This is the month when Mix readers get the chance to vote for their favorite candidates for the venerable TEC Awards, a tradition that has been going on for so long it can now drink legally in all 50 states. But did you know that the first awards in pro audio were given out 60 years ago? Back in 1946 — the year the UN, the CIA and the NBA were established; Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering was founded (later to be known as Sony); Jackie Robinson started playing professional baseball; the bikini showed up in Paris store windows; and John Paul Jones (the bass player, not the Navy guy), Keith Moon, Suzanne Somers, Oliver Stone and the Texan in the White House all were born — the still wet-behind-the-ears pro audio industry thought it was time to honor their own.
The world was recovering from a long and nasty war, and millions of people no longer worried about life, death and where to buy gasoline suddenly had time — and money — on their hands. Entertainment, which meant radio, movies, television and records, was booming. Technologies that had been developed during the war, such as radar (by the British good guys) and tape recording (by the German bad guys), could now be adapted to peaceful uses, and prominent among those uses were tools for audio production and distribution. With everyone (at least on the winning side) in such a celebratory mood, members of that fledgling industry couldn’t wait to give themselves a collective pat on the back and put on an awards show.
That first awards party was a small affair, taking place during the semi-annual conference in New York of The Vinyl, Cardboard and Stylus Manufacturers Association, one of the precursors of today’s AES. There was a festive brunch of war-surplus C-rations (including large quantities of Spam®) in the cafeteria of the YMCA near Penn Station, followed by a brief ceremony, during which the Sound, Communications and Broadcasting Awards, fondly known as The SCABbies, were given out.
Thanks to the historians behind the Website scabbies .org, I’ve uncovered a list of the awards given out and texts of the acceptance speeches and even some notes about the audience. As we look back over our industry’s achievements during the past year, I invite you to travel with me back in time to glimpse what was going on at the dawn of the modern age of audio, six decades ago.
The award for Best Technology That Will Either Save Us or Put Us All Out of Business went to John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert for ENIAC, the first electronic analog computer. One of two award-winning products that could not be shown at the conference, it had a footprint the size of a large house, weighed 60,000 pounds and its 17,468 tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million solder joints sucked up 160 kilowatts of power. In his acceptance speech, Professor Mauchly said, “Someday, we’ll be able to use machines like this to automatically determine the maximum number of grooves you can cut onto a 78 rpm record, and perhaps you won’t have to get up and change the disc every three minutes any more!” After the cheers died down, he added, “Either that, or our children will use them to make weird noises.”
In Loudspeaker Technology, the award went to Dr. Siegfried Klein for his work on the ion tweeter, which produces sound by modulating a high-energy plasma stream with an electrical signal. Klein’s work was based on a late-19th-century discovery that current going through an arc lamp would cause it to literally sing, and by changing the current, you could control its pitch. Klein put the element of an arc lamp inside a small quartz tube and coupled it with a horn, and thus produced rather remarkable non-directional high-frequency reproduction. He was, unfortunately, unable to attend the ceremony as he was recovering from third-degree burns to his left earlobe.
The Microphone Technology award was given to the RCA 77D, the first single-element, multi-pattern ribbon mic. Dr. Harry Olson, the product’s chief designer, accepted the award, and opined, “This mic does it all. I think this is the last mic anyone’s ever going to have to make. I’ll bet that 60 years from now, the most popular broadcaster in America will still have one of these sitting in front of him!”
The award for Musical Instrument Technology ended in a tie. One winner was Canadian composer Hugh LeCaine for his Electronic Sackbut, a keyboard instrument with a self-contained waveform generator that could be controlled in real time three ways: vertical pressure corresponded to volume, lateral pressure changed the pitch and moving a key forward and backward controlled the timbre. He regaled the crowd with a stunning rendition of a Bach partita for solo violin. “I know some musicians are worried that it’s going to replace them,” he said, “but there’s no need to be. There isn’t a lot of classical or jazz that can be played with electronic instruments like this. I mean, how are we going to handle all of that harmony and counterpoint, eh?”
The second winner was more — as we would call it today — polyphonic, and thus a bit more controversial. Harry Chamberlin came up with the idea of building several dozen loops of tape with instrument sounds recorded on them into a keyboard and then attaching tape heads to the keys, so that pressing down each key played a particular loop. As he began his speech, someone in the audience yelled out, “That thing is stupid! Why would anyone want to play back a recording on a session when they can just hire a saxophone player?” Chamberlin replied with a well-recorded Bronx cheer.
The award in Record-Making Technology went to an engineer who had found a way to make records — obsolete: John T. Mullin, the U.S. Army Signal Corps captain, who, when the Allies walked into Radio Frankfurt as the war was ending, discovered two “magnetophones” and several dozen reels of tape made by the BASF division of IG Farben (who otherwise were engaged in the manufacture of various types of poison gas) and shipped them home in pieces in mail sacks. “You can slice it, you can dice it, you can play it backward, and you can use it over and over again!” he said. He then announced, “I’m going to start a company with that crazy Russian Alexander M. Poniatoff and maybe Bing Crosby, and we’re going to make these things. We’re going to call it JMAMPBCEX, with the last two letters standing for ‘Excellence’!”
The competition for Best Improvement to Productivity in the Audio Industry ended in a three-way tie. One award went to Achilles Gaggia, the Italian inventor of the espresso machine. “Achilles thinks that someday there will be three of these on every block and four on every street corner in America,” joked the inventor’s American patent lawyer, Henry Starbuck, who accepted for Gaggia, “and people will ask for the beans to be burned before they’re ground.” That got a big laugh, but several could be seen rolling on the floor in hysterics after he said, “And Achilles is absolutely certain that they will pay more for one tiny cup of this stuff than it takes to feed an Italian war orphan for a month.”
The second Productivity award went to Percy Spenser of the Raytheon Corporation, who, one day while fooling around with a magnetron tube in a radar lab, noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. Rather than immediately run to the dry cleaners, he experimented with some popcorn and an egg, and before long, he had the first microwave oven. “You don’t have to run out for lunch and interrupt that important session,” Spenser enthused, “when you can get last night’s Chinese leftovers hot in just three minutes!” He asked for a moment of silence to be observed in memory of his friend Felix Schmidlap, a New Jersey studio engineer who was one of the first customers for Raytheon’s “compact” model. Schmidlap, Spenser said, didn’t read the directions before he tried to heat up some tomato soup — without taking it out of the can.
And the third award in this category went to Bell Labs for introducing the first commercial mobile-telephone service. “Singers can now phone in their parts from their cars,” explained Bell engineer D. Ed Ringer, “and record-label executives can tell the engineers what they’re doing wrong no matter how far away from the studio they are, whether they’re in a restaurant or by the pool at their hotel in Maui. Soon, everything will be wireless and you can make recordings anywhere!” Just then, his mobile phone (which he had carried onto the podium with him in its steamer trunk-sized case) rang. It was a wrong number.
Bell Labs won another award — Best Signal Processing Technology — for its SIGSALY system. This cunning little device, which took up 40 equipment racks, weighed 55 tons and was designed with the help of legendary British mathematician Alan Turing, was used to encrypt communications between Churchill and Roosevelt during the war. Random noise emanating from a mercury-vapor lamp was sampled 50 times a second with 4-bit resolution. The sampling data shifted the frequency of an audio oscillator, whose output was recorded on a phonograph record. Copies of the disc went to London and Washington, D.C. There they were placed on precision turntables whose motors were synchronized to WWV, the National Bureau of Standards’ short-wave radio time signals, and whose startup time was locked to the BBC’s broadcast of Big Ben striking the hour (with a 16ms delay on the English side to compensate for the trans-Atlantic transmission latency). When one leader spoke into his telephone, his voice was processed with a vocoder (an earlier Bell Labs invention) whose frequency was controlled by the shifting audio. On the other end of the conversation, the transmission, which was sent by FM radio and therefore was completely undistinguishable from pure noise by someone without the proper equipment, was decoded by another vocoder using the same data. It made Churchill sound like Alvin the Chipmunk with a sinus infection, but he could be understood.
Of course, even though the system was taken out of service in 1946, the attendees at the ceremony didn’t know any of the details, but instead had to rely on their trust in the judging panel — as the information was to remain classified until 1976. In his acceptance speech, delivered over a coded phone line, former Bell Labs engineer and now National Security Agency R&D director, A.B. Clark, said, “Phrt fdygui jfsowria meeqm wuiosn jxolwps fuekswusjnvkci! Thank you!”
A special Lifetime Achievement award went to Scotsman John Logie Baird, who had died earlier in the year, for his many pioneering efforts in the development of television, and especially for engineering the first TV broadcast with sound. The BBC’s Lord Crumbeigh Tyme-Coade, who accepted the award on the inventor’s behalf (even though they rejected his system), was greeted with hearty applause when he said, “Among the many advantages of television with sound is the opportunity for us to develop a whole new market in complex and expensive synchronization equipment.” But his next remark nearly brought the house down on his well-coiffed head: “And although we would never do such a thing, perhaps you Yankees could give that market a little extra boost by doing something really idiotic, like changing your frame rate by 0.1 percent or so.”
The award in the newly created Surround Technology category was given to Los Alamos National Laboratory for its development of the atomic bomb. “This brilliant invention not only creates a completely enveloping audio experience,” said guest presenter General Jack B. Nimble, “but it also makes us so much more secure and safe. I’m sure that, especially because we are the only country that could ever possibly develop this technology, it will make it unnecessary for us to send Americans off to war ever again.” Accepting the award was physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose speech was unfortunately unintelligible due to the three layers of duct tape over his mouth.
And finally, the most coveted industry award of 1946, for the individual who did the most to advance the art of recording, was given to a man who invented the project studio and the concept of multitracking, pioneered close-miking and tape echo, invented flanging and had a major guitar manufacturer produce custom instruments just for him. (Although for years they wouldn’t put their name on them.) Yes, the Les Paul Award went to…Les Paul.
Paul D. Lehrman — composer, producer, engineer, author, educator and filmmaker — wasn’t invented until a few years later.