Part 3: Music in the Night

Previously: Hollywood Experiments With Stereo

The earliest known experiments with “tape” recording were done by Alexander Graham Bell with a system he patented in 1886. While it used a tape, it used a stylus as did Edison’s invention and others. Rather than use a cylinder or a disk, the groove was etched into a long piece of tape covered with wax that went from one reel to another.

Valdemar Poulsen (1869-1942) was a Danish engineer and a very intelligent man. In fact, he is responsible for two inventions that play a part in our story. In 1903 he invented a means by which a steady, continuous radio signal could be generated which made possible the transmission of audio and later television. Prior to this discovery, wireless transmissions depended on the generation of a gigantic spark, using a “spark gap” transmitter, that could be picked up at a distance but were limited to signals such as Morse code. Poulsen’s other invention was the magnetic recorder in 1898. As with spark gap transmitters, it could only record signals such as Morse code. It used piano wire at a speed of 84 inches per second — modern audio tape recorders use speeds starting at 1-7/8 inches per second for logging purposes doubling to 30 inches per second for studio use (1-7/8, 3-3/4, 7-1/2, 15 and 30).

Valdemar Poulsen Photo: Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation

In 1924, German engineer Kurt Stille (1873-1957) developed an audio recorder for office dictation. As with Poulsen’s device, this used steel wire as the medium. While it recorded sound it was not of broadcast quality.

It took another German, Louis Blattner (1881-1935), to further develop Stille’s invention. Blattner, who lived in England, was a movie producer interested in a way of synchronizing sound with motion pictures. His developments garnered interest at the BBC. They obtained several Blattnerphones. These were deemed acceptable for voice but not for music. One of the main reasons for this was poor speed regulation. The Blattnerphone used a 6mm steel tape running at 5 feet per minute. This steel tape did allow for early experiments with tape editing. Among other recordings, a Blattnerphone was used to record Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1939.

With war, development of something as frivolous as a means of recording good quality audio was not considered a high priority. Allies were unaware of work done by the German company BASF in the mid 1930’s. During the latter part of the war, however, the United States military did use wire recordings to play back sounds to cover the real movement of men and materiel — but those devices were not known for their fidelity.

WWII US Navy wire recorder Photo:

Jack Mullin (1913-1999) was an officer in the US Army Signal Corp. He also enjoyed classical music. German radio stations would play music throughout the day and night. He was perplexed, though. Mulling knew what live music sounded like on the radio. He also knew what music played from discs sounded like on the radio. As far as he knew at the time, those were the only two options. This music sounded as though it was being played live on the air — even in the middle of the night.

Mullin knew of wire recorders – he was in the Signal Corp — but he didn’t know of tape recorders and the audio quality that was possible. The only thing he could think of was that the Germans were able to have musicians play live even in the middle of the night. Mullins knew that Hitler could get much of what he wanted but there were practical limits. Surly there were more important things for the German government to be concerned with than to have world class musicians play on the radio at all hours of the day and night.

After the war Mullin was part of a team tasked with finding a reported high-frequency device that would disable allied aircraft. He never found any trace of such a weapon but a British officer told Mullin of a device called a Magnetophon. Before returning to the United States, Mullin took a side trip to a German radio station in Bad Nauheim. It was here than he first saw the device that made possible the music in the night.

Along with the devices, Mullin found reels of the tape that contained the recordings. Not only did the recordings sound  like the musicians were live, they were also in stereo although they could not be broadcast that way.

Here is one such recording made in Berlin in 1944. In the quiet passages you can hear German anti-aircraft firing in the distance. If possible, listen to this recording though good speakers or even headphones. It is remarkable that this recording is from 1944.

Mullin arranged to bring back some Magnetophons to the United States. He worked to improve the devices. When he was satisfied with their quality he put on demonstrations of the new medium. This lead to tape being first used on network radio on the Bing Crosby show on October 1, 1947

Next: Stereo Comes Home