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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 3
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The Twentieth Century and the Birth of Audio Technology: Some thoughts on where we’ve been and where we might be going.
by John Pearsall
 

Dedication

I would like to dedicate this two part article on the "Audio Century" to my friend and long time colleague, David G. Morris. On March 23rd, 1999, David had a fatal coronary and left behind his many friends in the audio and train club communities. David was my friend for over 31 years and his early death at age 54 has left a large void in my life. A dedicated audio enthusiast, in David’s 2000 sq. ft. house were three audio systems plus a video surround system. Having logged three decades in his audio hobby, he was also a regular at the Oregon Triode Society meetings in the early 90’s. His insightful observations and the discussions we had through the years have influenced this pair of articles in very positive ways.

I still reach for the phone to tell him the latest news because he was there for so many years.

Now he isn’t.

Elvis of the grinding pelvis unhinged Ed Sullivan as guardians of public virtue locked up their daughters. Dwight David Eisenhower puttered on the golf course while D-Day and Hiroshima became fading memories. Suddenly, salvation arrived wearing white buck shoes and a toothy smile. A clean-cut youngster called Pat Boone, distant grandson of Daniel, moved up the charts with "Wonderbread" renditions of Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. And there was a whole lotta’ shakin’ goin’ on...

Ladies and gentlemen—the fifties

As it was then and likely will always be, puberty arrives with the subtlety of hurricane season. We begin the rocky transition to our adult years with sap rising in our loins and a zit on our nose. We try to impress mom and dad with a kind of studied non-conformity as our need to declare a separate identity becomes ever more urgent. But, after playing the rebel for a couple years and driving our parents bonkers, teenage behavior gradually becomes less appealing as new insights appear. I made a discovery about teenhood: Non-conformity actually meant being conformist. Why is that? Because non-conformity is what teenagers do!

Somewhere along the way, we discover some poetry hiding in our souls, so we reach outside ourselves, hoping to find a new focus, an involving passion, something that will engage us spiritually, totally, leading to a discovery of great intensity and beauty. Sometimes our passion is not shared by our parents or most of our school friends, but it’s something we love and can call our own. In my quest, two things resonated with my youthful artistic instincts: Music and audio.

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So, let’s return to the nifty fifties and the deceptively simple Eisenhower years. My newly discovered passion for high quality audio and its resulting musical odyssey, in the parlance of the times, was known as being a "Hi-Fi Bug" or a "Hi-Fi Nut." Seldom referred to as a hobbyist, aficionado or enthusiast, I winced at terms that suggested bug spray or the funny farm. I may have been a little too single minded, but I didn’t think so at the time.

How did the audio hobby find me in the monaural fifties? A magazine article? An enthusiastic description of the audio experience from someone? Perhaps it was a friend’s audio system, lovingly constructed from Heathkit, Knightkit or Eico amplifiers, a quality home-brew speaker using Electro-voice, JBL, Stephens or University loudspeaker components and, finally, an LP turntable, usually of British or Swiss origins. And if your friend was sufficiently affluent, an open reel stereo tape deck might have been added as the ultimate quality music source. (With the 1955 introduction of half-track stereo tape, a "Hi-Fi" system could be transformed into the goose-bumpy thrill of "Full Stereo.") But, even if you could afford a quality tape player and recorded stereo tapes, two channel conversion was frightfully expensive: It required two of everything: two amps, two speakers and they had to be identical for good imaging. The system owner could quickly run out of cash and room space. Most of us stayed with mono LPs and FM radio.

My friends and I lived near a fairly large city, so our audio systems usually got their start with a lot of reading followed by a demonstration in a Spokane Hi-Fi dealer’s sound room. My decision to buy a quality sound system was made one Saturday afternoon in October 1955. I was in a sound room at 20th Century Sales and my sales lady was a classy, well informed woman called Liz. ( Liz always carefully and distinctively pronounced the popular British turntable with a "hard G" (Garr-ard’) instead of the more usual (Jer-ard’).) See? My memory retains the immediacy, the time, place, and season for my baptism in the art of audio about 47 years ago.

During a sound room demonstration, it dawned on me that the only reliable way to have audio magic every day was to own it. I should mention that my first record playing system was a hodge-podge including a crude record changer, some 78’s and various hand-me-downs from the jukebox industry. I was only thirteen and very motivated. Mr. Farley at the furniture store accepted several dollars for the guts of a wheezy old Wurlitzer jukebox and an old turntable. My ancient stuff sounded just fine as I bumbled through the transition from 78s to LPs. But once I heard what was possible in sound reproduction, resistance was futile. I couldn’t listen to my jukebox system with enthusiasm anymore.

What to do? I didn’t think I could raise the cash for new equipment, but I felt the strongest urge to build a modern listening system for my bedroom, my inner sanctum, as far away from my little brother and sister as possible. I looked forward to listening to music and magic every day. The first two months of the 11th grade were hyperactive as I busted my butt and budget assembling my first decent record playing system. I auctioned off any expendable treasures to friends, cashed in a War Bond and sneaked a substantial sum out of my savings account. (Money I’d earned the old-fashioned way by mowing lawns and delivering the Spokane Daily Chronicle.) I didn’t tell my parents exactly what I was doing, but I didn’t lie either, so they didn’t press me on it. (Enlightened moms and dads will sometimes pretend not to notice when their first born is on a vision quest.)

My first experience with good sound was on an exalted level and it was life-changing, a musical (bleepin’) epiphany. It was all there! Thrilling immediacy, vitality, rhythmic excitement, firmly controlled bass that actually had pitch, sizzling transients and the exquisite illusion of being present in the music. All that and more emerged from the loudspeaker. Music fairly leaped off the recording and into my ears. Music felt like it was tickling the surface of my brain. I became the music....

The music industry’s best recordings can excite us much like live music and, sometimes, even more so. When hearing someone’s extraordinary sound system for the first time, your response will likely be similar to Will Smith’s jet pilot character in the apocalyptic climax of the film called "Independence Day." Do you remember when he first takes the controls of the captured alien craft? His unexpected, neck-snapping acceleration prompts his total delight. He looks like a five year old on Christmas morning as he exclaims in adolescent glee, "I gotta’ get me one ‘o these!!" That’s what I said when I discovered how much sound quality I could buy for a hundred fifty pre-inflation dollars. But, for that amount, I would have to do much of the assembly work myself. Fair enough.

For a spirit of adventure and active hobbyist involvement, the 50’s and 60’s are unequaled in D.I.Y. audio. Even when filtering our perceptions through rose-colored memories, those two wonderful decades stand out as the supreme years in audio D.I.Y. Electronic kit building, which had its start at the end of WW II, began when huge quantities of war surplus electronic parts were cleverly incorporated into inexpensive, build-it-yourself test bench instrumentation by a former vendor of one-seater kit aircraft. The company was called Heathkit. (Benton Harbor, Michigan) Several other vendors joined the electronic kit business with familiar names like Knightkit (Allied Radio-Chicago), Eico, Acrosound (David Hafler began the Dynaco company with Acro transformers, then bought them out.), Lafayette Kits (Lafayette Electronics Supply- Long Island, NY), Paco, Scott Kits, Fisher Kits and, briefly, MacKits (McIntosh Labs - Binghampton, NY). Electronics in kit form prospered and talented kit designers and circuit engineers established a price/ performance ratio that has seldom been equaled in the last fifty years. In the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, we could assemble a complete speaker system with cabinet, a power amplifier, a pre-amp, an electronic crossover, a tuner, a turntable, an open reel tape deck, a 23" all-tube Color TV set for in-wall mounting or console cabinet, early 1960’s analog computers, the forerunners of the 1970s and several early digital computers. (The original hackers, code writers and techno-geeks got started on these.) But, the real genesis for kits was that remarkably full array of portable and bench top test equipment found in nearly every repair shop and industrial lab for many years.

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Extraordinary performance and value-for-money in kit-assembled equipment made high quality first systems possible for impoverished 1950’s teenagers and young married couples in their first rented house. Thousands of us remain involved with audio four decades later. We have nicer toys now, but I wouldn’t trade them all for the experiences of that earlier time. The fun we had in the 1950’s and 1960’s was golden. But, change came as it always does.

Many things in the audio hobby have changed. Electronic kits are almost gone for several reasons and most audio purchases are made in a factory and shipped to your local emporium. Assembly of modern electronic circuits is best achieved under automated factory conditions, unless you are scratch-building amplifiers from the tube era. Circuit board miniaturization, at least two-sided, often multi-layered and utilizing tiny surface mount components, have made it impossible to assemble and solder modern circuitry at the kitchen table. In addition, the character of audio retailing has changed completely. And our use and availability of spare time has changed by becoming more scarce and random.

So, you see, growing up in mid-50’s America was fortunate for me. I was blessed with three experienced adult friends to act as my mentors and technical advisors. At various times, each of them guided me through the technical challenges of audio, patiently answering my dumb questions and giving their precious time and encouragement. As a result, my first "hi-fi set" was operational in about six weeks from start to finish.

Join me as I raise my glass to the memory of my three friends and mentors, Messrs. French, Taylor and Reed and all our forbears who pursued audio excellence for the love of it.

These three gentlemen have my gratitude for sharing their valuable time and knowledge with me in 1955 and 1956. The evening work sessions under their tutelage are among my most treasured memories from the fifties. Even my grumpy, thirty-something shop teacher, Harlan Guy, complimented me for the stylish speaker cabinet I built in his woodworking class, especially when it "Blue-ribboned" at the 1955 Winter Industrial Arts show. (I had found a specialty lumber yard in Spokane and selected a dramatic 4’ x 8’ sheet of American black walnut plywood. After carefully following University Loudspeaker’s factory plans, the results were first-rate.) University’s enclosure design was a fairly complex floor-standing affair at about 40" high and incorporated a bass-reflex aperture that was loaded with a good-sized horn! Ooooh! Lotsa’ bass!

I equipped my hand-rubbed walnut cabinet with a "University Diffusicone 12" loudspeaker unit. Finishing the ensemble was a Knightkit 20W mono amp/pre-amp and a Garrard Model "T" single play turntable with the ubiquitous G.E. magnetic cartridge. My music system was a source of great personal pride and I thought it sounded divine.

Strangely, I still have a "scent memory" of the linseed oil and pumice used in rubbing out the cabinet finish and the unique smell of the factory-sealed University loudspeaker with its recent paint and still-curing adhesives, kind of like a new car smells. I had done much of my system assembly myself with a little help from my friends and though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my lifelong love affair with audio technology had already begun. How could I know I would earn my living with audio activity for nearly thirty years of my adult life?

But, that was then, this is now

Audio changed dramatically after the rough and ready fifties. Audio came roaring into the sixties, seventies and beyond, sporting new formats, new engineering techniques, new theory, new materials, the semi-conductor revolution, never remaining the same and seldom looking back.

(Note: Audio technology remains, after five decades, one of the truly remarkable bargains in the consumer marketplace thanks to continuing technological innovation, the transistor revolution and automated, high quality manufacturing. And reliability has improved in the bargain. Few other retail fields can begin to equal the continuing value in today’s mass produced consumer electronics. Some of our equipment costs less in actual dollars than the nearest hardware equivalent thirty years ago before factoring-in inflation.)

An anecdotal review of Audio’s history: Where have we been?

Before I can speculate on new trends impacting the audiophile in the new century, we should review where we’ve already been this last three centuries. An overview of the major highlights in analog and digital sound will provide much needed context for my later comments. So, where do we begin? At the beginning...

The first music in a box for the family home

In 1796, a Frenchman, Antoine Favre, produced the first known music box. The upper classes bought his hand-crafted, beautifully decorated music boxes as novelties and gifts. The invention of the music box brought recorded music to family households for the first time in history. As an outgrowth of clock making, music was generated by protruding pins mounted on rotating brass discs or cylinders. The protruding pins created musical tones by plucking solidly mounted, tuned metal elements or teeth. Whether cranked by hand or spring driven, simple melodies were programmed into these ornate boxes. Just wind it up or turn the crank and a simple melody could be played. But, the early music box sounded basic, mechanical and limited. By 1825, larger music boxes had as many as 250 tuned elements covering up to six octaves and could play simple harmonies, a much more satisfying sound. Music boxes remained hugely popular through the 1890’s and usually featured short classical pieces and operatic arias. In the late 19th century, large, fascinatingly complex music boxes, calliopes and other musical devices were designed to mechanically incorporate a wide range of adapted musical instruments. With an expanded musical repertoire, they were developed for amusement parks, restaurants, hotel bars and other public places. Their use continued well into the 20th century and were eventually powered by electric motors and controls. A few were coin operated making them our first juke boxes.

They all laughed when I sat down to play

Another source of recorded music was developed in the late 1800’s. The inventors of "Player" pianos developed a system whereby musical notes could be played on a conventional piano from punched holes on moving paper rolls. At first a separate playing unit was rolled up and clamped to the keyboard of a regular piano and it struck the piano’s keys with mechanical fingers. This arrangement proved bulky, limited and awkward, so by 1900 the playing mechanism had been built into the piano. The reproducing piano continued to improve with full integration of foot pedals and more precise rendering of dynamic shadings. Relatively inexpensive piano rolls, mass produced in a factory, permitted a music lover to buy new music for playback on his own parlor piano, complete with harmonies, tempo changes and dynamic shadings. In the reproducing piano, punched paper passing over vacuum apertures caused actuators to move hammers and pedals thus reproducing the melody, harmony, tempi, dynamics, expressive effects, etc. A music lover could buy a piano roll at his music store and enjoy a recent piece of music that could be played by anyone capable of loading the roll and reaching the pumping pedals. Therefore, music boxes and player pianos became our earliest music recordings. But, what about the rest of the musical spectrum and the human voice? I thought you’d never ask!

The Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round—and it comes out here

In 1876, analog recording technology arrived on both sides of the Atlantic. Charles Cros in France and Thomas Edison in America, described methods by which instrumental and vocal sound (an analog wave form replica) could be captured from sound vibrations in the air and recorded on an engraved record, either cylinders or discs. With large, carefully optimized horns, surprisingly loud, clean volume levels could be achieved using only the mechanical driving force of the reproducing stylus in playback. Early recordists, using a rotating cylinder, began engraving analog representations of live sound, on metal foils (’s method) and then on hard wax compounds (early Bell Labs method) using a vertical modulation technique (also dubbed "hill and dale"). Fortunately, if one wanted to re-use a spoiled wax recording cylinder, it could be shaved flat and its surface re-cut a couple more times. At first, cylinder copies were slave cut, using a modified pantograph scheme driven by a hard plated cutting master to drive several cutting stylii. Cylinders could also be molded in a tricky process utilizing primitive phenol resins or the early celluloid compounds. At best, the yield of good copies was fairly small, the process slow and the cost of recorded cylinders too high for a truly mass market.

Help was on the way. In 1888, a German immigrant, Emil Berliner, demonstrated the first flat disc with the groove spiraling from the outside to the center. Berliner’s flat disc featured side to side groove modulations which remained the common standard through the end of the mono LP era, ca.1957. Berliner’s basic 12" diameter flat record kept improving until it was considered equal or superior to the Edison cylinder, although some collectors, even now, prefer the sound of the original cylinders. Since flat discs were cheaper to produce (they were pressed in large molding machines by the thousands), Berliner’s patents made possible the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey in 1901. The Victor company produced tens of thousands of Victrola phonographs ranging from the smallest picnic portable to large parlor machines. The Victor company continued building playback machines for nearly three decades until the RCA buyout in 1928. Forced into decline by the sassy newcomer, AM radio, with advertiser paid music and entertainment, the acoustic phonograph gradually faded. For another decade or so, phonograph records were a tough sell with radio steadily gaining prominence and the great depression clobbering the nations’ consumer goods spending.

A Nostalgic Personal Side Trip

Summer 1968, I was entranced by a beautiful mahogany, dome-top Victrola- Type XIV (circa 1914) in a Portland, Oregon Goodwill store. I bought it for $25.00 and took it back to my townhouse apartment. For the next 20 or so years, I enjoyed it in three different houses. Ten years ago, however, I sold it. My house was really small and I needed the room for my computer desk. My classic Type XIV Victrola was stylish in a classic WW I sort of way and beautifully hand-crafted with gold plating over brass on all the cabinet hardware, the metal tone arm, the needle cup and the green felt covered platter. Then one sad day—SPRONGGG!!! The motor spring went tits up in the middle of a record and that was that. But, when it was working, my Victor machine could play loud and clean with stunning presence! I wish I’d kept it and repaired the motor. Ah, well.

Back to our story of the 78 RPM record

Before "all-electrical" recording sessions began about 1925, sound was engraved on the master disc by a very large recording horn whose diaphragm moved the engraving stylus using only sound pressure to cut the wax master. A blank master disc was rotated beneath the cutting stylus on a heavy motor driven platter called a cutting lathe. The rotation speed was in the region of 78 RPM, give or take a few RPM. (Most spring powered playback motors had speed control levers anyway.)

A collector of early mechanically engraved discs can easily demonstrate that acoustically produced recordings before the advent of microphones did a surprisingly clean and dynamic job on the human voice and smaller instrumental ensembles, but subtle, quiet instruments didn’t always register well and large performing groups were difficult to seat in front of a recording horn. Yes, the all electric recording system has some advantages, but the all-acoustic recording process has been startling in its clarity, and some of its surviving records are more than 110 years old and still sounding well.

In terms of their place in society, sound recordings became an integral part of the American move westward. During the later periods of homesteading and federal land grants (which in 1906 was joined by my Norwegian immigrant grandparents), the player piano and phonograph were the main source of music for those who couldn’t play or sing. In the late settling of the west, phonograph records became very popular in the U.S. and Canada, where families were often scattered over a vast frontier. If you lived in a remote area, the phonograph was the best source of musical entertainment unless your friends were musically gifted. The choice for the music lover might be this: You could hear world famous tenor Caruso singing Verdi on phonograph records or, if you were very brave, you could listen to a local soprano’s murderous plundering of "Ah—Sweet Mystery of Life." A player piano could give you " Turkey in the Straw" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", but not Caruso singing Verdi. And the town soprano probably knew only one other performing piece, a full length dramatic reading of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with all the repeats which left everyone cringing under their chairs. But, we had choices.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when phonograph records were produced in large numbers with a simplified, cheaper molding process, an average middle-class family could afford to order a new phonograph and a few records to play on it. In rural America, a customer could mail-order his record playing equipment from a Sears-Roebuck or Montgomery-Wards catalog and pick it up in a few weeks at the Railway Express office. (If you were near a rail line; wagon freight if you weren’t). Recorded music for the home was a reality at last and, along with the player piano, a major musical resource for families all over the world. My mother’s Norwegian parents homesteaded in North Dakota in 1906, by putting some money aside, bought a parlor model phonograph for their growing family near the end of WW I. Mom was in the 3rd grade as a little one room schoolhouse near Tioga, North Dakota and the family phonograph was one of her fondest memories from her prairie childhood. Later, she shared her love of music with me in the radio dominated 1940’s during and after WW II.

Unlike mom’s earlier prairie experience, since we had no phonograph, network radio was my earliest source of music, information and entertainment. And a rich source it was! In the thirties, forties and right through the mid-fifties, our three largest radio networks each had a resident symphony orchestra (NBC, CBS, and Mutual), and the weekly offerings were astonishing. Big name conductors were commonplace and the worlds greatest classical soloists, many of them here as refugees from the European war, were available nearly every week. The Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts broadcast live on Saturday mornings (West coast-PST) giving us access to the worlds great singers. In addition, we got to hear most of the popular singers, band singers, dance orchestras and swing music of WW II. Radio was a treasure trove and in addition to the music, there was comedy, variety shows, serious radio drama, adventure and mystery shows, kids programs, spooky horror shows, horse operas, after school radio serials, sports events, regional and national news, soap operas and the ever-present war news from Europe and the Pacific.

Mom’s homesteading family of 13 kids must have been quite a sight sitting around the wind-up Victrola! Starting in the middle 1920’s, AM radio came to North Dakota and, eventually, the rest of the nation. But, because of the high cost of good tube operated radio receivers and the expensive multiple dry-cell batteries to power them, the family farm found radio receivers prohibitively expensive. My grandparents did have a battery radio during the war, though. Six of my eight uncles enlisted in Army, Navy, Marines and Army Air Force. (They missed the Coast Guard.) Rural electrification (the REA) didn’t arrive at grandpa’s North Dakota homestead until after the end of WW II, so battery operated radios, kerosene lighting, gasoline powered machinery and crank telephones remained until after 1950. And for much of rural America as electrification moved slowly into remote areas.

So it is that music appreciation passes from one generation of a family to the next. But, passing the musical torch isn’t necessarily a sure thing. My mom was musically literate, but my dad knew only two songs: One was "Amazing Grace," and the other one wasn’t.

In Europe and America, the 1920’s were an extremely progressive time in the art and science of music recording. The 1920’s also marked the arrival of consumer radio. In 1912, the first Audion vacuum tube amplifier was demonstrated by the American scientist, Lee de Forest.

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It changed our recording future once again. The first studio microphones, derived from Bell’s carbon granule telephone mouthpieces, were used to great advantage, although a well-known German contralto had so much vocal power that she could compact the granules in the mike capsule. The engineer would have to stop and bang the cartridge loose again. Now that their microphone output could be amplified with vacuum tubes, new microphone designs replaced the carbon units. Tubes could also drive an electro-mechanical cutting stylus. Softer sounds could be recorded and more flexible mike placement and location recordings of sizable ensembles became possible. The new recording methods were a success and now engineers could record musical events most any place at any time. Cutting of disc producing masters improved steadily on electrically powered lathes. On the mastering front, continuous recording became feasible. Multiple cutting lathes offered continuous, sequential recording using two or more lathe setups. Live musical performances of considerable length could be recorded and though the playback side breaks were still the same, continuous recording of longer music sessions became possible. Sensitivity of the recording process gradually increased until a wider range of recording venues became possible. Electrical recording for all musical tastes and the wide distribution of mass produced, flat 10 or 12 inch records became the norm through the early fifties. Phonograph records were widely sold in retail outlets from coast to coast, in small towns, via mail order and in specialty record and department stores in larger cities.

The Wireless: AM radio finds its role in forming a nation

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Commercial AM broadcasting of voice and music became feasible in the early 20’s. Another early outgrowth of the burgeoning vacuum tube era, it arrived with a bang! Turn-of-the-century wireless transmissions were over water, ship-to-shore and over land, just a wireless telegraph incorporating spark gap technology. Primitive radio was only narrowly useful using Morse code, radio transmitted dots and dashes were noise bursts instead of telegraph clicks. Until the 1920’s, wireless transmission was useful mainly for military, maritime and commercial message traffic. 

Broadcasting of voice and music began seriously in 1922 with one powerful clear-channel station, KDKA from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. AM radio technology moved forward with incredible speed. Constantly improving, very powerful transmitting tubes and advanced tower designs were joined by newly developed, highly sensitive receiver circuitry which made reliable radio transmission a reality. Powerful transmitters and extra tall towers made it possible to cover most of the nation with just a few stations. Then, as receivers became more selective, more frequency allocations could be made without overlap and crowding.

Thrifty radio listeners around the country used a simple radio called a crystal set, basically a simple tuning section and a crystal detector. (My detecting crystal was a shiny metallic piece of crystalline lead galena mounted in a molded lead pellet. A small diameter steel detecting wire barely touched the crystal surface forming a primitive semi-conductor junction diode.) By using a long wire antenna and a solid (earth) ground connection and sensitive, high-z headphones, good, clear radio reception could be enjoyed on several stations, especially at night when you could achieve greater distances. Needing no power and very inexpensive to buy in kit form, a crystal set was within reach of many teens from through the decades. My dad was one of the early listeners on his mail-order crystal set in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Then, just before he married my mom, he bought a Sears Silvertone 7-tube AM / Short wave table radio in 1937. About 2 feet tall, it had an 8 inch speaker and lovely rich sound. I grew up with that radio as my constant companion.

 By 1930, most major cities in North America had one or more AM radio stations. Some of them were powerful clear channel stations, reaching listeners over 1000 miles away, at least in the nighttime hours. Fascinated radio listeners began sharing a common experience from coast to coast in a country that had so recently been strongly regional and speaking several regional dialects. Our nation began sharing music, drama, sporting events, regional and national news and useful information of all kinds, coast to coast and North to South. We no longer had to wait for the delivery of news by rail delivered newspapers and magazines or rely on sketchy reports over the telegraph. Information was ours by flipping a power switch and tuning the dial. Radio’s role changed once again when loudspeakers replaced headphones. G.E.’s patent on the moving-coil loudspeaker in 1928 brought the loudspeaker to home radio listening and brought the radio into the parlor. Now family and friends could gather in the living room for sporting events, news, music and entertainment programming evenings and weekends. Housewives began to listen faithfully to daytime radio drama, an innovation in the 30’s that we now call "the soaps" owing to the fact that their original sponsors were makers of soap powders. (In 1959, I saw my colorful 70-something great-aunt Della in eastern Tennessee get really anxious as the noon hour approached. Even if we were out visiting, she would declare that she just had to get home to listen to "her stories." She’d drop anything she was doing and we’d hop into her old Ford coupe and be off in a choking cloud of dust. There were few re-runs on radio.)

We may not see it in 2002, but in the different world of the 1920s and 1930s, radio was as wondrous as the computer, satellite television, and the Internet all rolled into one. For the first time, our nation was able to share a common experience, linked with each other from coast to coast. Instant contact with the world became available even in the remote areas without waiting for a telegraph messenger, dog sled or a month-old newspaper delivered by the U.S. Post Office. If you could supply electrical current to your radio receiver and keep your antenna up, you were connected to the world. But it required stockpiling expensive dry cell batteries.

The Silver Screen: The studio mogul and how he paid for our toys

In countless movie theaters, where patrons escaped the reality of depression era America, new audio technologies took root, like mushrooms and developed in the dark of the movie theaters. In 1927, Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the industry’s first partial sound feature, proclaimed, "You ain’t heard nothing yet!" He was right! Furious competition, to keep movie audiences happy and filling the seats every week, started a headlong race to develop the "talkies."

The timing couldn’t have been better for audio engineers. Starting in 1927, we were to enjoy more than three decades of top-quality sound engineering, much of it financed by Hollywood studio moguls in their desperate attempt to keep those box office receipts coming. Movie sound systems were coming from the nation’s best electrical engineering labs. RCA, Western Electric and several others feverishly worked their butts off in 1927 through 1930. Full sound movies reached the majority of the nation’s bigger theater markets by 1929 / 30, setting off a flurry of additional sound engineering improvements. (If you were a studio chief and your investors owned a movie studio in 1929, there was absolutely no choice. You either supplied sound movies or you were out of the film business. Period.)

Advancements came rapidly and movie studios trotted everything they could think of in front of the movie microphones. Distributors demanded new product for sound hungry audiences all over the world. There were mass hirings of musicians in California and the founding of studio music departments. Music on the film replaced the pit orchestra, organist or pianist in the old silent movie houses. Singing musicals with their elaborate dance numbers became a sound movie staple. Older movie cameras were dreadfully noisy and had to be encased in large and heavy sound enclosures to keep the shutter and film transport noise out of the microphones. As a result, cameras became bulky and less mobile. Cinematography became less agile, but the public didn’t care: They wanted sound. Urban studios with outside street traffic struggled to keep everything quiet on the studio lot. Every shooting stage had become a sound stage.

Several famous silent film stars found themselves out of work when it was discovered that they sounded ridiculous on movie sound tracks. Thick European accents, shrill voices, diction problems, total inability to read a line convincingly and utter lack of vocal charm had never mattered in silent films. Who cared? Now it mattered! In desperation, Hollywood sent its most aggressive casting agents to New York’s theater district and drained their talent pools. Studios began shopping for attractive actors with good voices and the stage was the obvious source of supply. But, New York stage actors had to be willing to relocate to sunny California where they would achieve either stardom or anonymity. Studios needed talent and they needed it right away. The studios themselves owned theater chains with dozens of theaters and had an insatiable appetite for new sound movies. And, many of the hastily produced early "talkies" are really bad.

The great talent grab of the late 20’s transformed the destiny of a dozen or more New York stage talents who became Hollywood stars overnight. In fact, several went on to became screen legends with careers spanning three decades. However, the fortunes of war also decreed that several of the top "silent" stars of the 20’s were never heard from again, even in bit parts.

The movies gave us the woof and the tweet—powered by single-ended 2A3s

Two-way theater horn speakers with separate bass and treble horn units found their way into movie theaters by 1935. Western Electric’s experiments in stereophonic sound recording for movies and broadcasting were nearly completed by 1935. The first stereo AM broadcast experiments were conducted in 1931. In 1933, Harvey Fletcher of Bell Labs and his staff set up three pre-amplified microphones in front of Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra. Three telephone lines carried the program to Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.where three large, specially built amplified speakers were installed for the listening audience. It was a great success.

Later, Western Electric’s labs produced a sensitive wide-range condenser mike specially for film work. Optical recording right on the movie film, dating from 1930, became standard, working much better than competing methods outside the film process with wider frequency and dynamic range.

Major film makers of the mid-thirties failed to notice what else was happening with Ma Bell’s clever engineers. All except Walt Disney, that is! At considerable financial risk for his studio and using borrowed depression era money, Uncle Walt spent 5 years making the most personal film he ever produced. It was his pet project and he worked tirelessly on it. Then in 1940, Disney Studios startled the movie going public with his full-length feature, Fantasia, a revolutionary animated film which introduced stereophonic sound to theater goers in many major movie markets as a road show feature. Fantasia was a unique marriage of the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Maestro Leopold Stokowski and Western Electric’s research team who collaborated with Disney’s studio sound department. Combining spectacular sound and the image wizardry of his best animators. Working in dazzling three-strip Technicolor, Disney gave us breathtakingly intense visuals and our first taste of a future in stereo sound. Unfortunately, Fantasia was so revolutionary that it puzzled its audience and didn’t break even until two decades later when the film was re-released in the late 50’s to wide acclaim. (Unfortunately, in 1940, musical purists and the fearsome "ladies with blue hair" thought it was unsuitable having cartoon characters cavorting to their sacred concert music. Ahem! Sniff! Sacred cows and animated mice were an awkward mix and, sadly, even the press wasn’t very kind in its movie reviews.)

Due to circumstances beyond our control, the promise of a stereo future had to wait a few years. The Second World War intervened and multi-channel sound for the movies was the least of our concerns. Then came the great Hollywood TV Panic of the 1950’s. Television had been creeping into American homes since 1947 and by 1952 was kickin’ the crap out of movie attendance. "Uncle Milty" and "I Love Lucy" caused people to stay home in droves to stare at a glowing 17" picture tube in a darkened living room. Something had to be done to get those butts of the couch and back into a theater seat..

The first studio chief to declare all-out war on that "sniveling upstart bastard", Television, was Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. In 1953, Fox Studios gave us a double whammy road show treat. Multi-Channel Stereophonic Sound and Cinemascope, an anamorphic wide-screen process, was announced with great fanfare. Zanuck displayed his new technical skills in a pious sandals, sand, and toga epic called The Robe. Because of its impressive panoramic screen image (a full 1 to 2.35 screen ratio) and rich multi-channel sound, The Robe overwhelmed the troops. It played to packed movie houses in all the major cities. Spectacle on the big screen worked, for a while at least. But, with budget constraints, studios began releasing cheapy black and white sci-fi and bad color westerns in Cinemascope. The great multi-channel sound recording went back to mono again on many releases. The public yawned and went back to I Love Lucy.

(Note: In 1953, several studios introduced 3D films that were viewed with funny cardboard polarizing glasses. The novelty was short lived as they contrived to have things leap out at you or fall on you in three dimensions. And Paramount developed the ultra high-resolution, ultra-deep focus film process called VistaVision.) But, I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The Broadcaster’s "Holy Grail": Quiet, static-free, wide-band radio

Several approaches to static-free, wide-band radio were considered in the 30’s utilizing the pioneering research of Armstrong and others. Frequency Modulation was the front runner when late thirties, early forties field trials were interrupted by WW II. Similarly, loudspeaker design matured dramatically in the movie theater and in stage sound reinforcement. So did the amplifiers. Hollywood studios continued to do everything they could to maintain weekly attendance with prizes and premiums and special offers. Of course, continually improving sound, good cinematography and grand spectacle remained a part of their sales strategy. The phonograph record kept improving a little each year and turntables, arms and pickup cartridges, though still mechanically primitive, attempted to keep up. Nobody realized it at the time, but the "800 pound Gorilla" lurked just around the corner. A maturing technology called Television was about to pounce on us. Black and white TV had been publicly demonstrated in commercially feasible form since 1939 onward. The widely seen World of the Future displays at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York began to put TV on the map. But, once again, WW II reared its ugly head and all consumer electronics were put on hold until 1946.

An industry was being born—and in 1946, we finally named it: High Fidelity!

A small group of visionaries and engineers, linked mainly by their desire for improved playback of their own 78 records and music on the radio, merged their talents between 1935 and the outbreak of WW II. Their work slowly developed on both coasts, primarily in New England, New York, California and a few other locations. Most were young engineers, asking educated questions about new methods for creating clean, dynamic sound. Without realizing it, they set the stage for rapid progress after the war. Drawing from several engineering specialties, sound reinforcement, broadcasting, movie sound, Ma Bell’s boys and innovative theories from college engineering departments, a far-reaching process was set in motion. Without realizing it, the founding members launched an industry whose only goal was to reproduce recorded sound with extraordinary quality. On the theoretical front, new thinking changed amplifier, loudspeaker and enclosure designs. New frontiers in basic acoustic science and advanced sound recording were proposed, discussed, tested and published. An industry based solely on high quality sound was emerging and expectations ran high. But, again, with the Axis powers bent on conquest of the Far East and Europe, the projects had to wait until everybody got back from the war in 1946.

Audiophilus Interruptus

World War II broke out all over the place. Consumer audio, radio and television development screeched to a halt overnight. Emerging consumer technologies were halted turned into radar, sonar, military radio research and war manufacturing. Civilian manufacturing was converted to military products in just a few months. Our factories made every kind of war related product you could imagine. Rationing became a way of life for nearly all civilian populations in WW II, both here and abroad. During those several years, America and its allies settled a few scores in Europe and the Pacific. There were grievous losses with millions dead and, except for the U.S. and Canada and small parts of Europe, there was an almost totally destroyed manufacturing capability. But, on the bright side, technical knowledge and basic science gained from six years of wartime laboratory research was enormous. And most of that research spurred new consumer products eventually.

It’s a gruesome fact, but the same science that kills people has consumer applications when the killing stops. Science is science! World War II gave the U.S. major advantages with new materials: synthetic fibers, new molding resins, advanced alloys and mature metallurgy, great new plastics, super-efficient magnetic materials, stronger adhesives and new synthetic rubber compounds. On the electronics technology front, we gained advanced radio and radar designs, new measuring circuitry, the first computers, magnetic tape recording, ultra-sensitive microphones, improved vacuum tubes, new transformer designs and more efficient manufacturing methods. A vast increase in pure science and technical know how accrued to the allies, too. In the end, WW II’s influence on the advancement of consumer audio and video was remarkable. As they say in the good old board room, "Today the defense department, tomorrow the world."

Let’s return to the guys who launched serious audio in the late thirties: Avery Fisher, Herman H. Scott, Rudy Bozak, Frank McIntosh, Jim Lansing, Jim Stephens, Paul Klipsch, Saul Marantz, David Hafler and several others. Their counterparts across the Atlantic, Briggs, Williamson, Walker, and Leak, to name a few, were in the U.K.. These were the High Fidelity industry pioneers, most of them still in their twenties and thirties, as they returned from the war anxious to set up shop and get back to business. Being able to use the new technologies was a peacetime bonus.

Due to a growing post-war need for accurate electrical measurements, Hewlett-Packard got their late 30’s company re-started in 1946. They’d begun in a Palo Alto, California garage in 1938 with a borrowed $5000, so in 1946 they were off and running. In Portland, Oregon in 1946, Howard Vollum and Jack Murdock started Tektronix to build oscilloscopes, still a relatively new device and extremely vital to audio development, dynamic measurements and distortion analysis. In the first three years, the G.I. Bill gave us a good supply of high quality engineering grads who poured out of universities and into post-war production plants. Television started up again in several major cities in late 1946-1947. By 1950, the nation’s retailers were selling 100,000 TV sets a month! And home audio resumed its pre-war mission of giving every music lover greater realism in his home listening room.

What was Audio’s Golden Age: Approximately 1950 to 1970?

A disputed time period. Everyone agrees there was one, but the debate still goes on about when it occurred. I’ve chosen this 20 year window as being two highly representative decades of major audio growth, innovation and change. These two decades encompass most of the post-WW II technical milestones and late refinements leading to the advent of digital recording and playback. See if you agree.

The First Epoch of the Rusty Ribbon: Iron Oxide builds a better mousetrap!

Audio tape is a development of legendary status because it made so many difficult things possible. From the electrical engineers of Hitler’s Reich came magnetic tape recording. Not wire recording like we were still messing with in the U.S., but magnetic tape! The Nazi’s first tape was paper-based and a pain in the ass because of oxide flaking and breakage. Replacing the original paper tape base in 1939, German chemical giant BASF, coated some cellulose acetate film, the best plastic film that was available. Better than paper was, but still no cigar! A major electronic and sonic breakthrough came in 1939 when German radio network engineer, Walter Weber, injected ultra-sonic AC bias frequencies into the recording signal. The addition of high-frequency AC bias at the record head improved high frequency recording characteristics and reduced distortion.

During the great technology grab at the end of WW II, late production "Magnetophon" tape machines were brought back from Europe by U.S.Army Signal Corps personnel. At first only a curiosity, American and British audio engineers set about refining the German machines. Technical advances came rapidly. After standardizing tape speeds, tape dimensions and solving a few lingering mechanical questions, they began re-designing record and playback heads using the new permeable alloys. Recording electronics and bias circuits underwent major revision and record/playback equalization was researched. As the improved tape recording hardware inched closer to low noise, wide range musical quality, America’s 3M Company in Minnesota devised a modified iron oxide formula, developed safer iron oxide milling practices (iron oxide can burn or explode violently) and, most importantly, 3M scientists perfected new binders (adhesives) to hold the improved metal oxides on cellulose acetate backing. In 1947, 3M’s improved binder and oxide formulations insured that many of audio tape’s problems were well on their way to being solved. The output and distortion numbers steadily improved with the new tape and the oxides didn’t flake off on the tape heads as they had before. By the late 40’s tape speeds were trending downward from 30 IPS to 15 IPS for most commercial purposes. Due to further improvements in record and playback EQ curves, better heads and continued blank tape refinements, tape recording of high quality sound was rapidly becoming a reality.

"Der Bingle" and the Ampex Corporation

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The first major artist to express interest in tape recording in the 40’s was American singer Bing Crosby who soon became a major backer of the critically important audio pioneer, Ampex. ordered one of the earliest Ampex recorders and found an immediate use for it.

Bing had a logistical problem and Ampex provided the solution with machines using 1/4" tape and operating at 30 IPS. His national live weekly radio show on the ABC Radio Network was popular from coast to coast. Covering all 5 time zones of the U.S. before the advent of tape recording, made it necessary to perform his live show twice. Crosby’s show covered half the U.S. time zones with each performance, first the three eastern time zones and then three hours later, the western time zones. It became a tiring and frustrating weekly grind, so with audio tape, he could do the show once on most any day he chose, do alternate takes, have it edited and go home. The scheme worked very well and the rest is history. Crosby became a major investor in Ampex and very quickly, most radio broadcasting depended on Ampex machines. (By 1956, Ampex also developed the first black and white video tape machines eliminating the cumbersome filming process called kinescope.)

Magnetic tape was the heaven-sent recording medium for producing phonograph records and by 1950, tape became the method of choice. Replacing the many hardships of direct-to-disc mastering with the more forgiving logistics of magnetic tape recording was an obvious choice and the big Ampex machines became a major economic and technical breakthrough for record producers around the world. By 1952, tape was achieving decent dynamic range, low noise figures and a consistent 30 Hz to 15 kHz frequency response. This last round of improvements finally sealed the fate of direct cutting of lacquer disc masters. Taped recording sessions offered a unique advantage over direct-to-disc cutting. Taped masters allowed editing options not available before in any medium. And taping was far more portable, not requiring any permanent on-site equipment room for running disc cutting lathes. Further, the maximum recording time with tape was many times the side length of a 78 lacquer and longer original takes became possible. Retakes were greatly reduced with editing because you could remove a bad passage or even a single note with a splicing block. The next development proves that good things come in pairs.

The Long-Playing Record: An invention that changed the music industry

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Nothing in the history of recordings changed the character of the music business the way the LP did. Once we got the ability to tape the recording sessions, edit them and, for the very first time, enjoy the un-interrupted playing time of an LP side, the record catalogs changed drastically. For long classical works, 3 LPs could take the place of a dozen or more 78’s and their 24+ playback side breaks. Eliminating frequent side-change interruptions and lowering surface noise, spoiled us for anything less. Works that had never been recorded because of complexity and length became almost commonplace. Unfortunately, there were quickly a dozen Beethoven 5th Symphonies and 16 Nutcracker Suites in the LP catalog. Immediately, LP duplications began popping up like spring flowers and the problem is still with us in the CD era.

Fifty four years ago, Peter Goldmark and William Bachman of CBS Labs publicly demonstrated a viable LP record. It was Fall 1948. Microgroove 33 1\3 RPM, 12 inch records, pressed on quieter vinyl-based compounds and achieving over 20 minutes playing time per side created quite a stir. Not a new idea, the long playing speed of 33 1/3 RPM was a holdover from earlier transcription service recordings and Decca in the U.K. had done some spectacular microgroove 78s on vinyl, the CBS scheme was the right technology at the right time. But poor, stubborn RCA, in the first of four spectacularly wrong marketing decisions, publicly announced in 1949 that what the public really wanted was the small 45 RPM 7" discs and an ultra rapid changer mechanism to play them. RCA threw their considerable corporate muscle behind 45s for the next couple of years. But, boxed stacks of several 45s failed miserably for classical and other extended programs, so RCA’s record division capitulated. With their abysmal sales figures, the embarrassed board members decided the 45 RPM record could serve the singles market for the teeny-boppers (Do you have any 1956 Elvis?) at a retail price of $.89. RCA’s Classical Red Seal division adopted the LP for its greatly extended playing times and quiet surfaces. ( RCA, a pioneering company to whom we owe so much, made several corporate decisions that left me totally puzzled, about which more later.)

Early LP’s and turntables to play them, without leaving a pile of vinyl shavings, were in short supply before the ‘52 / ‘53 season. Early LP frequency response and dynamic range was still limited, and, worse yet, the equalization curves for playback had not been standardized anywhere! We found ourselves with several playback curves for the LP. In North America and Europe there was no standardization until 1954 when the RIAA curve was declared the winner. And influencing the sound of many early LPs was that they came from older 78 rpm vault-stored lacquers. (Hard to conceal side breaks were noticeable and the original 78’s vividness and dynamics suffered in the LP transfer.).

Meanwhile, on the LP mastering front, cutting heads and cutting lathe techniques kept improving, giving us lower distortion, wider bandwidth and improved dynamics. As usual, phono cartridges, arms and turntables remained behind the advancements in the cutting process and fell behind. Phono cartridges and arms of the 50’s were about as subtle as a 16 penny nail in a 2 x 4, requiring heavy tracing forces on the order of 5 or 6 grams. High stylus and cantilever mass figures, inadequate cantilever damping, inefficient magnetic structures and primitive, massive arm designs extracted only a fraction of the quality inherent in the LP. Diamond stylii didn’t become an industry standard for microgroove records until about 1956. Synthetic Sapphire and a hard metal alloy called Osmium were used for phono stylii in place of diamond tips in economy cartridges. The popular G.E. Variable Reluctance models were available with sapphire stylii for about $10.00 less, really bad economics in the long run.

Another problem arose with the narrow Microgroove and its slower tracing speed near the inner playing diameter of the LP. The stylus experienced serious inner-groove distortion problems, right where the composer usually wants to place a bang-up finale in his concert piece. For that reason, cutting levels were kept artificially low and with the lower cutting levels, surface noise began to negate the advantage of the inherently quiet vinyl pressings. One quality factor kept nullifying the other. What to do?

Even after the adoption of the RIAA playback curve, most pre-amps had multiple LP playback curves on a selector switch, just in case. If the curve specified on the LP jacket didn’t sound right, we tried them all. Finally, the American RIAA curve became the world-wide standard and none too soon either. Things were about to change in LP land. And how!

 

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