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1942 - RCA Victor 'Command Performance' narrated by
Milton Cross--A Complete and thorough description
of how Shellac Transcriptions were recorded, mastered,
and mass-produced.

Electrical Transcription Background and History
Patent Illustration for Edison's Early Phonograph
Patent Illustration

Unrolled Tin Foil
Unrolled Tin Foil

'Edision's Final Achievement' Catalog circa1878
Edison's Vision c.1878

Early Gramophone
Early Gramaphone

RCA Victor's 'Little Nipper'
Victor's 'Little Nipper'


Edison Blank Cylinders circa 1902
Edison Blank Cylinders

Edison Phonograph
Edison Phonograph

Edison Blue Amberol celluloid cylinders
Edison Blue Amberol celluloid cylinders
'Record' or 'Wax' Cylinders circa 1910
'Record' Cylinders or 'wax' cylinders
Electromagnetic Transmitter
Electromagnetic Transmitter

Early Orthophonic Radio Phonograph
Orthophonic Phonograph

RCA 'Photophone' Badge
RCA 'Photophone' Badge

Vitaphone logo

Vitaphone logo

Western Electric logo
Western Electric logo

NBC Orthacoustic label
NBC Orthacoustic label
While there were several historical antecedants to Thomas Edison's extraordinary achievement in recording sound, Edison's breakthrough stands the test of time as the seminal event leading to the promise of commercial sound recording technology. His earliest successes relied on the ability of needle scratches on the surface of various early materials to be able to be played back using a similar needle with a simple amplifying horn attached to it. (Although in early experiments, this was tested to the extreme, employing recording horns as long as 125 feet in some cases.) As in the illustration to the left, sound was introduced onto the surface of the cylinder via a needle which recorded the specific vibrations transmitted through it to the surface of the cylindrical recording media.

The media employed for Edison's first successes was a cylinder covered in tin foil, with the sound recorded in a long circumferential groove ranging over the surface of the tinfoil cylinder as a hand crank controlled the rate at which the perpendicular needle traversed the length of the cylinder. Edison's patent 200,521, granted on Feb. 19, 1878, described a tinfoil phonograph machine cylinder capable of recording two to three minutes of recorded sound.

This first 'talking machine' ignited the imagination of numerous other early inventors, testing and employing hundreds of other methods for replicating Edison's remarkable technology. The first of the applications for this technology was a 'talking clock' which would play the hour that was struck; such as "One O-Clock" through "Twelve O-Clock" recorded and played back by the spoken word, recorded on a lead cylinder of Ansonia's design.

Worldwide competition to leverage Edison's practical success sparked several other competing recording technologies of the day, with ambitious activity in Great Britain, Germany, France, and throughout the United States.

'Gramophone' was the term that Emile Berliner used to describe the first successfully mass-produced disc-based 'talking machines' in 1888, employing hard, 'vulcanized' rubber discs mass-replicated from zinc masters. By the mid-1890s Berliner's Gramophones were being turned out at a cummulative rate of 1,000 machines and 25,000 hard rubber disc recordings to play on them.

Eldridge Johnson's motorized version of the gramophone in 1896 resulted in the de facto popular standard for playing recorded gramophone discs by the turn of the 20th century. In 1901 his Consolidated Talking Machine Company merged with The Berliner Gramophone Company to form the Victor Talking Machine Company, which would become the most popular gramophone in America at the turn of the century. The company's 'little nipper' mascot would become one of the early icons of the 20th Century.

Also by the turn of the century, shellac and celluloid had supplanted 'vulcanite' or hardened rubber as the most economic, reliable recording medium of the day. Shellac and celluloid cylinders and discs became the mass-produced recording media of the early gramophone era. All of these various molding and bonding methods resulted in a form variously referred to as 'wax' cylinders throughout the era.

Even so, turn of the century media could still only hold, at best, 8 to 10 minutes of recorded material per double-sided disc or cylinder. Opera 'albums' of the early 1900s could consume as many as four to eight cylinders or discs. Cylinders of the day were called 'records' and were being mass produced for both early dictation machines and recordings. Efforts to make the records both more durable and economical consumed most of the development in recording media for the first 10 years of the 20th century.

Labeling 'wax' cylinders was also problematic, since there was no surface available onto which a label could be affixed. The practice of the era was to simply include a separate paper label with the cylinder which would be kept in the cardboard box or roll in which the cylinder was stored. Attempts were made to include some basic labeling around the outside perimeter of the cylinders at either or both ends, but with a diameter of two inches, cylinders of the era didn't provide a lot of real estate onto which to engrave much information beyond the source, and key engineering and compatibility details.

For Edison's part, his last push to improve cylinder technology resulted in his 1912 celluloid blue Amberol cylinders. Though they still only played for 4 minutes, their audio fidelity was a great leap forward. But not great enough to supplant the growing successes of recording disc technology.

Leveraging on the development of 'bakelite' , an artificial plastic patented by Leo Baekeland in 1909, 'condensite' and other similar hard plastics and resins became the disc recording surface of choice when bonded to a rigid substrate and played by diamond stylii.

These developments ushered in the 'electric' era of recording as contrasted with the 'acoustic' era of recording during the Edison years. The contrast lies in the simple acoustic nature of mechanical recording devices of the turn of the century, which relied simply upon the vibrations set down by analog, acousitic recording devices to reproduce sound, such as amplication horns, etc..

Electrical transcriptions, by contrast, relied upon electromagnetic recording devices such as electromagnetic microphones and 'producers' or pickups to amplify greater fidelity onto and from the surface of the recording medium. This technology enabled the 'pickups' of the era to equally amplify the fidelity of the recorded grooves of the disc when played. As a result the medium was both recorded at higher fidelity and played with equally higher fidelity. The quality of these recordings far surpassed what had been attainable by the best 'acoustic' technology of the turn of the century.

Bell Labs, Western Electric, AT&T, RCA/GE,Vitaphone, Columbia and Victor Orthophonic were the major players ushering in the electrical technologies, the 'acoustic' horn of the Victrolas being supplanted by the electrical or 'orthophonic' sound box of the newer, electrical sound reproduction technologies. With an early standard of 33-1/3 rpm for professional Vitaphone 16-inch discs, and 78 rpm for commercial10 and 12-inch discs. The electromagnetic diaphragms in the recording devices of the 1920s, paired with more technologically sophisticated electrical 'sound box' technology for playing these new recordings combined to provide greater density, higher fidelity, and allowed the standardization of recording technology of the era. 'Orthophonic' recordings and players flew off the shelves during the mid to late 1920s, their popularity reaching their zenith just as the stock market crash of 1929 brought everything to a screeching halt. Victor Orthophonic got gobbled up by RCA to become RCA Victor and a new era of recording media and technology standardized on the seventy-eight and thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute recording standards what would dominate commercial recording throughout the World War II years.

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The Electrical Transcription Era Takes Off

Right-Click and Save Link to download Page 882
December 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics Article 'Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home', page 882

Right-Click and Save Link to download Page 883
'Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home', page 883

Right-Click and Save Link to download Page 884
'Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home', page 884

Right-Click and Save Link to download Page 885
'Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home', page 885

Right-Click and Save Link to download Page 132A
'Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home', page 132A

Electrical transcription disks became the broadcast standard during the early 1930s as sponsorship of programming began to expand, independent producers began to develop their own 'library services' (e.g., programming) for syndication, and broadcast networks increased programming standardization and scheduling for their ever expanding 'network' of nationwide affiliates. Enterprising library services providers could simply produce new programming, be it musical interludes, filler, 'bumpers', or a series of full, 4 to 11 minute espisodes, then record, master and press the resulting electrical transcription discs and market them or 'syndicate' them to the exponentially growing number of independents, networks, or affiliated radio stations throughout the world. This proved to be a highly profitable investment in a world hungry for novelty and fresh content over broadcast radio. Even some of the poorest features or syndicated offerings were tolerated--even embraced--in a nation becoming knitted together by an expanding, nationwide network of radio broadcasts.

The first electrical transcription 'blanks' were constructed roughly similar to those first employed by Emile Berliner for his gramophones, with a rigid underlying disc of tin, aluminum, thin lead, or hard bakelite, and a hard rubber, shellac or resin substrate--or combinatioin thereof-- bonded top and bottom, upon which to recieve the 'pressing' from the Master Disc or 'mother matrix'. The 'master' was first recorded onto a wax disc direct from the source, then pure gold atoms were electrolytically sprayed onto the wax surface. The resulting disc was then plated with copper via electrolysis. Subsequent electrolytic baths in copper added further hardening and rigidity to the disc. Only then was the original thin wax matrix removed from the assembly.

Subsequent nickel plating increased the strength, rigidity and durability of the master. The process was then repeated to produce the 'mother matrix' which would be employed to press the commercial discs. The master and mother matrix were then separated, with the master being stored for perpetuity in the company's archive vaults. The mother matrix was then further hardened with copper, nickel and chromium plating baths to provide more 'life' (e.g., durabilty) to the mother matrix copies used to stamp or press the commercial discs. The resulting commercial discs were stamped onto square 'biscuits' of this shellac, vulcanized rubber, resin and celluloid mixture and pressed--top and bottom--by steam presses, embedding the label into the top and bottom surfaces in the process.

During World War II, aluminum was in short supply and all available aluminum was commandeered for the war effort. This introduced the 'glass' era of electrical transcriptions. Glass proved to be an excellent substitution--except for its fragility. Those of you who collect Golden Age Radio may have noted 'cracked master' annotated to some recordings. This indicates that a crack had developed in the master but if that master was the only playable rendition of that episode or recording, that's what was used to digitally transcode or encode it to a digital format or--orginally--onto magnetic tape. Ironically, it's this source of transcriptions that continues to provide the lion's share of programming content from the 1940s and 1950s, since many of the sponsors of radio programs--even syndicated programs--simply pitched or recycled the media they basically produced for the sole purpose of advertising. When a program had run its course, some advertising agencies simply pitched all of the transcriptions or reels from that campaign and moved onto the next campaign. Thankfully, various government agencies throughout the war years--AFRS, especially--produced hundreds of thousands of E.T.s for the troops during the 1940s and 1950s and it's those very E.T.s that have survived the cruel hand of Time with the most abundance and longevity. Indeed, according to the Library of Congress, AFRTS has preserved an estimated 300,000 16 inch and 12 inch electrical transcriptions in their library.

After World War II, vinyl came to replace the glass electrical transcriptions that were still pressed, but the advent of magnetic tape during the late 1940s and early 1950s soon supplanted electrical transcriptions as the recording medium of choice.

Read "Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home' Article (at left) from December 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine (these are huge files so either right-click to download them, or be prepared for a longer display time)
Read "Off the "Platter" and Into Your Home' Article (at left) from December 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine (these are huge files so either right-click to download them, or be prepared for a longer display time)

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Electrical Transcription Arcana and Trivia
There are many misconceptions and precious few commonly understood details about the actual recording methods during the electrical transcription era, so let's try to dispel the misconceptions and perhaps clarify some of the more arcane lore associated with these mysterious, heavy 16 inch platters and how the grooves were recorded onto them.

First some important precautions when dealing with electrical transcriptions. First and foremost, you cannot--repeat cannot--play electrical transcriptions on the same equipment on which you'd play a vinyl long-playing phonograph record or 45-rpm disc. For one thing, the record platter won't hold the usually 16 inch transcription, nor will the geometry of the pickup arm and stylus accomodate the grooves of the larger transcription. For another, many transcriptions played from the inside-out, rather than outside-in as is common to LPs. More on this below. And thirdly and most importantly, the modern pickup arm stylii of record player turntables will not only not play back the grooves of an electrical transcription, but even more importantly will almost certainly irrevocably damage the electrical transcription.

Next, be aware that it may not always be obvious whether the electrical transcription was mastered during the glass era, so to be safe you must handle any electrical transcription as if you were handling a platter of the finest crystal, or gold--which in fact you may very well be. Most glass masters had 'GLASS' stamped onto the label--if the label is even still in place or legible.

And further, please be aware that there are still (thankfully) hundreds of accomplished electrical transcription professionals or accomplished Golden Age Radio hobbyists with years of experience handling, transcoding and preserving E.T.s from the Golden Age of Radio.

Before handling any 'LPs' you suspect might actually be electrical transcriptions, please make an attempt to contact one or more of these experts. Precious few of the wonderful E.T.s of the era remain 'in the wild' now, and those yet to be discovered need to be treated and handled with the greatest respect and care, given their advanced age and fragility.

We have a growing collection of well over 4,000 of our own E.T.s ourselves now, and--after cleaning and preserving them--we keep them in a climate controlled environment, well cushioned and protected from the other E.T.s on their racks. Feel free to contact us to clean, preserve and digitally transcode any E.T.s you have questions about, or by all means contact any of the experts and professionals listed further below. It's a pains-taking process, so don't expect overnight results.

As mentioned above, many electrical transcriptions were mastered starting from the inside of the disc, just outside of the label, and at a point on the disc adjacent to a 'dot' or sometimes even an arrow placed on the label adjacent to where the transcription was engineered to start. These are referred to as 'inside start' transcriptions, and quite logically, the transcriptions encoded from the outside-in were referred to as 'outside start' transcriptions. Why 'inside-start' at all? The short answer is part efficiency and part practicality. From an efficiency standpoint it was more efficient to maintain the fidelity of a long recording by beginning on the one side from the inside of the disc, and then on the obverse, recording from the outside-in. Indeed, the second half of thousands of American shows were recorded in just this manner; the first 15 minute half recorded inside out, and the second 15 minutes recorded outside in. But apart from simple efficiency, it was believed that the practice kept changes in frequency response to a minimum, while also minimizing any potential distortion between the end of one side (inside-start) and the beginning of the other (outside-start) in longer recording sessions. There's another, even more arcane--but practical--rationale: since the 'chips' or threads of the material removed by the cutting process tend to gravitate toward the center of a disc, the practical observation was that less chips and threads presented a threat to the physical recording (e.g., cutting) process moving from inside out, rather than outside in.

Another confusion about mastering E.T.s regards the orientation of the grooves and lands cut into the recording surface. In the 'lateral' cut recording method, the sound waves are inscribed into the sides or 'walls' of a groove, the method used predominantly in the LP (phonograph record) mastering process. This results in the stylus or needle 'bouncing' from side to side within the groove to pick up the sound waves recorded onto the walls of the groove. As many LP purists can ruefully testify, such recordings are good for no more than 20 to 30 'plays' before the fidelity of the recording begins to noticeably deteriorate.

Note the 'Number of Times Played' Table
Note the 'Number of Times Played' Table

By contrast, the 'vertical cut' method, colloquially referred to as the 'hill-and-dale' method, was far superior on two important levels. First, a vertical-cut recording cuts the sound waves into the bottom of the groove as opposed to the walls of the groove, thus permitting a far lighter and delicate (e.g., more sensitive) pickup to play back the sound waves. Since the pickup, or 'producer' (or reproducer) was of far lighter weight, the resulting recording could be played hundreds of times more than a lateral cut recording. In addition, a vertical reproducer or pickup can, with gravity alone, pickup the minutest variations in the recorded surface with far higher accuracy and fidelity, and with a minimum of mechanical 'noise' such as that associated with a lateral cut reproducer banging back and forth from wall to wall of a groove.

However, there are indeed conflicting opinions regarding the efficacy of lateral-cut versus vertical-cut. For example, some might say that lateral-cuts offer improved accuracy and wider dynamic range than vertical-cut grooves. The rationale is that stylus motion in a lateral cut groove, is like "a car traveling on a smooth but winding street of constant width", whereas a vertical- cut groove is like "a car traveling down straight constant width street with many bumps, hills & dales". What this simplistic analogy fails to consider is the physical construct of the groove at a highly magnified or microscopically viewed level. The contrast is best exemplified by a depiction of the lateral-cut method:

Groove 'Geometry'
Groove 'Geometry'

'New' Groove
'New' Groove

Worn Groove
Worn Groove

Apart from a discussion of where the lateral-cut reproducer tracks the groove (e.g., lateral to the groove), note both the 'debris field' and the lowering of the stylus track once the groove begins to wear. The 'sweet' spot of the original sound wave inscription is near the ridge of the groove, and both tracking and fidelity deteriorate rather quickly with groove wear, as compared to the vertical (e.g., perpendicular) tracking of a vertical-cut reproducer. Granted, the 'debris field' is an issue with either method, demanding meticulous cleaning and maintenance with the vertical-cut transcriptions, and arguably less concern with meticulous maintenance with the lateral-cut method until the 'shoulders' of the groove begin to deteriorate, at which point the lateral reproducer's stylus begins to near the debris field and fidelity and frequency response fall off precipitously.

So in all fairness, there are arguably marginal benefits to employing the lateral-cut method over the vertical-cut method, but as we've illustrated, the longer wear of the vertical-cut method still tends to ensure longer fidelity to the original cut, compared to the inevitable and exponential departure from the 'sweet spot' with the lateral-cut method.

How important is the label of a vintage electrical transcription? Well in short, it can be as important as a 'rosetta stone' in successfully playing back the precious content contained within its grooves. Here's what you can learn from a well-annoted electrical transcription label:

  • Was it lateral-cut or vertical-cut?
  • Was it cut inside out or outside in?
  • What are the manufacturer's recommended needle composition and pickup (e.g., producer or reproducer) weight recommendations?
  • What speed should it be played at?
  • Who recorded it and who pressed it?
  • Was the recorded material copyright protected at the time of the pressing?
  • Where was the recording started on each side?
  • Instructions for the E.T.'s return, if any.
  • The provenances, such as Episode or side number, Date, Performer(s), recording Title, or designated and/or actual play date.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

Many producers created multipurpose labels for their recordings:

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

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The Digital Deli's environmentally maintained Golden Age Radio storage area, currently comprised of over 1,100 E.T.s (electrical transcriptions), over 15,000 open reels (with another 1,700 on the way), and approximately 6,000 tape cassettes. We've acquired this historic media from our own purchases, augmented by generous bequests of as many as 1,000 reels/E.T.s at a time from estate donors who trust our reputation of stewardship to maintain and preserve their priceless archival recordings.
Electrical Transcription Sites and Resources
rand's esoteric otr podbean blog

"A weblog and podcast featuring vintage broadcasts directly transferred from original transcriptions." So quotes author Randy Riddle of the site, but it's far more than that. Every fews days he showcases some wonderful new finds from his personal collection of electrical transcriptions from the Golden Age of Radio.



Nauck's Vintage Records

Nauck's goal has always been to advance the vintage record collecting hobby by providing products and services intended to educate and entertain the collecting fraternity at large. They feel that full enjoyment of old recordings can only be achieved through an understanding of the performer, the music and the record itself as a physical, historical artifact.



www.TinFoil.com. Explore early sound recording methods, two-minute wax cylinder records and antique phonographs; see plenty of rare vintage photos; and enjoy listening to early recorded sounds taken directly from the original wax cylinders


Wolverine Antique Music Society

Oregon Native Gus Frederick, (DOB 10/4/54) is co-founder and Chief Archivist for the Silverton, Oregon based "Wolverine Antique Music Society," which strives to be the definitive "Shellac Acquisition Cult," and focuses on 1920s and 30s Jazz, Swing and Blues. Besides thousands of 78s. He own over eighty CDs of reissued shellac jazz and blues.



The Edison Shop.
Designer & Manufacturer of Edisonia & ACT electric cylinder reproducers.


Nipperhead
Ever since Thomas A. Edison first turned the crank of his tinfoil machine and heard the scratchy, barely recognizable rendition of "Mary Had A Little Lamb", the phonograph has been a source of awe and facination. A hundred years later, the technology developed by Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner, Bell & Taintor, Eldridge Johnson, et al. has all but disappeared into the laserlight of the compact disc.
For all of you who are seduced by the sound of scratchy cylinders, delight in the dignified density of the Diamond Disc, or just think Nipper was a cool dog, then you are a Nipperhead!


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Click to Play Hour of Charm' 'Special Flag Day Program' from July 4, 1937

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More Radio Transcription Disk and Record Label Reproductions, Restorations, and Facsimiles Available Soon. . .