When did microphones first appear in the US entertainment industry?
April 17, 2017 2:58 AM   Subscribe

When did the gramophone horns used to capture sound in 1910s/1920s US recording studios give way to something we'd recognise as an early microphone? And when did microphones first start to be used on stage at live gigs? Finally, when did microphones become routine in both these settings?

The specific world I'm thinking of here is the 1910s/1920s era of cabaret blues and sessions for the the first "race records" released by labels like Okeh and Gennet. I know these small labels didn't have much money, so perhaps their adoption of the new microphone technology lagged behind the majors by a few years?
posted by Paul Slade to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I believe the first microphone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:55 AM on April 17

Kick-off date for commercial music recording apparently 1925. This wikipedia article about the Victor Talking Machine Company has a section "Electrical recording era". More answers to your other questions spread out over the equivalent section here.

Then, I'm finding this passage here: "During the next few years, the lesser record companies licensed or developed other electrical recording systems. By 1929 only the budget label Harmony was still issuing new recordings made by the old acoustical process."
posted by Namlit at 4:56 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]

Marsh Laboratories in Chicago is generally recognized as putting the first electrically recorded discs on the market in 1924 on its Autograph label. Victor followed in 1925. You are correct that most smaller labels took longer to upgrade to electrical equipment. But even after going electric, Columbia continued to use its old acoustic equipment for several years, issuing the results on its budget labels (Harmony was one of them).

How much of a difference did electric recording make?
Here's Fletcher Henderson's orchestra playing Variety Stomp in the spring of 1927, first under a pseudonym for one of Columbia's cheap labels, then with an electric version for Victor.


posted by Longtime Listener at 6:04 AM on April 17 [8 favorites]

I recall a podcast about old microphone technology from radiolab or TAL but searching for "microphone" and podcast is pointless. But the bit I recall was that the general thing that Bing Crosby was meticulous about mics and early recording tech and that that fed into his style that was so popular. So that was early 30s--just a few years after Longtime Listener's eponysterical answer above.
posted by Gotanda at 6:39 AM on April 17

"The first documented example of an electric PA system being used to amplify speech and music at a public event was on December 24, 1915 at San Francisco City Hall" This would be in the era of the carbon mic - aka the telephone mic and the 10 watt amplifier. Barely enough to be heard over a crowd.

Western Electric sold the first P.A. systems in 1922. but it wasn't until Radio City Music Hall opened in 1932 as the first venue "wired for sound" that performers were mic'ed. Prior to that 'Roxy’ Rothafel was experimenting in 1929 with mic'ing an orchestra.

Finally some reports have the Coconut Grove in LA as the first night club to have amplification in 1930 - a PA had been installed for the Academy Awards banquet. Bing Crosby was known to perform at the Grove in those days, and as a crooner his style needs amplification to be heard over an orchestra...but I can't find any definitive evidence.

Germany in particular was making great strides in loudspeakers for PA systems in the 1920's and 30's, but I can find no reference to musical performances.

References History of the PA
Making Things Louder:Amplified Music and Multimodality
AES audio history
posted by Zedcaster at 3:00 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]

You asked about recording studios and stage gigs, but entertainers may have been more likely to encounter a microphone for the first time while performing on radio. The first commercial stations in the United States were licensed in the fall of 1920, and by the summer of 1922 there were already more than 350 of them. There were no networks yet, so all of the programming was local and live. That meant a huge demand for entertainers of all stripes.
posted by Longtime Listener at 4:23 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]

This isn't quite what you're asking, but speaking of Bing Crosby...Allison McCracken's Real Men Don't Sing contains some cultural history of microphones, particularly their effects on vocal styles that might be useful/interesting.
posted by kickingthecrap at 8:04 PM on April 17

« Older Creative wedding clip to surprise my wife-to-be   |   Muse Headset worth having? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments