By J P Maxfield and H C Harrison (Bell Telephone Laboratories 1926). Introductory paragraphs by Roger Beardsley.

The age of electrical recording

In this time of incredible technical achievements in every field of scientific endeavour, it is perhaps hard to imagine the effect that Maxfield and Harrison’s work had on the recording industry. Nothing has matched it since. The change from LP to CD was marked by longer playing times and a reduction in already low ambient noise levels. Sound quality was much as before (or worse according to some). The change from 78 rpm discs to LP again brought playing time and noise benefits, but in terms of quality of reproduction, the change over to microgroove was often very marginal, and sometimes showed a loss.

However, the change from mechanical (acoustic) recording to electrical recording was very different. The new system compared to the old, really was a chalk and cheese affair. Not just a wider frequency range, and frequencies in correct and designed proportion, but for the first time, the whole ambience and feel of a performance and its surroundings was reproduced. The nearest analogy is that of hearing a performance of say an orchestra though a closed door and down a corridor, and then being brought into a box at the venue. Admittedly perhaps not at the front of the box, but the difference was astounding. Listen to the examples in “A brief history of recording” to hear what I mean.

Maxfield and Harrison came from a telephone engineering background – then the height of technology. Their work on equalisers and line transmission systems, together with additional work with high power audio amplifiers all came together by one of those happy chances. For the first time, recording (and reproduction) was subjected to a proper system of scientific research, as against the largely empirical developments of the mechanical recording system. The resulting Western Electric recording system was an elegant solution to the deficiencies of mechanical recording. And it worked, again and again.

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