Music Electrically Transcribed!

Walter J. Beaupre

When I first began to work in a local broadcasting station in 1944, it was not what was there but what was missing that surprised me. Studio "A" was a floating,soundproof room complete with Hammond organ, Novachord, Steinway studio grand piano, and extensive sheet music files. Studio "B" also had a smaller pianowhich was tuned regularly for broadcast use. There were class "C" phone lines to the Yankee Network in Boston and the Mutual Broadcasting System in New Yorkwhich provided "live" network music programs. Yankee did a daily morning show"Andy Jacobson's Rhythm" with a first class studio orchestra which I particularly enjoyed. What I couldn't find anywhere at WCOU was a library of 78 rpm phono- graph records! True, sitting on one of the cabinets in the control room were a dozen or so 10 inch records, each of which carried the warning, "Not licensed for broadcast." Of course, most of the time the record companies ignored the fact thattheir recordings were played on the air because this boosted sales. Nine years earlier Martin Block had pioneered the"disc jockey" show which plugged pop records.

The key pieces of furniture in the control room other than the RCA broadcast console and two RCA turntables were two oversized file cabinets which contained 16-inch discs. These electrical transcriptions were the extent of the station's library of recorded music.

Although new to me in 1944, electrical transcriptions had been around forfifteen years. Western Electric (aka "AT&T"!) had pioneered large-disc recordingsat much slower speeds for the early "talkies." When an optical sound-on-filmprocess replaced these early transcriptions, the technology was taken over by entrepreneurs who saw a future for such transcriptions in radio broadcasting. The fidelity of the transcription discs was far superior to 78 rpm records -- muchless surface noise. Radio networks were in their infancy, and programs could be sent via discs to individual radio stations in all parts of the country to be played at optimum times for the local markets. Amos 'n Andy in 1929 was the first program to be syndicated on two transcription discs of 5 minutes each, which werethen joined in the middle by a local commercial announcement. However, these Amos 'n Andy transcriptonswere recorded at the 78 rpm speed. The WorldBroadcasting Service in 1929 was the first transcription company to license the slower-speed Western Electric technology.

By 1935 there were four major transcription services supplying 350 radio stations:World Transcription Service, Standard Radio Library, RCA/NBC Thesaurus, and the C.P. MacGregor service. Each of these companies provided a basic library of radio shows complete in themselves except for local commercial tie-ins, a library of musical selections, a license to play them on the air, and periodic issues of new discs and replacements. They even provided the special sized filing cabints to house the transcriptions. These libraries did not "belong" to a radio station; theywere leased for as long as station paid the necessary fees.

According to Michael Biel, who has written a scholarly dissertation on electrical transcriptions, World Broadcasting at first "offered their discs in two materials: acetate or vinyl. The acetate pressings were very thin and flexible. They are a red clay color and feel slightly greasy to the touch. The vinyl discs were a little thicker, stiffer, and were slightly translucent purple." Vinyl eventually became the material most widely used.

The transcription service leased at WCOU was the Standard Radio Library. Part of my job when network programs were on was to file the new discs as they arrivedevery week or so. Each disc was double-sided and contained five to six selectionsper side. A page describing the disc was put in a loose-leaf notebook for easyreference. File cards for each selection made it possible to locate each perform- ance alphabetically by title, artist, and type of music. Usually a single artist ororchestra was featured on each disc. The discs were filed according to the typeof music on the disc. For example, all of the solo organ recordings were filedunder "S" according to ascending numbers. Newest releases were always thehighest numbers in any given category. Other categories were classical, semi- classical, vocals, western, etc. There were even specialized recordings of musical"bridges" (music to fill the gaps between scenes in a radio play) and sound effects(thunder, rain, wind, dogs barking and howling, etc.).

Although these transcriptions often featured artists who also made recordings for Columbia, Decca, and RCA Victor, the discs seldom contained current hit record- ings. For example, Standard Radio Library which was a subsidiary of RCA Victorissued an extensive library of performances by Dave Rose and his orchestra, butI don't recall "Holiday For Strings" (the biggest Victor hit) being among them. Artists who were big names in the entertainment world sometimes used assumednames for their transcriptions. The successful organist Buddy Cole recorded forStandard under the name "Edwin Lemar." His real name was actually Edwin Lemar "Buddy" Cole! I seem to remember that composer/conductor Morton Gould, aColumbia artist, recorded for Standard under the name "Leith Stevens." In recentyears some of these transcription library performances by legendary artists such asTommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Nat King Cole have been issued on LP's and CD'sand touted as "never before released" recordings by the artists. It is true that theywere never released as phonograph records -- only as transcriptions to be used bylicensed radio stations.

The actual performances on these transcriptions did not duplicate precisely the commercial record releases of the same artists. Sometimes these performanceswere not as good as the commercial record releases; but sometimes the playingwas far more spontaneous. I like some of the King Cole Trio transcriptions muchbetter than the Capitol releases of the same tunes. Furthermore, jazz performances weren't confined to a three-minute limit as were most 78's.

Many local programs were built around the music available via these transcription services. I recall one incident when Standard issued a rash of discs by LeoDiamond and his Harmonaires, a novelty band featuring harmonicas. The grouphad achieved notoriety in the film version of George and Ira Gershwin's "GirlCrazy" with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. As luck would have it,my stationmanager was a big fan of the Harmonaires and sold a 15 minute-per-eveningshow called "Harmonica Harmonies" to a sponsor. It was my job to produce andannounce the show. The good news was that the contract gave the sponsor theexclusive rights to "Harmonica Harmonies" for three years! The bad news wasthat Standard promptly stopped sending new discs of Leo Diamond and hisHarmonaires, and I had to play the same 40-or- so tunes in various combinationsover and over ad nauseam! It was years before I could listen to "Peg O' My Heart" (the program's theme) without wanting to up-chuck! Where were you, Jerry Murad and Your Harmonicats, when I needed you?

Another radio station (WEST in Easton, PA) I worked for later had libraries ofWorld and Langworth transcriptions. Dr. Biel reminds me that Associated was still another transcription library of the period. As the result of the ASCAP "war" overthe licensing of radio stations to play recorded music, we later received a few transcriptions from BMI (Broadcast Music International) and SESAC (primarilycountry and western music).

What these transcriptions had in common was that they all were designed to beplayed as 33 1/3 revolutions per minute -- as opposed to regular phonographrecords which revolved at 78 rpm. The turntables were extra-large to accommo- date the 16-inch discs, and they were dual speed. Most of the electricaltranscriptions used the same sized stylus required for ordinary records and thestylus movement in the grooves was from side-to-side. World transcriptions were unique in that the stylus movement was vertical and a special tone arm wasrequired to play them. None of these transcriptions were "micro-groove" like thelater 33 1/3 LP recordings pioneered by Columbia, or the 45 rpm recordingspioneered by RCA. These would require special tone arms and -- for the 45's --still a third turntable speed. Most of the transcriptions tracked from the outsideedge to the center of the disc; but there were some which tracked from thecenter to the outside.

These 16-inch transcriptions could hold up to 15 minutes of continuous program-ming on each side and were often used for syndicated or goverenment-issuedprograms which were sent to the individual stations for broadcast on designateddates. Recruiting shows for the branches of military service arrived on such discsand always required a statement to the effect that the "following program was electrically transcribed!" The United States Government shipped many programsduring wartime as transcriptions. Ironically, their shows from the Office of Price Administration (OPA) were invariably cut on aluminum discs while civilian organizations had to make do with vinyl pressings or glass-based transcrip-tions. Advertisers often sent their 30 and 60 second spot announcements on transcriptions. Most radio stations had the equipment to cut their own transcrip- tions of programs or spot announcements. However, only the licensed engineerswere allowed to produce these discs. We carefully hoarded the OPA governmentdiscs because these aluminum transcriptions were usually blank on one side. Wecould use the blank side for local shows or to reproduce copies of theme musicwhich would be played over and over again on the air.

Electrical transcriptions were indispensable from the mid '30's to the late '40's --aperiod of about 15 years. After the Second World War, two things happened todiminish the influence of the licensed libraries:

    (1) local record stores and eventually the record companies themselves began sending free copies of their releases to radio stations for air plugsby a new breed of announcer, the "disc jockey"; and
    (2) tape recorders were installed in studio consoles. These reel-to-reelinstruments were quite simple to operate and didn't require the expertiseof an engineer. Better still, one could erase a tape performance that hadflaws and simply record over the same tape. Once grooves were cut in adisc -- that was the end of its useful life.
Record libraries replaced the transcription libraries. This trend was speeded up with the advent of LP albums and 45's. The 12 inch LP virtually took over the function of the 16-inch transcriptions and did it much better with less needlenoise and distortion. By 1953-4 most of the transcription companies haddiscontinued services and invited the individual stations to buy the librariesoutright. There were few takers!

Fortunately, thousands of these electrical transcriptions of radio shows weresaved by local stations and individuals who worked for these stations. Oneof the engineers at WCOU had thoughtfully saved many of the off-the-air glass discs of local programs which had featured my air work as well as the talents ofmany co-workers.

Most of theoldtime radio programs we now enjoy from the '30's, '40's, and early '50's survived only because they were electrically transcribed at some point -either as air checks, as programs to be repeated at later times, or as personal copies of programs for the artists involved. The discs survived because theycould not be erased and used again. Unfortunately many local programs whichwere later captured on tape were lost to economy!

The turntables and tone arms built to play electrical transcriptions have becomerare curiosities. There was a time, my friends, when radio programs were requiredby law to admit.."This program was transcribed in Hollywood!" Today we find ourselves shocked and surprised when we are told that a program is "live."Who's to say what was the better time?

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