Emile Berliner cuts the first discs: Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vunder vot you are

Emile Berliner may have been the most talented of all the great inventors playing with the new audio technology during the second half of the 19th century. He was born in Germany 160 years ago today, May 20th 1851, and moved to the states when he was 19.

Berliner is probably most famous in the recording business for having invented both the Gramophone and the flat disc – what most people would call “a record” but he also invented technologies that drove forward telephony, telegrams, aviation, helicopters and public sanitation to name a few.

Fred Gaisberg first met Berliner in 1894. Fred was working for Thomas Edison at the time but it looked as though Edison’s Phonograph was likely to fail as the stenographers of Washington turned Luddite. The phonograph played back music that had been recorded upon wax cylinders. Gaisberg was just turned twenty at this point. He’d heard about another guy in the city of Washington who was doing interesting things with sound recording and called in to see him. That man was Emile Berliner.

Gaisberg made the visit with a friend called Billy Golden who was a comedian that Fred had recorded for Edison.

A face even his mother found hard to love.....

Fred recalled that they “found Emile Berliner in his small labatory on New York Avenue…Berliner certainly did make me smile. Dressed in a monkish frock, he paced up and down the small studio buzzing on a diaphragm.

“Hello, hello!” he recited in a guttural broken English. Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vunder vot you are.”

Berliner placed a muzzle over Golden’s mouth and connected this up by a rubber hose to a diaphragm. I was at the piano….Berliner said “Are you ready?” and upon our answering “Yes” he began to crank like a barrel-organ and said “go”.

The song finished, Berliner stopped cranking. He took from the machine a bright zinc disc and plunged it into an acid bath for a few minutes. Then taking it out of the acid, he washed and cleaned the disc. Placing it on a reproducing machine also operated by hand like a coffee grinder, he played back the resulting record from the etched groove.

To our astonished ears came Billy Golden’s voice. Berliner proudly explined to us just how his method was superior to the phonograph. He said that in his process the recording stylus vibrated laterally on a flat surface, thus always encountering an even resistance and this accounted for the more natural tone.

Acquainted as I was with the tinny unnatural reproduction of the cylinder-playing phonographs, I was spell bound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc. Before I departed that day, I exacted a promise from Berliner that he would let me work for him when his machine was ready for development.

Gaisberg was working for Berliner with a few months.

This is a great film about Berliner and the Gramophone that we found on youtube. Did you make it? Get in touch!

Recording 2011. Gorillaz new record (largely) made on an ipad

One of the great records of 2010 was Plastic Beach by Gorillaz.

Whilst they were touring the record around the States last autumn they made a new album that seems to reflect the feeling of being on an endless tour. interesting thing about the new record is that Damon Albarn, who “is” Gorillaz, made the record on his ipad.

Well almost…..vocals were added later in a studio and it was mixed and mastered in a studio. But the underlying sounds were made on the tour bus on an ipod. Quite remarkable. The album is called The Fall. Here’s the lovely Revolving Doors.

Peachy. Dame Nellie Melba was born 150 years ago today.

Today marks the 150th birthday of Helen Porter Mitchell. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, on May 19th 1861 and was destined to become the leading opera singer in the world during the “Golden Age of Opera”. She also became a household name – Dame Nellie Melba.

There were a number of special qualities that separated Nellie from her contemporaries:

With the help of three teachers – Ellen Christian, Pietro Cecchi and Mathilde Marchesi – and the requisite “10,000 hours”, she developed a technique that enabled her to perform at the highest level over four full decades. “Salvatore, viens,” Marchesi called to her husband on first hearing the girl, “j’ai trouvé une étoile.”

In an age when married women were expected to give up work, she decided that instead the husband should do.

She had a wonderful sense of pitch and always sang in tune.

She learned many of her greatest roles with the composers themselves – Verdi, Massenet, Gounod, Puccini among them. And she promoted avant-garde songs by Debussy, Duparc, Chausson and others.

She took responsibility at all stages for managing her own career, bringing in a series of helpers, but never delegating the authority.

She was a brilliant entrepreneur, always ready to do what was necessary to maintain her profile and fill houses. “There are plenty of duchesses, but only one Melba,” she said.

“If you wish to understand me, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian,” she wrote. This attitude enabled her to break through the rigid barriers of British society of her day, speaking plainly with everyone at every level.

She was a catalyst in building the newly-emerging recording industry, negotiating a pioneering royalty arrangement.

When she died in Sydney in 1931, her coffin was carried by special train to Melbourne, stopping at towns and villages on the way so that crowds of people could pay their respects. Her grave at Lilydale carries a brief phrase from her most famous role, Mimì in La bohème: “Addio, senza rancor.” Farewell, no hard feelings.

Here she is at 65, singing that very aria , recorded live at her Farewell from Covent Garden in 1926:

This is our first guest blog. It’s by Roger Neil and you can see his blog here.

IF YOU’D LIKE TO DO A GUEST BLOG – GET IN TOUCH! Excuse the capitalised shouting…

(Another) Welshman invents electromechanical device that converts sound into an electrical signal & calls it mic not dave.

He doesn’t look very happy in this picture, but this is David E. Hughes, former child prodigy harpist turned inventor who was a very successful and significant man. He was born 180 years ago yesterday.

Hughes was a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell and paddled in the same new technology waters as them. He made significant contributions to radio (he transmitted electromagnetic waves in 1879; 16 years before Marconi but put it to one side in the face of peer scepticism) and telegraph technology (he invented a printing add on that made his fortune).

Hughes also invented the early microphone and in doing so helped set the modern recording industry on it’s way.

There is a Hughes Medal that was named after him and is still awarded each year by the Royal Society “in recognition of an original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism or their applications”. You can hear a strange computer lady talk about it here.

A biography of David E. Hughes, “Before We Went Wireless” was published this year. You can find out more about it here or watch the promotional video:

Happy Birthday Brian Eno. Born on this day in 1948.

Lest we forget, the mavericks that forged the history of recorded sound did not die out in the first half of the twentieth century…..one or two are still playing around. None more famously and successfully so than Brian Eno, to whom we raise a celebratory glass on his birthday today.

Eno has twiddled his fair share of knobs and has prodded sound recording into new areas. This is an interesting interview from circa 1980 where he is talking about a new-fangled video disc and what it might offer a world where (American) TV has gone mad. In it he looks back at the revolution sound recording made up music’s place in the world. It’s worth a watch. He could have been describing the work of Edison, Gaisberg and the audio pioneers:

“The important thing about tape is that it transformed something [i.e. music] that existed in time and therefore wasn’t durable into something that existed in space [i.e. a physical medium] and is durable and is not only durable but malleable in lots of different ways”

Eno would take video and the new malleability of recorded sound to create “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” with David Byrne which pioneered sampling techniques and nudged electronic music into a number of new directions.

He also invented the term “ambient music” and used recording technology and the physical medium of the LP record to spread it round the world.

The saviour of the 1890’s record business – and possibly where Jonathan Ives got his inspiration for the ipod white bud earphones?

We’ve posted this picture before but hadn’t realised its significance.

Digging a bit further into the life of Fred Gaisberg (who was the Zelig of the early recording business), the relevance of the photo becomes clear.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph system of recording and playing back sound that preceded the gramophone and used cylinders rather than discs. He set the invention aside for several years as he wasn’t sure what it’s commercial application would be. (Edison was very interested in the commercial application of inventions…)

Edison initially thought that the phonograph would be used to record business dictation that could then be written up at a later date. This would reduce the number of stenographers that a business would require. He targeted Washington as a likely market because of all the Government business being done there. In 1889, he set up a company called The Columbia Phonograph Company (as in Washington, District of Columbia) to market the device and in doing so created the longest running record label of them all; it would evolve into Columbia Records. Columbia’s initial business model was to rent their machines to the Government offices. It proved successful and a profit was quickly turned. The success was shortlived, however, as furious stenographers, who were threatened with redundancy at the hands of the new device, took the Luddite step of breaking the machines to safeguard their jobs.

Columbia was forced to take back a raft of damaged machines and the cost of doing so nearly sank the company. Edison looked around for alternative ways of making money from phonographs but the venture looked doomed to failure. The cost of manufacture at that early point made the new technology too expensive as a home entertainment device. According to Fred Gaisberg the company “seemed headed for liquidation” And how did the world’s first A&R man know about this………? Gaisberg had been employed by Edison in the first few months of The Columbia Phonograph Company in 1889. His first job out of school was for Thomas Edison!

Salvation came from an unexpected source. As Fred records: the company “was saved by a new field of activity which was created…without their knowledge, by showmen at fairs and resorts demanding records of songs….Phonographs, each equipped with ten sets of ear tubes through which the sound passed, had been rented to these exhibitors. It was ludicrous in the extreme to see ten people grouped around a phonograph, each with a listening tube leading from his ears, grinning and laughing at what he heard. Five cents was collected from each listener so the showman could afford to pay two or three dollars for a cyliner to exhibit”

So that is what the people in the picture are doing in around 1891. Saving the proto recording industry one cylinder at a time.

Plus ca change.....

A Welshman and an American went into a hotel. They came out as employees #1 and 2 of the UK recording industry.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, in December 1897, an American businessman was pacing up and down his room at the brand new and ostentatious Hotel Cecil on the Strand.

The hotel had been opened the previous year in 1896 and was the largest and grandest in Europe, situated in the most fashionable shopping street in the world. Sadly it didn’t survive changing fashions and was knocked down to make way for Shell Mex house in 1930 but back in the day, it looked like this:

Hotel Cecil from the Thames
Hotel Cecil from the Strand

Dancing at The Cecil was all the rage.

The American, who was William Owen Barry, was not there to dance. He had moved across from the US to set up a new company. In fact he was seeding a new industry that did not yet exist in the UK; sound recording. He needed investors and had presumably taken rooms at the expensive Cecil in order to suggest the seriousness and potential rewards of his business proposal.

William Owen Barry

He’d met a number of potential investors since arriving in London in the summer but had not yet been able to secure the necessary funds. Hotel bills and entertaining expenses were no doubt growing as he trawled the town for financial suitors but as he came to end of the year he still had little to show for his endeavours. No doubt there would have been pressure coming from his boss, Emile Berliner, in the States – probably along one of the new telegraph cables that were shrinking the globe. He was pacing up and down the room as he waited to meet a potential investor; Trevor Williams (or to give him his formal Edmund Trevor Lloyd Williams) was a Welshman from North Wales who worked as a solicitor at Lincoln’s Inn and impressed by the new technology and had a yen to invest.

Trevor Williams

But the American needn’t have worried. The Welshman had formed a syndicate to invest $5,000 to secure the European rights to the new fangled Gramophone. They shook hands on a deal and agreed to work together to establish and grow this new business. They would reconvene in the New Year to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and formalise The Gramophone Company. Possibly a glass or two were taken? Maybe a cigar smoked? And then the Welshman would have stepped outside onto the teeming Strand, back into the bustle of the city at the centre of a huge empire, at the peak of the Naughty Nineties, head spinning with the new business opportunity….

Anything was possible.

P.S. In the years to come, their company would return to The Cecil to make records of the house band….

These are the pictures that show the birth of the UK recording industry.

In 1898, the recording industry was a handful of years old and based almost entirely in America when one of the big Stateside players, The United States Gramophone Company, owned by Emile Berliner, decided to move into Europe to challenge the
thee year old French Pathe Company who was the biggest European recording company at the time.

They sent an American, William Barry Owen, over to London to bring together a syndicate of local investors to finance the expansion. Owen was a natural entrepreneur and gambler as Fred Gaisberg remembers:

“He was an opportunist and a bold gambler…You would always find him in the stiffest game of poker in the drawing room..and his eyes would bulge as he laid a full house of the table. He brought to London an infectious enthusiasm and energetic leadership which I believe was quite new to the conservative English city man of that day.”

Owen connected with Trevor Williams who was a Lincoln’s Inn solicitor who was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new technology and raised $5,000 from friends and family to acquire the European rights to Berliner’s Gramophone.

Gramophones were to continue to be manufactured in the US and imported to Europe. The new investors insisted, however, that recordings of European popular artists were essential to the company’s success on the continent.

The new company, called simply The Gramophone Company, held its first meeting in April 1898. Owen became Managing Director and Williams was made Chairman. As with most start up businesses, the management were motivated by the fact that they had invested their own money in the company. They decided to order 3.000 gramophone machines and 150,000 records from the States to start the business and requested an American recording expert to be sent over to help them develop the European recording programme.

Emile Berliner chose 25 year old Fred Gaisberg to come over to England to set up the recording department which he did in the basement of The Cockburn Hotel 31 Maiden Lane in the late summer of 1898.

More photos of this birthplace of the British recording industry have been unearthed by the EMI Archives staff.

Here is the first picture that was found and we talked more about it here:

This next, new, picture shows the same room but from a reverse perspective. It looks like Amy Williams and the mysterious young man from the first picture are seated on the right hand side of the picture and that could be Fred Gaisberg on the left. There is a strange looking multi-horned contraption to the right of the picture and we are not sure whether that is a recording or playback device:

And the exterior of the Cockburn Hotel at 31 Maiden Lane that leased its basement to The Gramophone Company looked like this. Its difficult to make out the two people in the doorway but they could well be Fred Gaisberg and a colleague:

Clearly the studio was ready! Next stop….find some artists.

Our First Plug!

 

This is very exciting. We’ve been asked to spread the news about a new book. Our first plug! 

And we are very pleased to say that the book in question is rather lovely; it’s  a lavishly-illustrated, information-packed hardback book printed on high quality silk paper with colour digital photographs, comprehensive descriptions, technical details, original purchase prices, production dates & quantities, etc etc  all about….

   It’s authors, Brian Oakley and Christopher Proudfoot, are good friends of the EMI Archive. In fact Christopher, in a previous life at Christies, helped to value much of the wonderful collection held at Hayes. This book, privately published, measures an impressive 30cmx22cm and contains over 250 pages of colour photographs and text on – as it says on the cover – ‘the acoustic instruments sold by The Gramophone Company in Great Britain 1897 – 1960”. In addition to sourcing information from old catalogues and using their own collections, Brian and Christopher spent several days at Hayes last year painstakingly photographing vital machines that were unavailable elsewhere.

 The Chairman of the EMI Archive Trust, David Hughes, has written the forward and he urges anyone interested in the origins of the music industry, to buy a copy. You can purchase a copy directly from the authors by contacting them: Brian (brian.e.oakley@btinternet.com) or Christopher (cproudfoot@firenet.uk.net) direct.

 Here’s a sample page to whet the appetite: 

It’s beautifully designed and reminds us of Kehew & Ryan’s brilliant “Recording The Beatles”

In the rush to publish this plug and offer a flavour of its contents, we have taken the liberty of photographing the cover/inside page. We’d just like to confirm that the quality of the whole book is much higher than our pictures suggest.

London’s first recording studios

In an earlier blog entry we touched upon (EMI predecessor) The Gramophone Company’s first recording studio which was located two doors up from Rules Restaurant at 31 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. This would have been the very first recording studio in London, pre-dating Abbey Road Studios by 33 years!

Those kind people at the EMI Archive Trust have dug out a photo of the studio as it looked upon opening in 1898.

London's first recording studio

The lady sitting at the studio piano is Amy Williams who was the Recording Department secretary and also accompanied the vocalists. This role is the equivalent of a modern day A&R assistant getting to play on all the label’s records! You can see that the piano is raised so that its sound can be captured in the (one and only one!) recording horn which itself would be adjusted to the height of a singer’s mouth.

I’m not sure who the man is that is standing behind the recording horn. It’s not Gaisberg as he does not have a the trademark Gaisberg moustache. Fred is most likely behind the camera as he was a keen photographer.

You can see that the room is not particularly uplifting. Fred described it thus: “Yes, grimy was the word for it. The smoking room of the old Coburn Hotel was our improvised studio. There stood the recording machine on a high stand: from this projected a long, thin trumpet into which the artist sang. Close by, on a high movable platform, was an upright piano.”

31 Maiden Lane was then being used as a hotel (The Coburn Hotel) which was clearly run down when The Gramophone Company took over its basement to use as a recording studio. Its now being used a pizza restaurant called Fire and Stone.

31 Maiden Lane - now Fire & Stone