The Early Days Of Audio Recording At Bing Crosby & Ampex, Part 2
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a lot of exposure to magnetic recording, especially video. We’ve also learned just how deeply involved Bing Crosby and Ampex were in building the foundations of this media, so today, we are going to look at the beginning of audio tape and it’s use in radio with the help of a man who was there for it all…Robert R. Phillips.
Below is Part 2 of Mr. Philips first hand account of the problems and solutions Bing Crosby encountered when he decided to leave live radio and instead, record his shows. Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee
While the Crosby show was struggling with the disk recordings, a new technology had arrived. Jack Mullin had returned from his World War II service with parts for two German Magnetophon magnetic tape recorders that he had shipped back in mail sacks over a number of months. Instead of going back to the telephone company, he joined a friend, William Palmer, in a recording and movie business. William Palmer had a machine shop where they restored and modified the Magnetophon. Jack made new electronics using standard American parts and replaced the DC bias with AC bias to improve the tape signal-to-noise and added pre-emphasis for the high frequencies. These rebuilt Magnetophon recorders were then used in their recording business.
In May 1946 Jack Mullin demonstrated the modified Magnetphon recorder at an IRE (IEEE) show in San Francisco with the help of William Palmer. This demonstration caused a number of people to take notice of the quality that could be obtained from a magnetic tape recorder. There were other tape recorders at that time, but none of them had the outstanding quality of the rebuilt Magnetophon. During the following months William Palmer set up a number of demonstrations of the recorder for Jack to various movie, recording and broadcast people. The demonstrations showed that the recorder could reproduce sound as if it were live. Not only that, the magnetic tape could be edited by cutting it with a pair of scissors and splicing it with Scotch tape.
These demonstrations were more of a novelty to the industry than a major step forward. After all there were only two recorders and only 50 rolls of tape that no longer was made. The movie companies had made other agreements for their sound tracks, and the recording companies were happy with their recording process. During the demonstrations in the summer of 1947 Frank Healey, who was involved with technical production of the Crosby show, heard a demonstration and encouraged Murdo McKenzie, the producer of the Bing Crosby show, to investigate them for the show. Murdo arranged for a demonstration in San Francisco where Jack and Bill Palmer had their business. This demonstration was after the bad experience with the disk recordings, and Crosby now was faced with the prospect of finding a new way of recording the show or reverting to live broadcasts again. Murdo was so impressed with the tape process that he arranged for Bing to hear the demonstration, which took place about the first of August 1947 in Los Angeles. When Bing heard the sound quality and saw the editing, Jack Mullin was asked to do a test recording of the first Bing Crosby show of the 1947 – 1948 season. It was only a week way, and the Crosby people expressed concerns that Jack had only two recorders and a limited amount of tape. There needed to be way forward other than just the Magnetophon.
Jack had made an agreement with Colonel Ranger of Ranger Industries a year earlier to provide him with information so that Ranger could build a version of the Magnetophon and supply tape for it. Tests had shown that the Minnesota Mining (3M) tape would not work with the German recorder. By this time 3M had developed a black oxide plastic backed tape that evolved from their paper backed tape. It was the Scotch Magnetic Tape No. 100 designed for the Brush recorder, which was an early tape recorder. However, the Magnetophon needed a tape that could record a stronger magnetic field and have a better signal-to-noise ratio. The research group at 3M realized this need and set out to develop a higher grade tape using a red oxide, not knowing what the target machine would be. During this period Ampex also had decided to build a broadcast quality tape recorder and asked Jack for assistance, but Jack could not help due to the agreement with Colonel Ranger. As the date for the Crosby recording session approached the tension grew. Colonel Ranger did come to Los Angeles with his two recorders but no new tape. His tape recorders were set up along side the Magnetophon recorders in the recording department of NBC who was still supporting ABC. The show was held on the evening of 10 August 1947, and the moment of truth had come. The NBC engineers recorded the show on the standard disk lathes, and Jack Mullin and Colonel Ranger also recorded on their respective machines. Murdo asked Ranger to play his recording first, and it was terrible with distortion and noise. Jack was next, and history was made. The first radio show to be recorded on magnetic tape was broadcast on 1 October 1947.
Jack, who was still working for Palmer, was given an old studio and control room in the NBC (ABC) facilities where he could set up his machines and do the recording and editing of the show. It also served as his office. The 1947 – 1948 season was the first time a radio program was aired from a magnetic tape recording even though the program was transferred to disk for broadcast. This transfer was due to the need to preserve the tape and insure that a tape break would not disrupt the broadcast. The quality of the show had improved even though disks were used, since the show was only transferred in final form and not edited on the disks. However, more important, the ratings of the show improved and the prerecorded show was preserved. The first step had been taken, but a bigger problem still needed to be addressed – new recorders and tape.
Alexander M. Poniatoff, the head of Ampex, heard one of the early demonstrations of the Magnetphon. He was in need of a new postwar product and was so taken by the recorder he decided to build one. He put his chief engineer, Harold Lindsay, in charge of the project and asked Jack Mullin to help them. Unfortunately Jack had already made the agreement with Colonel Ranger by that time, but Ampex decided to go ahead with the project anyway. After the poor showing of his recorders to the Crosby group, Colonel Ranger was persuaded by them and Jack Mullin to give up his agreement with Mullin. Jack was now free, and a call was placed to Ampex in October 1947. Minnesota Mining (3M) also was brought in as the tape supplier.
Ampex by the spring of 1948 had developed their first prototype, but lacked finances to bring it to market. The banks did not have any idea about venture capital at that time. Pressure once again began to build because the Bing Crosby show needed new recorders and tape for the 1948 – 1949 season. Everyone was convinced that Ampex was the answer, and Bing sent them a check for $50,000 in just an envelope without any cover letter. It was what Ampex needed to begin production of the Ampex 200. In late 1947 Jack Mullin visited Minnesota Mining (3M) to see if they could provide the required magnetic tape to work with the Magnetophon and the future Ampex recorder. By then they had started development of their new red oxide tape that would work with the Ampex recorder. Jack Mullin began to work with Robert Herr and William Wetzel of 3M conducting tests to help develop a high quality magnetic tape for audio recording. His work focused on the dropout rating, frequency response and signal-to-noise for the different test tapes that 3M produced. The result was the Scotch Magnetic Tape No.111 that later evolved into the No. 111A. For these efforts by Bing and Jack, Bing Crosby Enterprises (BCE) was awarded in 1948 the distributorship west of the Mississippi River for the Ampex recorders and the 3M tape. The Electronic Division of BCE under Frank Healey was given responsibility to market and service these products. The division began to grow when Jack Mullin left Palmer to become its chief engineer in August 1948 to support the development work with Ampex and 3M and in 1949 with the addition of a salesman, Tommy Davis.
Harold Lindsay led the team to produce the Ampex 200 for Alex Poniatoff and Bing in the 1948. It was housed in a polished black wood console with a stainless steel top that caused it to be called the most beautiful recorder to be made. The Crosby show received the first two of them, serial numbers 1 and 2, in time for the 1948 – 1949 season. Later the only two portable Ampex 200 recorders built, serial numbers 13 and 14, were delivered. Each of them consisted of two wooden boxes with handles. It took at least two people to carry each case, but they were taken everywhere the Crosby show went during the later part of the 1948 -1949 season, even to Canada. Jack Mullin described how they had to push and pull the four boxes up a spiral staircase to reach one of the upper dressing rooms where the recorders were set up. The audio mixing was done at the stage level using the RCA OP-6 and OP-7 equipment. The output was fed over a telephone line to the recording location.
By the 1949 – 1950 season the Bing Crosby show had moved to CBS, and BCE had to establish its own recording-editing facility. It was a small facility located in the CBS Columbia Square Complex at 6121 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. It was on the second floor in the east wing of the complex. The recorders were located in the front of the building. There were two windows that were open most of the time, and people on Sunset Boulevard could hear the editing process. The three Ampex 300 recorders were on a waist-high shelf with a special tape speed control unit and acoustical equalizer at one end. In the hallway outside the room, there were shelves of indexed tapes of past recording sessions. By 1950 others like Robert McKinney were involved in the recording and editing of the show. In Hollywood the live show was done at the CBS studios and in a theater behind CBS. The microphone placement and mixing of the show was done by Norm Dewes. He was a true professional held in high esteem by Jack Mullin. It has been said that the balance of the shows recorded was outstanding. There were no multiple tracks, just one channel that was fed to the recorders.
Those of us in the recording room had no visible contact with what was happening. I used to sing along with Bing during the recording sessions, since I was the only one there at times. I may have sung more “duets” with him than most people, but it helped to learn his phrasing for editing.
During the first two seasons that used the magnetic tape recorders, the Crosby radio show was recorded in front of a live audience when Bing was available. There were recorded rehearsals, but the editing process was limited by having only two recorders. The first season that was recorded on the old Magnetophon tape had to be transferred to transcription disks because of concerns about the old tape breaking. With the new Ampex recorders and 3M tape, this transfer was no longer required, but the editing was still limited by having only two Ampex 200 recorders.
With the recording of the show, Bing was more relaxed and the audience had more fun with the adlibs, since mistakes could be repaired. The quality was equal to a live show, and the broadcast version was mistake free. With the portable recorders the show also could be taken on the road, if Bing wanted to travel. By early 1949 Ampex had begun to produce the Ampex 300, which was smaller and lighter than the Ampex 200. The big plus was that the Bing Crosby show now had three recorders for the 1949 – 1950 season. These changes opened the door to new innovation, and the Crosby show did not lose time in coming up with new ways to record a radio show.
The historic photos below have details on each frame so please click each one.