Friday, January 31, 2020

NRR Project: ‘Adeste Fideles’

‘Adeste Fideles’
Performed by the Associated Glee Clubs of America and audience
Recorded March 31, 1925

This is perhaps the most significant development encountered thus far in my National Recording Registry project, but it’s also the most difficult to explain. Well, that’s never stopped me before.

On March 31, 1925, fifteen “glee clubs” (amateur male singing societies) gathered on the stage of the original Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway in Manhattan. Columbia Records was there as well. It recorded all the participants (850) singing the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles” — “O Come All Ye Faithful," joined in the last chorus by the 4,000-member audience.

What makes the recording so significant is that it was made electrically. Engineers had been working on this development for years; it was made feasible by Western Electric’s H.C. Harrison and Joseph P. Maxfield in 1924.

Before this, you recorded by making sound into a large horn, which funneled the sound down to a sensitive stylus that copied the vibrations into a matrix material, like wax or shellac. Once you had a good “take,” the master disc or cylinder could be replicated numerous times.

The process was crude and limited. Performers had to jam themselves around the recording horn, quiet or sibilant noises got lost, and the masters were notoriously dodgy, easily wearing away and losing their fidelity to the original sound.

Electrical recording changed all that. A microphone, or even multiple microphones, captured the sound, translating it into infinitely more detailed electrical impulses on the receiving disc. I can best explain it through analogy. Acoustic recording was like writing with a broom handle in a bank of snow. Electrical recording was like fine etching on glass.

The difference in quality is easy to distinguish. Listen to “Adeste Fideles” again. There are hundreds, then thousands, of voices singing, and on an acoustic recording this mass of sound would have “blown out” the receiver and come across as just so much noise. The electrical process allows the reception of a wider bandwidth of volume — and of tone as well. The range of frequencies captured widened considerably. The vocal parts are clearly delineated in the recording, despite the size of the chorus.

The result is a new richness and subtlety in recorded music, one that change how music was made. Those who could exploit its new-found intimacy and range would become its new stars.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the Charleston.


Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music
Michael Chanan

The History of Music Production
Richard James Burgess
Oxford University Press

The Art of Sound: A Visual History for Audiophiles
Terry Burrows
Thames & Hudson

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