BING CROSBY AND THE TAPE REVOLUTION
24th February 2016
Not many people realise that Bing Crosby was at the heart of the introduction of recordable master tape which revolutionised radio entertainment, studio facilities, vinyl recordings and, later, TV and video recording. Engineer, Bob Phillips – who was there while it happened – tells the story that has been extracted from his article published on the IEEE First Hand History Wiki site. This account has been augmented by additional comments from him
In November of 1951 I quit my job in television in Los Angeles due to the conflict with my high school classes. When I left, one of the directors gave me a slip of paper with an address, 9030 Sunset Blvd and a name: Jack Mullin. The next day I found that he was expecting me. The director was a friend of Frank Healey who was the head of the Electronic Division of Bing Crosby Enterprises. John T. (Jack) Mullin was the Chief Engineer and had decided to hire me based on the recommendation of the director. They knew more about me than I did! The job was to do electronic bench work for Mullin because he had broken his arm. It was to be for two weeks or until his broken arm healed but the two weeks turned into six years.
Over the months after I started working for Jack Mullin, he became my mentor and took me under his wing. He had been the person that had put the Bing Crosby radio show on magnetic tape and, with Bing, developed the art of editing the tape.
Jack not only described to me these events but took me to see the recording studios and equipment. He also taught me how to record and edit magnetic tape and that prepared me to be an alternate editor for the radio show.
In The Beginning
Bing Crosby was one of the pioneers of the radio music show. In 1935, the Kraft Music Hall on the NBC Red Network was a ‘standard’. It was a quality live production that held a high position in the ratings over the years. The summer of 1945, though, was a turning point. Crosby decided that doing a live show every week was too demanding and it did not permit him to pursue his other interests (principally golf) and to be with his family.
Even worse and adding to the workload, during one period, the show had to be done live twice, once for the east coast and once for the west coast. It also was confining for the freeform Crosby personality since the recording had to be completed within a certain strict recording regime that took away Bing’s casual side. The adlibs and jokes had to be done according to the script, there was no editing to remove mistakes.
This is why, from 1945–1946, Kraft Music Hall program began without Crosby because of the inevitable, resulting dispute. NBC demanded ‘live’ programmes only and Crosby disagreed. The show went on and NBC and Kraft sued him for not appearing. Crosby did return to finish the season beginning with the 7 February 1946 program but that was basically the end of Crosby on the NBC Red Network. This time he had set his mind on having a pre-recorded production.
At that time, the Bing Crosby Productions organisation, headed by Bing’s brother Everett, did not have the resources to establish an independent pre-recorded show operation, neither did it own the technical support it needed. This is why, in December of 1945, Crosby hired expert, Basil Grillo, to help him with this task and improve the operation of Bing Crosby Productions.
Meanwhile, 1941, the US Government was busy moving the radio goalposts, breaking up the NBC empire and forcing the company to sell its Blue Network (NBC had its ‘sophisticated’ programmes on the Red Network and the other features, like jazz, on the Blue Network). This allowed greater competition which is where the eager ABC network comes in. It wished to compete but needed to develop its own programmes. Although, ABC shared the NBC facilities at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood until 1948, it desperately needed programmes with high ratings and the upcoming 1946–1947 season was no exception. Crosby was a target to achive those ratings and, to win him over, ABC told Crosby that, if he joined ABC, he could record his show but the quality had to be equal to the live broadcast. It was to be a 30 minute show known as the Philco Radio Time programme.
The new 1946–1947 Philco Radio Time program began with Bing Crosby recording his show on transcription disks using the NBC recording facilities assigned to ABC and supervised by Frank Healey. All was not well with this new production, though. The recordings on the disks lacked the quality of the live show and the editing process was difficult. The show was done as a live production but with additional recorded material that could be used if there was a problem. While it took two disks (15 minutes each) for the 30 minute show, the recordings were edited before the show was played at the appointed time on the ABC network.
The pre-recorded show permitted changes to be made if Bing or his staff did not like something in the show. The sponsor also was known to require changes that could not be done with a live show. That was fine but the editing process was difficult, since it required recording from one disk to another several times. At least two or three playback units were required to permit the different parts to be merged on to a new recording disk and of course, with each copy, the sound quality dropped. At times, this process took over 40 disks and many days to complete the edit. The result? The recorded show quality was less than desirable and the radio audience noticed the difference. The ratings dropped and ABC began to question if they should not return to the live broadcast.
The Recording Revolution
While the Crosby show was struggling with the disk recordings, a new technology had arrived. Jack Mullin had returned from his World War II army service with parts for two German Magnetophon magnetic tape recorders that he had shipped back in mail sacks over a number of months.
It’s important to be aware that Mullin was faced with two distinct types of tape recorder while he was in Germany. One was a standard utility recorder, which Mullin ignored. The other was a special, high quality model utilised for radio broadcasts (he found two of these to ship home).
The standard utility model wasn’t left alone, though. A certain Colonel Ranger, who was part of the same Army unit as Mullin, probably sent these recorders home. He enters the story a little later.
When Mullin did return to the USA, 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. Mullin 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 Magnetphon recorders were then used in their recording business.
In May 1946 Jack Mullin demonstrated the modified Magnetphon recorder at an Institute of Radio Engineers (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 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 on view 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 Mullin 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, at the time, seen as more of a novelty to the industry than a genuine major step forward. After all, there were only two recorders in existence and only 50 rolls of tape (also brought home from Germany) that was no longer made. The movie companies had already made other agreements for their sound tracks and the recording companies were happy with their current recording process.
The demonstrations did seriously impress one individual, though, Frank Healey, who was involved with technical production of the Crosby show. Healey encouraged Murdo McKenzie, the producer of the Bing Crosby show, to investigate them for the show. McKenzie arranged for a demonstration in San Francisco where Jack and Bill Palmer had their business and was impressed enough to arrange for Bing Crosby to hear the demonstration, which took place on the first of August 1947 in Los Angeles. When Crosby heard the sound quality and saw the editing possibilities, 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 Mullin had only two recorders and a limited amount of tape on tap. In the long run, the Crosby people knew, there needed to be way forward other than just the Magnetophon.
To complicate matters, though, Mullin had made a prior agreement with Colonel Ranger of Ranger Industries to provide Ranger with information so that Ranger could build his own version of the Magnetophon. Ranger also planned to make a usable tape to work with it because 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 another 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 realised this need and set out to develop a higher grade tape using a red oxide, not knowing exactly what the target machine would be. During this period, Ampex also had decided to build a broadcast quality tape recorder and asked Mullin for assistance but, rather frustratingly, Mullin could not help due to his prior Ranger agreement.
The Big Showdown
For the ‘play-off’ competition, ABC was now aware of Ranger and wanted him involved. There may have been tension between Ranger and Mullin who were about to offer the Crosby organisation competing tape recorders, as well as between Ranger and the Crosby people, since Ranger was ‘forced’ on the Crosby organisation by ABC.
Ranger’s tape recorders were set up alongside the Magnetophon recorders and the standard Transcription disk lathes in the recording department of NBC for the competition. Two Ranger machines and two Magnetophons were brought in because each could only record 20 minutes at a stretch and the Crosby show spanned 30 minutes in total, two recorders meant that precious time was not lost changing tape reels. The showdown was held on the evening of 10 August 1947 and the moment of truth had come. Which would provide the best sound quality? The NBC engineers recorded the show on the standard disk lathes and Jack Mullin and Colonel Ranger also recorded on their respective machines.
For this ‘competition’, the disk system had already lost for reasons stated above. After all, that’s why the tape system was there, as a prospective replacement.
As for Ranger? Although, he used a magnetic tape that worked with his own machine, it wasn’t anything particularly special for the time. The Ranger tape was not based upon new technologies but from tape that was already on the market. and was not up to broadcast quality. It had been developed for home and dictation use only. As for the technology? While the Ranger machine was based on the Magnetophon and had some of Mullin’s additional expertise added to it during its build (although there is speculation as to exactly how much was utilised by Ranger), it did not have all the features that Mullin’s later designs included. Hence, the Ranger design was not as refined as the Mullin hardware. In fact, the Ranger recorder was very noisy. It is possible that this noise was due to the wrong bias selection and the mismatch of his heads with the tape. Mullin’s Magnetophon recorders used the high quality German heads that matched the tape characteristics.
Hence, when McKenzie asked Ranger to play his recording first, the sound quality was poor, with plenty of distortion and noise.
Mullin’s own Magnetophon design offering outstanding sound quality was selected and Ranger, rather distraught, soon sold the rights to his design.
Success and the spoils went to Mullin, therefore. Before we move on, though, astute readers may wonder why Mulllin, who was earlier tied to Ranger by an agreement, could have been able to develop his own hardware and then enter into competition with him. Surely, Mullin should have been contractually excluded from doing so? The wrinkle was that Mullin’s agreement with Ranger was a loose one and restricted to technical consultations only. Ranger could not restrict Mullin from selling his services through William Palmer to Bing Crosby.
Thus history was made as the very first radio show, aywhere in the world, to be recorded directly on magnetic tape was broadcast on 1 October 1947.
Mullin, 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 tape breakage problem was due to the Magnetophon tape having been used many times and being full of splices. As the season wore on, Mullin took each reel apart and re-spliced the tape segments to get at least several good rolls to use for the next session. There was great concern that the splices would come apart so the program, after editing, was transferred to disk for broadcast.
There was no new tape made for the Magnetophon at this stage although 3M did try. Later, when Ampex built their Model 200 recorder, a new tape type was created by 3M to match its recording heads. Mullin worked with 3M on these projects for a new improved recording tape. Ultimately, of course, once there was a good supply of quality recording tape, the transcription disks were no longer used.
For now, though, 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. More importantly, the ratings of the show improved and the pre-recorded 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 post-war product and was so taken by the recorder that 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 for Mullin, he had already made the agreement with Colonel Ranger so couldn’t join the project at that time. Nevertheless, Ampex decided to go ahead with the project anyway. A lifeline was then handed to Mullin. After the poor showing of his recorders to the Crosby group, Colonel Ranger was persuaded to give Mullin his contractual freedom. A call was placed to Ampex in October 1947 and Mullin was now on board. 3M also was brought in as the tape supplier.
Ampex, by the spring of 1948, had developed its first prototype but lacked finances to bring it to market. Unlike today, banks did not dabble in the concept of venture capital. Pressure 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 but the project couldn’t progress because of a lack of funds. Bing Crosby sent them a cheque for $50,000 (around $500,000 in today’s money) to insure he would get the first recorders in time.
Nothing fancy. Just the money in an envelope without any covering letter.
It was what Ampex needed to begin production of the Ampex 200 reel-to-reel.
This Crosby cash injection arguably launched an entire industry for, without it, one can only speculate on the success or otherwise of the tape industry and its related hardware.
In late 1947, Jack Mullin visited 3M to see if it could provide the required magnetic tape to work with the Magnetophon and the future Ampex recorder. By then, it had started development on 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 Crosby and Mullin, Bing Crosby Enterprises (BCE) was awarded, in 1948, the distributorship west of the Mississippi River for 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.
The Ampex 200
Harold Lindsay led the team to produce the Ampex 200 for Alex Poniatoff and Crosby in 1948. It was housed in a polished black wood console with a stainless steel top. 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’ (well, really luggable…at a push) 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 radio season, even to Canada. At one time, 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 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, 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: people on Sunset Boulevard could even hear the editing process. The Ampex recorders were on a waist-high shelf with a special tape speed control unit and acoustical equaliser 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 completed at the CBS studios and in a theatre behind CBS. The microphone placement and mixing of the show was arranged 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 Crosby was available. There were recorded rehearsals but the editing process was limited by having only two recorders.
With the recording of the show, Crosby was more relaxed and the audience had more fun with the ad-libs, 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 Crosby 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 Development of the Recording Art
With three recorders, Crosby, McKenzie and Mullin set out to see how the show could move away from the basic live audience format. No one had done this type of programme before. Tape editing was being undertaken elsewhere but not of this high quality.
There were a number of issues that arose as a result of using tape. With the higher bandwidths of the new Ampex recorders, it was now possible to hear things that were hidden by the lower quality recorders. Also, there were problems due to timing (or tape speed) and wow and flutter that had to be resolved. In addition, the tape also forced dropouts due to imperfections in the newly developed and imperfect oxide that was coated on the plastic backing. To solve this problem, 3M was trying different coating techniques for their 111 audio recording tape and Jack Mullin would test each new batch to determine the dropout rate. After a number of trials 3M produced the 111A tape that later became the industry standard.
Since Crosby did not read music and sang by ear, one take of a song could be in a different key from the second take. This change in pitch posed a problem when using segments from different recording sessions to make one complete piece of music. Today matching the pitch is easy with digital technology but, in 1950, things were different. To do the matching, one tape was slowed down and the other was speeded up until the pitch was the same. This change in tape speed led to timing problems so, after the splice was made, the tape was then slowly returned to its normal speed. Unless one was listening very closely this speed variation was not detectable.
Jack Mullin worked with Ampex to develop a unit to correct the Ampex 300 recorder tape speed. The unit produced an 18kHz control signal modulated by a 60Hz reference. On playback, it then used the 60Hz signal to control the speed of the Ampex 300 capstan motor. Not only did this correct the timing problem but it was able to improve some of the low frequency wow effects. It was now possible to record a tape on one machine and play it back on a different machine without speed changes that caused changes in the pitch of the music.
Another major problem was not being able to play from two machines and record on a third. The ability to fade from one program segment to another was limited. These edits had to be pre-planned in the recording process but, at times, long diagonal cuts were made that would allow one segment to fade and the other to get louder. This process was difficult and only used as a last resort. The Magnetophon recordings were made at 30 inches per second (ips), which made the long cuts impossible. The Ampex 200 operated at both 30 and 15ips while the Ampex 300 normally operated at both 15 and 7.5ips. At these lower speeds the long cuts were finally were possible.
Cuts were made with a pair of scissors and Scotch tape. In most cases, it was possible to cut the tape as it was running since there was a lot of room for error. Jack Mullin had great ear-to-hand coordination and could make the cuts even at 15ips. I used to do it as well but not with the accuracy that the he had. When it came to cutting a note or syllable, it required the tape to be stopped and moved back and forth until the correct spot could be located. The tape head ‘gate’ was then opened and the tape cut at the playback head gap. Jack and I did not use any splicing blocks since we were able to cut the tape at the same angle. In most cases, the ends of the tape were overlapped. This overlap caused problems when rewinding the tape since the splices would get caught going through the head gate. The tape in the early days was put together using Scotch tape that would stick to the other windings of tape on the reel. To prevent the sticking, talcum powder was used: it is still present today in early tape restoration. Around 1951, 3M produced a splicing tape that eliminated the sticking problem.
One of the great edits of Jack Mullin was made late at night on 2 November 1948 when it was found out that Harry Truman had won the Presidential election instead of Truman’s competing candidate, Thomas Dewey. When the show was recorded, Crosby said that Dewey had won. With no “Truman” word recorded by Bing, Mullin had to manufacture Truman’s name from Crosby’s use of similar syllables using the existing tape and do it with the two Ampex 200 recorders.
Not Canned Just Fake
When the Crosby Show received its three Ampex 300 machines, the editing process changed as did the format of the radio show. The early radio programs were recordings of live shows with little editing but the later shows were assembled from many different recording sessions. One of the new innovations of this period was the introduction of recorded audience reactions.
Fake laughter had always been around. It was added by turning the volume up and then fading it down. The same laughter was used every time and it became known as Canned Laughter. ‘Fake laughter’ wasn’t only of use to insert energy into a flagging show but also to edit shows that were, in effect, doing too well. For example, during one live show, Crosby and his guest produced too much audience reaction. The audience laughed for too long in terms of the show’s running time so that reaction that had to be cut. Jack Mullin was going to throw out the rejected tape. Crosby happened to be there at the time and told him to save it for future use. Thus the concept of the ‘laugh track’ was started. By the time I began to edit, the ‘laugh track’ had grown to 42 different segments. These ranged from great outbursts of laughter to the groans of the audience. The orchestra had their reactions as did the lady in the balcony.
The maturing radio programs evolved into a new beast. That is, a finished radio programme was scripted down to each segment of tape. These segments came from many different sources that had to be matched. The acoustics of Bing’s ranch house in Elko, Nevada had to match with the characteristics of the studios in Hollywood and New York. The Marine Auditorium in San Francisco had to agree with a theatre in Canada. To match the acoustics, Jack Mullin built a filter box where the audio characteristics could be altered and echo added, if required. When a recording session was held, material was recorded for four to six shows. Portions of these sessions also included a live audience and parts of it would be used in other shows.
Separate segments also were recorded to keep the shows current. These were made wherever Crosby happened to be and the same applied to the guests on the show. Besides these different sources, a large library of recorded material was created that was cross-referenced by date, artist and subject. This catalogue made it possible to reuse old recordings and cut back on the new recording sessions.
Each radio programme was assembled from the different sources according to the script. Once the music segments were edited and put into one continuous programme, the voice segments were added and the show was cut to the proper time. This cutting involved the editing of verses, refrains or portions of them so that the piece was the correct length to be broadcast. The audience reactions were then added. That involved listening to the show and deciding what type of reaction was required. Bad jokes got bad responses and good ones got good ones. However, the process involved the ear of the beholder and arguments occurred between the editors. McKenzie made the final decision. He sat on a bar stool behind the editors with an old Paris taxi horn attached to its side. To get the editors attention he would squeeze its large bulb. We had the speakers turned up so loud, it was difficult to hear him. Besides the standard reactions to the banter between the parties on the show, other reactions were injected where it appeared that something was happening with the orchestra or on the stage.
This editing might be described as the high point of recorded shows. Many of these editing techniques were later used by the radio networks and record companies. The Bing Crosby radio show during its last few seasons produced shows that never happened the way they were heard by the radio audience. This art form was created by the talents of Bing Crosby and Jack Mullin. It was made possible by the recorders produced by Ampex and the magnetic tape manufactured by Minnesota Mining (3M).
Many thanks to Bing Crosby Enterprises (bingcrosby.com) and the IEEE History site (Engineering and Technology History Wiki; ethw.org) (ethw.org/First-Hand:Bing_Crosby_and_the_Recording_Revolution) for their help in creating the article with Bob Phillips, plus The International Crosby Club (www.bingmagazine.co.uk) that published the original article (although in a shorter, earlier, form).