Sunday, July 26, 2009

Acoustic recording and Edison's 125 foot recording horn

From the dawn of the recording era in 1877 until the development of electrical recording by Western Electric in 1925, recordings were made through the use of a horn, which connected to a diaphragm. The vibrations caused a stylus to etch a pattern in wax. Recordings were made on both cylinders and flat disks. The singers and musicians gathered close to the horn. Sound reproduction was entirely mechanical; no electricity was used in the recording or playback process. Sound quality did improve over time, but it never reached the quality of electrical recording.

Here's a photo of an orchestra session conducted by the composer Edward Elgar in 1914.

Some of the greatest records of all time were made during this period, including performances by singers such as Caruso, whose voice recorded particularly well using the acoustical recording process, Other great recordings were made in spite of the limitations. King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band featured a young Louis Armstrong on cornet. Armstrong's playing was so powerful that he had to stand at the back of the group, farthest away from the recording horn, in order not to drown out the playing of the other musicians

Here is "Dippermouth Blues" from 1923.

In 1919, Edison decided to try to improve the process of acoustical recording so that a full orchestra could be accurately recorded. He thought that the way to do this was by constructing very long recording horns in order to "untangle" the mix of sounds from the recording process. The first attempts, using a 40 foot horn, didn't work out, so Edison tried again, this time building a 125 foot horn in 1923. The piano recorded well ,but not orchestras as a whole, so the project was abandoned in 1925 because it was too expensive, and not very successful. The need for a device like the horn was also superseded by the invention of electrical recording that year. The horn ended up being donated in 1942 to a World War II scrap metal drive by the Governor of New Jersey.

In 2005, Jerry Fabris, host of WFMU's show "Thomas Edison's Attic", devoted a show to Edison's experiments with long horns, It includes some of the experimental recordings and parts of talks given in 1973 and 1975 by one of the engineers who had worked on the the project and by Edison's son Theodore.

Some more experimental recordings made with the 125 foot horn.

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