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The Beginning of Modern Sound Recording, aka orthophonic

Like the god Janus looking forward and back, the Knott’s record collection spans the period before and after the dawn of electronic media. The progress in music reproduction can be heard in these examples from the collection. As you listen, look at the record labels for clues to the industry’s own view of the progression.

The sound quality on this early Victrola recording is typical. This disk from 1921 only had music on one side!

Ignoring a century of surface noise, we can hear that the singer overpowers the orchestra which is muffled by the narrow frequency range of the technology. A look at the label reveals that Victor considered itself to be a ‘talking machine’ company at this time.

Radio forced the recording industry to search for better sound reproduction. Brunswick adopted a strategy from talking pictures and used a sound track on film to adapt electronics to recording. Their labels actually said “Light-Ray Elec. Rec.” Here is an example from 1927:

This sound is much more vibrant than any Victrola recording. Victor eliminated the sound-track step and used a microphone adopted from radio to go directly to disk.

Recordings made with this approach were labeled “Orthophonic Recording” Here is an example where a tuba and a whistler can both be clearly heard!


After hearing an orthophonic recording, John Phillip Sousa is reported to have said “This is the first time I have ever heard music with any soul to it produced by a mechanical talking machine”.

Within a few years, terms like ‘Light-Ray’ and ‘Orthophonic’ disappeared from record labels as the new technologies became the standard. The term ‘orthophonic’ made a brief reappearance in the 1950s on the RCA Victor ‘Living Stereo’ series of classical recordings which were identified as ‘Orthophonic Stereo’