10 March 2010

Anna Case, Audio Co-Conspirator

Did you ever leave a concert and hear someone say, "you know, it didn't sound at all like the record"? Maybe you've had the same thought yourself - or the flip side, "hey, that was just like the CD". These notions are nothing new. Heck, one of the reasons the Beatles quit touring in 1966 was they could no longer reproduce their increasingly complex recordings on stage.

Anna Case onstage at Carnegie Hall, March 10, 1920, at the most famous tone-test


We owe the idea that live performances and recordings should resemble each other to New Jersey's two most important musical and recording pioneers, Thomas Edison and Anna Case. And here's the kicker - they set out to prove that an Edison record was as good as a live performance, but partly because of the contrivances this "proof" entailed, they wound up forever changing audiences' expectations of what live music should sound like.

Trade journal Talking Machine World, December 1914

It was in 1914 that Metropolitan Opera soprano and Edison recording artist Anna Case, a native of South Branch, walked into a music shop while on a concert tour in Iowa, and began to sing along with one of her own records. When she briefly paused, shop patrons were astounded that the still spinning record sounded just like the live Anna - they couldn't tell the two apart!

Full page Edsion ad from 1918 featuring Anna Case.
Full page Edison ad from 1918 featuring Anna Case.
Edison had spent years perfecting his Diamond Disc Phonograph. The ten inch diameter 1/4 inch thick record spinning at 80 rpm was the most technologically advanced music reproduction system of the time. But even Edison did not initially hit on the idea that his invention could be marketed as a music "re-creator", instead of merely another "talking machine".

Full page Edison ad from 1917 featuring Anna Case.

After conferring with Miss Case, Edison set up a music shop near his factory complex in Orange, where people were invited to come and hear his recording artists sing along with their records. These recitals with phonograph accompaniment were soon dubbed "tone tests", and Edison Diamond Discs were now hailed by the famed inventor as "re-creations".

Of course Anna Case, Edison's favorite singer, was front and center at many tone tests and in an extensive ad campaign that lasted for the better part of the next decade. Ads that regularly featured the soprano standing next to a phonograph asked readers to come into a store and hear for themselves - and then bring the re-created Anna Case home with them. In-store and window displays featured a life-sized cut-out of Anna next to the machine.

Program for the March 10, 1920 Anna Case Tone Test concert

The most famous tone-test took place March 10, 1920 at Carnegie Hall. Over 2500 people watched and listened as Anna Case sang with the phonograph. Then the lights suddenly went out, but the singing continued. When the lights came back on, all were astounded to see that Anna had left the stage and the Edison Diamond Disc phonograph was carrying on without her!

Two-page ad, June 1920
The problem with this incredible story of invention and marketing is that it was mostly a lie. Yes, Edison's invention was probably the best in its time. And yes, it could reproduce voices very well - just not THAT well.

The program from March 10, 1920

Anna Case finally came clean 50 years after the Carnegie Hall show, admitting that she, and the other singers that took part in the tone tests, actually trained their voices to sound like the machine! Not only that, but even at a large venue like Carnegie Hall, the voice of an operatic soprano would certainly overwhelm the modest sound coming from the phonograph - so while the record played full volume, Anna had to turn hers down a bit.


Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, who witnessed the Carnegie Hall tone test, sketches Anna Case after the show.
Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, who witnessed the Carnegie Hall tone test,
sketches Anna Case after the show.
And that's how Central New Jersey's musical pioneers set out to prove a recording was as good as a live performance by making the live performance only as good as the recording. A successful marketing experiment that has confounded musicians and listeners for almost a century!

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