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Vocal Recordings the Hard Way

Today’s post is by David Sager, Research Assistant in the Recorded Sound Research Center

This blog relies on recordings from the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox, a resource with over 10,000 early recordings which is well worth exploring.  You can also hear thousands more rare recordings, including radio broadcasts from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s by visiting the Library’s Recorded Sound Research Center, located in the Library’s James Madison Building in Washington D.C.

Making voice recordings during the era of the mechanical, or acoustical process (ca. 1885 – 1925) was no mean feat from either the performer’s or the recording engineer’s perspective. Having to perform in front of the ominous-looking recording horn was problem enough. The acrobatics involved in adjusting one’s position to the horn was another obstacle. A less obvious, but pivotal problem was whether-or-not the performer possessed a “certain something” in the voice that lent itself to registering well with the recording apparatus.

For instance, a performer with the ability to project a song to the back row of a theater was not automatically guaranteed to be able to make a good, clear recording. It was a common problem with stage artists who, despite their craft, did not have the knack for recording.

Poster of May Irwin in "The Widow Jones."

Color lithograph showing May Irwin in scenes from “The Widow Jones” circa 1895. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/var.2123 .

“The Results Were So Weak”
An item in the January 1907 issue of Talking Machine world, titled “Difficulty in Making recordings, highlights this problem. The writer observes that “[i]nnumerable instances are known when singers who have been successful before the public are dire failures as record makers.” The article then narrates the difficulties of May Irwin, a renowned performer on the musical stage during the early 1900s. Irwin, a Canadian born in 1862, is best remembered today for her appearance in an 1896 Edison film The Kiss, in which she reenacted a scene from her stage success “The Widow Jones.” The piece in Talking Machine World continues

Recently [Irwin] essayed reproducing one of her vocal hits on a record, but the results were so weak that rejection followed. Everyone cannot sing into a talking machine. It requires a special talent to do it…in singing certain notes they have to move close to the horn, and in singing other notes they move back…constantly moving back and forth to produce the records.

Irwin shortly thereafter did make recordings that were released. Heard today, the results seem more than passable; her voice is far enough in front of the orchestra to make her words clear and distinct. But the voice is light and easily goes “off horn.” It is obvious that she was not a “natural” for the recording horn. As an illustration, here is her recording of the comic song “Mat-Ri-Mony.”

Incidentally, the writer having referred to Irwin’s unsuccessful “recent” recordings does pose a mystery, for which there is a possible answer. An unsuccessful Irwin session has not been chronicled. However, a circa 1905-06 Columbia advertisement under the banner “Some Columbia Talent,” includes Irwin’s portrait, among those of Cal Stewart, Billy Murray, Lew Doskstader, and other Columbia artists. But no Columbia recordings by Irwin are known to exist. Perhaps she made some trial recordings for Columbia that were rejected.

The Recordist
The task of making clear recordings was equally dependent upon a skilled recordist, or “recording engineer,” operating the recording equipment. This included selecting the best size horn, the proper diaphragm, and a sense of how to properly arrange the musical instruments around the recording horn. This was explained by a recordist who preferred to remain anonymous, writing in the July 1903 British publication Talking Machine News,

If the organization can be made up of soloists who understand the art of playing into the phonograph, so much the better. And right here, I may remark parenthetically that the best record maker in the world cannot take a perfect record of a song or instrumental solo by an inexperienced artiste. I have heard records by the stars of the operatic stage, artistes whose names are household words in four continents, which were, in my opinion, complete failures. And the fault was not the record maker’s. The artiste simply sang as she was accustomed to do before an audience, that was all.

An example that may have fit this description is a recording of Marcella Sembrich, whose fine artistry is obvious. However, she does not “come across” on disc, as is evident in her 1906 recording of “Air des bijoux” (“The Jewel Song”) from Faust.

From the Performer’s Point of View
A musical hall performer W. H. Berry, wrote about the strange effect of having to perform without an audience, in an article for the May 1903 issue of Talking Machine News, titled “How I Sing to Make Records.”

In the former [before an audience] instance a somewhat quiet and reposeful manner is the most successful, while every gesture and facial expression is carefully studied to give effect to the words of the song; but in the case of the Graphophone quite the opposite is the case. Then one must employ a loud and penetrating voice with great smoothness of enunciation and such things as gestures and facial contortions are of course useless.

It is most curious for a hardened singer (not sinner) like myself to have to sing the most funny of funny songs without the usual surroundings and embellishments such as a stage, lights, audience, applause, laughter and encores. To have to stand with one’s face in close proximity to a couple of fierce and greedy looking horns, and in a calm and most cold-blooded fashion to shout the most hilarious and mirthful song (or patter) in a voice more in keeping with a gentleman who sells coals, than a highly respectable and harmless humorist, is an experience of a most quaint and unusual nature.

A singer, speaker, or instrumentalist had to know how to manipulate their position in front of the recording horn to fully take advantage of the properties of the recording horn and diaphragm. As contemporary pop singers “work the mic,” a singer recording in the acoustic days had to “work the horn.” This often involved the performer suspending him or herself in the arms of someone who possessed both physical strength and knowledge of the piece.


P. J. Packman. Talking Machine News, September 1905. Jim Walsh Collection, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

A Professional Recordist Speaks
In a September 1905 piece from Talking Machine News, titled “Reflections of a Recording Director,” P. J. Packman detailed more of the travails in recording the feminine voice. Packman later gained recognition for developing a long-play recording, known as the Marathon Record.

It is amusing to see the doubtful look which appears on the face of a singer as he comes up against the recording machine for the first time. The instrument, of course, is veiled, and all the singer is aware of is the recording horn protruding for all the world like some grim Long Tom. Some lady singers need a lot of persuading, and get into position as gingerly as if they were facing a veritable infernal machine. Immediately behind the singer is the back of the piano, and to get a fairly loud accompaniment it is necessary for the pianist to thump with a vigour which is hardly classic. The singer standing in front of the sound board is almost deafened until the strangeness of the situation wears off.

The rigors and act of guiding the artist’s distance to and from the horn could have been misconstrued, as Packman describes a scene from a Milan recording session,

I was obliged to hold the lady firmly with both hands and guide her the right distance from the machine so that every expression of the voice might be faithfully recorded. A stranger coming in might have mistaken me for the lover in the piece.

True, stage artists who were not accustomed to the finer points of recording could produce satisfactory results. An example is Nora Bayes, whose 1910 recording of “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly” is a bit distant and slightly out-of-focus on disc. However, her recorded performances were satisfactory enough that she recorded copiously.

With patience, practice, and most of all, experience, successful voice recordings during the acoustical era were not an unusual occurrence. This was illustrated time and again by a singer, who not unlike May Irwin, had a light, smallish voice. However, unlike Irwin, veteran recording artist Ada Jones had successfully mastered the art of recording mechanically, consistently producing clear, lifelike performances.

Photograph of Ada Jones on the telephone.

Recording pioneer, Ada Jones, posing as a telegrapher for the Bain News Service.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection.

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