Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

1904 - Kampa Dzong Tibet

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One of the least thought about, but perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the way we listen to music is its loudness – that is, the quantity rather than just the quality. Modern day audiophiles will be familiar with the “loudness war” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, where mastering engineers applied compression techniques to commercial recordings to ensure they sounded louder than anything else on FM radio – and radio engineers then ran software to make everything level again, between them destroying the dynamic range of music and making everything sound much more flat.

To sacrifice fidelity for volume is not a new phenomenon. While the earliest sound recordings were relayed through stethoscope-like proto-headphones, by the mid 1890s recordings were being played through brass horns of the sort you would expect to find on an old gramophone or Victrola. These acoustic horns take small sound waves (which are large pressure variations with a small displacement area) and stretch them out (into a low pressure variation with a large displacement area.) This messes with the resonance of the sound, making mid-level tones boom and high-level or low-level sounds disappear or distort, but it at least means that you can play a record to a room full of people, so long as the room isn’t particularly big. Beyond a certain horn size the distortions became too disruptive, so playing music in concert halls was at first an impossibility.

The first attempt to do something about this problem was the “Triplephone” – a device which tripled the volume by having three gramophones playing the same recording. In some cases two triplephones could be used at the same time. You may think that this would cause problems with sychronisation, and this does appear to be the case, as such experiments soon faded away. A better solution was the ‘Auxetophone’, which used an electric fan to push air through the horn and force up the volume. It was much louder and much more expensive, too much so for home use, but it found a home in dance halls and theatres.

As the horn was a two-way device, its limitations also caused problems with recording. Loud recordings with greater dynamics caused stiff playback arms to force needles to hit the sides of the groove, resulting in records becoming unlistenable after less than 50 plays – not good value if you only owned a handful of cylinders or discs. Around this time engineers in the USA began to use dampening techniques – like encouraging artists to perform further away from the horn – and consequently mainstream recordings from this time often sacrifice their vividness for a reduction in distortion.

Sound engineering was so much in its infancy that it didn’t even have a name yet, so thankfully this new norm was confined to the studios of New York. Around the world vastly different techniques continued to be used. For some reason (please tell me if you know what it is) there seem to be a disproportionate amount of French recordings available in 1904 – so much so that I was able to dedicate a whole quarter of the mix to la francophonie. Russian and Italian opera singers also seem to dominate the repositories of available music. There was a lot of this to wade through this time, but the few nuggets I’ve picked out really are something special. One opera singer to pay particular attention to this time is Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to ever be recorded. More about him soon.


Edison Modern Minstrels – Louisiana Minstrels 0:00
Bohumir Kryl – Sweet Sixteen Waltz 0:05
Len Spencer – Lincoln’s Speech At Gettysburg 2:08
Vess L. Ossman – The Darkie’s Awakening 2:27
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – Two Rubes At The Vaudeville 4:43
W. W. Whitlock – Come Under My New Gamp 4:54
Albert C. Campbell & Bob Roberts – An Interrupted Courtship On The Elevated Railroad 6:57
Albert Sandler Trio – Kashmiri Song (Four Indian Love Lyrics) 7:30
Charlus – La Noce Du Chef D’orchestre 10.53
Grisard – Une Visite Au Jardin Des Plantes 11.35
Paul Fayol – Bonsoir Mam’zelle 12:36
Harry Fragson – L’anglais Triste 14:47
Harry Fragson – Le Flegme 15:14
Jean Péheu – Au Premier De Ces Messieurs 17:06
Léonne Et Willekens – Chez Le Dentiste 18:35
M. Bergeret – Chant D’afrique 19:16
Performers Unknown – Les Deux Pinsons 21:12
Martin Bendix – Eine Feine Familie 23:20
Kaiser Franz Garde-Grenadier Regiment Nr. 2 – Mill In Schwarzwald 23:46
Anonymous – Two Visitors to the St Louis Worlds Fair 25:11
J.W. Myers – Come Take A Trip In My Airship 25:28
Albert Benzler – Come Take A Trip In My Airship Medley 26:21
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskin’s Ride On The Cyclone Auto 27:42
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan – Woah, Bill! 27:58
Edison Military Band – Good Humor Quadrille 2nd Figure 29:43
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh And The Insurance Agent 31:22
Unknown – Lumbering Luke (Concertina Solo) 32:00
Booker T. Washington – The Atlanta Compromise Speech 32:35
Enrico Caruso – Una Furtiva Lagrima 33:02
Alessandro Moreschi – Ave Maria 36:20
Mary Garden – Chant Vénitien 39:29
Antonina Nezhdanova – La Tenera Parola 40:40
Isabel Jay – Poor Wandering One 41:34
Gypsy Choir Of V.V.Panina – Sasa Grisha 43:25
R.H. Robinson – Jarabe Tapatio 45:24
Orquesta Tipica Lerdo – Consentida 46:30
Haydn Quartet – New Years At Old Trinity 47:28
John Hazel, Frank R. Seltzer And The Edison Military Band – Two Of Us 48:01
Burt Shepard – The Boy And The Cheese 49:31
Billy Murray – I Can’t Do That Sum 49:47
Unknown Performer – Backyard Conversation Between Two [Jealous] Irish Washerwomen 50:47
Arthur Pryor’s Band – Mignon Overture 50:58
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – An Evening Call In Jayville Center 53:15
Fontbonne, L – Chasse Aux Papillons 53:15
Sir Harry Lauder – Tattie Soup 54:02
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Down Tennessee – Descriptive Barn Dance 55:04
Edison Modern Minstrels – Georgia Minstrels 55:53
Frank S. Mazziotta – Bluette 56:16
Cal Stewart And Ada Jones – Uncle Josh’s Courtship 57:18
Unknown Performer – La Chanson Des Nids 57:35
Albert Whelan – Scrooge’s Awakening 58:23
Edison Male Quartet – Breeze Of The Night 58:39

Much of the research for this entry is from the always excellent Sound of the Hound blog.

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