Development and Licensing of the Western Electric
Electrical Recording System
As described in the page:
Bell Laboratories development of the Western Electric electrical
by late 1924, Bell Telephone Laboratories, lead by Joseph P.
Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison had developed an electrical phonograph
recording system using a Bell Labs microphone connected to
a vacuum tube (valve) amplifier, and feeding the amplified signal to an
electromagnetic disc cutting head which Bell Laboratories had also
As described in
Licensing the Westrex Electrical Recording System to Victor and Columbia
, Victor Talking Machine Company initially hesitated to license the
new electrical recording system during 1924 when they first evaluated the
Western Electric system. This seems to have been primarily due to
the cost of the system, and the timing, when in 1924, for the first time
in the company's history, Victor failed to meet its sales plan. Victor's
total profit that year was reduced to $25,000. Contrast this with
the initial required payment to license the Westrex system of $50,000.
However, by early 1925, Victor was motivated to license the Westrex system,
reportedly because they recognized the need for new technology to stimulate
sales. Victor may also have become aware of rival Louis Sterling and
Columbia Phonograph's decision to license the Westrex system. (This is
also described in
Columbia Licenses the Westrex Process
Consequently, Victor in early 1925 decided to enter into a license
with Western Electric, the manufacturer and distributor of the
This new electrical system significantly extended the recorded frequency
spectrum. The acoustic system had recorded very little sound above
about 2,400 Hertz. This limited frequency response requiring the
re-orchestration of the music to provide any musical content in the
treble range (see
Limitations to the Acoustic Recording Process
). The new Westrex electrical process expanded the recorded
spectrum to a much more natural range which began to lose
reproduction above about 6,000 Hertz3.
Frequency response of the electrical amplification and
condenser microphone of the Westrex system
The electrical system was also able to record instruments at the low end of the
frequency spectrum, below 200 Hertz. This meant that instruments such as the double bass could now
be recorded. Previously, with the acoustic process, string basses had to be augmented or
replaced by a tuba or a bass clarinet in acoustic recording.
The electrical system was also more robust than the
acoustic process. The recording system
could now survive the effects of percussion in recorded performances. The
high amplitude and rapid onset of percussion notes,
particularly of lower frequencies, had caused
recording difficulties in the mechanical acoustic
process. The acoustic system
simply could not tolerate most of the orchestra's
percussion, because the cutting stylus, driven by
the uncontrolled acoustic energy, could leave the
surface of the wax master, ruining the recording. It was for this reason
that, in the acoustic process, timpani were replaced by
bassoons and bass drums were replaced by tubas and contra-bassoons.
The electrical and mechanical control of the cutting
stylus of the electrical system were now able to cope
with percussion, including bass drums and timpani.
During the latter half of 1924, Victor engineers had evaluated the
new Western Electric recording process. In early 1925,
Victor Talking Machine Company decided to license the
system. Preliminary patent license agreements were
made with Western Electric in February, 1925.
As you may read in
Victor Installation of the Westrex System, Westrex equipment
was installed in the Victor
Building 15 in Camden on February 3 and 4, 1925. As was discovered by the
fascinating research of Allen Sutton of the superb Mainspring Publishing 6, Victor's earliest electrical recording session
with the Westrex system that resulted in a published record occurred on February 26, 1925 in
Camden. This was of a vocal group which performed what was called "Miniature Concert".
This recording was issued in July, 1925 on Victor 35753, matrix CVE-31874-3 and CVE-31875-4. The "CVE" (for 12 inch)
and "BVE" (for 10 inch records) was the beginning of a wonderful new series of electrical matrix numbers
produced by Victor between 1925 and the end of 1931. In 1931 a further, when a new
matrix numbering system was introduced.
Victor and Western Electric signed the definitive license agreement
for the Westrex system on March 18, 1925. However,
as late as March 4, 1925, acoustic records were still being
recorded in the Camden Church Studio. Soon
thereafter, the Camden Church Studio was also wired for
the Westrex electric recording system.
Victor apparently made acoustic recordings of non-Red Seal
recordings in the New York studio as late as August,
Electric engineer George Groves cutting an electrical master.
Groves was assigned to Vitaphone, and later relocated to Hollywood
where he became one of the great sound engineers, winning 2 Oscars 9
1925 Electrical Recording of Saint-Saëns Danse macabre
This technology resulted in the first orchestral electrical recording in the
United States. This was also the first in the world, since no electrical
recording system was yet in use outside the United States. This
electrical recording of a symphony orchestra" was
the April, 1925 recording by Stokowski and the Philadelphia
Orchestra of 'Danse macabre' by Camille Saint-Saëns.
(This label of "first" of course excludes the experimental
electrical recordings of the New York Philharmonic made by
Western Electric engineers from a feed from radio station
WEAF done while developing the Westrex electrical recording
system. It also excludes the 1920 electrical
recording by Guest and Merriman at Westminster Abbey,
where we cannot tell if there is an orchestra or not, given the
The first few weeks of experimental electrical recording was described
by the Victor recording engineer Harry Sooy:
"...February 10th, 1925: We had our first Electrically
recorded date to-day. Talent: Miss Helen Clark with piano
(J. Pasternack) and violin obbligato (A. Schmidt)...February
11th, 1925: Made a duet selection by Miss Olive Kline and
Miss Elsie Baker (Electrically). Messrs. [Joseph P.] Maxfield, [Stanley] Watkins
and [Elmer A.] Raguse present...March 6th, 1925; We kept constantly on
the go with this electrical recording from February 9th to
March 6th...Vocal Solos, Instrumental Solos, Vocal Duets,
Symphony Orchestras, Dance Orchestras and a Mixed Chorus of
36 voices, etc...March 11th, 1925...starting to make
Electrically recorded records for our Catalog...This work
started on permission from the Bell Company. Mme. [Olga]
Samaroff being the first artist to make records for Domestic
Further trial recordings with the new Western Electric system were done
in the recording studio of Building number 15 on March 11, 1925. On
March 16, "Joan of Arkansas," Victor disk 19626 was recorded.
Then, on March 18 and 19, Margarete Matzenauer, a leading Metropolitan
contralto recorded French opera arias. On March 21, Alfred Cortot
recorded Chopin and Schubert. Then, on April 13 and 14, Serge Rachmaninoff
recorded Liszt and Beethoven 7.
Then, on April 29, 1925 Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra
made the world's first orchestral electrical recording.
Continued use of Contrabassoon and Bass Saxophone in place of Double Basses
Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, opus 40,
in 1925, which became something of an orchestral show-piece.
Stokowski had attempted, unsuccessfully, an acoustic recording of Danse
Macabre in 1924. Now, with the new electrical process,
neither Stokowski, nor the engineers knew exactly how
best to use the new system, and the recording continued to be done with
most of the techniques of the acoustic process.
For example, the orchestra continued to be reduced to a number of
about 40 musicians without percussion instruments, as during acoustic
sessions. The timpani was replaced by a contrabassoon, or in the
case of 'Danse Macabre', by a bass saxophone, and the bass strings
were replaced by a tuba and bass winds.
There were 7 first violins and 3
second violins, 3 violas, and 2 celli, similar to
the acoustic sessions.
It is interesting (and amusing) now to clearly hear
the contrabassoon (probably
Ferdinand Del Negro
, contrabassoon with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 40 years, from
1922-1962), croaking away during the first few minutes of the recording !
The contrabassoon and the bass saxophone also replaced the timpani, as
can be heard in the following comparison. First is from this
first Stokowski electrical recording of April 29, 1925, using a what
sounds like either a contrabassoon or a bass sax in place of the timpani,
followed by the same passage from the January 15, 1936 recording, using
The Philadelphia Orchestra had a bass saxophone and a contrabassoon listed as part
of the orchestra roster during the 1920s, and well into the electrical recording
era. In the 1925 Danse macabre, it is likely Ferdinand del Negro, long-time
orchestra bassoon and contrabassoonist playing the contrabassoon.
One benefit is that Danse macabre with this instrumental arrangement was recorded
with the new Westrex process. So, for the first time, with the clarity of the
electrical recording system, we can hear clearly what an orchestra, playing with
these replacement instruments, and with the changed orchestral arrangements of
the acoustic era would have sounded like 'live' in the recording studio.
Another plus with the Danse macabre recording is that we may hear in his prime,
clearly, and without distortion Thaddeus Rich, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia
orchestra since 1906. Rich, still only 40 in 1925. Rich had also played
in 1901-1902 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Artur Nikisch.
Beginning in 1906, Rich was concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra for twenty
seasons. We hear his art in this recording just prior to his resignation
in 1926, as a result of a falling out with Stokowski. Thaddeus Rich went on
to head the Music Department at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Leopold Stokowski and Thaddeus Rich at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia 1926
Danse macabre was released on a double faced Victor 12 inch (30 cm) Red Seal disk
6505, matrices CVE 27929-2 and CVE 27230-2 in July of 1925. This release
initially did not highlight that it was from the new electrical recording
process, although Victor dealers were encouraged to use the Danse macabre
recording to demonstrate Victrola playing equipment. Victor apparently
did not want to suggest that its impressive catalog of existing acoustic
recordings was suddenly obsolete.
In fact companies other than Columbia, the Gramophone Company of Britain,
and Victor waited further to adopt the electrical recording process. In
the USA, the Edison company was still recording acoustically in 1927, such as
their Carmen and Aida selections. The low-priced Columbia subsidiary,
Harmony "...continued to be acoustically recorded for some three or four
years..." after 1925, according to Brian Rust 5, likely for
economy reasons to avoid paying the Western Electric royalty on electrical
So, the Danse macabre recording was quietly issued some months before
Victor's big push of the new electrical recording process. This big push
was the large Victor promotion kicked off on "Victor Day" on
November 2, 1925, with the largest advertising and Victrola promotion
yet made by the Victor Talking Machine Company.
You can click here to
read about Victor's "Victor Day" promotion of November 2, 1925.
As you can see below, the
initial release of Danse Macabre in 1925, although an
electrical recording, was issued on the famous 'bat
wing' style label (called this from the pointed 'wings'
on either side of Nipper), associated with labels of
Victor acoustic recordings.
This first electrical release by Stokowski -
Philadelphia was Victor Red Seal double faced disc 6505.
Danse Macabre was first composed by Saint-Saëns in 1872 for violin and soprano.
In 1874, Saint-Saëns reworked the composition for
orchestra, with solo violin replacing the soprano.
This revised version was first performed in Paris by Édouard Colonne
with his orchestra on January 24,1875.
Danse macabre opens with the harp playing a single D
twelve times to represent a clock striking midnight.
According to the legend, at midnight every Halloween,
Death may call the dead from their graves to dance to
his violin. This is the violin solo played so
beautifully in this April, 1925 recording by Thaddeus Rich.
However, even at this time, the Victor Talking Machine Company did not promote the
new electrical process, as Victor and their dealers were seeking to sell off inventories of
acoustic discs. The promotion of the electrical process would need to wait
some 6 months, until
November 2, 1925, "Victor Day".
You can click here to
read about Victor's "Victor Day" promotion of November 2, 1925.
Not only was the electrical recording process not publicized, but electrical recordings
were not labeled as such. Notice that the label of this first Victor electrical
recording gives no indication of being from a new
electrical process. The classic Victor Red Seal
"bat wing" label, used on the previous
acoustic records, was also used with no special marking
on the first electrical recordings.
However, the small symbol 'V.E.' in an oval was engraved in the disc matrix between the
run-out scroll grove and the label, as shown in the photograph below.
As you may see, most people who bought these recordings
would not have noticed this V.E. marking.
On October 1, 1926 13, a year and one half
after the commercial launch of electrically recorded
disks, Victor revised their record labels, and introduced the famous
"Victor Orthophonic" trade name
and scroll label with the "VE" logo at the top and
bottom of the label,
indicating an electrical recording, and the famous label scroll work surrounding.
This scroll label was used from October1926 until October, 1937 14.
Columbia Phonograph (US) and Columbia Gramophone
(UK) Electrical Recording
As described in
Licensing the Westrex Electrical Recording System to Victor and Columbia,
Columbia also began making electrical recordings in early
1925, before Victor. According to Brian Rust's
excellent Columbia discography 2, US Columbia
had already cut a series of from February 25-27,
1925 that were
commercially issued later in 1925. This was of Art
Gillham, the "Whispering Pianist", a pioneer radio
performer, and experienced with the microphone,
who recorded 5 sides4. So Columbia
preceded Victor not only in entering into a
definitive Westrex license before Victor, but
make the first electrical recording that was
commercially released, before
Columbia soon began to promote its electrical process
recordings under the name "Viva-tonal",
the Columbia counterpart of Victor's "Orthophonic" name.
The name "Viva-tonal" and "Electrical Process"
in lightening-bolt style font were added to early labels of
Columbia discs recorded with the Westrex electrical system,
as shown below.
The recording process used on many Victor and Columbia discs can be
decoded by the symbol next to their matrix number. Victor discs
using the Westrex process had a triangle or
diamond shape next to the matrix number. Similarly,
Columbia discs had a
(W inside a circle) next to the matrix number.
This symbol on Columbia discs changed to a
(C inside a circle) beginning in 1932, when Columbia changed
to the Blumlein recording process. HMV
later placed a square shape next to the matrix number on its
Blumlein recorded discs, after the EMI merger.
Second - in the Chronological Discography page.
For example, links to a 1926 recording are also found in the
electrical recordings chronological discography page:
Chronological Discography of Electrical Recordings
This page lists all the electrical recordings from 1925 to
1940 made by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold
Stokowski and issued by Victor, including of course the 1926 recordings.
The mp3 files in this site are encoded at 128 mbps. This means that the
files are of different sizes, according to the length of
the music. For example, the second electrical recording, the
April 29, 1925 Borodin ‘Polovetzki Dances’ is small (3.6MB). In contrast,
the 1929 Le Sacre du Printemps file is large. Le Sacre part 1 is 14MB
and Le Sacre part 2 is 16MB.
This means that a large file will take a longer time to
download, depending on your internet connection speed.
Please keep this in mind when you click to listen to -
download a particularly music file. You may click
the link to the music file, but need to wait a number of
seconds or even minutes to listen to the file.
Maxfield, Joseph P. and Henry C. Harrison. Methods of High Quality
Recording and Reproducing of Music and Speech Based on Telephone Research.
Bell System Technical Journal 5, July, 1926
Brian and Brooks, Tim. The
Columbia Master Book Discography. (4
volumes) Greenwood Press.
1999. ISBN 0-313-21464-6
5 page 2. Rust,
Brian and Brooks, Tim. The Columbia
Master Book Discography.
Volume II Greenwood Press. 1999. ISBN
6 The fascinating research of Allen Sutton
is documented in his web page http://www.mainspringpress.com/vic_minicon.html
with the title: "A Miniature Concert" - The Earliest Issued Victor Electric.
7 pages 341, 346 Bolig, John R.
The Victor Red Seal Discography Volume 2: Double-Sided Series to 1930.
Mainspring Press. Denver, Colorado. 2006. ISBN 0-9772735-5-5
8 page xiii. Bolig, John R.
The Victor Discography Green, Blue and Purple Labels (1910 - 1926).
Mainspring Press. Denver, Colorado. 2006. ISBN 0-9772735-2-0
9 1972 Society of Motion Picture Television Engineers
Samuel L Warner Memorial Award. Description of the career of George Groves.
10 page xiii. Bolig, John R.
The Victor Black Label Discography 18000-19000 Series.
Mainspring Press, LLC. Denver. 2008. ISBN
11 Sooy, Raymond.
Memoirs of my Recording and Traveling Experiences for the Victor Talking Machine Company
. Manuscript, not dated, but ending with events of 1931.
An important contribution to the history of recording,
the David Sarnoff Library edited and reproduced these memoires on their website.
Sooy, Harry O. Memoir of my Career at Victor Talking Machine Company 1898-1925.
Manuscript, not dated, but ending with events of 1925.
Another important record of the history of recording, on the David Sarnoff Library website:
page 64. Sherman, Michael W. in collaboration with Moran, William R., Nauck, Kurt R.
Collector's Guide to Victor Records
Monarch Record Enterprises 1992 ISBN 0-9632903-0-4
14 page 75. Sherman, Michael W. op. cit.
If you have any comments or questions about this Leopold Stokowski site, please e-mail
me (Larry Huffman) at e-mail address: