ACOUSTIC RECORDING. More accurately, ‘Mechanical Recording’, it began with Léon Scott de Martinville in the late 1850s. Sound was recorded by gathering it into a fairly narrow conical horn. The sound waves were intensified as they passed to the small end of the horn – usually around 0.5″ (12mm) across. From there, they went into a shallow chamber about 2″ (5cm) in diameter. Here, they caused a very thin glass diaphragm to vibrate.
Attached to this diaphragm was a very light lever assembly bearing a point, which conveyed the vibrations and impressed them on a moving plastic medium such as wax or tinfoil.
The recording could be immediately replayed by simply reversing the process, at least in the case of Edison’s indented-tinfoil phonograph of 1877. The system is almost absurdly simple. Why didn’t people think of it before? Who knows? At any rate, it remained the principal method of recording sound until the mid 1920s, so it lasted for 65 years – which is a very long time.
Oh yes: people were trying to use electricity for sound recording from the 1870s on, but there was then, no way of amplifying the obstinately tiny electric signals, on replay. Actually, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, which did indeed convert sound into electricity and back again, dates from 1876, the year before Edison’s phonograph!
The term ‘acoustic recording’ is a rather ‘woolly’ one, since all sound, however recorded or reproduced, is ‘acoustic’. In spite of the term being so deeply entrenched, we tend to use the more accurate ‘Mechanical Recording’ on this website. Pretentious, moi? 8^)
CATALOGUE NUMBER. Curiously, it took quite a while before all records bore something that was obviously and unmistakably a catalogue number. Terms such as order number and serial number frequently appeared on the label instead.
Very often, other numbers appear in the wax or under the label. These are most usually the face number or a control number; there may be others as well. Many early discs do not have a catalogue number at all; they were ordered by quoting the artiste and title; or (more efficiently) by quoting the order, serial or face number for one side, as the order & serial numbers were not necessarily the same on both sides.
There are records which have any many as six or eight numbers scattered around their labels and wax.
Sorting them out and deciding ‘which means what’ is one of the most powerful tools of discography – though it can be frustrating at times.
CONTROL NUMBER. It was very common for recordings originating with one company to appear on records made by another. These would have different numerical series from the host company’s masters. In order to enable logical storage of the metalwork, it was quite common for the host company to add a new sequential number to these incoming masters, and these are known as ‘control numbers’.
ELECTRIC RECORDING. The first really successful method of electric recording using microphones, valve (tube) amplifiers, electro-magnetic cutting heads &c. appeared in 1925. It had been designed as a complete system by Western Electric, after several years of intensive research & development. The equipment was not sold; it was leased, only to the major U.S. record companies (= Victor & Columbia) on a royalty basis.
As already remarked, there had been many previous attempts at electrical recording and replay. Indeed, Edison’s tinfoil phonograph patent (first granted in the U.K. in 1878) contains a description and image of an electromagnetic recorder (ipso facto, also a replay device).
Still, largely, the advent of the excellent WE system revolutionised sound recording. Of course, electrical playback appeared almost immediately.
Having said all that, this website concentrates on the era of the old mechanical system, for this is the early heritage, and seems to be increasingly neglected.
ELECTROTYPING. A process whereby a layer of metal may be deposited on another surface. A current of electricity flows from an anode submerged in an electrolyte, which in our case, would be a solution of metal salts in water. The current flows to the cathode, and ions from the solution are deposited there, forming a layer of metal. To this day, it is still the core process in the manufacture of disc records. In short, electrotyping takes the master record through various stages (matrix, mother, stamper) to the final pressing.
FACE NUMBER. As all early discs were single sided, one might have thought that a single number would be enough to identify its stamper on the metalwork storage shelves. So if more copies were needed, the factory would simply be instructed to press x more copies of record number so and so.
This was all very well if that company had only one master series. However, the disc record industry was amazingly international right from the very beginning. So recordings taken in one country were issued in others; often many others. Naturally, each country had its own master series, sometimes several of them; so to keep things in order, an over-arching numerical series – the face number – was applied.
This face number was the most important number to these manufacturers; more so than the catalogue number, more so even than the master number!
It was also possible to use the face number to indicate the diameter of a disc, its repertoire and its country of origin. The face number system used by the Favorite Record Co. is an excellent example of this.
FIVE-STEP PROCESS. The first step in producing a disc was the wax master record. By electrotyping, a durable metal matrix was then produced.
This matrix, being a negative copy of the wax, in theory could be used to make a positive pressing in shellac. Indeed, this was occasionally done, either in the very earliest days of discs, or later on, when only a handful of copies was needed. This was called the three-step process.
But it was full of drawbacks, described under that heading. So, from the matrix, a third electrotyping stage was carried out, giving us a much more robust positive replica of the original wax. This was called a mother.
From the mother, a fourth step of electrotyping would produce a negative stamper.
The fifth step, of course, was to use the stamper to press the finished record. However, stampers had a finite life. Sometimes they wore out after only dozens or hundreds of pressings had been made, when thousands were needed. Accordingly, another stamper was electrotyped from the mother, and off you went again. With luck, you might be able to produce quite a large number of stampers from a single mother. And if the mother itself eventually wore out, why then, you could electrotype a second mother from the matrix. See also seven-step process.
IN THE WAX. A convenient – if woolly – term, long used by discographers to describe numbers, letters and other writings and stampings found in the blank space in between the end of the groove of a disc and its label. Of course, records are not made of wax.
The term does have validity if confined to anything written or stamped into the original wax master disc. But in practice, it’s used for information added to the central area of the master, matrix, mother or stamper at any stage of manufacture. It’s worth remembering that it’s rather difficult to write on metal 8^) , so anything that actually is hand-written was most likely done on the actual wax.
Moreover, people were generally reluctant to stamp anything onto a wax for fear of distorting or cracking it; so information on a 78 in type will almost invariably have been added to one of the metalwork stages.
‘In the wax’ was originally understood also to include the area under the label, but for many years now, the more precise ‘under the label’ has come into use for this area. A useful series of abbreviations was developed by U.S. discographers: wh = in the wax, hand-written; wt = in the wax in type; ulh = under the label, hand-written; ult = under the label in type.
LATERAL CUT. The groove on a lateral cut disc has a uniform depth, and the sound modulations are represented by a side-to side excursion. In the image above, the groove at top has a low sound level, so appears relatively straight. At the bottom, the groove is quite heavily modulated, so the side-to-side excursions are easily visible. (The record is by the soprano Viktoria Kavetsaya, recorded in St. Petersburg, September 1911.) The great majority of the labels dealt with on this site are lateral cut. See also vertical cut.
MASTER. The Master Record; the Original Recording: the primary source of all subsequent discs of that performance. After about 1901, these were made on a thick wax disc. This disc was usually warmed, to make it easier to cut the groove. Being inherently fragile and susceptible to surface damage, they were processed by electrotyping, as soon as practicable, into a matrix. (Having said that, some companies could and did make trial waxes, e.g. for checking the vocal or instrumental balance of the performance.)
MASTER NUMBER. In order to help keep track of what had been recorded, a unique number was assigned to every master, and its corresponding matrix. Sometimes they were merely a single sequence beginning somewhere logical, like 1, or perhaps 1000. However, some companies assigned blocks of numbers in order to denote different types of repertoire, recording engineers, recording locations and other variables. This made the task of future discographers more difficult!
Collectors and discographers almost always use the terms ‘master number’ and ‘matrix number’ interchangeably. This is perfectly acceptable on the simple ground that both numbers are – or should be – always the same. Of course, the master number came first, being allocated to the wax blank on which the sound was recorded; then, the matrix was electrotyped from the wax. Of necessity, it bore the same number, otherwise chaos would have immediately ensued!
MATRIX. The delicate wax master record was, as soon a possible, electrotyped into a metallic matrix. This was the first stage in the mass production of discs. A very thin layer of graphite dust was brushed onto the surface of the wax: it covered all the groove and every detail of the sound recorded in it. Wax does not conduct electricity – but graphite does; so in a electric plating bath, metals (usually copper and/or nickel) can be deposited on this extremely thin graphite layer. This metal layer gives a very exact replica of the wax. When this layer was thick enough, the master was removed from the bath and the metal ‘matrix’ peeled off. It was an exact replica of the grooves in the wax, except that it was negative, while the master had been positive. This new matrix was the basis for further processing.
MATRIX NUMBER. This is always the same as the master number, because the matrix was derived from it. If it were to be allocated some other number, the organisation of the record company would become chaotic very quickly indeed, because nobody would know what recording was on which matrix. 8^)
MECHANICAL RECORDING. A more precise term for the commony-used, but ‘woolly’ term Acoustic Recording, q.v.
METALWORK. A generic term applied to matrices, mothers and stampers, all of which consisted of metal alloys (usually Copper and/or Nickel), obtained by electrotyping one from the other. This, as distinct from the master, which in our period of study, was almost invariably wax. Actually, more likely a mixture of waxes, plus probably a small quantity of some ‘magic ingredient’, which would improve the smoothness of cutting and would naturally be a jealously-guarded Trade Secret…
MOTHER. The third step of the five-step process (q.v.); Master – matrix – mother – stamper – pressing. It is a robust replica of the original positive wax master, and so can be used to electrotype a number of stampers for making the finished pressings. See also Seven-step Process.
NEGATIVE. Any piece of metalwork in the manufacturing process, in which the groove of the final pressing is in the form of a raised ridge – which will of course, become a recessed groove on the next stage. In the five-step process, the matrix is negative, and the stamper is negative. It was, apparently, possible to play a negative metalwork, using a forked stylus that straddled the ridge.
ORDER NUMBER. In the early years, this term often appeared on labels in lieu of a catalogue number. It might even appear as well as a catalogue number, to facilitate in some way, the ordering process from e.g. a British client to a German manufacturer.
POSITIVE. Any piece of metalwork in the manufacturing process, in which the groove of the final pressing is indeed recessed, as on the finished pressing. In the five-step process, the master, the mother and of course the pressing are positives.
PRESSING. The final, saleable product of the three-, five- or seven-step process. In short, a finished disc record.
SERIAL NUMBER. Again, usually a substitute, on earlier discs, for a catalogue number; though it might also have acted as a factory reference to facilitate re-pressings. The modern usage of a ‘serial number’, as for example on electronic equipment, where each unit carries a unique number, was never used on early disc records as far as I know, except in the case of the prestige Fonotipia company. These appear to have hand-stamped individal numbers. All part of their high-class and well-deserved thoroughbred image! (N.B. – check this…)
SEVEN-STEP PROCESS. (This paragraph is provisional. 21st May 2016.) As record sales increased, eventually tens and hundreds of millions were sold annually. Individual issues sometimes sold hundreds of thousands of copies each, and ‘million sellers’ soon appeared.
Efficient distribution between the international branches of major companies was necessary. It was no use Victor sending, from the U.S.A., just one mother for the use of its affiliate HMV in the U.K. HMV might get through several mothers and dozens of stampers producing a big-selling disc.
Therefore a seven-step process route was adopted. To be honest, we are not yet really sure of the nomenclature of all seven steps, but certainly, the term ‘mother matrix’ referred to one of them. So we assume something like this:
Step 1. Wax master (positive; unique).
Step 2. Metal matrix (negative; unique).
Step 3. Mother (positive; several possible).
Step 4. Mother matrices (negative; many possible).
Step 5. “Daughter mothers” (positive; very many possible).
Step 6. Stampers (negative; vast numbers possible).
Step 7. Pressings (positive; millions possible).
We also have no idea of when the seven-step process first came in; we still need to do more research. But it probably started in the early or mid 1920s. Ironically, today, small-run vinyl LPs are often produced by the three-step process. There’s nothing new under the sun!
SHELLAC. Another ‘woolly’ term. It’s often applied to the material any and every 78 is made of, and is too well-entrenched ever to be corrected. In fact, shellac was only a minor – if vital – component of traditional 78 pressings. It simply bound together all the other ingredients of a ‘shellac’ 78.
These were many and varied. Slate dust, carbon black, coal dust: whatever. In any case, some of the 78 labels to be found on this site were pressed into completely different materials, with no shellac involved at all. In 1903-04, the earliest Nicole records were pressed into solid celluloid. This proved too expensive, so they soon used a very thin layer of celluloid laminated to a cardboard, or even a wood-like core; they were much thicker then.
Many other ‘indestructible’ records such as Marconi-Columbia, Fetherflex (only 1mm thick) and Duophone used other early synthetic compounds. But all in all, the term ‘shellac’ is still going strong!
STAMPER. Exactly what it says: the metalwork that was put into the heated platen(s) of a hydraulic press, which were then closed over a blob of thermo-plastic material, which became flat and round. In short, a 78 record.
One or two companies though, actually put full size blank discs under the press; I believe that Pathé was one such. The lovely silent-surfaced Columbia laminated discs were a half-way house: the beautifully smooth but very thin surfaces were put in the press at full size, and a heated blob (of much coarser and cheaper material) pressed between them.
TALLY-MAN LABELS. Items of all kinds have always been sold from door-to-door. Gramophone records were no exception. One of the first (and by far the most successful) of these organisations was The English Record Company, founded ca. 1910. Their label was called ‘John Bull’, and was initially pressed for the ERC by Beka.
A salesman (= Tally-man) would go around knocking on front doors, and asking the occupant whether or not they had a gramophone. In 1910, most people did not. The Tally-man would then inform them that they could have a gramophone FREE OF CHARGE. Provided that they purchased one record a week to play on it, and continued doing this for one year. The records, naturally, had to be John Bull records. They cost two shillings and sixpence each (now 12.5p).
At the end of the year, having purchased 52 records, the gramophone became their property, and they no longer had to buy one disc a week – unless, of course, they wished to carry on doing so. So they did indeed get a gramophone ‘free’, sort of. (They had, naturally paid for the gramophone themselves, out of the relatively high cost of the discs, and also generated a good profit for the vendor!)
The scheme flourished mightily for the ERC. For two or three years, John Bull records were being taken up at a great rate. To be sure, the discs were of good quality, even if the repertoire was predictable: comic songs, parlour ballads, instrumental solos, military marches, famous operatic overtures, sacred songs & so on. The ERC knew a mass market, and what sort of records their clients wanted. However, the general price of records soon began to fall, so John Bull discs at 2/6d each, rapidly became much less attractive as value for money. In addition, the scramble for ever-cheaper product mean that the ERC had difficulty in getting the merchadise it needed. The company must have made quite a bit of cash for its proprietors, but in the end it was a case of ‘A short life, but a merry one.’
So the ERC withered, and its assets & remaining stocks were sold off to the Albion record concern around 1913. Yet even now, over a century later, John Bull discs are not uncommon. Many others repeated the formula, with varying degrees of success. Britannic, Citizen and Meloto are just three examples. Meloto (possibly as a hedge against falling piano roll sales, which is what they originally marketed) began around 1922 and lasted for probably 5 years. In the process, they issued something over 800 discs, in spite of which, Meloto is a rather elusive label.
THREE-STEP PROCESS. The simplest process route for producing disc records. Step 1. The sound is cut onto a wax master disc. Step 2. A negative matrix is electrotyped from the wax. Step 3. That matrix is used as a stamper to press positive replicas of the master. This simple process was used in the very earliest days of disc records, but was fraught with perils.
If anything went wrong – as it often did – the matrix/stamper would be ruined. Therefore, if you had outstanding orders for that disc, you would have to get the artiste to come back and record it again. Of course, they would require another fee for doing that. If they were touring the provinces, they wouldn’t be able to come back for a long time.
And if they had returned to their native land, as the American banjoist Vess Ossman did after recording in London for Nicole in 1904, they might never come back at all, as was indeed the case with Ossman. (Nicole got the young Charlie Rogers to remake the same titles. The discs are duly credited to Rogers, but the catalogue still said Vess Ossman. This caused much trouble and frustration in the banjo world for many years!)
Accordingly, the five-step process q.v. was soon generally adopted.
TRIAL WAXES. A wax master record would be damaged or destroyed if you played it back. However, some companies did make trial recordings on wax, e.g. to establish the balance between a singer and the accompaniment. Such a disc could be played back there and then. It would be ruined for use as a master, but had served a constructive purpose.
UNDER THE LABEL. A self-explanatory term used to indicate the location of letters, numbers, symbols &c that have been written into the wax master, or stamped on metalwork during the manufacturing process. Abbreviated to ‘ulh’ = under the label, hand written; or ‘ult’ = under the label in type.
VERTICAL CUT. The groove on a vertical cut disc is more or less of uniform width. The sound modulations are impressed vertically, thus appearing as a series of indentations or pits – much like a CD, in fact! Phonograph cylinders were always vertically cut, as were some makes of early disc – notably Pathé, along with Neophone, Musogram, Marathon, Edison Bell Little Champion, early Clarions, Diamond &c.
Because of jealously-guarded patents on the lateral cut, many labels started out using the vertical cut, especially in the U.S.A., but most went swiftly to lateral cut when the patents expired, or, as in the U.S., were overthrown. (The record above is a Pathé. Andante con Variazioni (Paganini) by the violinist Virgilio Ranzato, issued in the U.K. in November 1909.) Except for special purposes, vertical cut discs were virtually extinct by 1920, with the notable exceptions of Pathé, who continued to produce vertical cut discs for several more years, and U.S. Edison, who continued that format until 1929, when they ceased production of all records. See also lateral cut.