Edison Tone Tests
Edison conducted Tone Test ‘recitals’ from 1915 to 1925 to demonstrate that audiences could not tell the difference between his Diamond Disc recordings and the live performances. Edison's entry into the world of disc phonographs was late but he was determined to prove that his technology was the best.
"Fidelity" and "Tone" had been the competitive advertising words for supremancy within the phonograph industry from the beginning of the phonograph industry's marketing to the home. Each phonograph company had their own approach in how to convince consumers that their machine was the most realistic, the most life-like, or even that the instrument was the actual artist.
At minimum phonograph dealers hoped to get the consumer into their store saying they just wanted you to listen to their machine and decide with your own ears. "Hearing is Believing."
According to audio historian Emily Thompson in an article titled “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925” (Musical Quarterly 79, Spring 1995, pp. 131-171), "between 1915 and 1920 the Edison company sponsored over four thousand tone tests and twenty-five different sets of artists were scheduled to perform more than two thousand tone tests in 1920 alone. The test groups toured towns, large and small, all across America to tout the wonders of the Edison Diamond Disc."
Here are two links to articles that summarize the Tone Test story (followed by some additional Phonographia information)
The first, from the Library of Congress Now See Hear! blog, is titled "Is It Live or Is It Edison?"
Is It Live or Is It Edison?
May 21, 2015 by Bryan Cornell
Today’s entry is a guest post by Jan McKee, Reference Librarian, Recorded Sound Research Center.
"I have always wondered about the Edison tone tests. Is it really possible that an audience could not tell the difference between an Edison Diamond Disc being played on a phonograph and the live performer singing while standing next to the machine? Were the audiences that naïve and unsophisticated? Were the acoustically recorded Diamond Disc recordings really that good? Were the tests rigged or was something else going on?"
To read her answer, go to this link.
The second reference is a summary produced by Sound Beat (click LISTEN)
LISTEN - The Edison Tone Tests produced by SOUND BEAT
Episode Air Date: July 25, 2019
Artist: Marie Rappold Recording
Title: Love's Old Sweet Song
The opera house lights dim, the capacity crowd hushes…Then a voice, a high, bright soprano…yes, there it is…fills the air. But the real fun starts when the singing stops. You see, the year is 1919, and the crowd is taking part in an Edison Tone Test. Before the lights come back up, they’re prompted to guess if what they heard was live, or a diamond disc. Wax cylinders provided mankind the ability to reproduce sound. By 1912, though, Edison had clarity in mind when he developed the Diamond Disc. Grudgingly. Competitors had started producing flat records over a decade earlier, but Edison wasn’t convinced. Like that guy who held onto eight tracks just a bit too long…except he was the one making them! He produced both until 1929. In fact, many of the cylinders produced during this time, like this one, were… dubs from diamond discs. That’s a whole different level of stubborn.
You’ve been listening to Love’s Old Sweet Song recorded by Marie Rappold in 1919.
Violinist Albert Spalding and operatic virtuoso Marie Rappold, Edison Tone Test Artists, 1918 - Promotional photograph
Anna Case Tone Test, The Saturday Evening Post, 1920 James Montgomery Flagg
Harold Lyman making a Tone Test, November 1925 (Courtesy of the US Department of Interior - National Park Service)
Amanda Petrusich author of Do Not Sell at Any Price writes the following about a Tone Test in 1915 that included Mr. Lyman:
On September 17, 1915, Edison Records organized an invitation-only concert in Montclair, New Jersey, booking the contralto Christine Miller, the flautist Harold Lyman, and the violinist Arthur Walsh. It was the first of Edison's so-called Tone Tests, in which someone placed an Edison Diamond Disc phonograph in the center of a stage and cued a 78. (That night, it was Miller singing "O Rest in the Lord," an aria from Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah.) Then Miller (or whomever) would being performing along with the recording. Periodically, the singer or player would stop moving his or her mouth, or lower the blow. Audiences gasped when they realized they couldn't tell the difference: A collective breath, snagged. As Greg Milner clarifies in Perfecting Sound Forever, the singers and musicians likely fudged it a bit, imitating the recording rather than trusting it would reflect the live performance, but even that shift felt profound. "From now on," Milner wrote, "Recordings would not sound like the world; the world would sound like recordings." (1)
In a 1915 advertisement, Edison emphasized that the records used for the Tone Tests were not specially made for any test. These were stock records that could be purchased at any Edison Dealer's store.
Music Trade Review, 1915
The Saturday Evening Post, 1917
The Edison Shop ad, October 1917 New York Tribune (Courtesy of oldapplicanceads.com)
According to audio historian Emily Thompson between 1915 and 1920 the Edison company sponsored over four thousand tone tests, and twenty-five different sets of artists were scheduled to perform more than two thousand tone tests in 1920 alone. (1) -- The Literary Digest for January 24, 1920