Revolutions in sound recording
Revolutions in sound recording

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Revolutions in sound recording

2.7 Music matters

There was little difference in sound quality between the phonograph cylinder and the gramophone disc. The limited frequency response of the acoustic recording and playback process restricted the sounds that could be reproduced. Instruments tended to be limited to brass and piano, and middle-register voices (alto and tenor) were the most suitable. So why did the disc succeed over the cylinder? The answer has little to do with technology and much more to do with the tenor Enrico Caruso and the entrepreneurship of one man, as you can read in Box 4.

Box 4: Recording Caruso

On 18 March 1902 Fred Gaisberg, a senior representative of The Gramophone Company and the ‘father’ of recorded sound, set up an improvised recording studio in a bedroom at the Hotel di Milano in Milan, Italy. The studio was little more than a piano on packing cases and a gramophone recorder. In the afternoon ten arias were recorded by a young and relatively unknown Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. His agent demanded £100 for the recordings, which the entrepreneur Gaisberg paid out of his own pocket. The Gramophone Company had refused to pay, sending Gaisberg the following reply to his cable requesting permission to record Caruso: ‘FEE EXORBITANT FORBID YOU TO RECORD’ (Northrop Moore, J. (1999) Sound Revolutions, London, Sanctuary Publishing, p. 92).

It is generally agreed that these were the first completely satisfactory recordings to be made. They were sold on premium 10-inch-diameter ‘Red Label’ discs at ten shillings (50p) each. They were an immediate success. Caruso's voice had an ideal quality for the recording technology of the time and he is considered to be the first serious musician to appreciate the value of recordings.

His later record of ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, made in November 1902, sold over a million copies. Figure 13 shows a self caricature of Caruso – note The Gramophone Company's logo on the wall!

Ampex GB Limited ©
Ampex GB Limited
Figure 13: Recording Enrico Caruso – a self caricature

Other singers were encouraged to record for The Gramophone Company including, in early 1903, the tenor Francesco Tamagno, for whom Verdi had created the operatic role of Otello. Tamagno insisted that his 12-inch (30-cm) records sold for £1 each and had a special ‘Tamagno Label’, and he received a 10 per cent royalty on each record sold (Tamagno was the first artist to receive royalty payments for recordings). This was followed a year later by two famous female singers, Nellie Melba and Adelina Patti, who both insisted on their own labels, mauve and pink respectively, and a premium selling price of one guinea (£1.05). (At this time 30 to 35 shillings (£1.50 to £1.75) was a good weekly wage for a skilled craftsman.)

Activity 13

Listen to the audio track below. It is a recording of Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) singing ‘Questa o quella’ from the opera Rigoletto by Verdi (1813–1901). This was the second of ten recordings made by Fred Gaisberg in March 1902. You may notice that Caruso clears his throat at the end of the first verse – no editing facilities were available in 1902! This recording has been restored by Ward Marston..

Click below (2 minutes 17 seconds)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: ta212_3_003s.mp3
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The reason why the records produced from the Caruso recordings were so popular was that he was singing popular music of the time and the quality of his voice suited the technology – a trained tenor uses a singer's formant to emphasise voice partials between 1 and 3 kHz, which centres on the frequency response of a mechanical gramophone.

Edison had little to offer in the way of competition to Berliner's evergrowing catalogue. He failed to make inroads into Europe and hence record the popular artists of the time, who tended to live and perform in that part of the world. Although the United States saw the origins of the talking machine, Europe really transformed it into a musical instrument by the choice of music and performers. Finally, in 1913, Edison introduced a disc, shown together with some of his cylinders in Figure 14. Typically, it had the same vertical-cut groove method used on his cylinders, which made it unusually thick (6.5 mm), and of course it needed a special Edison disc player. Despite offering a superior sound Edison's disc was too late – Berliner's gramophone records were too well established by virtue of the material they offered. The Edison Company continued to supply cylinders and discs until 1929, when manufacture finally ceased.

Figure 14: Examples of Edison's cylinders and discs

Activity 14

Suggest some reasons why the acoustic recording process limited the types of instruments and voices used.


The frequency range of many instruments was outside that of the mechanical transducer. Timpani and large stringed instruments just would not be heard. Similarly, many of the small woodwind family suffered in this way. Further, the acoustic qualities of many instruments were too delicate to be reproduced above the surface noise of the disc. An alto or tenor voice with either a piano or brass instruments offered the best opportunity to obtain a good recording.


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