Cyril Francis, Acoustic Recording Engineer

Talk byCYRIL FRANCIS Recording Engineer Presented at the Washington, D.C., Association for Recorded Sound Collections chapter meeting. Mary Pickford Theatre, Library of Congress, October 23, 1996

Notes by Howard Sanner, revised March 18, 1997, to include Mr. Francis's corrections. Copyright © 1999 by Howard Sanner. All Rights Reserved.

Introductory disclaimer: These are notes I made during Mr. Francis's talk. Mr. Francis has reviewed them for accuracy and I have incorporated his corrections. Material enclosed in square brackets is my own; otherwise this material is, I hope, an accurate representation of what Mr. Francis said. Nonetheless, I take responsibility for any errors that remain. In particular, all dates are as Mr. Francis gave them; I have not verified them, much less made any changes. I have rearranged the order of presentation in a few spots to make for a smoother flow.

The Library of Congress recorded Mr. Francis's presentation. Scholars interested in hearing the tape should contact the Library of Congress Recorded Sound Reference Center.

Notes on the Talk: Mr. Francis started work for Parlophone in 1926 as assistant to Oscar Preuss, the recording manager. In 1936 he became Recording Manager of Truesound Records, Ltd., and during World War II he worked on radar. It was while working on radar, not while he was a recording engineer, that he met Alan Blumlein. Lindstrom, Parlophone's parent company, did most of the recording of classical music; Parlophone in London (and thus Mr. Francis) did mostly popular music, musical shows, and the like.

When Mr. Francis began his career, acoustic recording engineers were middle aged and had no knowledge at all of electronics. Oscar Preuss recruited him while he was at university, studying the closest thing to an electronics curriculum as existed at the time.

It took nine months to find a studio, install and test equipment, etc., for electrical recording. Thus acoustic recording continued for a while after the invention of electrical recording, and Mr. Francis had experience recording under both systems.

During an acoustic recording session, each musician sat on individual wooden stands of varying heights. These stands were placed for optimum position vis-à-vis the horn. The acoustic recording lathe was heavily made, designed by the Lindstrom Company, and driven by weights. The sound box could be connected to one to three horns via a welded tube. [Later, on being questioned, Mr. Francis said he remembered a maximum of four horns being used simultaneously.] Engineers used different sized horns depending on what was being recorded, larger horns for bass, others for singers, etc.

The recording room had a cupboard with eight shelves, on each of which were mounted four turntables. The wax blanks were put on the turntables in the cupboard, where they were warmed by light bulbs. The turntables were rotated by hand every half hour or so. If the wax was at the wrong temperature, the result was noisy surfaces on the pressing.

Techniques were developed by trial and error. Diaphragms were made of mica with a small hole in the center for mounting the driving arm. The diaphragm was sealed to the sound box by rubber gaskets. Both diaphragms and gaskets of varying thickness existed and both were changed to optimize the sound. Limited control of the studio acoustic was achieved by positioning large moveable padded screens. Beyond this, there was no treatment of the room.

When electrical recording was introduced, Western Electric leased the equipment for a $50,000 one-time fee, plus a royalty on each disc made. They did not sell it. In addition, they would license only American companies or their affiliates. Thus, British Columbia did not qualify for a license, but HMV, thanks to its affiliation with Victor, did. As a result, Sir Louis Sterling of British Columbia bought a major holding in U.S. Columbia, which had gone bankrupt in 1924, so he could get a license.

In 1926, the Parlophone City Road [acoustic recording] studio was deemed unsuitable for electrical recording. They found a small church in Maida Vale for recording. They used batteries to run the recording equipment. It required all the space of one vestry for two sets of batteries, a main set and a backup, while the other vestry housed the recording equipment. Batteries had to be used on the fixed installation because the studio was on DC. In those days, the only way to get 450 volts [for the tubes' B+] from 240 volts DC was to use a rotary transformer, which was noisy. Parlophone produced its first electrical recordings ca. September 1927.

Mr. Francis made many overseas recordings in Sweden, France, and Egypt. The phonograph was nearly the only home entertainment at the time; thus there was a big market for local artists. The "portable" equipment weighed over 1000 lbs. [And I complain about lugging 150 lbs. of tube Ampex!] The power supply in the Middle East was very unreliable; so they used car batteries for the tube filaments and special dry batteries measuring about 25" x 9" x 4" to give 100 volts for the B+. Wax blanks were shipped ahead. After recording, the waxes were shipped to Berlin in the original boxes for processing. Travel was by train, ship, or car. Loading and getting through customs was a major problem. Lindstrom sent only one engineer, not two like other firms.

In 1935 HMV, British Columbia, and Parlophone united into EMI, headed by Sir Louis Sterling. At this time Mr. Francis accepted a job offer from Truesound, which was starting up operations in Parlophone's old studios. Parlophone used Western Electric equipment until they were amalgamated into EMI. They lacked the design facilities for building their own equipment.

[Mr. Francis then talked about some of the more technical aspects of making disc records, both acoustic and electric. He brought examples of the special tools and equipment mentioned here, which those attending were able to examine at close hand after the meeting.]

The lathe's speed was set by pressing a chronometer to the spindle. The speed accuracy depended on how well the chronometer was set. [This device looks like a large stop watch with a shaft maybe three inches long protruding from the perimeter. This shaft was pressed against the spindle. The chronometer ran for five seconds and registered the turntable's speed in rpm. In addition to how accurately the chronometer was set, it was also obvious on inspecting it that the pressure with which it was pressed on the spindle would affect the results, either owing to slippage or from extra friction slowing down the turntable. On reading this last remark, Mr. Francis commented, "Friction was small & slippage could be almost eliminated by pressing hard on the turntable spindle." Obviously, he was there and knows whereof he speaks.]

The sapphire cutting stylus was glued in the driving arm with heated shellac and set in place by hand. Later Zeiss built a special monocular to ease this chore.

The Western Electric condenser microphone used for early electrical recordings had a diaphragm that could be, and in practice often was, replaced by the engineer. Installation and tensioning was by hand. The greater and more even the tension, the better the frequency response. If the diaphragm tension was too great and thus it was too close to the backplate, the condenser would arc over and put a hole in the diaphragm, requiring the process to start anew. Thus engineers tried to set the tension by measuring the capacitance of the microphone as they adjusted it.

[At this point Mr. Francis took questions from the audience.]

Western Electric provided no manual for its system, just schematics. They did have an agent on call when problems developed. Parlophone's engineers were trained at British Columbia.

[I asked why recording speeds varied so much.] Mr. Francis said slower speeds may have been used to get more material on the record, but he was not certain. He asserted that Parlophone was careful about setting speeds, but does not know how it was done at other companies. [Others in the audience disagreed that Parlophone was consistent about speeds. After reading a draft of these notes, Mr. Francis added that he was referring to recordings made in England and Germany, and noted that many other countries contributed to the Parlophone catalog.]

Parlophone used one microphone and did not have a mixer. They also used only one cutter per take. There were no equalizers, just a level control, and the balance was up to the engineer's taste. Levels were set by a meter calibrated in dB. Parlophone used the same lathes for electrics as acoustics because Parlophone's studios were in an area with only DC, and there were no constant speed DC motors at the time.

There was no monitoring at all of acoustic recordings beyond what came through the wall from the studio into the room containing the lathe.

[At this point, we all gave Mr. Francis the first--and probably last--standing ovation in Washington, D.C., Association for Recorded Sound Collections chapter history, and went to examine closely those tools of the 78 recording engineer's trade that he brought to display.]

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