An excerpt from "Modern Record Production" by John Boylan - From Chapter 2 "The Historical Development  of the Record Producer"


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 loud.

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.

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