WHAT MADE THAT GREAT OKEH SOUND?
A close listen to the best sound of the 1920s
By Steven Lasker
The OKeh recordings of the 1920s, with few exceptions, offer perhaps the finest sound quality of American recordings of the decade. This is due to a combination of excellent studios, excellent equipment and excellent studio engineers.
This article will explore the main reason - OKeh's studios - behind the great sound that the label produced.
The OKeh label, owned by General Phonograph Corporation began recording electrically, apparently in April 1926 with a session by Perry Bradford and His Gang (mx80001/2). The results were never issued. The company also recorded acoustically in tandem, the last known acoustical being Esther Bigeou on Dec. 21, 1926 (mx74453). OKeh's early electrics, bearing matrices in the 80000 series, were sonically boxy, distorted but unmistakably electric. These (the main exceptions to OKeh's rule of excellent sound) bear the stamp O-E in the runoff area.
The Columbia Phonograph Corp. purchased OKeh, effective Nov. 1, 1926 and installed its Western Electic equipment by Nov. 26, with mx 80226 by the Arkansas Travellers. This matrix bears the "w" prefix and sounds greatly superior to previous electric OKeh's (Editor’s note: the new OKeh Matix series discography by Ross Laird and Brian Rust shows the first OKeh matrix to carry a W-prefix to be 80199-B by Mike Markel’s Orchestra, recorded 5th November 1926. The Arkansas Travellers session cited above was, according to the file card ‘Recorded By Columbia’ so doubtless there were other similar crossovers of facilities at this crucial changeover period).
OKEH's NEW YORK RECORDING STUDIOS
OKeh's main office was at 25 West 45th Street, New York and its distributing division was at 15 West 18th Street. OKeh would keep its 45th Street office until sometime in 1931, and I believe this was also the location of its studio in 1926. In January 1927, a second studio was added, evidenced by the dramatic change in recording room acoustics or "room tone" heard in some - but not all -sides. A Jan. 7, 1927 letter by Tommy Rockwell, of OKeh's recording department (reproduced in the notes to the Columbia Legacy complete Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Sevens) bears the address of 25 crossed out with 145 typed above it. After August 30, 1927, a new room could be heard. This facility was at 11 Union Square. This apparently replaced the 145 W. 45th studio.
On January 9, 1928 OKeh, abandoned the 80000 series matrix series (the New York block had reached 81989, though the Chicago block ran to 82099) and began the 400000 series (mx 400000 was by Vera Barczaniwa) which ran to 1933, ending at 405183 (by Webb Whipple).
OKeh kept the 11 Union Square facility until 1930 when a new recording room could be distinguished. This facility was probably 1819 Broadway and was in use for a about a year until it moved to 55 Fifth Ave.. The company kept this studio until July, 1934 when the label was absorbed by the American Record Corp.
THE RECORDINGS & STUDIOS
Brad Kay and I reviewed a number of OKeh New York recordings and have attempted to group them by studios. We made these determinations by listening to the distinctive "room tone" of each recording.
Probably 25 W 45th: This room, which may have been converted from the old, acoustical studio, seemed medium-sized and dampened (walls treated to reduce echo). From our collections of 78s, we determined the following records were made between Nov. 26, 1926 and Apr, 16, 1927. (the "w"prefix is omitted) Arkansas Travelers (80226-Nov 26, 26); Goofus Five (80262/3 Dec. 24, 26); Sam Lanin's Melody Sheiks (80265/66, same date); Ted Wallace Orch. (80276/7 Jan. 3, 27). These are the highest handwritten matrices seen. Tom Stacks (80341 Jan 26,27); Clarence Williams Orch. (80362/3 Jan. 29, 27) Frankie Trumbauer Or. (80391/2/3 -Feb 4, 27); Goofus Five 80402/3 Feb.8/27) Eva Taylor 80412/3-Mar 7,27) Miff Mole Molers (80501/2/3 Mar7, 27); Lizzie Miles (80644/5 Mar18, 27); Butterbeans&Susie (80687 Mar. 30, 27); Sara Martin (80712/3 Apr 9, 27); Clarence Williams (remake session 80688/9 Apr 13,27); Clarence Williams (80728/9 Apr, 14,27) Goofus Five (80731/33 same date) Sophie Tucker (80737/8 Apr. 15,27) Eva Taylor (80739/40 Apr 16,27)
Probably 145 W. 45th: This new recording room added by OKeh in January, 1927 was large and acoustically resonant. The piano, possibly an upright, was often unusually distant from the microphone and, over the course of May, 1927, grew progressively out of tune. The room tone and piano are so distinctive that Brad Kay was called it "Riverboat Shuffle Hall" after the well-known Frank Trumbauer recording made there.
The recordings made there before April, 1927 include Boyd Senter (80314/6/7 Jan 20); Senter (80324 Jan 21) Joe Venuti (80328/9 Jan 24); Miff Mole (80338/9/40 Jan 26) and Eddie Lang (80692/3 Apr 1).
Every New York recording we auditioned made between later April and August 1927 was made in "Riverboat Shuffle Hall." Eddie Lang (80940/1 Apr28); Joe Venuti (81058/9 May 4); Butterbeans&Susie (81063 May 6)' Frank Trumbauer (81071/2 May 9); Sissle&Blake (81073/4 May 10); Frank Trumbauer (81083/4/5 May 13); Wilton Crawley (80944 May 31); Wilton Crawley (80983 June 4); Goofus Five (81015/6 June 15); Russell Grey (81017 June 15); Irwin Abrams (81027 June 17); Red McKenzie (81037/8 June 21); Art Kahn Or (81108 June 24); Art Kahn (81115 June27); Joe Vsenuti (811118/9 June28); Beth Challis 81127/8 June30); Goofus Five (81207/8 Aug 10); Goofus Five (81219 Aug12) and Frank Trumbauer (81273/4/5 Aug 25).
11 Union Square: A new room, heard from at least Aug. 30, 1927 (Miff Mole 81296/97/98) through at least Feb 11, 1930 (Casa Loma Orch. 403755/56) sounds larger than the room at 25 West 45th but smaller than Riverboat Shuffle Hall. This room exhibits a degree of liveliness between the two. This room is confirmed by the Manhattan telephone directory for summer, 1927 that shows OKeh's studio at 11 Union Sq., and their main office at 25 W. 45th. Also, a letter reprinted in Laurie Wright's OKEH Race Series" book places the company's "recording laboratories" at this address. (Editor's note: Some recordings made here in the winter of 1928 (Miff Mole 401394/5 Nov 26) exhibit some distortion from a defective microphone that grew worse by Dec. 19 when Clarence Williams recorded 401466/7. However, not all recordings seem to have suffered this problem. For example, Joe Venuti's mx 401449/50 from Dec. 12 is free of distortion). The Manhattan telephone directories of 1930-31 show OKeh's foreign department at this address.
Probably 1819 Broadway (1930-31): This room was heard from at least March 1, 1930 (403791) by Carl Webster’s Yale Collegians. This venue sounds smaller and a bit less lively than the room at 11 Union Square. Brad Kay detected a bass resonance inherent to each room, the one at this address being an octave higher. Manhattan telephone directories list this address as well as 25 West 45th which may have continued as a studio. 1819 Broadway was the Gotham National Bank Building near Columbus Circle. It is also the address used by Columbia/Harmony records since 1921.
55 Fifth Avenue: (1931-34): The summer, 1931 Manhattan telephone directory places the general offices of both Columbia and OKeh at this address. They shared a common telephone number (THompkins 6-5200). Neither 25 West 45th, nor 1819 Broadway are listed.. John Hammond in his book, John Hammond on the Record (page 88) noted "in 1932…Columbia's studios were located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street."
The company's general offices and studios remained there until July 1934 when both labels were absorbed by the American Record Corp. Brad and I listened to various recordings from the 1931 period to determine when the move was made but could only conclude the rooms were of similar size and "tone."
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