Early Recording Sessions, Louis Rastelli


Louis Rastelli

From Vol. 2, No. 4

Up until the mid-to-late 1890s, there was no way of making copies of a record. Singers literally had to sing songs over and over and over, making each record individually, often singing the same song dozens of times a day. Many of the singers whose records were popular were advertised as being able to sing all their songs “as if they were singing it for the first time, every time.” Before the mid-20s, there were no electric microphones or anything— people sang or, if they were a band, gathered tightly around a huge horn (if they didn’t stick their heads right in it). The horn was connected at its narrow end to a vibrating stylus, which cut the groove. Fairly quickly, recording engineers started trying to put multiple horns in front of a singer, each leading to multiple styluses which would cut several records for each performance. This way, they could at least get ten or twenty copies of each performance, so that a day-long session could result in a few hundred records.
Often the studio would be heated so that the wax cylinders could stay soft for the engraving to occur more easily. One singer described a recording session circa 1905: “You’re locked all alone with the band in a big bare room. Your back is to the musicians and your face to a bleak blank wall through which protrudes a solemn horn. A bell rings once. That is to get ready. You can’t move at all after that, as the machine is so sensitive it would record the sound of your sleeve brushing against your coat. Then the bell rings twice. The band starts, and you sing, turning neither to the right nor left, always looking and singing into that protruding horn. And you can’t even let out a breath after your last note; you must close your lips on it and wait for the little whir within the horn to cease.” The interesting thing about this account is the system of two warnings before a recording; this remained standard studio practice all the way through to the mid-60s, essentially up until the end of mono recording.