Early Record Producers
The creative people who
were in charge of actually producing the early cylinders were not called record producers,
although that's exactly what they were. And much like the producers working today, they
wanted to make records of the most interesting music of their time. However, they had to
alter their approach to fit the limitations of their medium, because for all its
breakthrough qualities, the early phonograph suffered from three serious drawbacks:
a. Playing time was limited to a little over two minutes at first, later stretched out
to about four minutes.
b. The sound was very lo-fi, encompassing a range from roughly 200Hz to 2KHz. In
addition, only loud music recorded well.
c. While some crude duplication was possible, there was no effective method of
mass-producing the cylinders.
Faced with these challenges, our intrepid pioneers went to work. They got around the
time limitation by confining their repertoire to very short musical selections such as
marching band songs or polkas. The low fidelity of the cylinders was less of a hindrance
for brass instruments than it was for violins or classical guitar, so brass bands became
instantly popular. In fact, the U.S. Marine Band, under the direction of the legendary
John Philip Souza, was one of the first successful recording groups.
And finally, since they couldn't mass produce the records, they simply recorded lots of
them. Recording studios of the 1890's often had as many as ten or more machines to capture
the same performance. At a typical session, the engineer would start all ten machines,
then shout the name of the song into the horns. The band would then play the song, and if
there was time left at the end, they would applaud for themselves. After a short break
during which the engineer would load up ten fresh cylinders, they would do it all again.
And again, and again. At the end of the session they'd have as many as three hundred
cylinders ready to be shipped out to the coin machines in the arcades.
Crude as it was, it worked. More importantly, it introduced the idea of recorded music
to the American public. And in terms of the art of record production, it was the defining
era. It established the working credo of every record producer since then: Do whatever you
have to do to get the music recorded. For those early record producers, the key to getting
the job done was to pick the right style of music or comedy, keep it short, and make it
Fortunately for all of us, we have a written record of what those sessions were like
from one of the pioneers of the industry, a man who was probably the earliest practitioner
of what would later be called record production - Fred Gaisberg.
As a young schoolboy in Washington, Fred Gaisberg showed remarkable musical abilities.
He was a clever and facile pianist who could accompany any singer, switching styles to fit
each performer. Like most students, he always needed a little extra pocket change, and so
he would volunteer to play piano for singers when they recorded. He took to billing
himself as "Professor" Gaisberg to disguise the fact that he was underage. It
didn't take long for young Fred to realize that the life of a recording musician was for
him, so he quit school and in 1891 and went to work for Charles Sumner Tainter for the
handsome sum of ten dollars a week, helping him record graphophone cylinders for a
coin-in-the-slot venture at the Chicago World's Fair. After that project, he worked for
both the American Graphophone Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the Columbia
Graphophone Company in Washington. His job was rather all-encompassing for a teen-ager: he
haunted the clubs and theatres to find new singers, set up the studio, ran the machines,
played piano, and then delivered the finished cylinders to the arcade operators. Because
the recording industry was still a long way from becoming anything beyond a novelty, the
bulk of the artists that young Gaisberg and others recorded in the 1890's were not exactly
the crème de la crème of the established music world. They were the local
singers, comedians, and raconteurs who lived in the vicinity of the record company.
Serious musical artists still shied away from the new medium, although the
coin-in-the-slot players eventually made household names out of several of singers,
notably Billy Murray, George Gaskin, Ada Jones, and Len Spencer.
After a short while, Gaisberg became quite well-known in the Washington area, hanging
out with entertainers of every type. It was through one of those entertainers, the very
popular singer, Billy Golden, that he found his next job, a job which put him at the
forefront of the nascent recording industry. The young musician's next boss would help him
to define the job of record producer and move it forward from its crude beginnings to take
its place in the new industry.
But first, the industry had to break out of the nickel-a-play, arcade business and into
the homes of everyday people. Somehow, someone had to find a way to make records better
and a lot cheaper. And how was this accomplished? It seems simple now, but it took a
unique combination of originality and hard work. The recording industry, as it would do
many times in the years to come, vaulted to the next level on the sturdy legs of a major
technological advance - the first since its invention.