The Birth of U.S. Music Recording

David Byrne gives us a history lesson:

It goes way back to World War II where this soldier, Jack Mullin, who was a bit of an engineer heard some broadcast from Germany in the wee hours of the morning. It was a full orchestra, and it sounded great. And at that time you couldn’t record an orchestra and then play it back on the radio and have it sound great. Most radio broadcasts, whether it was Glenn Miller or orchestras or whatever, they were live in the studio, they were live in a ballroom, and the radio would then broadcast that.

So he thought, “Wait a minute — Hitler doesn’t have orchestras playing at 2 o’clock in the morning to fill up this radio time. They’ve developed some sort of technology that allows their recordings to have a lot more fidelity” than what we did. And so after the war they kind of raided the German radio stations. They discovered the technology – they discovered how the tape recorders had been modified to allow this to happen. They took the gear apart and sent it back to Marin County to his mom’s house. Put it back together again and tried to make their own version of it, which was AMPEG, or AMPEX, one of those companies. It was only a few guys and they were trying to sell these tape recorder devices to the big radio and record companies in Los Angeles.

People came by their studios and it looked like a junk pile, apparently, but Bing Crosby took an interest. He had a radio show, and as I said, everything had to be done live. Evidently Bing thought to himself, “I would love if there was some sort of technology where I could pre-record shows so I’d have more time to play golf.” It was really about his golf game. And so he heard about this thing – this tape recorder that these guys developed. He took an interest, although the record companies and radio stations weren’t interested, he personally backed them and said, “make some of these things for me and I’m going to record my show and I can time shift my show and have a full day of golf.” He did it and it kickstarted the whole recording industry. And not only did it allow somebody like him to do their show and broadcast the next day or the day after, it allowed editing – because you couldn’t edit discs or cylinders or anything. So if he flubbed a line, he could do it over and then cut the tape and fix it, which you couldn’t do with discs — you’d have to do the whole thing over again. It also allowed the advent of things like laugh tracks.


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