Page 21 - Summer 2018
P. 21

to the idea of recording. I wanted to make it better... to proj- ect music in the fullness of its eloquence to as many people as we can all over the world” (Gould, 2001).
In 1925, Victor unrolled their electrical recording system and invited Stokowski and his symphony back to make the first orchestral recordings on the new technology. The new “orthophonic” recording system used condenser micro- phones placed around the room instead of acoustic horns. The microphone and amplifier setup greatly expanded the upper limit of the frequencies that could be committed to the record from 2.5 Hz to 6 kHz (Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1946). Even better, the orchestra could play in their regular positions instead of clustered around the horns. Although the system was still prone to “surface noise,” an artifactual, persistent hiss in the 3- to 5-kHz range, the orthophonic sys- tem was a quantum leap beyond the old acoustic method.
Stokowski was spellbound. The American music critic Roland Gelatt (1977, pp. 253-256) recalled that the young conductor was “not content merely to conduct and leave all else to the en- gineers. Microphone placement, the seating arrangement of his orchestra, sound reflectors, monitoring panels—the entire paraphernalia of recording intrigued him.” It was a fuss for the engineers but a watershed moment in his artistry. Just as he had “Stokowski-ized” (to use the parlance of his sometimes detractor Toscanini) so many concertos and sonatas, so too would he leave his mark on electronic recording.
Bell Telephone Laboratories Targets
the Music Industry
In 1928, while Leopold Stokowski was enjoying a meteoric ascent in the classical world, the physicist Harvey Fletcher established himself as the director of acoustics research at Bell Telephone Laboratories (Fletcher, 1992). Fletcher, the son of a pioneer who had walked from Missouri to Utah be- hind a canvas wagon, completed his doctoral work in phys- ics under the auspices of Robert Millikan, who won the 1923 Nobel Prize for work related to Fletcher’s dissertation on measuring the charge of electrons. After joining Bell Tele- phone Laboratories, Fletcher’s collaborator on acoustics re- search died suddenly, leaving him in charge of an endless ex- perimental to-do list (Knudsen and King, 1964). The aim of the project was to develop telephone technology that would make a remote talker seem only a meter away, and to do so, Fletcher became a pioneer of psychoacoustics. He set about relating the physical correlates of sound to perceptual cor- relates, like loudness and intelligibility, through systematic study. After several years, it was clear that the illusion of total
immersion in an acoustic environment couldn’t be accom- plished with a single microphone, so he began investigating stereophonic, or binaural, recording.
The Bell Telephone Laboratories Director of Research (and vacuum tube innovator) Harold D. Arnold sensed an oppor- tunity; if Fletcher’s work could inform the development of technology for speech transmission, so too could it lay the groundwork for high-quality recording and reproduction of music. It was one thing to measure the frequencies and sound level changes found in music, which Fletcher had al- ready begun to investigate; it was another to understand how distortion changed the aesthetic and perceptual qualities of music. The scholar Robert McGinn (1983) proposed that the interest was threefold. First, Arnold anticipated that radio stations would eventually begin broadcasting a greater range of frequencies and volumes, and he wanted Bell Telephone Laboratories to be prepared with the necessary changes in sound recording and transmission circuitry. Second, he was willing to bet that higher quality music would find a market in consumers. If radio never caught up to transmitting a suf- ficiently rich signal, then music could be distributed by wire. Third, Arnold saw it as a chance to spread the enjoyment of music and culture to the masses, a cause no less weighty than the others in his eyes.
To study the technology of music recording and transmis- sion, the laboratory would need access to a skilled profes- sional orchestra; that way, the subjective experiences of lis- teners would be determined by the technical aspects of the experiment and not the quality of the musicianship. Arnold arranged for several prominent musical directors, including Stokowski, to tour the laboratories. A few weeks after the vis- it, Stokowski headed to a performance in Europe with a copy of Fletcher’s Speech and Hearing in tow for the long boat ride.
Stokowski and the Scientists
Nearly a year after his first visit and a few days after a dis- appointing live broadcast on NBC radio marred by poor sound quality, Stokowski wrote to Arnold and Fletcher. Although Stokowski was much maligned by his critics for being an egotist first and a musician second, he may not have entirely disagreed. “I always want to be first. I’m what’s known as egocentric,” he once said (Stokowski, 1943, p.189). Robert McGinn proposed that he was motivated by higher principles to reach out to the Bell Telephone Laboratories group. “If this hypothesis is valid, Stokowski’s overture to and collaboration with Bell Telephone Laboratories should be understood in the context of his dissatisfaction with the
Summer 2018 | Acoustics Today | 19

   19   20   21   22   23