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Celebrating the Legacy of Sound Reinforcement

George Petersen • Editor's NoteMay 2019 • May 8, 2019

Over the decades, the development of professional audio has experienced a rich and fascinating history. And much of this legacy has been maintained and chronicled by any variety of organizations, ranging from the Edison Museum in New Jersey to New York’s Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio and the Museum of Broadcasting), the now-defunct Ampex Museum and AES exhibits by the Audio History Library & Museum and the past showings of the collection of the late Bing Crosby engineer John T. “Jack” Mullen, who brought the first Magnetophon tape machines into the USA after World War II.

‡‡         Back to the Future

Reflecting on where we’ve been provides a window that demonstrates how technology itself can shape societal changes. In fact, you don’t have to look much farther than your iPhone and the incremental advances in the Internet — ranging from e-commerce to social media to changing methods of delivering information — to witness some history-in-the-making for yourself.

But returning to the subject of pro audio’s development, one aspect that’s been largely ignored is the history of sound reinforcement, which has played a pivotal role in the development of society. For example, theatrical exhibition of talking motion pictures could not exist before large-scale speakers and amplifiers were created that could fill a venue with sound.

And modern P.A. systems were borne out of that need. It was no coincidence that the modern dynamic loudspeaker (Chester Rice & Edward Kellogg, 1925) and the HF compression driver (E.C. Wente & Albert Thuras, 1926) debuted just before 1927’s The Jazz Singer — the first feature-length “talkie” — appeared on screens across America. To say that film was a hit would be putting it mildly. From then, the race toward high-impact, high-resolution sound systems was on, and that evolution continues today.

Unfortunately, few in our industry are even aware of our own roots — or that the original 1925 speaker design included modern touches such as a rubber (butyl) surround around the edge of the paper cone. And that 1926 Model 555 HF driver (they called it a “receiver”) featured a slotted phase plug, a 0.002” thick aluminum dome diaphragm with a corrugated surround that added stiffness and strength, and a threaded mount for attaching to a variety of horns, including Western Electric’s exponentially tapered Model 12A, which touted a monster 45×45-inch throat and an 11-foot overall length for response as low as 80 Hz.

Clearly, there’s a need us all to know more about birth and history of sound reinforcement, and after years of neglect in this area, we were pleased to hear about the special “Vintage Concert Audio Show” put on as part of the 2019 Musikmesse/Prolight+Sound show. This welcome exhibit spotlighted P.A. gear from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and included 200 items from the early days of concert sound as well as panel discussions and ongoing demos of vintage gear. David Scheirman, a recognized expert on concert sound systems and an avid audio historian, provides a detailed photo essay on the event on page 20. ( Thanks, David for a great article!

The exhibit was well-regarded by attendees, and there is some interest in presenting such events at other tradeshows. If that happens, we’ll let you know.

‡‡         News & Stuff

Speaking of news, with a lot of corporate downsizing — er, “restructuring” — going around, I must say that I enjoy working for a media publishing company that’s actually growing and hiring more staff. This month, Lauren Byrge joins our Timeless Communications team to handle additional advertising sales for FRONT of HOUSE, PLSN, Stage Directions and some of our music titles. Welcome aboard!

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