Electrical Recording

For many years, the technologies used to record and reproduce sound did not rely on electricity. However, by the middle 1920s, record companies began to employ microphones, electronic amplifiers, and electro-magnetic disc recorders for the production of record discs. 

The idea of using electricity to record sound was first proposed by Thomas Edison, who attached a small stylus to the diaphragm of a telephone receiver, let a telephone signal vibrate the stylus, and used these vibrations to cut the groove. However, the lack of a way to amplify a telephone signal meant that these recordings were weak in comparison to recordings made by simply shouting into the recording horn.

After Western Electric improved the Audio electron tube to the point where they could use it to build reliable electronic amplifiers in 1915, engineers returned to the idea of electrical recording. Western Electric engineers H. C. Harrison and Joseph P. Maxfield worked on what they called “electrical recording” for several years before announcing it to the public in 1924. It used microphones, an electronic amplifier, and an electromagnetic cutting stylus to make records. But because the electron tube was still expensive, they decided to develop an improved home record player that was non-electronic, playing the records acoustically just as they had been played for decades. Even so, the new records reproduced sound more realistically than the old acoustic discs: for the first time it was possible to hear singers pronounce the letter “s” and other soft sounds.

The use of microphones in the studio also allowed musicians to spread out and be comfortable, instead of crowding up close to the recording horn. The microphone and electronic amplifier also made possible the careers of “crooners” whose voices were soft, as compared to the strong, loud voices of artists like Enrico Caruso, which had sounded best on acoustic recordings.

The Western Electric company did not make records but instead sold its electrical recording technology to record companies. The first companies to use the technology were Victor, which sold records and record players with the odd-sounding brand name “Victor Orthophonic,” and Columbia, which called it “Viva-tonal.” Like many new inventions, there were competitors, some of which actually came before the Western Electric system. The English branch of the Columbia company, for example, was nearing completion of its own electrical recording system, which it abandoned when the Western Electric technology appeared.

Electrical recording revolutionized the making of records and paved the way for later innovations, but it did not help the record industry, which declined after the late 1920s. The lack of interest in the new technology kept the acoustic phonograph—and even the hand-cranked version of it—alive well into the 1940s in the United States and Europe, and even later in some other countries.