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Is It Live or Is It Edison?

Today’s entry is a guest post by Jan McKee, Reference Librarian, Recorded Sound Research Center.

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Edison recording star Anna Case performed for several Edison tone tests.

I have always wondered about the Edison tone tests.  Is it really possible that an audience could not tell the difference between an Edison Diamond Disc being played on a phonograph and the live performer singing while standing next to the machine?  Were the audiences that naïve and unsophisticated?  Were the acoustically recorded Diamond Disc recordings really that good?  Were the tests rigged or was something else going on?

What were “tone tests”?  tone tests were a series of recitals sponsored by the Thomas A. Edison Company to demonstrate the superior quality of Edison Diamond Disc recordings and machines.  The recitals, held between 1915 and 1925, were formal, musical programs where singers or instrumentalists performed in partnership with Diamond Disc recordings of themselves.  From time to time, the artists would cease their live performance and only the recording would continue to play.  At the dramatic conclusion, the house lights would be lowered and the live performer would quietly leave the stage in the dark so that when the lights came up again, only the phonograph was playing.  The audience was unaware of when the performer left the stage.

The object of the tone test was to demonstrate that  Diamond Disc recordings were so faithful to the real voice of the performer that the audience could not distinguish between the live performance and the recording.

Edison recording artists who participated in the tone tests included Anna Case, Thomas Chalmers, Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, Frieda Hempel, Mario Laurenti, Marie Rappold, Maggie Teyte, Jacques Urlus, Alice Verlet, and Giovanni  Zenatello.

What was so special about the Diamond Discs?   Edison had resisted recording on discs for a long time, preferring to continue to refine cylinder recording.  He was seeking to maintain and recreate the human voice, not just record it.  He even sold his products as “re-creations” rather than recordings. His aim was to have the disc and the machine act as a neutral conduit for the voice.  Edison felt that the Diamond Disc Phonograph was as perfect as possible because it “disappeared” when played, it neither added nor subtracted any additional “tone” to the recording of the voice.

After years of experimenting, the Diamond Disc finally debuted in 1913 and did produce exceptional audio fidelity for its time.  The machine had a heavier reproducer than the ones used on cylinder players, so a harder surface was needed for the discs.  This was achieved using a plastic named Condensite.  To play the discs, a permanent diamond tipped stylus was used instead of the usual short-lived steel needles.  The records were a quarter-inch thick and weighed nearly a pound.  They were made up of two separate pressings bonded to a thick, fibrous core and recorded   using a process known as vertical-cut or “hill and dale.”  This , means they used  a vertical modulation of the stylus to inscribe and play the recording rather than the lateral-cut (side-to-side motion) system used by nearly every other manufacturer.  Playing at 80 rpm, the 10-inch disc played for five minutes and the twelve-inch disc played for about seven minutes.

Advertisement picture contralto Christine Miller from The Fulton County Tribune, (Wauseon, OH) February 11, 1916

Advertisement from The Fulton County Tribune, (Wauseon, OH) February 11, 1916.

What did the audience think of the tests?  According to Greg Milner in his book,  Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music  ,the audience loved them!  In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, at one of the earliest tone tests held outside of East Orange, NJ (site of Edison’s laboratories) a standing room only crowd of 1,400 people came to hear Christine Miller sing with herself on a Diamond Disc.  A local newspaper described the concert as “perfect, it being almost an impossibility to decide the difference without watching the lips of the singer.”  More and more people wanted to experience the test.  In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1,800 people sat and 200 people stood (and 250 were turned away) in the Cambria Theatre.  The next day the Johnstown Democrat reported, “but so splendid were many of the records which were played that spontaneous applause followed their rendition.”  One of the most notable tone tests was held in Carnegie Hall on March 10, 1920, and featured soprano Anna Case.  However,  presenting  a tone test in Carnegie Hall was the exception rather than the rule.  Generally, the venues were much smaller.

The tone tests themselves became a popular form of entertainment.  According to audio historian Emily Thompson in an article titled “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925″ (Musical Quarterly  79, Spring 1995, pp. 131-171), between 1915 and 1920 the Edison company sponsored over four thousand tone tests and  twenty-five different sets of artists were scheduled to perform more than two thousand tone tests in 1920 alone.  The test groups toured towns, large and small, all across America to tout the wonders of the Edison Diamond Disc.  In many cases, this was the only live professional music performance that members of the audience in smaller towns and rural areas had ever had the opportunity to attend.

So, were the tests rigged?  Maybe not rigged, but certainly contrived.  In an interview conducted in New York City in September 19, 1972, Anna Case tells John Harviths about the Carnegie Hall recital, “I remember I stood right beside the machine.  The audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me.  The machine played and I sang with it.  Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. And sometimes I would stop singing and let the machine play, and I’d come in again.  Well, it seemed to make a tremendous success.” (Transcript from interview in Edison, Musicians, and the Phonograph by John Harviths,  pp 43-45)

David Morton in his Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America, also notes that while the tests proved the validity of Edison’s claims about the superiority of the Diamond Disc, the participating singers, usually women, were carefully chosen by Edison because of their ability to imitate the sound of their own recordings.  Edison also only allowed the use of only a limited group of instruments, such as strings and the flute, which recorded best for these demonstrations and also used recordings specially made for demonstrations.  However, as Morton stresses, it was also true that the Edison hill-and-dale acoustic recording technology could provide remarkably realistic sounding records.

Today we find it impossible to understand that audiences in 1915 could be so easily tricked and that they had trouble telling the difference between a live recording and a live performance.  However, as Greg Milner has observed in Perfecting Sound Forever, this seeming inconsistency may have more to do with us than with them. As he notes, we live in an amplified, recorded electronic world, most of us have never heard an acoustic performance staged in a concert hall.  They knew nothing else.  As he says, we now have “an ingrained awareness’ of recorded music.”  In fact, we do not actually expect recorded music to sound like real life.  Milner continues by pointing out that for some modern genres, like hip-hop and techno, “live” is a meaningless concept.  For these genres, there never was a live, real-time event, in fact, it is doubtful if the musicians were ever even in the same room at the same time and, if the recording is using sampling, the performers may not have even all been alive at the same time.

What did it accomplish? Edison forever changed the standard for judging a live performance rather than just demonstrating the technical superiority of his recordings.  By having the record player continuously playing and the singer starting and stopping, Edison forced the audience to judge the live performance using the recorded performance as the baseline by which the evaluation was to be made.

Recital Hall intended for Edison Tone Tests, at the shop of the piano and phonograph sellers Gourlay, Winter and Leeming in Toronto. Edison Phongraph Monthly, November 1915, p. 17

Recital Hall for Edison tone tests, at the shop of the piano and phonograph sellers Gourlay, Winter and Leeming in Toronto. Edison Phongraph Monthly, November 1915, p. 17

In all of its imitative aspects, the tone test represented the first step toward “Lip syncing.”  Recording meant that only one of many performances by an artist would become that artist’s one way of interpreting a given piece of music.  Instead of the recording mirroring the artist, the artist mimicked the recording, and performance became a frozen, unchanging entity to be copied rather than a living experience.  As a result, artists and their artistry became identified in the minds of the public with specific recorded performances.  Spontaneity and improvisation were lost.  Re-interpretation   was discouraged by constant comparison with the recorded version.  Over time, the recorded version became the “right” version. Greg Milner quotes Glenn Gould’s 1966 manifesto, “The Prospects of Recording” to sum up the final triumph of recording over live performance.  Gould announced the imminent death of “the habit of concert-going and concert-giving, both as a social institution and a chief symbol of musical mercantilism” and went on to predict that listeners in the future would ridicule the idea that “the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves.”   He was right.  Many music listeners have never attended a live concert.  For the majority of listeners now, “live” music was simply recorded at another time and in another place,  not an actual event occurring in front of them at the moment.

Additional Reading:

Edison, Musicians, and the Phonograph edited and with and introduction by John Harvith and Susan Edwards Harvith (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987)

Perfecting Sound Forever:  An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner (New York, NY: Faber and Faber, Inc. 2009)

Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America  by David Morton (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000)

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction by Jonathan Sterne (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003)

A Phonograph in Every Home: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900-19 by Allan Sutton (Denver, CO: Mainspring Press, 2010)

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