speech, and is eminently suited to inspire a sense of sociability among listeners.

The programme’s semi-professional speakers simulate the mood of a dinner party and its enthusiastic conversation. Programmes in this genre would typically have a well-known host and guests of public renown would appear regularly, for example artists, writers, academics, lawyers and doctors. The point is that they became more and more well trained as radio speakers, and could handle verbal and social challenges in public. Such clever speakers could, for example, sound angry or frustrated in just the right way, and increase the entertainment value of the show.

As suggested/The Brains Trust’ provides an example of the emerging radio personality. In 1935 the psychologists Cantril and Allport pointed to the listeners’ tendency to relate to radio speakers as fully comprehensible personalities.

Voices have a way of provoking curiosity, of arousing a train of imagination that will conjure up a substantial and congruent personality to support and harmonize with the disembodied voice. Often the listener goes no further than deciding half-consciously that he either likes or dislikes the voice, but sometimes he gives more definite judgments, a ‘character reading’ of the speaker, as it were, based upon voice alone.

(Cantril and Allport [1935] 1986: 109)

Indeed, listeners identified strongly with the persons behind the voices. Rudoll Arnheim ([1936] 1986: 145) argues that voices familiar from radio intercourse will simply be tansformed into familiar people to the listener, not remain familiar voices of unfamiliar people. In this regard the radio personality was quite unlike the star of Hollywood.

The basic technique of the radio personality was to make himself feel at ease in front of the microphone, and convey this ease to the listeners. But this is a difficult thing to do, Arnheim argues:

Such an atmosphere is most difficult to achieve in broadcasting, and certainly never by means of big things, always by little ones. ‘Stimmung’ (atmosphere) is not got so much by jokes and showing off, not by strenuous efforts to gratify, but far rather by the genial affability of the host who serves his guest in a friendly way without making much fuss.

(Arnheim [1936] 1986: 75)

Arnheim goes on to describe a popular speaker from Berlin radio who spoke about legal matters: ‘He spoke, obviously with a cigar-end in his mouth, without manuscript or notes.’ ‘He stuttered, groped for words which immediately occurred to him, generally inspired ones.’ ‘Law and public-speaking were second nature to him, and it was not in his line to treat them with ceremony. The world became a cozy parlour were he sat and spoke at the microphone.’ Informal ways of speaking were attractive for listeners, and this strategy is at the heart of radio’s sociability to this day.

In 1938 the Radio Times concluded that ‘When all is said and done, broadcasting, with all its elaborate mechanisms, is based on and aimed at, the home’ (quoted in Scannell and Cardiff 1991: 374). And during the 1930s broadcasting indeed gained a remarkable presence in the home. Raymond Williams ([1975] 1990: 26ff.) has made a classic statement about the influence of radio in the home. He argues that the transformation from wireless telegraphy to broadcasting led to what he calls a ‘mobile privatization’. On the one hand people gained an easy, almost non-geographic access to the marketplace of ideas, where the difference between centre and periphery was quite irrelevant. On the other hand the family home became an important centre of cultural attention, and public matters could more readily be cultivated in a private setting. Cheap receivers were a significant index of this modern condition with its novel social identifications.

A novel cultural technique can be observed among domestic listeners. They were acquiring the conventions of a documentary realism especially created for the family home. It was supposed to be a collective experience where the listeners could not expect their most individualistic interests or desires to be fulfilled. Cantril and Allport ([1935] 1986: 22-3) pointed out that: ‘If I am to enjoy my radio, I must adjust my personal taste to the program that most nearly approximates it.’The listeners had to adapt their personal interests to one of the common social moulds that radio offered. ‘If I insist on remaining an individualist, I shall dislike nearly all radio programs’, Cantril and Allport argued.

Nervous news reading, 1941
The serious journalist’s voice from a news studio could carry great weight in the public, especially in times of political tension and war. Most often the journalist read from the script, and the stations favoured medium-pitched male speakers with good diction and high stress tolerance. There were new techniques to be learnt for the news readers.

Home sweet home. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.
Home sweet home. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.

Clearly, the voice had to be able to convey a sense of authority. ‘I have a job if my voice is all right’, the journalist William L. Shirer wrote in 1937.’Who ever heard of an adult with no pretenses to being a singer or any other kind of artist being dependent for a good, interesting job on his voice?’ (quoted in Barnouw 1968: 77). Arnheim ([1936] 1986: 92) complains about people who are too loud for broadcasting, and who make themselves ‘spatially noticeable’ by moving about in the studio or turning their head away from the microphone while speaking. This points to the professional importance of voice control, combining an ability to become transparent with a sonorous, authoritative and physiologically attractive voice. No real affect display, no happiness, anger, sadness or interest were allowed. Erik Barnouw (1968: 150) says that even while uttering words that involved the death of thousands the newsreader should only ‘display a tenth of the emotion that a broadcaster does when describing a prizefight’. In the late 1930s the BBC selected three journalists from the newsroom as presenters to build up experience in the specialized task of reading the news.

‘Without going into personalities, it had become obvious that some announcers were temperamentally very much better suited to tackling news at a moment of crisis than others’

(Scannell and Cardiff 1991: 131).

It was soon acknowledged that the speakers should not sound too detached. A news event was easier to grasp if there was a sense that the speaker reacted to it in a natural way, or reacted like the listener imagined they might do. These emotions would, however, be discernible only through very modest inflections of the voice, and not through dramatic effect. Very little emotion was needed before the listener noticed it.

The next case study is from the tense period during which the USA entered World War II (see Johnson 1999:778ff. for the rail story). On 7 December, 1941 the entire US population listened to the dramatic news on networkradio. Hour by hour the drama unfolded, as reports about the US response to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor were read out. At the Washington desk of CBS Albert Warner analysed the White House reactions to the bombings (Douglas 1999: 188). As the news keeps pouring in, presumably on telex, the news team continuously updates the script. Here is a portion of the breaking news from that fateful day.

Track 27: CBS: Breaking News, 1941 (1:34).

– Although officials in Washington are silent on what would be the definite consequences of a Japanese attack on Hawaii or an attack on Thailand, there are indications of … what … is being considered … and the steps which may be taken this very afternoon. The first would be a severance of diplomatic relations with Tokyo. An immediate naval blockade, in which the American navy would take a leading part along with British units, is the other probability. Both these steps could be taken by the president on his own executive authority, but an effective naval blockade of course could not continue long without hostilities. As a matter of fact, according to the president’s announcement those hostilities are already under way with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And just now comes the word … from the president’s office that a second air attack has been reported on army and navy bases in Manila. …Thus we have official announcements from the White House that Japanese airplanes have attacked … Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and have now attacked army and navy bases in Manila, [pause] We return you now to New York and will give you later information as it comes along from the White House. Return you now to New York.

Warner is audibly stressed. He returns us to New York for much the same reason that the 1010 WINS anchor went live to CNN during the terror attacks on the Twin Towers (chapter 4). At that point it is impossible for him to talk coherently. Warner was already a little shaken before the reports about another air attack reached the studio. He continues reading as before, but we can hear how his voice trembles, and how he struggles to continue reading his script in a normal way as he attends to the new information. He discloses the new developments in bursts of words, with short strained pauses in between.

My point is that Warner’s staccato speech did not rum the informational function of the bulletin; on the contrary, it reinforced it because in effect it carried an emotion that the listeners were likely to feel themselves. Albert Warner demonstrates that loss of control may inspire a stronger sense of credibility than ordinarily, as the dialogues from 1010 WINS also demonstrate. Had Warner let his voice tremble on purpose, and had it been done by all the news readers as a regular trick, there would have been less intensity to the performance. The excerpt shows that, in radio, tiny deviations from the norms of speech may induce heightened feelings of trustworthiness.

The identity of newsreaders and public speakers in general was felt to be important for the credibility of the messages. The invasion of Norway in 1940 forced Norwegian broadcasting to take place on short wave from the BBC in London. After a period of using British-Norwegian speakers, a Norwegian politician argued that ‘a familiar Norwegian voice would improve the broadcasts both qualitatively and psychologically’ (quoted in Dahl 1999b: 124). At the outbreak of the war the BBC instructed bulletin readers to identify themselves by name before reading the news (Schlesinger 1992: 30). Rather than being anonymous voices, they were to become individual persons.

The international conflicts made national identification more important than before. The major division was between the Allies and the Axis powers, that is, the ‘Big Three’ – the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union – versus Germany, Italy and Japan. During the 1930s and 1940s the news bulletins that filled the air on short and medium wave would be highly contradictory. The national broadcasting stations were part of an ideological struggle, and were used instrumentally for various political purposes. For example, the Reichsrundfunk in Germany and the BBC in Great Britain had strikingly different strategies and often contradictory claims about factual matters. The listener’s sense of truth and relevance would be influenced by their national sympathies and antipathies. Clearly the American subject would be more likely to believe the American stations than the Japanese broadcasts in English. Consequently, the news was likely to be felt as trustworthy if there was consensus among the ‘station and the individual listener, and likely to be felt as in doubt or simply false if there was no such consensus.

Bulletins and reports were typically presented in an attitude of self-confidence and trustworthiness, and if the listeners were inclined to identify with this attitude they would of course hear the news as credible and truthful. This is indirectly touched upon by John Peters (2001: 710), who argues that witnessing presumes a discrepancy between the ignorance of one person and the knowledge of another. The listener acknowledges that the broadcast speaker has a factual outlook that he himself lacks. Therefore there is a coercive appeal in the very act of reading the news or describing events: it is supposed to imply that this is the truth. If the listener didn’t have good reason to think otherwise, they would simply trust that the station conveyed matters of war and conflict and government in a correct way.

Especially before World War II there was great public trust in radio, but this ended brutally with the propaganda excesses of the war. The domestic sense of witnessing real events on the world stage seems to have been great in the 1930s. If a domestic discussion arose, anyone with information picked up on the radio would settle the matter, ‘because nobody doubts that what is said on the radio is the pure and clean truth’ (Dymling 1934: 33). In 1939 Fortune magazine surveyed the American people’s sentiments towards the press. If presented with conflicting versions of the same story in the two media, 40 per cent believed the radio and 27 per cent believed the newspaper (Stott 1991: 241). In some circles radio was felt to have become too influential. There was public concern that people were depending more and more on broadcasting for their knowledge of world affairs. In 1938 the Weekly Review said: ‘They are becoming too passive and being passive they will be more easily led. Where they will be led depends on the viewpoint of those who control the channels of information’ (quoted in Gumpert and Cathcart 1979: 12).

There is a classic example of how strong the authority of news reading was in the USA in the 1930s, namely Orson Welles’s fictional play War of the Worlds (1938). It was particularly scary for the listeners because Welles exploited the sound and diction of the news bulletin. Some listeners who tuned in after the play had begun actually believed the Martian invasion to be true, because they heard a plausible news reader describing panic in the streets as the invasion progressed. They were simply fooled by a way of speaking. The Welles radio play has become a symbol of radio’s influence on people’s sense of reality in the 1930s (Sterling and Kittross 1991: 252—3). In my interpretation it demonstrates the power of this way of speaking to make listeners feel that they had direct access to the world.

Outside locations, 1931
We are now at the very beginning of radio’s function as a public medium. In the pioneer years live reportage was an important rhetorical technique. In acoustic terms the outside location was established in the early 1920s, and typically the broadcasters used a telephone line from the location to the transmitter. Public speeches government figures and Sunday church services would often be relayed in this way. More generally it would be used for spectacular ‘live at the scene’ effects, one of the first of which was a running commentary from the Derby races in 1921 (Briggs [1961] 2000: 52). It pointed towards the techniques of ‘eyewitnessing’ which were to become such a staple of sports programming, live news shows, documentaries and all kinds of factual material. William Stott (1991: 248-9) argues that the ambient sounds made the listener feel ‘the pressure of reality on the speaker, endless and incommunicable.

All that the speaker left unspoken – found unspeakable – testified to the reality of his experience.’ One new journalistic profession was particularly tailored to the radio medium, namely that of the sports reporter. In 1931 live commentary had become a professional skill, praised by the public. Referring to the very broadcast that is presented below, a Swedish newspaper wrote that listeners ‘would probably agree that it is hardly possible to improve on the technical perfection and journalistic performance of a radio reportage of this type than what was accomplished this Sunday’ (quoted in Dahlen 1999: 120). In Sweden the reporter Sven Jerring was greatly admired for the domestic enjoyment he was able to create. In 1927 a listener noted that ‘[t]he man is simply made for the microphone. He has a unique ability to find the right words, a fast-working mind and a good-humored manner than is invigorating’ (quoted ibid.: 80).

The final case study for this chapter is a sports broadcast from Swedish Radio, with the Swedes and the Finns engaging in an inter-nation athletics competition. Sports were hugely popular, and radio had very early learnt to exploit this popularity. Notice that the Swedes had historically been the stronger country, and Finland had previously been a Swedish protectorate, and this added to the tension of the competition. We will hear the live commentary for the 400 metre run.

Track 28: Swedish Radio (SR): Sports Commentary, 1931 (1:05).

– The starting shot. It was an even start. Through the curve the four are keeping the same distance as at the start. But Aki Jarvinen and Strandvall are closing in on Erikson and Vattenfelt. At the far end of the field Jarvinen and Strandvall are in the lead. Jarvinen closes up on Strandvall and Vattenfelt. Erikson runs upright but with a long and wonderful pace. Now he reduces the distance between him and Jarvinen. They are side by side on the curve, the last curve. As the runners reach the final length Erikson is in the lead by a hair’s breadth. And there is a good fight between Vattenfeld and the Finn. Still even; completely even. Jarvinen fights his way ahead powerfully … and Strandvall … Erikson gives up … he has no more to give … and the Finns get ahead of Vattenfeld … the Swedes last.

Both the Finns and the Swedes would be biting their nails in excitement during the 400 metre run. The Swedish runner Erikson is in the lead almost to the finishing line, but ends up last. He had nothing more to give, and the outcome was very disappointing to the Swedes. We can hear how the mood of the sports supporters is subdued as they see the outcome. Since the Swedes came last, there was nothing to cheer about; the supporters turn quiet and so does the radio commentator. Although the Finns must have been thrilled, they weren’t around to make themselves heard.

Sven Jerring had fully embodied the microphone as an extension of his ability to express himself. There is even a photograph of him wearing a microphone on a support around his neck. The transmission was of course live, and the acoustics lively and engaging. The ambient sound adds to the impression of witnessing the event as it proceeds, and it invites a sense of presence at the sports stadium.

This excerpt demonstrates microphone behaviour that would never occur outside the radio medium. The reporter talks about the events under the presumption that his interlocutors cannot see anything of what is going on; and furthermore he does so in a low voice that would not be heard by anybody present at the stadium. He addresses himself wholly to the absent listeners. In my interpretation this is an example of microphone behaviour having become naturalized, and it demonstrates the speaker’s conformity to the broadcast setting in a striking way. It would be hard to find evaluation criteria for this behaviour outside radio.

The radio medium
It is time to define the medium of radio in technical detail. During the golden age of the 1940s and 1950s it had become highly asymmetrical. In the increasingly tense political climate of the early 1930s Bertolt Brecht had recommended that radio broadcasting should be turned into a two-way voice medium. He had in mind a quite symmetrical medium, where a network of amateurs could transmit from their personal equipment and speak to a public sphere that would have greater political impact the more people in society used it: ‘Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes’ (Brecht [1932] 2001).

Radio in Germany did not develop in the way Brecht wanted. On the contrary, the Nazi regime in Germany under the direction of Joseph Goebbels controlled everything that went on air on the Reichsrundfunk. In other countries the same tendency towards monopolization and control was clear, even though it was often based on a sounder moral base than was Nazi propaganda. The BBC with its public service ideals about informing, educating and entertaining is an example of a benign regime.

Figure 8.4: Model of analogue radio.
Figure 8.4: Model of analogue radio.

Figure 8.2 displays the main interfaces, platforms and signal carriers of the set-up I am investigating in this chapter. Notice that the microphone and the mixing board were the crucial interfaces for producers, while gramophone recorders were employed for archive purposes, and tape decks were increasingly used for recorded reportage. On the receiving end there were radio cabinets and transistor receivers, both with loudspeakers.

First I will describe the basic transmission platform and its signal carrier in some detail. A short-wave tower would be around 100 metres tall, a medium-wave tower somewhat larger, and a long-wave tower could (and can) be over 500 metres tall, being held to the ground by thick steel wires.

Radio transmission exploited the natural environment in a spectacular way, as the signal is carried through the air between the antennas. In this period stations transmitted with what was called ground waves and sky waves. The waves that were propagated along the surface of the earth through soil and water conductivity were called ground waves. They could travel far beyond the horizon, but the reach varied with variations in conductivity and the dampness of the lower regions of the atmosphere (Head et al. 1996: 80). In the medium-wave band, which was used by stations across Europe and the USA, distribution took place via ground waves. Ground waves spread better in the daytime than at night, because at night there would be disturbances from sky waves.

Sky waves introduced even more earthly variables. The waves that went straight up into the air were first presumed to disappear into outer space, but in actual fact they bounced off a region of the upper atmosphere. To illustrate the dimensions, notice that the Atlantic Ocean is a mountain of water 100 miles high between Britain and Canada (Douglas 1987: 54), and sky waves could scale it in a fraction of a second. Short-wave radio could utilize sky waves with great efficiency and accuracy from the mid-1920s. Refraction from the sky was particularly strong after sunset, because of changed qualities in the ionosphere. The waves travelled across the earth in a wide-angled and floating movement that relied on a dozen other variables relating to time of day, weather conditions, time of year, magnetic fields, electrical machine interferences and other things. The magnetic layer of the upper atmosphere that was named the ionosphere was not experimentally verified until 1925 (Winston 1998:272).

At night the clear reception area for sky waves increased dramatically, so listeners could receive signals from far away, especially during long cold autumn and winter nights (Pegg 1983: 19). Depending on the quality of the receiving apparatus, especially antenna construction, an avid amateur could pick up signals from several continents during the night. The peculiarities of wave propagation demonstrate that global dimensions were very quickly thought of as inherent to wireless, and this internationalism made a striking contrast to the tangible, small-scale machinery of gramophone repetition and the precise private contact established by the cable telephone.

At the broadcasting houses there were studios and control rooms where the creative and technical staff worked. The microphone was a strange interface to work with for performers who were used to the theatre stage, but in radio the microphone often replaced the vibrant and immediate reactions of a live audience, since studio audiences would only be gathered for bigger events. Speakers had to be able to face the microphone all on their own. The singer was used to continuous feedback on good or bad elements of the performance, but now this would be absent, and performers would be uncertain about the quality of their acts. There is ample evidence that artists were plagued by anxieties, whether or not this resulted from ‘the new techniques of wireless being mentally overwhelming, or the lack of routine among participants giving the debutants little calm’ (Dahl 1999a: 77). And it did not relieve the performer’s embarrassment to be warned about the awful noises that could be caused by such innocent acts as handling the script, clearing one’s throat and coughing. Erik Barnouw (1966:136) writes that some stations disguised the microphone as a floor lamp to avert anxieties, but this practice had disappeared by the mid-19205.’Perhaps talking to a lampshade seemed no more natural than talking to a microphone’, he adds dryly. Nervousness was a feature of first encounters, and it was reduced with training and increasing professional experience.

I should mention the awareness of acoustic architecture in radio. It was soon understood that good acoustics would be indispensable to expression in wireless, and before long the studio set-up of recording companies was adopted (see chapter 11 for more details). In 1920 KDKA in the USA, which is often considered the first regular radio station, used a tent to shield the microphone from extraneous noises (see Barnouw 1966: 71).’It is evident to me’, a British station manager said in 1922,’that we have to face immediately several problems requiring solution by acoustical rather than electrical experts’ (quoted in Briggs [1961] 2000: 73). When broadcasting houses were built they had carefully planned internal architecture, with performances taking place in draped and acoustically protected studios, and the work of signal processing and transmission taking place in control rooms.

Everything went directly on air, but there were several pre-production processes taking place in the control room. The final balance was created on the mixing board. By the 1930s there was a fader for each microphone, facilitating rapid fade in and out, cross-fades and balancing of foreground and background effects (Barnouw 1966:192).The studios were routinely equipped with multiple microphones. Erik Barnouw (1966: 192) reports that in 1927 eight or more microphones were used on the stage, with lights to show which of them were in operation. There would be a microphone for every important source of sound, and the work of balancing the output to the air took on great creative importance. The participating artists would not just rehearse their performances for artistic perfection; they would also be monitored during the five performance. Typically there was talkback communication between the studio and the control room, and studio assistants would coach the host, the artists and the musicians about proper distance to the microphone.

The voice alone acoustics was acknowledged very early. In 1936 Rudolf Arnheim wrote about the acoustic architecture of wireless. He pointed out that close-up microphone speech sounds intimate because it seems to move the voice distinctly into the listener’s room. In contrast, more distance between the performer and the microphone makes the whole space of the performance resonate and creates a greater sense of roominess. In general he emphasized the importance of making proper use of the difference between near and far (Arnheim [1936] 1986: 67), and to remember that every distance has its own expressive value. He also suggested that, since the volume can be turned up and down by electrical means, this feature should be used actively to enrich the expressivity of distance illusions (ibid.: 70).

I will now stress the combination of real-time transmission and the broadcasters’ strategies for liveness effects. All the programmes discussed above went five on air – with a possible exception of the Bing Crosby performance. The real-time characteristics of radio had been cultivated for several decades, and were centre stage in the production setting. But by being absolutely five the radio also ran parallel to national clock time, and all the public and private events with which people were occupied.

Timeliness on the radio was therefore obviously related to clock time. Shaun Moores argues that radio brought precise temporal measurement into the private sphere, and helped to domesticate standard national time. He quotes a writer from 1933 who marvels at the ‘broadcasting of time’, which is, ‘rightly considered, one of the strangest of the new things that the harnessing of the ether has brought us’. Moores adds that there were of course clocks in many households before wireless telephone arrived, ‘but only with the development of broadcasting did svnchronised, nationwide signals get relaved directlv and simultaneously into millions of living rooms’ (Moores 2000: 55). In 1924 a newspaper columnist comments on the impact of this simultaneity: ‘The boom of Big Ben, which is rung in London and heard by us in Derby almost any night we care to listen, is one of the wireless stunts which creates an impression’ (quoted in Pegg 1983: 147).

Loudspeaker living
When the new superheterodyne receivers became household items in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the social relationship with radio changed dramatically. The change from headphones to loudspeakers meant that there was an instant socialization of radio programmes. There is no way to overestimate the importance of the domestic setting for radio programmes. Briggs and Burke (2002: 179) argue that ‘cinema took people out of the home, and the gramophone kept people in it.’ But clearly, the medium that really brought people home was the loudspeaker radio. The domestic orientation is a fundamental requirement for radio’s becoming part of the everyday living environment.

Crystal sets did not run on electricity, but used what little power the transmitting signal had. Consequently they gave off a very weak signal that was hard to amplify into a locale, and people were inclined to listen on headphones (Scannell and Cardiff 1991: 356). Listeners had constantly to follow up the signal as it moved across the dial, and tap the ‘cat’s whisker’ with its aimless reception attempts. In 1924 the BBC encouraged people actually to listen, and not be overpreoccupied with the receiving equipment. John Reith suggested that ‘our minds are obsessed and distracted by the agency, and the music has not had a fair chance’ (quoted ibid.: 360). When the crystal set was moved into the living room the pater familias typically sat isolated and immersed in his own experience, his wife and children watching and waiting for their go. Keeping silent was a household chore, and the listening experience in a sense became even more isolationist (Moores 2000:46). My point is that when headphones were used radio listening was a solitary activity. People sat alone, feeling an ‘electronic kinship with an invisible scattered audience’, and yet they also felt ‘the incredible distances involved in this form of communication that ultimately reaffirmed the individual listener’s anonymity and isolation’ (Sconce 2000:62).

As I have said, during the 1920s the expensive superheterodyne receiver was introduced to the mass market. Because of its cost, it remained a luxury item far into the 1930s. But it was greatly superior to the crystal set. It had a whole series of electron tubes that filtered and amplified the electromagnetic signal before reproducing it in a moving coil speaker. With this equipment the first really good sound experience was introduced into the home. When placed in the living room or the kitchen, a loudspeaker filled the space with a new, acoustically immersive version of broadcasting. This became the default experience of radio.


9. Microphone moods – Music recording, 1940s – 1930s

Pop music is characterized by an intimacy with singers that runs so deep in our auditory perception that we almost never think about it. This intimacy has much to do with the microphone, which was developed for music recording in the 1920s. The modern recording industry was the result of a convergence of two great industries: that of acoustics and that of electricity (Briggs and Burke 2002: 145), where the electrical microphone was the big new thing.

I will illustrate the story of the microphone in music by going into case studies of three different recording artists. Edith Piaf in 1940 comforted the French people with her soaring ‘L’Accordeomste’, which became a big hit.The Swedish artist Harry Brandelius in 1938 released ‘The Troubadour’, a hymn to all the dead people at whose funerals he had performed. He seems to sing it more to himself than to the listener. Finally, the French classical vocalist Chatles Panzera sings ‘Chanson triste’ with little sense of personal sadness, since performers of art song are not expected actually to live through the emotions of the character (love, melancholy, hatred, etc.). All these real and imagined moods of the singer became audible with the microphone and electrical recording, and new cultural techniques emerged at both ends of the medium.

Backwards history
Politically the 1930s was a tense period in Europe and the USA alike. The countries of the West were in a deep economic depression that started in 1929, and furthermore the Nazi party was on the rise in Germany and the communist party was gaining ground in Europe. Many countries were ruled by oppressive dictatorial regimes — either fascist or communist. The idea of’mass society’ was dominant (Hobsbawm 1994:108ff.), and its morality is aptly captured by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times (1936). The tramp works at a highly mechanized factory where he is caught up in the wheels of the machine, and where he is bereft of his individuality. Strong ideologies presented the individual person as a small, dispensable wheel in a big machinery, while the dictator hinrself would speak at huge rallies, with a dozen big, imposing microphones in front of him to show his importance.

It is important to remember that static, interference and fading could still make listening a very frustrating experience. But it seems that listeners had the ability to disregard the problems of sound quality and focus on the programmes. Cantril and AHport ([1935] 1986: 119-20) expressed wonder at people’s ability to overcome the blur of transmission: ‘Adaptation to the change in the quality which a voice undergoes in such transmission seems to be remarkably rapid and thoroughgoing. Even the subtlest inflections may be successfully analyzed out from all the extraneous sounds.’

With the new acoustics there could be a more active use of radio to create eventfulness in the living room, something which was reflected by the popularity of genres such as dance music, exercise programmes and quiz shows aspiring to involve the whole family. It would have been hard to engage properly with the rhetorical intent of such programmes by the use of headphones. The most important aspect of this domestic acoustic was the rise of the listener family. The listening experience could now be shared by everyone in the home, and not just with an imaginary community in the ether. The programmes acquired the status of an inclusive group activity or a ‘public hearth’. In 1935 the Radio Times in Britain described this mood:

To close the door behind you, with the curtains drawn against the rain, and the fire glowing in the hearth – that is one of the real pleasures of life. And it is when you are settled by your own fireside that you most appreciate the entertainment that broadcasting can bring.

(quoted in Moores 1988: 34)

The loudspeaker made it more comfortable to stay tuned for long periods of time. In the 1930s the increased quality of reception on the new receivers reduced the annoying noises of the atmosphere to a whisper, and the human sounds came more forcefully to the fore. For the first time listeners could leave the apparatus to its own devices, lie back in the armchair and simply listen.

Figure 9.1: Timeline of the electrical recording medium.
Figure 9.1: Timeline of the electrical recording medium.

The mass media had a double role in this political climate. They were tools for the power elites to govern their people, exemplified by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, which famously made him very popular, and the use of entertainment on film, music records and radio during the war gave people something else to think about. The other aspect of the mass media in the 1930s is that they helped to cultivate greater intimacy. Indeed, the ‘Fireside Chats ‘were a symptom of how the media now addressed people in their homes (Barnouw [1975] 1990: 72). And there was really a more lively home sound-scape – with recorded music and verbal intelligence making a difference in the everyday life of people – which was greatly appreciated.

The 1930s and 1940s were undoubtedly a period rich in electronic media, with radio, telephone, telex, sound films and telegraph, and the small beginnings of micro-electronics could be seen, for example, in advanced radio receivers and movie equipment (for a thorough presentation of this era, see Briggs and Burke 2002: 106ff.).

Figure 9.1 shows that electric recording had approximately twenty-five years’ dominance in media history, which is not a long time compared to that of the magnetic tape and LPs discussed in chapter 7 and the acoustic recording media discussed in chapter 11. When electrical recording was introduced in the mid-1920s, acoustic recording disappeared very quickly because the microphone and electrical pickup were indisputably superior to the acoustic horn.

During this period the music business had its worst crisis ever. It began at the same time as the depression of 1929 and continued far into the 1930s.The depression caused poverty among an increasing number of people, and they could no longer afford to buy gramophones and records. In addition, radio emerged as a potent medium of music and entertainment, providing programmes that were free of charge. Record companies such as Columbia and Victor struggled in the USA, and His Majesty’s Voice struggled in the British Empire. The microphone and the new, intimate qualities of popular music helped the music industry to overcome the crisis (this story is well told, for example, by Millard 2005: 162ff.).

The new intimacy with performers could also be experienced in the sound film. There was, for example, a differentiation of languages and voices and sound effects that gave the movies new creative directions (Briggs and Burke 2002: 172). Imagine the wealth of experience that emerged in the movie theatre when all the sounds in the world could add to the communication.

Before the introduction of electrical recording around 1925, no musicians would perform with a microphone unless they played the radio circuit. During the fifty years after Edison’s invention they sang into an acoustic horn, without batteries or electric circuitry, and it was the sheer pressure of their voice that moved the stylus. The only experience ordinary people had had with microphones before that time was the carbon mouthpiece of the telephone, which did not have much to do with music.

The passionate crooner, 1940
Edith Piaf was a great microphone communicator. She recorded ‘L’Accordeoniste’ during a particularly bleak period at the beginning of World War II. German military forces invaded northern France and pushed millions of refugees southwards, and in particular towards Paris. Tensions were high, and in this setting Piaf used her musical talents to make a subtle political point. We can imagine that during the day people would listen nervously to the radio news, while at night they would try to relax by enjoying good music on the radio and the record turntable. There is no actuality in a recording, no danger of receiving unpleasant news, but there can be good stories that put things in perspective.

Edith Piaf sings a chanson in the classical French style, where there is always an intense human story of some kind (Frith 1998: 170). ‘L’Accordeoniste’ has left for the front, and the desperate prostitute who was in love with him and his music becomes more desperate than ever.

Track 29: Edith Piaf. L’Accordeoniste, 1940 (1:09).

The prostitute is alone on the street corner down there,
Men don’t want girls who look unhappy,
And too bad if she dies, her man will not come back any more.
Goodbye all the beautiful dreams, her fife is ruined.
Nevertheless her sad legs lead her to a dive
Where there’s another artist who plays all night.
She listens to the Java, she hears the Java,
She closes her eyes, the dry spirited fingers,
It goes right through her skin from bottom to top.
She wants to yell out, it’s physical,
Then to forget she begins to dance,
To turn to the sound of the music.
Stop! Stop the music!

We hear an orchestra with seven or eight musicians. There is the female lead singer, the accordionist, the pianist, guitars, drums and perhaps two or three violins. There is a strong dynamic contrast between the soft and gentle beginning of the verse and the crescendo at the end. Several microphones are placed around the studio to pick up every instrument at its best, and the sound is recorded live on disc.

Edith Piaf’s performance is emotionally charged, endearing and intense. The lyrics may tell a tearful and somewhat cliched story, but the sound of Piaf’s voice and the orchestra that supports her emotional outpouring so exquisitely would be very attractive to music lovers of the time. She was not alone in using this style of singing – artists such as Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn were also immensely popular. They all sounded heartfelt and sincere as communicators of sad stories about the war and its suffering. And there is something about the contemporary situation in France that makes it almost meaningless to say that Piaf plays a role completely detached from herself. She is also threatened by the German invasion, and she can identify strongly with the hard urban life of the prostitute described in the lyrics. The local French audience would also readily associate Piaf with Parisian nightlife. The story of the song becomes attached to the personality of Edith Piaf regardless of the facts, and this has everything to do with Piaf’s intimate vocal timbres (see Frith 1998: 170-1 for a good description of her qualities as a singer).

If we cross the Atlantic we find Frank Sinatra’s style as the signature sound of the first microphone generation. His great success as a crooner shows that the personal qualities of the voice gained a commercial potential that would have been very hard to accomplish during the acoustic recording era. Roy Shuker (2001: 53) argues that the early crooning experiments laid the foundations tor the distinctive vocalization of later pop and rock music. Imagine Sinatra at his smoothest, with strings and the whole orchestra supporting the soft and mellow mood of the melody. In both lyrics and performance such songs are tailor-made to charm the female fans with ‘trembling emotion’. Michael Chanan (1995: 68) argues that vocalists knew how to treat the microphone as an instrument in its own right, not just as a passive means of capturing sound. Crooning became a singing style where the performer would be ‘sliding up to notes rather than hitting them square, and with a sensual, ululating tone that comes from deep in the throat’.

The public voice had become private. ‘At first there was something almost scandalous about this closeness. Singers had started to express an intimate bodily quality that violated common decency’ (Johansen 2002: 177). The microphone had opened up the mediation of ’emotional spaces belonging to really intimate situations: Singers can sigh, whine, moan, whisper, mumble – as if they were alone, or only together with one person’ (ibid.: 178-9). In the context of 1930s and 1940s American radio entertainment, crooning became widespread as a way of addressing the home in a relaxed, inviting manner.

In chapter 8 I analysed Bing Crosby’s ‘Happy Holliday’ (1943), which is a good example of crooning in a resounding studio environment.

But what was really new here? Since recording was still completely dependent on live disc-cutting, the bias towards documentary realism was not significantly altered. The crucial difference was that the new components relied on artificial energy supplied by an electron tube amplifier and freed the singer from always having to sing very loudly. Instead of being driven by the sheer acoustical energy of performances, the process of engraving was now done electrically. Since it was no longer necessary to reproduce the volume directly from the grooves, the equipment could be optimized for signal accuracy instead of volume accuracy (Watkinson 1998: 5).

The new skills of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and other American artists in the 1930s were cultivated specially to make the listeners feel that the contact was personal and intimate. Again, an advertisement on a Victor record sleeve in 1931 is telling: ‘Victor Records (on the Victor Radio Electrola) reproduce for you not only the voice or instrument of the musician, but his very self and the surroundings in which he sings or plays.’

Realism consisted of feeling that the singer’s ‘very self was conveyed in the recording. The microphone was sensitive enough to convey a loud and clear voice without any particular effort by the performer. It was receptive to sound instead of resistant to it, as acoustic recording had been. In a sense the microphone was built to human proportions. The singer could embrace its stand, hold it in their hands and touch it with their lips. Among artists there was a tendency to treat the microphone as a confidant or an accomplice. Any instrument could in principle be played in this close-up and intimate way, as exemplified in the 1950s by the trumpeter Miles Davis on the album Kind of Blue (1958).

Quiet documentation, 1938
It would be erroneous to argue that intimate singing came as a result of the microphone. There could of course be intimate effects in popular song regardless of the existence of recording equipment. In this section I will point to the way in which the microphone became part of a long-standing ideal of quiet solo singing. As in the Hollywood film, the ideal was that there should be no traces of the production machinery in the completed product. This was in reality a quite conservative ideal that was especially suitable for the recording and documentation of folk and traditional songs.

The next case study is a folk ballad sung by Harry Brandelius in 1938, and it is probably performed without any conscious cultivation of microphone effects. Brandelius, a Swedish singer who had his breakthrough that same year with a cheerful song about the sailor’s life, was twenty-eight years old when he sang this song. He became so well-liked in Sweden that he was later voted the country’s most popular artist of the century (Wikipedia 2007, ‘Harry Brandelius’). He even toured the USA and played for Scandinavian emigrants.

Track 30: Harry Brandelius: Spelmannen, 1938 (0:59).

I don’t want to dig the earth, I don’t want to chop any wood,
I want to dream through the weekends till the sun has gone down,
And in the evening’s red fire I will rise up with my fiddle,
And play until your dead shine bright like the evening sun.
I will play when you bury your dear ones in the earth,
I will play all the sorrow in a song without words,
And the blackness that is death and greeted you by your bed,
It will flow like a stream of sorrow from my strings.


Brandelius sings a Nordic blues, about a troubadour who has intense existential struggles and a gloomy and sad outlook on life. The song is an assessment of his own worth in society. Brandelius strikes a fine balance, since he is actually a singer by trade, albeit a more successful one with fewer worries. This is role play on his part, for at that time he was a successful singer with big hits in Sweden, but he portrays the character convincingly.

There is a quiet determination to Brandelius’s singing style. Although he sounds sad, he does not sound defeated, although at the end of the song his mood seems to become more desperate. He projects here the age-old attitude of the troubadour, where a lonesome man wanders the countryside trying to earn money by singing and playing. In the USA Robert Johnson is a good example, while Bob Dylan before 1964 was also convincing this role. Recordings of 1930s blues and folk singers always sound as if they were recorded for archival purposes more than for the public – a kind of social anthropology, if you like.

My point is to demonstrate that the folk and blues tradition had a natural affinity with quiet performance. Evan Eisenberg (1987: 156) says that recordings by such artists often give the impression that they are singing and playing for their own gratification, something that they would presumably also do in settings without a microphone. But Brandelius could not have sung his ballad in such a low voice to an audience in a concert setting; they simply would not have heard him. The volume of his voice is tailored to the microphone after all, and although he may not consider the microphone a confidant, a la Frank Sinatra, at least Brandelius goes along with its requirements.

Rudolf Arnheim ([1936] 1986: 80) suggests that this form of quietness heightens what could be called the emotional realism of the performance. The loud voices of concert singing do not appeal to Arnheim, who thinks there is something unnatural about the maximum display of lungpower in art song. Most importantly, he acknowledges the possibility of producing much greater feeling through the microphone: ‘the quiet voice trembling with inner emotion, he suppressed outburst, the note of real feeling that needs no blustering to make one aware of it’ (ibid.: 82). In a moderate way this is what the Brandelius excerpt demonstrates.

Arnheim ([1936] 1986: 78) also suggests that electrical recording created a ‘spiritual and atmospheric nearness’ of performer and listener that fostered a ‘special art of intimate singing and playing for the microphone’. This quality could resemble that of singing in private, face-to-face situations, and would be likely to inspire a sense of trust and intimacy between the listener and the singer. Eisenberg (1987:155) suggests that musicians could now try to fascinate listeners by inwardness: ‘Instead of leaping out at the listener this sort of artist seems to ignore him, and thereby draws him in.’ In the jazz tradition the non-communicative soloist was to become very influential.

Figure 9.2: Model of the electrical recording medium.
Figure 9.2: Model of the electrical recording medium.

In the 1930s the influence of the microphone extended beyond the studio and into the expressive fabric of the musical artist as such. Stage appearances had to be bolstered by public address systems, for without amplification ‘the crooing Mills brothers and Miss Poop-poop-a-do could not have been heard beyond the third row’ (Chanan 1995: 69). Electrical amplification made the listening experience very different from natural perception. While a speaker would previously have had to shout to be heard at the back of an arena, amplification made it possible for them to whisper and still be heard loud and clear hundreds of metres away. After amplification became commonplace, a power cut during a performance would mean that a singer would lose their personal intensity and be reduced to shouting.

The electrical recording medium
The electrical recording medium was completely asymmetrical. Music production was highly professional, whereas listeners could only play their records over and over again. But this technique had been in place from the introduction of acoustic recording, and it was the great sensitivity of microphone and amplification that struck everyone as the novelty. After fifty years of the quite primitive techniques of the gramophone and its acoustic horns, electrical recording was a remarkable improvement.

Figure 9.2 displays the main interfaces, platforms and signal carriers of the set-up I am investigating in this chapter. Notice that the microphone and mixing board were brand new interfaces for the artists, and in the 2000s they seem so basic that it is difficult to imagine that there has ever been music recording without them. Notice also that on the receiving end there are two different plaforms for the same signal carrier. The 78 rpm disc could be played both on the old mechanical gramophone and the new equipment, which consisted of amplified pickup with a loudspeaker.

It is important to understand how a microphone works. The telephone and radio broadcasting were electro-mechanical media, and had exploited microphones from the beginning. But until the development of broadcast studios in the early 1920s microphones were little more than telephone mouthpieces (Chanan 1995; 56). and it was notoriously difficult to amplify the weak electric signals enough for them to be cut on a disc. Perhaps just as importantly, during the 1920s the industries of broadcasting and gramophone were in competition, and the record business baulked at coming under the influence of the techniques, aesthetics and politics of broadcasting (Morton 2000: 26). But in the late 1920s acoustical recording was discarded across the board, forever. In 1927 Lindsay Buick describes the basic interface of the new electrical platform with great enthusiasm.

This delicate electrical instrument is set up in the midst of a comfortable room, furnished with all the appurtenances of the art. Before it the singer stands and sings as naturally as though it were his audience. Behind him again is grouped the orchestra free from the restraint of undue crowding. The notes given out by the performers create a series of sound waves which are caught up by the sensitive coil operating in a strong magnetic field within the microphone. These waves are in turn transferred to wires which carry them on to the recording machine, perhaps miles away, where they operate upon the cutting tool, which obediently traces upon the wax ‘blank’ every vibration of the air as it goes throbbing from the musicians.

(Buick 1927: 103)

In the 1920s the microphone stood in the studio with the authority of an all-perceiving ear. For some years the microphone was unprotected. This means that it lacked every form of dampening, and therefore picked up every sound whether or not these also created distortion, and it distorted all sounds slightly whether or not they were loud. Often circuit breakers and electron tubes would simply blow out and completely destroy the recording. The microphone’s hypersensitivity made the restrictions on the performers’ movements much stricter than before. A recording engineer recollects: ‘If he hums while he plays, he must stop it; and if he breathes through his nose, he must open his mouth a little so that he may avoid what can sound like a consumptive intrusion on the finished product’ (quoted in Morton 2000: 27). If the musician played too close to the mike, or the nuke was touched, it would create noises on the recording, and it could completely overpower the musical performance. The shuffling of feet, couching or the crackling of paper would get the same unwanted prominence.

The sound signal was carried on the 78 rpm disc. It was a mono system, and this means that there was no realistic reproduction of human bidirectional hearing and also that there was very poor reproduction of the spaciousness of the sounds. As Rudolf Arnheim comments,’A realistic spatial distribution of sources of sound in the transmitting-room does not attain its specific effect on the listener – it is wasted trouble’ (Arnheim [1936] 1986: 56). The producers wanted to create a more well-defined sound by rhetorical placement of the sound sources in the studio, but the breakthrough of such techniques would have to wait until stereo sound was introduced in the 1960s.

Along with the microphone came the mixing board. This control device allowed several sources to be blended and balanced according to the wishes of the producers. The mixing board is still a part of the basic interface of recording, and its used more or less universally in sound production, whether for five concerts, films, television or radio. Electrical recording introduced a series of new techniques relating to electronic signal processing, such as the use of mixing boards to balance the signal and the reliance on strict separation of the studio and the control room.

David Morton (2000) points out that studio techniques became more scientific with the electric recording medium. ‘Already steeped in the methods of science, electrical engineers responded by creating instruments to measure audio “signals”, and borrowed heavily from the methods and vocabulary of acoustics’ (Morton 2000: 26). Since the electronic signal was only accessible through meters and calculations, this introduced the practice of measuring sound quality independently of listening and content quality. With time this technically embodied perspective on sound came to be referred to as ‘audio’, and the term denotes a completely objective dimension of the signal. In order to measure the audio quality of a voice the engineer need have no appreciation of what was performed, and no musical training.

The studio environment
The technical developments described above make it important to analyse the practices in the electrical studio environment. The producer was seated in the control room and gazed into the studio through double-glazed windows. He could regulate the volume coming through the microphone with faders, and also signal to the performers if they had to reposition their instruments (Goldsmith and Lescarboura 1930:31).Technically, the qualities that could be listened for were the dynamic range of the mix, and its bass, mid-range and treble characteristics. In time musicians in the studio would start to wear headphones to monitor the sound of their performance during recording, and to take cues and communicate with the control room. With the widespread use of this electro-architectural interface it seems that the act of recording had moved into a space of its own making.

The sound-proof studio became a standard component of recording facilities, and also of radio stations. And as I am arguing here, a set of new strategies for keeping the signal under control were developing in this environment. The sound studio was built to be hermetically enclosed, since now the signal travelled via wires through the walls into the control room. By 1923 the BBC had built several sound-proof studios: ‘On the walls and ceiling were wooden fences holding six layers of fabric spaced about an inch apart to damp reverberation. For the same reason there was a thick, heavy carpet on the floor’ (Briggs [1961] 2000: 193). Briggs adds that it was not unnatural for artists to complain about having to force their tone to get through the silencing regime. There were sound-proof walls, ceilings and floors, and an authoritative distinction between normal action outside and the strict code of silence that typically reigned inside the studio. The habitat of musicians became hot and claustrophobic, reflecting their sole function as pickup spaces. In 1930 Goldsmith and Lescarboura describe this setting in broadcasting: ‘A double set of doors marked the entrance to the studio, with conspicuous white fights to indicate that the studio was not on the air at the moment, or red lights to indicate that the studio was on the air and that SILENCE must be observed’ (Goldsmith and Lescarboura 1930: 30).

The first electrical control rooms were built from the late 1920s. All signal processing took place in the control room, and this meant that the musicians were alone in the sound studio while producers, arrangers and engineers watched and monitored the performances from the outside. Since the electric signals were routed through the mixing console in the control room on its way to the disc-cutting machine, they could be electronically manipulated on the way. The practice of tapping sound from electric cables into the board and then feeding it back inspired increased research into the electronics of signal processing, a field of electronic engineering that had previously had no part in musical production (Morton 2000: 32). Technicians could now regulate the volume internally, that is, by adjusting the electrical power supply to increase or decrease the volume sent to the disc independently of the volume in the sound studio. Also the mixing board could be fitted with equalizers that emphasized or de-emphasized certain bands of frequencies, typically split into treble, mid-range and bass (ibid.: 32). Because the mixer could regulate several channels one could set up several microphones in the studio, and these could be dedicated to different instruments to enhance the clarity of each. Consequently, the style could be a compound of individual sound sources that no longer had to conform to the central perspective of the acoustic horn or the single microphone.

Editing was a rare technique in the studio environment. Live on disc recording was the absolute production norm. There would be a loss of quality if the sound was re-recorded from one disc to another – a deterioration of one generation, as it was soon called. But technically speaking the disc-cutter could be used to superimpose sound on sound. The noise reduction of electrical recording made it more realistic than before to undertake this kind of editing, and several popular artists made creative use of gramophone overdubbing in the 1930s. Les Paul is often mentioned as one of the most proficient. Notice the amount of work involved in this overdubbing technique.

I would record a rhythm track on the first disc, then I would play along with the rhythm track and lay the needle down on the second disc which would simultaneously record me playing along to my rhythm track. The second disc would now contain two guitar parts. Going back to the first machine, I would put the needle down onto the disc and record, say, a bassfine along with the music from the second disc. Then for other instrumentation, I would just repeat the process, ad infinitum.

(quoted in Cunningham 1998: 26)

Les Paul pushed the technology to its limits: ‘It would go down as many as thirty-seven generations before I finished a recording, but the quality would start to detenorate’ (quoted in Cunningham 1998: 27). It must be noted that the superimposition of sound on sound was still done in a way that made the resulting montage final, in contrast to later media such as tape and hard disc. Tape could be seamlessly modified until everyone was satisfied and there was no need to re-record each modification live to a new disc in order for it to be preserved.

Although there was little exploration of weird sounds in popular music and radio, there was all the more experimentation among such modernist composers as F. T. Marinetti, John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, who introduced the term musique concrete (Perloff 1997; McCaffery 1997; Kahn 1999: 110). They produced sonic art with variable speeds, distortion, and all kinds of environmental and electronic sounds that were mixed together on record. Sonic artists also used tone-generators to create sounds completely internal to the technology. But in pop music production the electric recording medium was not typically used to create strange and unnatural sounds. The main concern of the industry was to create better documentary realism than before.

High fidelity, 1931
Westerners first realized what good sound could be during the 1930s. Electrically amplified sound from sensitive microphones allowed for intimate behaviour from the musicians and singers, and this gave music lovers a more enjoyable experience, at home, at parties, in the pub or in the park during summer. Radio broadcasts were still typically ridden with atmospheric noise, and the telephone was as low-fi as ever. This suggests that the rise of high fidelity coincides with the rise of microphone recording.

Roland Gelatt suggests that the electrical improvements helped to revive the gramophone industry from the depression of the early 1930s, and the concept of’high fidelity’ was about to become an explicit consumer interest and new industry niche. He points out that the phrase did not come into general use in the USA until 1933 or 1934, but then it was ‘exploited with a vengeance’ (Gelatt 1977: 270).

High fidelity was inaugurated as a cultural phenomenon when music lovers started purchasing the electrific gramophone and its attendant loudspeaker. Notice that, since the sound was in mono, only one loudspeaker was needed. By this time radio reception had long since become a fixture of the living room, and equipment producers such as Philips andVictor had started to market the ‘radio-phonograph’. This was a 78 rpm turntable with an amplified pickup and a radio receiver. The frequency range of this equipment was four times wider than that of the acoustic gramophone, and the control knobs on the front permitted domestic control over volume and tone (Chanan 1995: 56-7). RCA Victor promoted this new device aggressively on the sleeves of their record releases: ‘The World’s Greatest Musical Instrument is Victor Radio with Electrola’, its great achievement being ‘Faithful reproduction, natural performance’. ‘It is a proven scientific fact that your ears cannot tire of them, for the reason that one record differs from another exactly as two pieces of music differ; they have nothing in common except supreme beauty, realism and naturalness of the music they reproduce’ (Victor Red Seal sleeve, 1931).To the pathos of such marketing strategies Gelatt laconically remarks: ‘Would record buyers never tire of hearing that absolute perfection in phonograph reproduction had finally been achieved?’ (1977: 270). I could say the same thing about the 2000s, especially regarding the never-ending perfection of high-end stereo equipment.

Audiences learnt a new way of attending to the loudspeaker. As I have stressed in this chapter, it was easier for the listeners to be aware of the nuances in the music and to get a sense of the locale in which the performances took place. Loudspeakers were greatly valued for improved intelligibility, volume and dynamic range. To the public ear the mam improvement was therefore an increased documentary realism in the recordings, and in the home.

The final case study comes from France. The famous French vocalist Charles Panzera sings a Lied in the art-song tradition, accompanied on piano. The composition is well known to classical music connoisseurs all over the world to this day. ‘Chanson triste’ was composed by Henri Duparc and the lyrics were written by Jean Lahor.

Track 31: Charles Panzera: Chanson triste, 1931 (1:03).

You will rest my poor head,
Ah! sometimes on your lap,
And recite to it a ballad
That will seem to speak of us;
And from your eyes full of sorrow,
From your eyes I shall then drink
So many kisses and so much love
That perhaps I shall be healed.


Panzera, who has a well-trained tenor voice, stands beside the piano, which is played by his wife. This music is made for the salons of Pans, and is parlour music in the most elevated sense. This is in all probability a single microphone recording. Since there are only two sources of sound, they could be balanced simply by the way in which they were located in relation to each other and the microphone. Since the volume is regulated electrically, Panzera can relax, and his subtle timbres and inflections can be given more prominence. Although the new sensitivity would be used more creatively by popular singers than by classical performers such as Panzera, one clearly hears that he sings more softly and subtly than performers on acoustic recordings. Listen for example to Ellen Gulbranson from 1914 (track 34), and the contrast is clear.

Panzera sings to nobody in particular. His vocal melody is pure art, and he doesn’t have to sound fn’sfe in order for the performance to be moving. Both melody and lyrics are marked by sadness and longing, but this mood does not extent to the singer. Panzera recites the music in the way in which classical singers are supposed to do, and did not experiment with the tension between role play and personality in the manner of Edith Piaf and Harry Brandelius.

Panzera is a familiar name in musical literature because of Roland Barthes’s celebrated essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ (1977). Barthes names Panzera as a singer who embodies the mysterious grain. Without going into the complexities of what the grain really is, it seems clear that it could be recorded, and that we hear it on the recording presented above. Barthes suggests that Panzera does not primarily attract the listener because of lung volume. ‘All of Panzera’s art, on the contrary, was in the letters, not in the bellows (simple technical feature: you never heard him breathe but only divide up the phrase)’. Barthes praises ‘the purity – almost electronic, so much was its sound tightened, raised, exposed, held – of the most French of vowels, the u, and also suggests that ‘Panzera carried his r’s beyond the norms of the singer’ (Barthes 1977:183-4). It would be speculative to say that electrical recording inspired Panzera to sing as he did, but it certainly made it easier for Barthes to hear what was sung.

My point is that there was better sound in the 1930s than ever before. Roland Gelatt (1977:223) argues that the simulation of the ‘atmosphere’ of music played in the concert hall was a great new attraction. Gronow and Saunio (1998: 39) recount that ‘sharp-eared music lovers could hear that something crucial had happened – at least by the time Columbia issued its recording of a 5000-strong choir singing Adeste Fideles, in June 1925. Recording a huge choir like this by the old method would have been impossible’. Interestingly, Lindsay Buick comments on the improvements in fidelity by referring to the same release: ‘This record, though not faultless, had such wonderful power and definition that those who had previously regarded chorus records as the ugly ducklings of the gramophone library said at once: – “Here, indeed, is something new'” (1927:101). But in 1936, almost ten years after the microphone was introduced in recording, Theodore Adorno refused any idea that recording was about to become a means of expression in arts and culture/Nowhere does there arise anything that resembles a form specific to the phonograph record – in the way that one was generated by photography in its early days’ (Adorno [1934] 1990: 56). In light of the recordings by Edith Piaf, Harry Brandelius and Charles Panzera that I have just analysed, it seems that Adorno was right. The radical development of a form specific to the phonograph record happened only with the introduction of multi-track recording in the 1960s.


10. Atmospheric contact – Experiments in broadcasting, 1920s-1900s

The cry for help could fly through the air in wave form, from the Titanic to other ships in the Atlantic, and on to the American mainland. Voice transmission was a natural miracle in 1912, and had been so for six years. It was like a telephone connection where anybody on earth could listen in on the call. The wireless was absolutely live and inherently public. In the 2000s we live in the midst of this atmospheric contact whether we like it or not. It is a fully completed infrastructure on a level with railways, motorways and electricity, and has been so for the American and European citizen for around ninety years.

As I described in chapter 8, by the 1930s the soundscapes of radio had become a national experience. But if we go back to the 1920s and before, wireless was an international activity, and it only involved people with a particularly strong interest or motivation — often scientific, cultural and commercial. A certain part of the electromagnetic resource had been colonized and was being moulded into the public domain. This chapter deals with the period before there was any journalistic preparation of content or responsible editorial gate-keeping, and before there was an audience to whom such programmes might be distributed.

Backwards history
The period from the 1920s back to the 1900s saw its share of political conflicts on the world scene. World War I from 1914 to 1918 was the biggest and most technologically efficient war yet seen by mankind, with an Eastern and Western front stretching across Europe for four long years. In 1917 the USA entered the war, which ended with a decisive victory for the Western Allies, just as World War II (Hobsbawm 1994: 21ffi; Zinn 1980: 377ff).

Figure 10.1: Timeline of the wireless medium.
Figure 10.1: Timeline of the wireless medium.

In this war radio had a marginal role as a public medium, but it was important for military communications. Telegraph had revolutionized military communications since the 1840s (Briggs and Burke 2002: 338), and now wireless transmission did so again. Movable units communicated with central command in secret codes, and there were also experiments with the walkie-talkie principle for sound communication. In this regard there was an enormous difference from what took place during World War II, when radio most definitely had an influence on public opinion. Electronic technologies for sound were not widespread except for the telephone system, but notice that Woodrow Wilson was among one of the first politicians to speak successfully through a PA system, at a political rally in 1919 (Schafer [1977] 1994: 114). Both before and after this period there was enthusiastic experimentation with all kinds of electronic technologies. The entrepreneurial drive of great inventors such as Gughelmo Marconi, Reginald Fessenden and Oliver Lodge was crucial to the new developments.

Figure 10.1 shows how remarkably stable the wireless media have been. The continuous transmission that was later to be known as AM and FM broadcasting was functional from the mid-1900s, and works according to essentially the same principles today. Notice that the spark transmission technology that Marconi invented could not compete with the superior technologies of the electron tube, and was gradually superseded. Below the arrow I have listed the telegraph and the telephone, which had both become elementary features of modern societies before 1910 (for studies of the telephone and telegraph, see Brooks 1975 and Pool 1977).The basic experience of instantaneous live signaling was well known from these two media long before wireless transmission came along, and this eased the task of finding a purpose for wireless transmission.

The media environment in the 1910s and 1920s was richer than we might think with hindsight. A relatively wealthy city-dweller in Europe and America would own a telephone, play recorded music on the phonograph, go to the movies to see ‘silent films’, and occasionally send a telegram. We should not forget the enormous influence of written forms, such as newspapers, magazines, books and letters between friends and business partners. This was the age of literacy, with English becoming more and more the language communication as emigration to the USA soared and millions of people acquired a new mother tongue.

The ocean liner Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912. It had been designed to provide a express service between Europe and the USA for the White Star Line. It sank in two hours and forty minutes, but the telegraph operator managed to send distress signals other ships and to the mainland, where the news was relayed to the White House (Briggs and Burke 2002: 156). After this highly publicized event there was much singer public awareness about the benefits of the wireless. As a direct consequence of the disaster, an international ice patrol was established to report on threatening icebergs, and foreign-going passenger ships had to be on radio alert twenty-tour hours a day (Wikipedia 2007, ‘Titanic’).

Going backwards from 1912 the story of live media reaches its starting point and it is becoming a history of disappearance: there are fewer and fewer users’ the technology was less complex and more governed by natural forces and then there was only theoretical knowledge about radio waves among physicists such as Heinnch Hertz and James Clerk Maxwell.

Clearing the channels, 1920s
Innovators and investors were in pursuit of clear channel for the new medium. In the early 1920s technical disturbance was a paramount issue for radio listeners; 75 per cent of the correspondence to the BBC complained about interference and other problems relating to reception (Pegg 1983:40). The ambition of the BBC s chief engineer in 1924 was to ‘enable the listener to forget about the technique of the service’ (quoted in Briggs [1961] 2000: 184) There was so much extraneous noise during transmission that the signal could not be received clearly, and this hampered the public development of radio. During the 1910s and 1920s the research laboratories worked overtime to reduce the interference. The dream was a signal free of noise, which would have greater documentary realism and therefore be more responsive to nuances of expression. Until this problem was solved there could be no mass mediation of sound.

In the late 1920s radio was still noisy, but the act of listening had become a more comfortable experience. The focus was now more on public contact through the medium than the medium itself. The relaxed attitude is expressed by a listener in a newspaper in 1924. ‘Of course, we have become so used to the wonder of wireless (when it is not playing tricks) that we are apt to say, “Oh it is nothing; we often hear that”. Ten years ago, if you had been told that such a thing would be possible in a million British homes, you would have been very hesitant to believe such scientific progress probable’ (quoted in Pegg 1983- 147). Before the period of great public interest in radio, the main attraction was the atmospheric noises of the technology itself. But this was an attraction for the few – mainly military men, ship telegraph operators and interested amateurs. They attended to radio in raw form and took part in the social shaping of the new medium.

The case study for this chapter relates to the raw sounds of atmospheric contact. The term ‘atmospherics’ refers to disturbances of the signal produced by electrical phenomena such as lightning, though it can also refer to the electrical phenomena causing these disturbances. In the early years of broadcasting people would hear the following sounds in attics, garages and aboard ships, and they would always hear them via headphones.

Track 32: Tuning in the AM Spectrum (1:01).

The noises are a reminder of the powerful natural forces that had to be subdued before comfortable communication was possible. The less noisy the contact, the less it reminds us of the technological infrastructure in which it is made. There are two signal sources in this montage — a pulse from some electronic appliance and a Morse signal that waxes and wanes – and there are also indeterminable atmospheric timbres that echo oddly. They typically have a very rapid pulse: at times it is almost screaming, and it soars and sinks according to atmospheric conditions as well as the turning of the tuner knob. Its metallic white noise characteristics are decidedly uncomfortable when listened to tor longer periods of time.

This is not a historical document of the atmospherics of early radio, simply a collage that I have made especially for the book, but it helps us to become aware of atmospheric sounds. Such noises were so noticeable that they infused the listening experience with a strange feeling of alienation. Rather than being put in contact with the world of cultural action, people heard the sounds of the technology and its natural surroundings, sounds that are essentially without meaning (like the sounds of the computer modem), but which had great allure for amateur radio operators, who took pleasure in searching the air waves and savoruring the qualities of the atmosphere.

A natural public sphere
The live communication of wireless was a novel phenomenon with great impact on later mass media. What really distinguished transmission was the great and unbound range of signalling and its inherently open access. The spherical propagation of waves was a natural adjunct of radiation, and although the waves could be harnessed for transmission their signal would always be accessible to a third party with a crystal receiver. Signals could be picked up in several places simultaneously without anyone having control over where it happened or how to prevent it. Far into the 1910s the lack of privacy and confidentiality was considered the chief drawback of wireless. The telegraph communicated between two fixed points and could easily secure privacy for its customers. Broadcast signals, however, were free all to pick up. There was no business model for such a technological set-up. Raymond Williams ([1975] 1990: 24) wrote that broadcasting was a system ‘primarily devised for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definition of preceding content’.

The development of broadcasting is therefore the story of breaking free from the abstract process of signalling back and forth through the air, and turning the nature of transmission into a positive feature. In order for this to happen there would have to be an explicit recognition of the public potential of transmission among station owners. As early as 1893 there was something resembling a broadcast station in Budapest, Hungary. This was Telefon Hiriiwndo, which sent regular programmes through a telephone network. At most they had 6,000 subscribers (Briggs and Burke 2002: 147-8).

But wireless transmission could do better than that. It could potentially reach any person who had a receiver set and was within reach of the transmission tower. Everything depended on inventors, who would acknowledge that this all-inclusive access could have economic potential, and also that it could become a leisure rather than a specialist activity. In 1907 the scientist and entrepreneur Oliver Lodge made an early proposition. ‘It might be advantageous’, he wrote, ‘to “shout” the message, speaking broadcast to receivers in all directions, and for which the wireless system is well adapted.’ He suggested that this shouting could be used ‘for army maneuvers, for reporting races and other sporting events, and generally for all important matters occurring beyond the range of the permanent lines’ (quoted in Briggs [1961] 2000: 32—3). What Lodge talks about is a centralized system of propagation, and it could be called a medium prototype, since his idea was to broadcast to receivers in all directions at the same time, and therefore effectively create a public arena.

In a rudimentary sense there was already a public ethos to transmission. Hugh Aitken (1985: 190) describes how, in order to secure contact, amateurs had to attend to the weather forecast, the humidity and other variables. Among these aficionados there evolved a sense of shared fascination, a community based on a new and intriguing vocabulary with terms for the different noises encountered across the spectrum, and, as I have already noted, a great interest in the sounds of different kinds of resistance, wavelengths and degrees of clarity of signals. As the use of wireless apparatus became more widespread this conversation with and through the atmosphere became more and more varied, from the grassroots up. The development of the internet is a parallel in this regard (Naughton 1999:11). In 1916 David Sarnoff made another early proposition for radio as a domestic medium, where he more or less takes for granted that there is public interest in it.

I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a ‘house
hold utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph … The receiver
can be designed in the form of a simple ‘Radio Music Box’ and arranged
for several different wave lengths, which would be changeable with the
throwing of a single switch or pressing of a single button. The ‘Radio
Music Box’ can be supplied with amplifying tubes and a loudspeaking
telephone, all of which can be neatly mounted in one box. The box can
be placed in the parlor or living room, the switch set accordingly and the
transmitted music received.

(quoted in Barnouw 1966: 78)

Notice that Sarnoff was not talking about a headphone appliance like the crystal set, but one with electronic amplification and a loudspeaker. He was thinking about an inviting and inclusive soundscape that could be shared in the living room much like piano or gramophone music. This is a far cry from the technological timbres of the atmospheric contact at the time of Sarnoff’s memo.

Susan Douglas (1999: 57) has pointed out that ordinary people learnt how to listen to wireless telephone at the same time as stations learnt to broadcast a decent product. Both producers and consumers had ’empty intentions’ that had to be filled with something useful. In this period of pioneer auditory rhetoric during and after World War I it seems that wireless had a more transparent and symmetrical contact than in later years. The medium incorporated a greater sense of mutual innovation, a sense that both parties were in the process of finding out what ought to be the terms of contact. For example, a lot of hesitation, pauses, speech faults and other forms of off-stage expressions came on the air, and there was little concern that this was unsuitable behaviour. The social negotiation of behaviour in the new medium was a crucial part of developments for decades to come.

Marshall McLuhan ([1964] 1994: 8) observes that initially every new medium involves the essence of an old medium, and that innovation in the media progresses by looking in the ‘rear view mirror’. His theoretical adversary Raymond Williams ([1975] 1990: 25) refers to the method of creating content in radio as ‘parasitic’. Both song and speech performances sounded like they had always done, since it had become apparent to producers that ‘the approval of listeners invariably increased in direct proportion to the familiarity of what was being sung or played’ (Briggs [1961] 2000: 68). This conservative attitude meant that public speech styles were adopted from political, religious and educational speech-making. Radio’s approach to orchestra performances was adopted from the concert hall and the gramophone recording studio, the approach to dramatic plays was adapted from the theatre, and the approach to news bulletins about politics, state events and sports was adapted from the newspaper and telegraphy. The wireless was built by grafting familiar public performances on to the new medium and by appropriating already dominant ways of doing things for the mouthpiece.

This did not happen without protest, as one might imagine. The contemporary writer Lindsay Buick (1927: xvi) suggests that the live access to events through wireless broadcasting is an invasion of the domestic sphere. He argued that, although broadcasting will always fascinate some people/there are many to whom, for temperamental reasons, radio would never appeal – people who know what they want, and will not be satisfied merely with what they can get.’ Wireless encourages capriciousness of attention, cultivates a curiosity without direction and teaches the listener to turn on the apparatus with no expectations. Buick displays a concern with the fact that the listener has no control over what he will end up engaging with, except that it happens now and is shared by all listeners. Instead he recommended the ‘calmer culture’ of the gramophone.

The wireless medium
The first fully functional transmission platforms were connected in a symmetrical way, which means that there was no real difference between producers and listeners as we know it today.

Figure 10.2: Model of the wireless medium.
Figure 10.2: Model of the wireless medium.

Figure 10.2 displays the main interfaces, platforms and signal carriers of the early wireless medium. The telegraphic key was an important interface, and the Morse signals went into the amplifier and then to the antenna, where they were beamed out into the surroundings. The producers could also speak to other people on the air, but there were no proper microphones in use, only telephone mouthpieces with very poor sound quality. There were no dedicated sound studios with sound-proofing, and all transmissions that might resemble public progammes (with music, lectures, etc.) were strictly experimental. Notice that the huge mast in figure 10.2 would only be erected by professional organizations such as the military or commercial wireless telegraphony companies. Amateurs could receive the signals on crystal sets, which had headphones and were reception-only devices, though the more well equipped among them owned their own amplifier/transmitter with a mouthpiece and telegraphic key, and could send out their own signals. They would erect relatively big antennas, typically with wires strung on rooftops and between buildings, but they would not have anything resembling the huge mast depicted in figure 10.2.

As noted in the beginning of the chapter there were two different transmission platforms: that constructed by Fessenden (and others), which used electron tubes and sent out continuous signals, and Marconi’s, which sent out digital signals based on electrical sparks. Both platforms could transmit with the same type of antenna, and the user interfaces also worked for both.

At the fundamental level, the technologies of transmission and reception make up a platform of live contact. This live contact was a consequence of the fact that atmospheric transportation takes place at the speed of light, and therefore there is practically no time between sending and receiving a message. In contrast to the gramophone, where the final product had a highly controlled signal composition and was distributed to record shops in the form of discs, transmission introduced an instantaneous mode of public communication.

As suggested before, Lindsay Buick (1927: xiv) was concerned with radio’s absolutely live features/Wireless, as we know it today deals only with things of the moment, with things transitory; it preserves nothing to us. We listen to a broadcasted programme and when it is finished it remains only as a memory’ Rudolf Arnheim stated that the glory of wireless was that it cultivated the ‘inspiration of the moment’ ([1936] 1986: 127). More to the point, he also called wireless an ‘apparatus whose technical peculiarity simply consists in enabling sounds made at a particular spot to be simultaneously reproduced in as many and as far removed places as one wishes by disrespectfully breaking through boundaries of class and country’ (ibid.: 226).

In order to become communicative the new resource had to have a reliable signal carrier of some sort. Waves had to be focused at a certain frequency that both parties could access, and in this common ‘place’ a strong signal had to be available. The technically focused radiations were named carrier waves, and the successful maintenance of such a ‘place’ was called syntony. Hugh Aitken (1976: 34) argues that the development of syntony was crucial to the human colonization of the electromagnetic resource: ‘Syntony, or what we call tuning, is what makes it possible to locate a radio transmitter or receiver at a particular frequency or wavelength in the radiofrequency spectrum and at no other. It is the concept that makes place and rights of occupancy possible.’

Inventors at first presumed that the carrier wave moved straight ahead until it met an obstacle and was then refracted. Under this presumption Marconi experimented with transmission in two ways: ever more transmitting power and ever larger aerials (Aitken 1976:197). In 1901 he raised aerials several hundred feet high to accomplish his transatlantic crossing and also used kite-born aerials extended a thousand feet into the air (Winston 1998: 272). However, it soon turned out that the atmosphere was more complex than the notion of direct waves suggested. For example, experimenters noticed that the range of long waves was much greater at night than during daytime hours. The main reason for Marconi’s success was not the height of his aerial, but the fact that the long waves that he used were carried along the curvature of the earth because of the electrical conductivity of soil and seawater (Inglis 1990: 36). Experimenters realized that different parts of the spectrum had different transportation properties, and because of Marconi’s success with long waves this was where testing was concentrated. Long waves had the advantage of producing steady carrier waves, and were also easy to generate with the equipment available at the time (ibid.).

Speaking into the air, 1910s
As the account of the Titanic in 1912 tells us, at that point it was sensational and very useful to be able to hear a voice on the wireless, and not just atmospherics and Morse code. Here we stumble upon a clear case of technological determinism. It was only on account of the invention of the electron tube that the idea of wireless as a sound medium could begin to be realized in earnest during the 1910s. Without the continuous signalling that the electron tube permitted, no sounds could be conveyed through the air.

The most sensational early sound transmission was probably Fessenden’s experiment on Christmas Eve 1906, when he used long waves to transmit music and speech from his experimental station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. In preparation Fessenden had purchased a good phonograph and several records containing marches by Sousa, arias by Caruso, and violin solos (Douglas 1987: 156).Three days before the showcase, he had notified ships to listen in for his special public transmission. The writer A. E Harlow describes the event:

Early that evening wireless operators on ships within a radius of several hundred miles sprang to attention as they caught the call ‘CQ CQ’ in morse code. Was it a ship in distress? They listened eagerly, and to their amazement heard a human voice coming from their instruments — someone speaking! Then a woman’s voice rose in sound. It was uncanny! … Soon the wireless rooms were crowded. Next someone was heard reading a poem. Then there was a violin solo; then a man made a speech, and they could catch most of the words. Finally, everyone who had heard the programme was asked to write to R. A. Fessenden at Brant Rock, Massachusetts – and many of the operators did.

(quoted in Briggs [1961] 2000: 25)

What must have been especially impressive as far as telegraph operators were concerned is that they could receive sound with crystal receivers made for telegraphy. Aitken (1985: 75) suggests that ‘few if any of them can have heard a human voice through their headphones before.’ Operators ‘were utterly amazed to hear actual voices and musical tones in earphones that up to then had reproduced only static and the harsh dits and dahs of Morse code’ (Head and Sterling 1978: 117). The Fessenden broadcast inaugurated a long period of experiments in sound transmission. Amateurs explored the new realm by reading poetry, playing musical numbers and presenting other types of verbal entertainment at their stations.

I am arguing that the electron tube is a very important material feature of the early sound media, and I will present my argument in detail. Before sound could fill the ether some method had to be found of producing waves that were continuous and consistent in form, and these were called continuous carrier waves. On such a platform it would be easy to superimpose sound as variations of the amplitude of the carrier wave, or more precisely to superimpose an analogue of an electrical signal from a telephonic mouthpiece. In the years from 1904 scientific and engineering work in this direction resulted in the invention and gradual improvement of the electron tube. It was capable of’sensitive, rapid, subtle variations in accordance with the changing volume and pitch of speech’ (Head et ah 1996: 21). The electron tube was variously described as ‘the Cinderella of electrical science’,’the magic lamp of radio’ and ‘the truest “little giant” in all history’, and was also considered the greatest invention since fire, the lever and the wheel (Briggs [1961] 2000: 26). Its prime inventor, Lee de Forest, exclaimed that it gave mankind the power to command ‘electricity itself, not just its manifestations’ (Head and Sterling 1978: 110).

There is good reason for referring to the electron tube as a revolution in wireless communications. As the electron tube was refined it turned out that, in addition to supporting voice analogues, the new platform was far more stable than Marconi’s spark technology (Aitken 1985: 162ff). Firstly, the electron tube carried the signals with very good syntony, and this made reception more reliable as well as reducing the problem of station interference, so that more stations could transmit in the same geographical area. Secondly, it amplified the signal in a much more ‘internally’ powerful way than spark technology, and this increased the range of the signals without need for greater electrical power. Thirdly, when electron tubes were used in receiving equipment it considerably improved the quality of the signal. However, it was very expensive to use tubes in receivers, and the improved reception platform did not become standard until the 1920s (Douglas 1987: 169ffi).

In 1906 the crystal detector was also introduced on the market. At the time the coherer was the only means of receiving signals. This was a very basic device which could only pick up digital signals (dots and dashes). Like the coherer, the crystal detector was purely mechanical, running only on the electricity extracted from the incoming signal. It did not have a good tuning system, and the operator had to hope for good atmospheric conditions in order to receive properly. But it could pick up the continuous waves and translate their energy into an electrical analogue that was audible as sound in headphones. This is an important juncture in broadcasting history, because the sound signals were recognizatly human. The electron tube and the crystal receiver inaugurated the kind of mass mediation we know as ‘sound broadcasting’, and it can be dated to around 1906 (Douglas 1987: 196-7).

Interestingly, the crystal receiver was the first apparatus that was constructed for reception only. It was not only passive-attentive, it was without any means of control over when there would be signalling or what the signals would concern. The user of a gramophone could play a disc with the content imprinted on the label and do so at their leisure, and a user of a telephone could make outgoing calls as well as being notified of incoming signals. But the amateur operator at a crystal receiver would be utterly powerless to control the incoming message; they could only choose the time at which they wished to tune in. They was effectively put in a position of anonymous atmospheric voyeur listening in on other people’s intermittent activities (Aitken 1985: 54-5).

Remember that in the 1900s there were no radio stations with professional content, and wireless was an activity for enthusiasts. Crystal listeners would therefore typically not be active in a social way, nor identify wireless as a stable acoustic medium for sustained conversation and music or concerning the events and trivialities of everyday life. To say that early reception was widespread would be misleading. The most that can be said is that it was an emerging social field, and work was ongoing to extend it towards other types of communication. Until the introduction of well-planned programmes in the 1920s, wireless would remain a homeless cultural experience.

Morse code communication, 1900s
In 1912 there were 1,224 licensed amateur stations in the USA (Head and Sterling 1978: 115), and in 1921 the total number of registered amateurs in Britain was 3,000 (Briggs [1961] 2000: 46).Two-way communication was an experience for experts, and the main users were telegraph and telephone operators, government agents, military personnel, scientists, experimenters, business opportunists and technology freaks. On account of the mess of components, the perceived danger of the electric sparks, and the need for absolute silence when monitoring the ether, most amateur operators dabbled in the barn, the basement or the garage.

Many operators preferred to listen to the Morse code on headphones instead of registering them on the inker – which punched out the Morse signal on strips of paper. The headphones were typically telephone earpieces put to new use, and they had very limited frequency response and poor volume. Operators had to be quite attentive to distinguish the faint Morse signals from the noisy atmospheric resistance that would invariably accompany the signal. When an inker was used for reception, the sending speed could not exceed twelve words per minute because of the mechanical sluggishness of the relay and the inker itself. But a good operator who used earphones could copy thirty-five words per minute, although this presumed that the other operators were able to encode at this speed (Aitken 1985: 190-1).

Operators tuned in patiently through the night, picking up and exchanging signals with people in faraway places, taking down new call numbers, keeping an orderly log — even writing letters to persons who identified themselves sufficiently. These digital-acoustic deciphering skills were an important part of transmission for at least half a century.

The first spark of contact
I will go back to Marconi’s first sparks at the turn of the nineteenth century. Since very few of the processes of transmission were either automated or well functioning, this early state of things gives a more ready access to the fundamental workings of the medium than later configurations.

Marconi invented digital broadcasting in the simple sense that he could only transmit short and long pulses that could be combined into digital codes such as Morse. This digital telegraphy relied on raw electromagnetic force to throw the signals into the air. A powerful electric generator drove current into a circuit that was connected to a Morse key and an aerial made of copper wire. When the Morse key was pushed a series of electrical sparks jumped across a small air gap separating the ends of two metal rods, and these sparks generated radio frequencies that radiated into space. Spark-induced signals thus consisted of a rapid series of separate carrier waves thrown into the air, which was very different from the continuous carrier waves generated by electron tube equipment.

Hugh Aitken (1985: 89) recounts that a spark transmitter placed in service on the American east coast in 1913 gave off’a high-pitched, almost musical note, easily read through static, and up and down the eastern seaboard the distinctive note of the big rotary spark, first from Brant Rock and later from Arlington, became very familiar to naval and commercial operators.’ By 1901 Marconi had constructed a 25 kilowatt spark transmitter that facilitated his famous first signals across the Atlantic. A contemporary journalist described the technology: ‘When the operator pressed the telegraphic key, a spark a foot long and as thick as a man’s wrist, the most powerful electric flash yet devised, sprang across the gap; the very ground nearby quivered and crackled with the energy’ (quoted in Douglas 1987: 56).

The spark platform could not transmit messages in sound, as I have stressed. Hugh Aitken (1976: 11—12) recounts that ‘many people tried to transmit the human voice by modulating the output of a spark transmitter. They all failed. Even at very high spark rates and with low dampening coefficients spark transmitters were too noisy to transmit speech without intolerable distortion.’ As I pointed out above, the carrier wave could only be interrupted to form ‘on’ and ‘off’ signals.

In the first decade nobody had any means for determining where in the radio frequency spectrum a particular carrier wave was (Aitken 1976: 267). Each push of the telegraphic key would emit an explosive signal that would change in frequency as it travelled. Spark-induced waves therefore spread all over the spectrum, and made any one transmitter interfere with all others (Head and Sterling 1978: 108).This made it impossible for transmitters within range of each other to share the frequency spectrum, and the transmission was therefore a unique geographical event. In practice an act of transmission colonized the whole ether. In 1901 de Forest and Marconi both made public demonstrations of their technologies at a boat race in New York, completely ruining each other’s signalling because of this lack of frequency specificity and time-sharing arrangements (Douglas 1987: 56). At that time the maximum reliable transmission distance was around 50 kilometers (Douglas 1987: 31).When transatlantic messaging was accomplished it was thought that only one station in England could transmit to America at a given time (Aitken 1976: 245).

Transmission is a miracle
In the late nineteenth century radio waves were considered a natural miracle. Theories about electromagnetism were put to the test in laboratories and workshops around the world, and slowly the innovators learnt to understand the nature of electromagnetic waves. In this way man gained control over yet another natural resource. In the 1900s and 1910s there was excitement about the harnessing of the raw electromagnetic forces for two-way communication. With pathos the inventor Lee de Forest wrote:’I discovered an Invisible Empire of the Air, intangible, yet solid as granite’ (quoted in Lewis 1991: 1). De Forest

suggested that it was all there to begin with, and that the humans had only to learn to exploit the natural abilities of electromagnetic waves.

In the early decades the electromagnetic resource was typically referred to as ‘the ether’. Literally this means ‘the upper air’, and it resonates with ‘ethereal’, which refers to a quality of unearthly lightness, like that of a spirit or fairy. The ether was a popular conceptual model for the wandering, boundless and fluid character of the carrier waves. There are contemporary descriptions of the atmospheric contact as a ‘wailing of winds lost somewhere in the universe and very unhappy about it’,’celestial caterwauling’ and’noises that roar in the space between the worlds’ (quoted in Peters 1999: 212). It is interesting to note that, at the same time as electromagnetic transmission was introduced to the general public, there was also a great interest in spiritualism. For a period in the 1910s and 1920s it was believed that contact could be made with the dead through the medium of the mysterious ether, and it was fashionable among the middle and upper classes to arrange seances (Sconce 2000; Peters 1999).

By the 1890s the strange waves were under empirical investigation by scientists and electrical engineers. Heinrich Hertz of Germany had demonstrated their nature, and he had also shown that they could be set in motion by certain devices and detected by other devices. The discovery of electromagnetic waves was in many ways analogous to the discovery of a new continent, Hugh Aitken suggests: ‘To be sure, what was discovered was not territory in the geographic sense, and the resources made available for human use were suitable not for settlement, farming, or mining, but primarily for communication’ (1976: 37).This emerging continent had no recognized boundaries, there was no clear understanding of how much room there was, and nobody knew how many ‘places’ could be colonized. Scientists had made the discovery, but engineers had to translate it into terms that businessmen, bureaucrats and communicators could actually deal with. During the 1900s researchers such as Marconi, Fessenden, de Forest and their teams worked to make a cultural resource out of something nobody had ever laid claim to before. Something utterly real was created out of thin air.

For the contemporary person in the 1890s it was intellectually challenging to be told that Morse code or speech could come out of an interface with no connective wires. While the gramophone produced its sound from a tangible rotating disc, and while the telegraph and the telephone at least had wiring throughout the distance between interlocutors, the contact of transmission involved invisible and fugitive qualities that stopped short of collective comprehension. The energy of the signal was radiated through empty space and registered without any sign of’ponderable’ matter (Aitken 1976: 134).

When the mechanical mind first encountered electric technology it exclaimed ‘Whatgreases the darned thing?’ (Marvin 1988: 19).The names coined for the technology demonstrated the need to associate the new devices with more familiar and tangible equipment. ‘Wireless telegraph’ and ‘wireless telephone’ suggest that transmission is like telegraphy or telephony, only without the wires. These retrospective names cut through the strangeness of the new field of contact, and attached transmission to interfaces that were more familiar.

The fact that radio waves could pass through solid objects was especially remarkable and thought-provoking. In 1892 the science writer Sir William Crookes was in a well-informed wonderment at this new world:’Rays of light will not pierce through a wall, nor, as we know only too well, through a London fog. But the electrical vibrations of a yard or more in wave length … will easily pierce such mediums, which to them will be transparent’ (quoted in Barnouw 1966: 9). In addition to acknowledging their existence Sir William expressed expectations that the waves would be utilized for communication, in particular he suggested that they would extend the abilities of the telegraph and telephone/This is no mere dream of a visionary philosopher. All the requisites needed to bring it within the grasp of daily life are well within the possibilities of discovery’The firm grasp that modern science had on the facts of nature made it reasonable that such a platform for communication could emerge ‘from the realms of speculation into those of sober fact’ (ibid.).

The basic technological ambition was to be able to control this radiation as a means to certain ends. Even those who understood the scientific principles behind transmission could be amazed that such instantaneous transportation of signals through thin air was actually possible. J. A. Fleming was one of the inventors of transmission, but nevertheless he was amazed, and in 1911 he wrote:

No familiarity with the subject removes the feeling of vague wonder with which one sees a telegraphic instrument, merely connected with a length of 150 feet of copper wire run up the side of a flagstaff, begin to draw its message out of space and print down in dot and dash on paper tape the intelligence ferried across thirty miles of water by the mysterious ether.

(quoted in Briggs [1961] 2000: 27)

Fleming describes the experiential drama of actually accessing the new realm and making contact through it. Clearly, Fleming and his contemporaries could not conceive of this technology as an environment for news and entertainment among billions of humans. In the twenty-first century, almost a hundred years after Fleming expressed ‘vague wonder’ at the properties of the wireless, people use mobile phones, wireless internet and a host of other wireless communication technologies every day without wondering about them at all. They simply don’t consider wireless transmission to be strange. As I pointed out in relation to the internet in chapter 2, for most people the incomprehensible settles into the habitual and its wonderful properties vanish. Alfred Schutz (1970: 247) writes: ‘The miracle of all miracles is that the genuine miracles become to us an everyday occurrence.’


11. The repeating machine – Music recording, 1920s – 1870s

The gramophone allowed endless repetition of a sound event, and this was to become the most groundbreaking innovation in the history of sound. The machine did not discriminate according to language or musical style; it recorded everything in exactly the same way. It was like Alan Turing’s ‘universal machine’, except that what was universalized was the repetition of sound events.

In this chapter I will describe the first fully successful ways of using the repeating machine for musical purposes. The case studies all demonstrate different aspects of the new art of recording. Bessie Smith was among the first African-American artists to gain a wide audience, singing ‘St Louis Blues’ in 1924 with Louis Armstrong accompanying her. A traditional Swedish folk song is performed by the operatic singer Ellen Gulbranson in 1914. And finally, the powerful presence of Enrico Caruso perforating ‘The Siciliana’ in 1901 concludes the musical analyses in this book. At the very end of the story we will hear the first voice to ever be recorded, that of Thomas Edison.

Backwards history
No other chapter in this book spans so long a historical period. The history of acoustical recording extends from the 1920s back to 1877, that is, from the Weimar republic to the first decade after the American Civil War. This was the age of empire, and the European powers were still stronger than the USA in both the economic and military sense (Hobsbawm 1989).The British Empire stretched all across the globe, with India as the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown. The economic historian Arnold Toynbee popularized the term ‘the industrial revolution’ in the 1880s, and it seems like a good epithet for this period (Bnggs and Burke 2002: 120). The railway, the steam engine and all kinds of industrial wonders were prevalent in society, and it was the age of natural resources, progress and technological control (Beniger 1991). In the late nineteenth century technologies were still made of wood and metal and of large moving parts, and involved all kinds of grinding, welding and fine-tuning of the equipment. It was all quite heavy and solid, in contrast to the later electronic technologies.

Figure 11.1: Timeline of acoustic recording media.
Figure 11.1: Timeline of acoustic recording media.

As a way of introducing the culture of early recording I will refer to the experimental methods of late nineteenth-century inventors. Modern industry and mechanization had influenced innovators for decades, but Thomas Edison and other American inventors developed this into a science. This period marked ‘the invention of the method of invention’ (Schafer [1977] 1994: 72), and the mindset of inventors had great influence on developments in the mass media. There was keen experimentation with new technologies across all industries. There was brutal competition in a fluctuating market and patent wars lasted for decades, but there was great optimism through it all. The drive towards the electrification of society is of special importance, since it bears on all the electronic media that came after acoustic recording. Edison invented a functional light bulb in the 1890s and promoted electricity as a domestic infrastructure for lighting. The Niagara Falls were harnessed for electrical power by Nikola Tesla also in the 1890s, and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and started building networks in the 1880s. Ordinary people really became aware of the change towards electrical platforms when brightly coloured neon signs were introduced on the streets of New York in 1904 (Briggs and Burke 2002: 340). Although there was no electricity involved, acoustic recording also impressed the public. The fact that sound signals could be transported through time and space on a feeble disc was a scientific miracle just as impressive as the telephone, the electric light and the movies.

Figure 11.1 shows that acoustic recording dominated for over fifty years, from 1877, when Edison first proved its functionality, to the mid-1920s, when the microphone and electric recording techniques replaced it. Notice that Berliner’s rotating disc was the really successful recording platform. And although it had a relatively short life as a strictly acoustic technology, the rotating disc lived on first as 78 with electrical pick up and later in the form of singles, LPs and indeed CDs in our own time. While Edison’s cylinder phonograph was the only platform for several decades in the late nineteenth century it never became a mass medium, and became obsolete in the early 1920s (for detailed accounts of early recording, see Sterne 2003; Millard 2005;Wurtzler 2007).

The strongest mass medium in the 1910s was the movies. We call them silent movies, but Rick Altman (2004) has clarified that there were all kinds of sounds being made in the movie theatres, from piano playing and orchestras to sound effects made by local staff.The first Hollywood studio was built in 1911 (Briggs and Burke 2002: 340), and there were countless improvements and innovations to the silver screen in the decades to come.

Most of the media we live with in the 2000s had not yet been invented. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, there was no radio broadcasting, and private homes were very quiet at night. In 1901, at the time of Caruso’s international debut, the phonograph was so new and expensive that it was still a showcase item and not a consumer appliance. The only widespread sound medium at the turn of the century was the telephone. But in 1888, at the time of the oldest recording on the soundtrack to this book, not even the telephone had anything resembling a regular function in society.

The recording artist, 1924
Acoustic recording was at its technological and cultural pinnacle in the early 1920s. By this time a prominent new profession had emerged alongside those of the operatic singer, the virtuoso instrumentalist and the cabaret artist – that of the recording artist. The most famous recording artist of them all was Enrico Caruso, to whom I will return later in the chapter. Popular music was now available to music lovers on disc, and not just at concerts or in the form of sheet music. Records sold in the hundreds of thousands and far outstripped the audience reach of the concert scene. With recording came a democratization of the means of production because musicians without formal training now had a better chance of a genuine career. Simon Frith (1998: 231) suggests that acoustic recording was instrumental in the emergence of jazz, basically because aspiring artists could learn from records and expand on what they heard, regardless of their social status or where they lived.

In the USA African-American singers and players had a chance to achieve real artistic success (Kennedy 1994). The first case study in this chapter is a recording with Bessie Smith singing ‘St Louis Blues’, a standard song that is associated equally with blues and jazz. W C. Handy’s original version (1922) was orchestrated for a big band and was full of instrumental embellishments. Bessie Smith’s version is simpler and more intense. The recording was made on acoustic gramophone in 1925.

Bessie Smith in the studio. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.
Bessie Smith in the studio. Illustration: Atle Skorstad.

Track 33: Bessie Smith: St Louis Blues, 1925 (1:37).

St Louis woman, with her diamond rings,
Pulls my man around by her apron strings.
Wasn’t for powder and this store-bought hair,
That man I love wouldn’t go nowhere, nowhere [she shouts]
I got this St Louis blues, just as blue as I can be.
He’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea,
Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me.


This is a band of three musicians, with Bessie Smith being accompanied by Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw on harmonium. All through the recording there is a beautiful duet between the voice and the cornet which sometimes sounds like two cornets, partly because Smith and Armstrong aligned their performances to create this effect, and partly because the acoustic horn distorts Smith’s voice so much that it almost sounds like a cornet anyway.

Bessie Smith sings with an intensity that resembles that of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, but it is the way that personal character is project in the singing rather than the sound of the voice that is similar (McClary 2003). She has a strong, determined voice that projects the blues mood very well. Her intensity falters at one point in the performance, during the line ‘That man I love wouldn’t go nowhere, nowhere!’, for the repetition of ‘nowhere’ is shouted in a quite vulgar way that does not conform to the mood of the song. Louis Armstrong also has a strong presence on the recording. It sounds as if he sings along with Bessie Smith, and that the cornet is an extension of his voice. ‘St Louis Blues’ and the various performances by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong have been analysed prolifically by musicologists over the years.

The Bessie Smith recording demonstrates the type of documentary realism that was widespread in the 1920s and before. In acoustic recording there were obviously no microphones or electrical amplification, instead there was a quite big acoustic horn which funnelled the sound to the disc-cutting machine. The acoustic gramophone recorded events exactly as they occurred in a locale, except that high and low frequencies were missing and there were a range of disturbances on account of resonance and other technical shortcomings (Gronow and Saumo 1998: 56). This means that, although the signal was a poor reflection of the sound quality of the performance, it was a highly credible reflection of the event of the performance. Nobody would dispute that these events had actually happened, and furthermore had happened exactly as they were heard on the disc. Bad sound could not alter this basic fact.

Spinning the disc
In 1913 Claude Debussy wrote: ‘In a time like ours, when the genius of engineers has reached such undreamed of proportions, one can hear famous pieces of music as easily as one can buy a glass of beer’ (quoted in Eisenberg 1987: 55). The really big cultural innovation that sound recording introduced was that opportunity to enjoy the sounds themselves without regard to the musicians or their feelings. The music lover could play the discs whenever they wanted, providing a brand new way of relating to music.

The next case study is a Swedish folk song called ‘Ack Wärmeland du sköna’, and it was recorded in 1914 by the international operatic star Ellen Gulbranson. The melody is well known and very touching to many Swedes because of its national-romantic melody and lyrics. Notice that in this case I have played the 78 rpm on a 1904Victrola (and re-recorded it to computer file). This process makes the playback sound as similar as possible to the way it would have sounded when it was released and played by music lovers in the 1910s. In this reproduction Gulbranson sounds very far away, and there is something unnerving and unpleasant about the sound.

Track 34: Ellen Gulbranson: Ack Warmeland du skona, 1914 (1:09).

Oh Wärmeland, what a beautiful, wonderful land,
The crown among the counties of Sweden.
And if I were to reach the promised land,
To Wärmeland I would return.
Yes, there I will live, and there I will die.
If ever I found a girl from Wärmeland,
I know I would never leave her.


Gulbranson sings to piano accompaniment. The recording is shrill, and it seems as if she has to sing as loudly as she can to get through, which makes her voice sound quite strained and in addition means it is difficult to make out the words. Adding to these technical limitations, she sings in a very neutral way, especially if compared with charismatic singers such as Bessie Smith and Enrico Caruso. Like Charles Panzera, Gulbranson was an art singer, and there was no expectation that she might be singing about her own life. There are no assumptions of truly personal emotions in this type of singing.

In Sweden the audience would nevertheless be satisfied, because they would in any event recognize the song and know the lyrics. It was quite typical for record companies to release ‘standard songs’, where the attraction was to hear a well-known hymn, lullaby or chanson. In such cases the listener would know the lyrics and the melody from before, so it wouldn’t matter that it was difficult to distinguish the words. We can imagine a hundred situations in which this Swedish ballad was played and where no one was really concerned about the sound quality. The gramophone was not so much a device for listening to pleasant music as a device for a pleasant sing-along. On many a summer night people would gather around the gramophone to sing in approximately the way that Sergei Prokofiev describes in 1909:

One of the peasants has bought himself a gramophone. And now every evening this invention of the devil is placed outside his hut, and begins to gurgle its horrible songs. A crowd of spectators roars with delight and joins in with their own false renditions of the songs, dogs bark and wail, the cows returning from the fields moo and run in all directions, and someone in a neighboring hut accompanies in a wrong key on his accordion.

(quoted in Eisenberg 1987: 70)

Simon Frith argues that ‘we express ourselves through our deployment of other people’s music’ (1998: 237). His point is that people shape the musical experience as much by their own desires and purposes as those of the people who actually made the music. With gramophone recording this interpretative freedom was greatly expanded at the expense of the musician’s control over how music was to be experienced, and this is probably the reason why Prokofiev describes the peasant’s activities in such a condescending way. The musician has become a tool for generalized participation in music. Anecdotal evidence suggests that listeners were not satisfied with the sound quality of the gramophone/phonograph. In 1923 The Gramophone published an article called ‘A Defence of the Gramophone’, wherein it was pointed out that fidelity had improved more than most members of the audience realized. ‘To them it is an infernal machine which makes all music sound as if it is being played by nursery soldiers. They decry it. ‘The writer admits that the full volume of an orchestra or a piano cannot yet be rendered satisfactorily. Nearly always the piano resembles a banjo, and the time restriction entails that, ‘far too often, the music has been ruthlessly cut’. But mainly the writer praises the results of the ‘incessant search for improvement’, and he is confident that these deficiencies will be diminished in the near future. And even now, he concludes: ‘it is possible to be altogether absorbed in a fine piece of music which is being performed by means of the gramophone – to be moved by it and absorbed in it as one would be in the concert hall’ (Gelatt 1977: 202—3).The last sentence is a recommendation of causal listening, which means that one should listen for the traces of the external source. Perhaps the writer in The Gramophone thought it absurd to listen to the quality of the recorded sounds themselves as long as the technical quality was so poor.

Pop idol, 1901
The recordings of Enrico Caruso demonstrate a musical and technical craft that is complete. There are no weaknesses, no clumsiness or amateurship in these recordings; rather, there is great skill in making the equipment perform maximally within its limited potential. By the early 1900s the skills and innovations in engineering had made the gramophone into a proper medium, that is, an industrial, conventionally regulated medium for making and selling music. Operatic recordings by Caruso and artists such as Nellie Melba, Lauritz Melchior and John McCormack sold in the millions during the 1900s and 1910s (Gelatt 1977: 142). They were the culmination of a practice that had been refined for more than twenty years.

The last musical example was made backstage at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1901 (sleeve notes to the LP 20 Great Tenors in Recording History, Tap records, T-303). After setting up the equipment and perhaps rehearsing the performance, the recordist would signal for Caruso and the piano player to begin, and they would have rehearsed the timing so that the aria was completed before the needle neared the end of the disc. This is continuity realism in its natural form.

Track 35: Eurico Caruso: The Siciliana, 1901 (1:08).

Ntra la porta tua lu sangu e sparsu,
E nun me mporta si ce muoru accisu
E si ce muoru e vaju’ n paradisu
Si nun ce truovo a ttia, mancu ce trasu.
E si ce muoru e vaju’ n paradisu
Si nun ce truovo a ttia, mancu ce trasu.


This sounds wonderful! To my ears Caruso’s voice is so rich in emotion that it doesn’t matter what he is singing about. This recording from 1901 has none of the weaknesses of the Gulbranson recording from 1914, and is due to the wonderful pitch and timbres of Caruso’s voice and the skills of the acoustic technicians who made the recording. Caruso’s voice carries much better across the hundred years of technological innovation than those of many of his contemporaries who also released recordings (for a description of Caruso’s early career, see Millard 2005: 59-60).

My point is that there is nothing lacking in this recording. The frequency spectrum of Caruso’s voice fits perfectly with the frequency spectrum that could be recorded with the early gramophone. ‘Caruso’s strong voice and slightly baritonal quality helped drown out the surface noise inherent in the early discs, and his vocal timbre seemed peculiarly attuned to the characteristics of the acoustic recording diaphragm’ (Gelatt 1977: 115).

With the new recording practices there was a change in the focus of listening among artists. With recording it would not be the natural sound of the orchestra in a concert hall that mattered most, but the sounds from the acoustic horn. The recordist did not attend to musical qualities, only to qualities of volume, dynamic range and balance or distinctiveness of instruments in relation to each other. But still the work of technicians resembled the work of conductors, except that the sound went directly to the cutting machine, and not to a resonant concert hall full of people. It was always a matter of balancing the instruments in relation to each other.

The acoustic disc medium
The techniques I have described took place in a medium that was incredibly simple compared with the magnetic and digital media that came later. This simplicity is important, because it displays the most basic functionalities that must be there for mass communication to come about. The historical accumulation of equipment and creative techniques on top of this basic platform is remarkable. In the remainder of this chapter I will describe its first functionalities in detail, but since the invention of acoustic recording is in two separate trajectories, I will describe first Berliner’s gramophone and at the very end Edison’s phonograph.

Figure 11.2: Model of acoustic disc recording.
Figure 11.2: Model of acoustic disc recording.

Figure 11.2 shows the interface, platform and signal carrier for the acoustic gramophone. It is easy to see how exposed the components of the technology are compared with later versions, where electrical amplification and miniaturization of the components made it natural to encase them for protection. The acoustic horn had approximately the same function as the microphone has today, but it was almost self-explanatory in comparison. The singer would literally project his voice into a funnel, which focused the sound waves and caused them to set a thin pointed stylus into motion.

One feature in particular defined the gramophone as a proper platform of mass communication. It was from the beginning split in two distinct interfaces: the complicated and sensitive process of engraving musical vibrations as grooves on a disc and the simple act of playing records on the consumer turntable. The process of communication consisted of two completely opposing physical functions: one stored sound waves, the other radiated sound waves. On the basis of this double interface the gramophone could become a mass medium in the true sense.

It is important to describe the simple and robust way in which this industrialization could take place. The gramophone was invented in the 1890s and is commonly credited to Entile Berliner. As I have already mentioned, the gramophone was based on the principle that a sharp needle made a trace on the surface of a wax disc which rotated at 78 revolutions per minute. The flat disc rotated horizontally on a turntable, and this principle made it feasible for it to be copied industrially, while Edison’s cylinder was much larger and inconvenient for industrial copying (more about this later). From the original recording several matrices could be made, so that it was possible to press the copies of a particular performance at record factories in different cities and countries more or less simultaneously (Gronow and Saunio 1998: 10). By 1897 Berliner had added a clockwork motor to make the machine rotate independently of the shaky hand of the operator (Moore 1999: 28). The listener had to crank the handle approximately thirty times to make a three minute recording come out at the correct speed, and was instructed that the needle should be replaced after each playing. Music lovers were also warned that the discs were easily broken and had to be handled with great care.

The signal carrier was a round disc in which the signal was carved with a stylus. Roland Gelatt points out that such acoustic recordings played back on mechanical equipment could only reproduce the range from 168 Hz to 2,000 Hz. while the full-body range of sound is 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. ‘This did not augur well for an expansive or vivid kind of sound. But it was recognizable as the sound of an orchestra; it was music, not tooting; and it gave pleasure’ (Gelatt 1977:204). Since acoustic recording was strictly a mechanical technology it was also more resistant to human control than any later sound medium. Michael Chanan (1995: 131) refers to the mechanical limitations as ‘the tyranny of the needle’. There was no amplification of sound at any point between recording and playback. It was the sheer force of the sound pressure coming from the singers and instrumentalists that carved the groove. More precisely the acoustic horn funnelled the sound pressure down onto a sensitive diaphragm that caused a crystal needle to engrave the vibrations into the surface of a rotating disc (MacFarlane 1917: 24).This meant that a loud sound would make a wide tracing that would take up much space on the disc, while a soft sound would make a narrower tracing. In the beginning there was no standardized signal; rather, the very characteristics of the musical instrument would determine the fluctuations of the needle. Steve Jones (1992: 22) observes that ‘it would be possible to fit ten minutes of a piccolo solo on a disc, whereas it would be possible to fit only five minutes of the same part performed on bassoon.’ Loud pieces would be recorded more distinctly than quiet ones, and this was important for the listening conventions of the early acoustic gramophone.

Balancing the recording
The only thing recordists could do was to balance the sound sources in relation to each other. Notice that this was a well-established practice in concert halls and at the opera. The different voices, for instance, soprano and baritone, would have to be perfectly balanced, and the different parts of the orchestra would require different volume levels, which meant that the musicians had to stand at different distances from the acoustic horn. The early recordings sound so straightforward that it is hard to appreciate the careful work that has gone into them. Listening again to Bessie Smith, Ellen Gulbranson and Enrico Caruso you will notice that the intended solo voices are actually in focus, the intended background sounds are actually in the background, and, most importantly, there are no unwanted sounds (except the noises of the recording itself). The people in charge of balancing the recording had to workhard if the listener was to have a pleasurable and harmonious musical experience. Indeed, the record would not have been released at all without the balance being adequate.

To achieve such a balance the band members had to be placed in unconventional ways around the horn in a manner that Lindsay Buick (1927: 102) called the ‘grotesque pantomime of the old recording studios’. Since there was only one acoustic horn for each recording machine, and since it was highly impractical to mix partial recordings on a new disc, every instrumentalist had to orient themselves to the single pickup. The instruments had to be positioned according to their natural volume and whether they were to have a prominent or background role in the piece.

There are contemporary descriptions of the musicians’ behaviour in the studio that display the characteristics of the acoustic production technique. Musicians had to stand in the weirdest positions in order for the recording to sound good. Columbia’s London studio was made for operatic or classical music recording. A description from 1911 tells how there were platforms of varying heights to allow the instruments to project their sound on top of each other in a cone-like arrangement towards the horn. The violins were nearest the horn. ‘The French horns, having to direct the bells of their instruments towards the recording horn, would turn their backs on it and were provided with mirrors in which they could watch the conductor’ (quoted in Gelatt 1977: 180). In the Gennett studio in Richmond, Indiana, there was a parallel practice in the early 1920s. ‘Certain musicians, such as banjo players, sat on high stools in front of the horns. Naturally, louder brass players were positioned in the back’ (Kennedy 1994: 31).

Furthermore, musicians had to move back and forth according to the role of their instrument during the course of the piece. The director had to motion to vocalists when to lean in close and when to duck or step away from the horn to allow instrumental solos. ‘Inexperienced phonograph singers who had not yet learned how to control their voices or step back during loud passages had to be physically jerked to and fro during recording sessions to ensure a good product’ (Morton 2000: 21). According to Lindsay Buick, ‘No artist could give of his or her best under such conditions. We can only marvel that records in the past have been so good, and admire the skill of the singers and the recording experts who made them’ (1927: 102—3).

Again I will return to the ideal of documentary realism. Nothing was to destroy the listener’s illusion that they were sitting in Philharmonic Hall rather than their living room. ‘The art of recording was not to compete for the public’s aesthetic attention to the art that was being recorded’ (Kealy [1979] 1990:211). The sound engineers’ greatest achievement came about if their work was completely inaudible, and Edward Kealy refers to this objective as ‘concert hall realism’. Unwanted sounds were not to be recorded, or at least were to be minimized, and desired sounds were to be recorded without distortion and with satisfying balance of volume and pitch. Between 1915 and 1925 the Edison Company embarked on a series of public demonstrations called ‘tone tests’. ‘These tests challenged the audience to detect the difference between the sound of new Diamond Disc records and the sound of the performers who made them’ (Morton 2000: 22). There was little scientific credibility to these tests, and they were invariably staged for optimal results. Edison tried to convince the public that the phonograph, unlike a real instrument, had no ‘tone’ and instead faithfully reproduced the original sound without adding or subtracting anything. In short, the record was supposed to sound just like the original event (ibid.: 23). This was a clear articulation of the quest for ‘perfect’ or transparent sound.

Artists with an interest in experimentation had difficulties making use of the recording platform. ‘The central artistic problem that they all faced was the weight of the documentary status of the recorded sound, the vocation of the recording for overt mimesis: its dogged faithfulness to the original, its empirical matter-of-factness’ (Chanan 1995: 139). The gramophone reinforced ideals of musical presentation that existed in the concert hall, albeit with far inferior sound quality. Theodore Adorno ([1934] 1990: 57) criticized gramophone recording in light of its function as a mere transport medium. He said that the disc stores and reproduces ‘a music that is deprived of its best dimension, a music, namely, that was already in existence before the phonograph record and is not significandy altered by it’.

Analytic listening
I have discussed the technique of analytic listening before, and now I will describe its very first appearance. One of the interesting new experiences that came about with the gramophone was the opportunity of hearing one’s own voice without speaking, or for that matter of hearing oneself playing the piano without playing. Neither the telephone nor the wireless could do this. Sound recording made it possible to hear one’s own voice ‘infused with a lesser distribution of body because it will be a voice heard without bone conduction’ (Kahn 1999: 7). It seems reasonable to say that such lack of bone conduction created a reflexive, distanced and also potentially more critical way of relating to one’s own performance.

A magazine advertisement from the 1900s shows the self-confident way in which ‘the Great Coquelin’ related to this feature of repetition. ‘Your wonderful Gramophone has at last given me what I have so much desired, the surprise and (shall I confess it?) the pleasure of hearing myself.’ The third-person perspective on himself did not put Coquelin off, rather it made him identify all the more with the perspective of his audience. ‘I have heard the recitation “Les Limacons” […] and my word … I did what I have seen the public do for a long time, I laughed’ (quoted in Gelatt 1977: 64).

The opportunity to hear one’s performance over and over again of course made performers and technicians aware of all kinds of ways in which to improve the quality of the recording. All the time it would be the sound qualities as contained on the disc that mattered, and nothing else. Musicians have always wanted to sound good, but now this ambition had to be directed to the functionalities of the gramophone. The artists and producers would listen intently to the recording to find out what worked well and what worked poorly, and how to improve matters in the next session.

Performers and technicians learnt to notice whether a sound was suitable for recording. ‘As one learns what to listen for, and as one understands more about sound and how it is used, his or her ability to remember material increases proportionally’ (Moylan 1992: 153—4). People who are accomplished singers know what to listen for when they evaluate a singer’s competence, and those who are accomplished recording artists know what to listen for when evaluating a recording. Certain sound qualities can only be appreciated if a parallel sound-producing practice is mastered. This training process is similar to learning a foreign language. First people can barely express themselves, but if they are clever they may learn not just to make themselves understood but to express themselves more thoroughly, and continue to expand their knowledge for years and decades to come.

Analytic listening presumes a highly specific perceptual knowledge acquired by trial and error, recording and playback evaluations and public response. This technique of listening evolved along with a vocabulary and tacit understanding that only other professionals would hear and appreciate. A new expressive field was identified in this process, and it was largely internal to the medium. There was no other creative practice where things were done in the same way (remember that sound film was not yet a reality).

On record forever
The phonograph’s first practical function was as a showcase item. An advertisement for an Edison trade show in 1878 refers to ‘The Miracle of the 19th Century’ and the ‘Talking Machine’. ‘It will Talk, Sing, Laugh, Crow; Whistle, Repeat Cornet Solos, imitating the Human Voice, enunciating and pronouncing every word perfectly, IN EVERY KNOWN LANGUAGE’ (quoted in Gelatt 1977: 64). The Edison laboratory conceived of the phonograph mainly as a speech dictation machine that would be useful in offices, and also as a device for reinforcing long-distance telephone signals at relay stations (Welch and Burt 1994: 13). Notice that these are functions that do not require copies, and which have nothing to do with mass mediation.

In 1888 Edison was on a publicity tour to London, where he gathered together a group of important gentlemen for an elegant supper. They were presumably discussing more ways of promoting Edison’s device, and the prospect of recording and distribution music must have been high on the agenda. The final case study is of Thomas Edison and the British composer Arthur Sullivan speaking into the horn. First they have enjoyed the excellent dinner, and now it is time for a practical demonstration of the new wonder. This recording was not intended as a public document; rather it was a gimmick for the people gathered there and then. The main attraction was that the speakers and the other dinner guests could hear their own voices played back from the machine right away.

Track 36: Thomas Edison with Arthur Sullivan, 1888 (1:28).

Edison: Little Menlo, October 5, 1888, register. Continuation of introduction of friends. Now listen to the voice of Sir Arthur Sullivan: Sullivan: Dear Mr Edison, if my friend Edmund Yates has been a little incoherent it is in consequence of the excellent dinner and good wines that he has drunk. Therefore I think you will excuse him. He has his lucid intervals. For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record for ever. But all the same I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discoverv. Arthur Sullivan.

Thomas Edison sounds quite relaxed in comparison with the composer. He has introduced many other friends before, and does it in a business-minded way without any high-flying eloquence. Arthur Sullivan, on the contrary, conceives of this as a solemn occasion and speaks with typical British solemnity. This is the first time his voice was being recorded, and Sullivan must have been acutely aware that he was speaking into the future. In light of the fact that he was putting himself on record forever, he might have chosen his words more carefully. At the beginning of his address he makes fun of one of the other dinner guests for his drunken behaviour, and it sounds as if there is general laughter among the guests. Nevertheless, Sullivan has an interesting objection to the invention of the phonograph. He is ‘terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record for ever’.

Figure 11.3: Model of acoustic cylinder recording.
Figure 11.3: Model of acoustic cylinder recording.

Sullivan is a composer, and naturally he would be concerned with the musical uses of the phonograph. And, indeed, Edison’s phonograph is commonly conceived of as the fundamental technology for music recording, at least in the Anglo-American context. But this is a later interpretation that doesn’t sit well with the facts. Because of the difficulty in making copies, the cylinder phonograph was ill-suited to becoming a mass medium, and it went out of prodcu-tion around 1920 (Morton 2000: 20-2).

Figure 11.3 displays the interface, platform and signal carrier of Edison’s phonograph. It is easy to see how simple the technology is compared with the later versions, where microphones, mixing boards and not least a large number of discs are part of the set-up. But the most striking difference from the other medium models is that there is only one platform involved. The cylinder phonograph did not rely, like all other recording media discussed in this book, on two different platforms for production and for reception, but could record and play back the sound on one and the same piece of machinery. Notice also that the cylinder signal carrier is quite large and unwieldy compared to the rotating disc of Berliner’s gramophone.

Every cylinder was an original, and in order to make ten recordings of a performance ten phonographs would have to be placed in front of the singer and cranked by ten assistants (Gronow and Saunio 1998: 4). In later and more developed versions, Edison found a way of copying the cylinders with wax coating, but this was cumbersome and could not compete with the industrial copying of discs for the gramophone. Furthermore, the cylinder machine had very bad sound quality and none of the moving parts were standardized. This meant that, if Edison cranked the handle unevenly while recording, to make the results sound natural he had to crank it with the same unevenness during playback. Furthermore the grooves were impermanent on account of the soft material used to coat the cylinder, and would be ground down quickly in playback. The dynamic range and volume of the sound were poor because of the primitive diaphragm technology, and great care had to be taken to avoid blasting and hissing noises (MacFarlane 1917:37).
Although Edison’s phonograph was not a true mass medium, it was clearly an enormous technological breakthrough. In the literature of sound studies the story about Edison’s first successful recording in 1877 figures prominently. At the fifty-year anniversary celebration in 1927 Lindsay Buick tells the story about the first recording:

The final adjustments having been made, Edison took hold of the crank and gave the cylinder a few turns, then spoke into the recording tube the first verse of Sarah J. Hale’s nursery classic: ‘Mary had a little lamb, Its fleece was white as snow, And everywhere that Mary went, The lamb was sure to go’. So far as the human eye could discern, all that had happened was that there was a slight scratch on the surface of the tinfoil, but to Edison, with his previous experience of paper records, that scratch meant much. When the crank of the machine was turned back, and this little groove was placed opposite the reproducing needle, it was found that Mary had the lamb all right. No sooner had Edison, with bated breath, begun to turn the handle again, than there came back to him his very words clothed in his very accent. Not, it is true, so loudly as he had pronounced them, but loud enough and clear enough to leave no doubt that the machine had spoken and that the problem of reproducing the human voice was indisputably solved.

(Buick 1927: 40)

Before this invention was made people had lived without reproduction of human voices. Going backwards through history there are fewer and fewer users until there are none at all. The technology is less well functioning and less complex until there are only first-generation prototypes in the laboratory. Ultimately the backwards history brings us to a time when there were no sound media, and the story ends.

Go to: Sound Media: References, soundtrack supplement and acknowledgements