Did Marsh Laboratories Begin to
Marsh Laboratories: A History and Discography is in development for publication in 2012–2013. If you have Marsh-related materials or some of the more obscure Marsh recordings (on any label), and are interested in helping out with this project, we'd like to hear from you. You can e-mail us, or write to Mainspring Press, P.O. Box 631277, Littleton, CO 80163-1277.
Marsh was granted two U.S. patents, one in 1921 (on a 1918 filing) and the other in 1930. The first does not suggest that Marsh was experimenting with anything out of the ordinary at the time. Filed on December 9, 1918, it covered some minor improvements to a standard acoustical reproducer, and was not approved until nearly two years after filing.
1921 patent (filed in 1918) on an improved acoustical reproducer
The date at which Marsh began his electrical experiments remains unknown, but recently some circumstantial evidence surfaced suggesting that Marsh might have been involved with what are believed to have been the electrically recorded cylinders used on Spoor's synchronized sound-film device of c. 1914. Marsh himself later stated that he had begun experiments with electrical recording in that year in Chicago, where Spoor was located. Details can be found in A Phonograph in Every Home.
An article published in The Billboard for January 13, 1923 strongly suggests that Marsh was making commercial electrical recordings by that time. It includes a photograph of a Marsh Labs session, showing a sound-collecting device that does not resemble the standard acoustic recording horn. Although the quality of the photo makes it impossible to see the device clearly, it appears similar to other enclosures Marsh is known to have used as sound-collectors for his carbon microphone. The wording of the text also strongly suggests a departure from the standard acoustical recording process.
A Marsh recording session, from The Billboard (January 13, 1923)
Assuming a lead time of several weeks for this story, and assuming the device is indeed electrical, it now seems safe to say that Marsh was making electrical recordings on a commercial basis by the autumn of 1922. Initially, these recordings appeared on client and custom labels, but Marsh finally introduced his own Autograph label in April 1924. It used electrical masters exclusively — a year before Victor or Columbia began doing so.
At some point in 1924, an unknown photographer took at least two shots of Marsh and his electrical recording rig in the Chicago Theatre, with organist Jesse Crawford. Crawford signed an exclusive Victor contract in December 1924, so the photos must pre-date that event. The first photo, which appeared in the local papers, has been widely reproduced. But an alternate version, which was used in the rare 1925 Autograph catalog contains a fascinating difference — Marsh apparently is using an ordinary old "witch's hat" horn (missing in the newspaper version) as his sound-collector! Collectors have long noted than many of Marsh's pipe-organ recordings are sonically superior to his studio recordings, so perhaps the horn was a contributing factor.
Marsh and his electrical equipment onsite at the Chicago Theater in 1924
the time Marsh issued his 1925 Autograph catalog, he was promoting
Paramount researcher Alex van der Tuuk recently discovered in the Mills Music Library (University of Wisconsin) a report of a Marsh demonstration held at Chicago's at Trianon Ball Room on March 11, 1925. According to The Trianon Topics:
On the program were Mario Rubini, Madam Belle Forbes Cutter, Eyer and Chellman, Mrs. Sheldon and Polly, the Langdon Brothers, the Joe Thomas Sax-O-Tette, featuring comedian Archie Nicholson, comedian, accordionist Harold B. Stokes, guitarist and Jack Pennewell, “and a score of other prominent Autograph recording artists.” Every one attending the evening received a free Autograph record of Lampe’s Orchestra playing "Trianon-A New Dance" coupled with “Trianon Chicago Tango.”
The article also mentioned further cooperation between the Trianon and Autograph, and reported on Marsh’s development of mobile recording equipment.
Marsh's second patent, filed in 1929 and granted in 1930, shows him moving into other fields. The patent covered a swinging microphone, enclosed an an acoustic-style recording horn, designed to track moving actors in motion pictures.
Marsh's directional recording device, patented on April 15, 1930
For more information on Orlando Marsh, Marsh Laboratories, and Autograph Records, see American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia (revised an expanded edition coming in 2012) and Recording the 'Twenties: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1920–1929.
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