Victor Talking Machine Company Recording Locations

 

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Victor Talking Machine Company Recording Locations:

- Victor Building no 2 Auditorium,

- Camden Church Studio (or Trinity Church Studio),

- The Academy of Music - Philadelphia

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  Victor Building no 2 Auditorium, location of the first Philadelphia Orchestra recordings in 1917

  Camden Trinity Church, Converted by Victor Talking Machine Company for recording in 1918

  Academy of Music, Broad and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, USA Philadelphia Orchestra recording location beginning 1926

 

Early Recording Locations of Victor Talking Machine Company

 

The Victor Talking Machine Company was incorporated in Camden, New Jersey in October of 1901, and expanded rapidly there. Camden is located East of Philadelphia, just across the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania.

 

With the growth of gramophone recordings, their variety and their quality, there was an increasing need to record groups, rather than individual singers or small groups of musicians.  Consequently, the recording locations which had been used for earlier acoustic recordings was inadequate for such larger groups.

 

The Victor Talking Machine Company's original recording studio (or laboratory as it was often called in earlier days) was located on the southwest corner of Front and Cooper Street in Camden 1.  This location was surrounded on all sides by Victor factory buildings.  Another early recording location was the top floor of a production factory on the northwest corner of Front and Cooper Street 1.  Using the top floors of a building for recording allowed Victor to use weights to power the acoustic disk cutting mechanism, without the use of motors which had been found to be noisy and variable in speed.

 

The two Victor locations used prior to 1917 had two deficiencies.  First, both locations were too small for larger groups, let alone symphony orchestras.  Second, being surrounded by factories, there was too much ambient noise, which was audible in rhw resulting records, given the increasingly sensitive recording instruments.

 

Recording in the Eighth Floor Auditorium of the Executive Office Building

 

The Victor Executive Office Building, referred to as “Building 2” was completed in 1916 2. On its Eighth Floor, Victor Building number 2 had a large auditorium, as shown in the picture above.

 

During 1917, Victor began experiments in recording large groups, such as a symphony orchestra.

 

Raymond Sooy (1876-1934), Victor recording engineer wrote: ". ... July, 1917: We started to make Symphony Orchestra records. July 23, 1917: Mr. Pasternack [1878-1940 Music Director of Victor] assembled an orchestra consisting of 51 musicians. The rooms in the general Recording Laboratory not being large enough to carry on this work, we were permitted to use the Auditorium on the eighth floor of the Executive Building ... "

 

Harry O. Sooy (1875-1927), brother of Raymond Sooy and a pioneering Victor Talking Machine recording engineer wrote: " ... On June 20th [1917] the Victor Company gave its first concert in the Auditorium, eighth floor, Executive Office Building, for the benefit of the Red Cross Drive. July 1917, we started to make the first Large Symphony Orchestra records. On July 23d, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, Victor Music Director got an orchestra together consisting of 51 musicians. The rooms in the general recording department not being large enough to carry on this work, I was permitted the use of the 8th floor auditorium, Executive Office Building. After the engagement of July 23d was finished, and we had heard our results, another date was set for September 21, 1917. At this engagement we had eighty musicians under Mr. Pasternack, after which we felt quite sure commercial records could be made of Symphony Orchestras ... " 3

 

October 1917 - First Victor Recordings of a Symphony Orchestra - Karl Muck and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra

 

These trials were followed by the historic recording sessions of October 2-5, 1917 of Karl Muck with the Boston Symphony Orchestra,  These were followed by the first recording session of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on October 24, 1917.  Both the Boston and Philadelphia orchestras used essentially a full-size symphony orchestra of approximately 90-100 musicians.  The first Philadelphia Orchestra recording of the Brahms Hungarian Hungarian Dance no 5 was made with 93 musicians: 16 first violins, 15 second violins, 12 violas, 10 celli, 8 basses, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 3 flutes, a piccolo, 5 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, a tuba, tympani, and 2 percussion.  These October 1917 recordings are remarkably fine in both interpretation and performance, particularly considering they were Victor's and the orchestras' first efforts of recording a full symphony orchestra.  Also considering the physical difficulties of recording a large group, and the often unpredictable results of the acoustic recording process. The Muck - Boston Symphony recordings are not only excellent, but provide Muck's only recordings of several works.

 

Harry Sooy wrote: " ... On October 2d [1917] we had our first engagement with a large Symphony Orchestra, it being with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Karl Muck. The Orchestra consisted of one hundred musicians, and the records were recorded in the Auditorium on the eighth floor of the Executive Office Building. The services of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra were secured for Record Making in October this year [1917]. The first engagement we had with this organization was on October 22d, 1917, in the Auditorium on the eighth floor of the Executive Office Building, the Orchestra under direction of Leopold Stokowski ... " 4

 

Purchase of the Camden Trinity Baptist Church

 

Because of its need for a larger recording studio, the Victor Talking Machine Company decided to purchase the Camden Trinity Baptist Church in 1918. As Raymond Sooy wrote in his memoirs: " ... February, 1918: The Victor Company purchased the Trinity Church, 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, N.J., as we needed a larger studio for Symphony Orchestra recording ... " 5

 

Since the church building was located amongst the other Victor facilities and was favorable for large groups, both in size and acoustics, it was a logical purchase.  Victor removed the bell tower, and renamed it "Building no 22".  The ground floor of Victor Building 22 was used first for storage, but during February, 1918, because of its favorable acoustic properties, the Camden Church Studio was constructed by making an upper floor in the main hall of this converted Baptist church, forming a recording studio in the upper levela and later a second studio in the lower level.

 

Harry Sooy further described in his memoires: " ... To take care of the necessity for quarters containing rooms large enough in which to do Symphony Orchestra recording, etc., the Victor Company purchased the Trinity Church Building, 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, this being the best available place. The building was put in order, and on February 27th [1918] I reported it was ready for operation ... " 6

 

The Estey Pipe Organ in the Camden Church Studio

 

One by-product of this acquisition of a church building was the pipe organ included in the building, used in later years by musicians such as Fats Waller.  The organ was an "Estey Op. 1850" built by Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, Vermont.  In 1926, Victor had Estey enlarge the organ, adding a third manual to the console, and additional features, such as a second touch, as well as several ranks of new pipes. 7.  This is the model used by Fats Waller in several famous recordings between 1926 and 1935.  Waller, who as a youth earned money playing an organ for silent movies in Harlem’s Lincoln Theater, knew how to made the Estey organ swing, such as in his famous Camden recording of "Sugar". 8

The Camden Trinity Church Studio with the Estey Pipe Organ

 

The upper level of the church was first used for orchestral recording in the 1919 recording sessions, when it was referred to as the "Camden Church Studio", or "Trinity Church Studio".  The Camden Church Studio continued to be used for Victor’s recordings until December, 1924, when developments, including the advent of the Western Electric Electrical recording process required changes to "Building 22".  (Note: to read more of the development of the Westrex process click on The Development of Electrical Recording .)

 

The first change was the creation of a new “recording laboratory” on the fifth floor of Building number 15, as stated by Harry O. Sooy: " ... December 8th, 1924: After considerable work remodeling the 5th floor, Building #15, for an additional Recording Room for the Laboratory, we made our first records of the Philadelphia Orchestra in this studio on this date ... " 9

 

Installation of Electrical Recording Equipment in Victor Building number 15, Camden

 

In early 1925, Victor Talking Machine Company reached preliminary agreement with the Western Electric division of American Telephone & Telegraph to license the Westrex process of electrical recording, as is described in Licensing the Western Electric Electrical Recording System to Victor and Columbia .  This led to the signing by Victor with Western Electric of the licensing contract for their electrical gramophone recording system signed on March 18, 1925.  However, well before this, in January and February, 1925, the Western Electric system was first installed in Camden in Victor Building 15, as described by Harry Sooy:

 

" ... January 27th, 1925: A representative of the Western Electric Company, Philadelphia, called to-day to measure up for wiring and equipping studio at Victor Company, as per instructions of Mr. Maxfield. This wiring was started January 28th, and finished February 2nd, 1925. (Studios wired, # 2 on seventh floor, # 3 on fifth floor [of Building number 15].) ... February 3rd, 1925: The Electrical Recording Equipment from the Bell Laboratories arrived at the Victor Laboratory, Building # l5, via truck, this date ... " 10

 

In February and March, 1925, a series of electrical recording trials were done in Victor Building 15. Allen Sutton of the superb Mainspring Publishing has documented that Victor's earliest electrical recording session that resulted in a published record occurred on February 26, 1925 with a vocal group which performed what was called Miniature Concert 11.

 

April 29, 1925 - First Electrical Recording of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra

 

On April 29, 1925 Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra made their first electrical recording of the Camille Saint-Saëns ‘Danse macabre’ opus 40. You can read about this in 1925 - First Electric Recordings of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

 

It seems from the commentary of Harry and Raymond Sooy that Studio number 2 on the seventh floor of Victor Building 5 was larger than Studio number 3 on the fifth floor, so presumably, this first Philadelphia Orchestra electrical recording was done in Studio 2 on the seventh floor of Victor Building 15 in Camden.

 

Then, a third recording studio was equipped with the Westrex electrical recording system, as described by Harry Sooy: “…May 13th, 1925: After extensive changes being made in #1 Studio, 7th floor, Bldg. #15, changing partitions and sound proofing by Johns-Mansville Company, rugs and draperies installed for Electrical recording, we made our first records by the Victor Orchestra, thus making three studios in operation in Camden and abandoning all old direct [i.e. acoustic process] recording methods…” 12

 

From later comments, and the famous recording pictures of Studio 1, I believe that Studio 1 on the seventh floor of Victor Building 15, after being renovated and equipped for electrical recording may have been the largest of the three studios listed for that building, Studio 2 being the second largest, followed by Studio 3. However, I have not yet seen documentation verifying this.

 

This may indicate that after the first Philadelphia Orchestra records of April 29, 1925 being recorded in Studio 2 of Victor Building 15, that the Tchaikovsky ‘Marche slav’ and the Ippolitov-Ivanov ‘Caucasian Sketches’ recordings of May 14 and 15, 1925 were made in the newly refurbished Studio 1 of Victor Building 15. Certainly this is a minor point, probably of interest only to the most extreme followers of Victor recording history (persons such as myself, I should add).

 

Further evidence that Studio 1 of Victor Building 15 was the largest and used for larger groups are two famous photographs, mentioned by Harry Sooy.  " ... November 13th, 1925: As per instructions of Mr. Fenimore Johnson [1899-1971,son of Eldridge Johnson, Victor founder], we made a photograph of the old way (direct recording) in Studio #1—7th floor, Bldg. #l5, showing Horn and Orchestra. Another photograph was made of the new way making records, showing Microphone and Orchestra…Not satisfactory….November 23rd, 1925: We repeated the making of these photographs of the old and new way making records which proved to be more satisfactory and shows distinctly the two methods ..." 13

 

The famous pair of 1925 pictures of a Victor acoustic recording session and of an electric recording session in Studio 1 of the seventh floor of Victor Building 15

 

Installation of Electrical Recording Equipment in the Camden Church Studio

 

By the end of October, 1925, the Westrex electrical recording system was installed in the Camden Church Studio. According to Harry Sooy: “…October 31st, 1925: The Illinois College Band, consisting…to make two selections for the Victor Company. The records were made in the Church Building…” 14

 

At the time of the installation of the Westrex system, there was also further reconstruction in the Camden Church Studio building to improve acoustics both to the "Camden Church Studio number 2" on the upper floor, and the "Camden Church Studio number 1", with the Estey organ on the lower floor.

 

Camden Church Studio number 2, sometimes referred to as Trinity Church Studio number 2 being on the upper floor of the structure was aided in using the weights still employed to drive the disk cutting mechanism used throughout the 1920s. The electrical circuit of the Westrex electrical recording system was powered by large storage batteries from the Electric Storage Battery Company 15, but the turntable mechanism will still rotated by weights until well into the 1930s, when electric motors that were both quiet and reliable became available.

From this information from Harry Sooy, I conclude that the Dvorak Symphony no 9 'From the New World' recording sessions of December 8, 1925, and perhaps also of October 6 and 7,1925 were done in the Camden Church Studio, which seems to have been the largest, and perhaps acoustically most appropriate recording studio for a symphony orchestra, and probably larger than Studios 1, 2 and 3 in Building 15. Lacking other, different information, this is my assumption for the Dvorak discography (see Leopold Stokowski - Philadelphia Orchestra Chronological Discography of Electrical Recordings 1925-1940).

 

I would also suppose that the last Philadelphia Orchestra recording session in Camden in the 1920s was also done in the Camden Church Studio. This was the session of March 16, 1926, where the first movement of the Caesar Franck Symphony in D minor was recorded, but not issued.

 

Soon after this March 16, 1926 session, Westrex recording equipment was installed in the basement of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. There, on June 10, 1926, the first recording in the Academy of two waltzes by Johann Strauss II, "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" (An der schönen blauen Donau), and "Tales from the Vienna Woods" (Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald) were made. These recordings were perhaps the most successful electrical recordings, as a combination of sonic brilliance and quality of performance, of a symphony orchestra made anywhere up to that time. (Read about these at June 10, 1926 - Recordings of two Johann Strauss II Waltzes)

 

The Philadelphia orchestra made all of its recordings in the Academy of Music, their home in Philadelphia from June, 1926, until the end of 1930.

Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra recording in the Academy of Music, probably in November or December, 1935, or early 1936

 

Then, in March, 1931, under RCA Victor (RCA having purchased Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929), the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to the Camden Church Studio for recording. This was to reduce costs during the depression.  As further cost savings, RCA Victor also decided to use a reduced number of orchestral musicians, as they had (for other reasons) during the acoustic era.   Major orchestral works were often recorded with only 50 musicians.

 

In early 1934, Victor seems to have made further changes to the Camden Church Studio.  This may be the reason for the Philadelphia Orchestra beginning in March, 1934 recording in the Camden Church Studio number 2 on the upper level, rather than the Camden Church Studio number 1, which they had done beginning in March, 1931.  See the recording locations in the Chronological Discography of Electrical Recordings 1925-1940.

 

In December, 1935, after nearly five years of recording in Camden, the Philadelphia Orchestra happily returned to recording in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.  This is likely as a result of the city of Camden deciding to extend the Camden subway, with construction near the Camden Church Studio, as described below.

 

Installation of Electrical Recording Equipment in Victor’s New York Studio

 

Harry Sooy wrote: " ... July 31st, 1925: We made our first Electrically recorded records in the New York Studio after the Electrical installation. R. Sooy and E. Raguse being on the job. The talent used for this date was Jack Shilkretts [Jack Shilkret (1897-1964), brother of Victor conductor Nat Shilkret (1890-1982)] Orchestra ... " 16

 

Nathanial Shilkret and the International Novelty Orchestra, shown here, most likely at WEAF, the AT&T broadcasting station.  AT&T sold WEAF to General Electric in 1926 as part of a settlement with GE/RCA to exit broadcasting, and GE and RCA committed to transmit all their network broadcasts via AT&T long distance lines.  The International Novelty Orchestra recorded all their electrical recordings in New York, according to John R. Bolig 18, 19.

 

Motion Picture Soundtrack Recording in the Camden Church Studio

 

In addition to electrical phonograph record recording, the Camden Church Studio also did some early motion picture sound recording.  Beginning in 1927, equipment for recording motion picture sound tracks on disks synchronized with film was added to the Camden Church Studio.  One of the first was for Wings starring Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers, with Gary Cooper in one of his earliest roles 17.

 

Famous Performers who recorded in the Camden Church Studio

 

As well as the Philadelphia Orchestra, many famous Victor artists of the period from 1919 to 1935 recorded in the Camden Church Studio (or later, Camden Church Studios).  Enrico Caruso’s later recordings, including his last recording of September 16, 1920, were done there, as well as recordings by John McCormack and Vladimir Horowitz’s first recording in 1927.

 

Arturo Toscanini and the visiting La Scala Orchestra made his first recordings in the Camden Church Studio on December 17, 1920.  Among many popular artists, as well as Fats Waller (including, as mentioned, on the Estey Organ) and Jelly Roll Morton, were Duke Ellington and the great Carter Family.

 

End of Recording in the Camden Church Studio

 

In 1935, the city of Camden decided to extend its subway system below the church location, and first the construction, and later the rumbling subway noise ended the Trinity Church’s role as a famous recording location.  Most recording was thereafter moved to New York, or other locations.  The Philadelphia Orchestra benefited from this, returning to recording in the Academy of Music in December 1935.

 

RCA Victor then converted the building into a gymnasium for the Victor Athletic Association, and later also added the Employees' Store.  Ben Kragting, editor of a Dutch Jazz magazine, who has also been interested in the rich recording history of the Camden Church Studio did some investigation in 2008 on the Philadelphia location, and informed me that unfortunately, the Camden Trinity Church structure no longer exists, presumably torn down some time after 1947.

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1  Recording locations
2  Victor Executive Office Building, Building number 2
3  page 66. 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: http://www.davidsarnoff.org/sooyh-maintext1909.html
4  page 67. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
5   From February, 1918: 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: http://www.davidsarnoff.org/soo-maintext.html
6  page 71. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
7  Estey Organ Company. Opus 1850 / 2370 / 2529. Trinity Church, Victor Talking Machine Company Studio, Camden, NJ. “…Victor purchased the building in the early twenties for use as a recording studio and in 1926 brought Estey back to enlarge the instrument.”
8  February 2, 1927 Fats Waller Victor 23331 recording. “Sugar” by Maceo Pinkard (1897-1962).
9  page 112. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
10  page 114. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
11  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.
12  page 120. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
13  page 129. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
14  page 130. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
15  page 118. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
16  page 122. Sooy, Harry O. op. cit.
17  page 82. Barnum, Frederick O. "His Master's Voice" in America. General Electric Company. 1991.
18  Bolig, John R.  The Victor Black Label Discography 18000-19000 Series.  Mainspring Press, LLC.  Denver. 2008. ISBN 978-0-9772735-9-1.
19  pages 110, 111. Adams, Stephen B. and Butler, Orville R. Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric .  Cambridge University Press.  Cambridge, UK.  1999  ISBN 0-521-65118-2


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