History Through the Horn

Hi, I'm Ryan Barna. I hold a BA in English Writing from the University of Colorado at Denver. I have worked as a Park Guide and Museum Docent for the National Park Service and Historic Bethlehem, and I'm also a writer and historian of the pre-microphone days of commercial recording.


What are the pre-microphone days of commercial recording?

Before microphones were used on commercial recordings (like we use today), phonograph recordings were done through the horn. The sound waves were focused directly onto a vibrating diaphragm that would cut the grooves on the record. This was known as acoustic recording. By using a horn to help focus the sound waves, this simple concept dominated the recording industry for nearly forty years. Thomas Edison used this concept when he first spoke "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into his first tinfoil phonograph in 1877, by using his own vocal power to cut directly onto the tinfoil. Microphones usage on commercial recordings was adopted by most of the major companies in 1925.

My research and passion is in the talent, business, and technology prior to that usage.

Acoustic recordings can be found on old 78s and cylinders, ranging in size, speed, and groove planes. This is a particularly fascinating period because the development of modern recording itself also evolved through improvements in technology, such as the permanent master (to duplicate copies of recordings), improving record surfaces for clearer playback, and the very earliest recordings of new musical genres. Many long-standing entertainers made their first recordings using the horn.

By 1928, nearly all of the records on the market were "electrified." Columbia was the last major company to use acoustic recording for commercial releases for their budget labels in 1930. Below are my many writings about the days before microphones, LPs, CDs, and mp3s.

Fun facts

  • The earliest known pre-recorded cylinders to be sold publicly were talking doll cylinders made by the short-lived Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company in 1890.
  • The earliest known commercial electrical recordings were made by the Marsh Laboratories, Inc. in Chicago (for Autograph Records), as early as 1922.
  • The last known commercial usage of acoustic recordings were made by the California Ramblers jazz band on May 23, 1930, which was the last acoustic session for Columbia's budget labels.


Grey Gull Merchandise
A Collection of advertisements, sheet music, and ephemera by the Grey Gull Record Company of Boston, Massachusetts.

The Rise and Fall of the Arthur Fields Song Shop (1922-1923)
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of Vintage Jazz Mart.

The Talking Machine World, Vol. I (1905)
Just to experiment, I digitized the entire microfilm reel of the Talking Machine World for 1905 (the very first volume) at the Library of Congress in 2013. It is now available (and searchable) through the Internet Archive. It also happens to be a volume that is not yet available through the Media History Digital Library, where most of the other Talking Machine World volumes have been digitized.


The Official Website of Billy Murray

The Final Years of Irving Kaufman: An Illustrated Discography

Irving and Jack Kaufman: The Edison Discography with Illustrated Blue Amberol Cylinders (1914-1919)

Irving and Jack Kaufman: An Illustrated Cylinderography of Indestructible Cylinders

Arthur Fields Discography (under construction)

Arthur Fields Photo Gallery

Joseph C. Smith: America's First Famous Dance Band Recording Artist

Fred Hall (1898-1954): Creative Composer, Publisher, Radio, and Recording Artist
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Vintage Jazz Mart.

Recording Artist Death Certificates
View the death certificates of many popular recording artists of the early twentieth century. It includes their date of death, what they died from, whether they were buried or cremated, etc.

The "Unseen" Ada Jones
My extremely rare collection of (mostly) unpublished photographic prints of the most prolific female recording artist of popular songs in the early Twentieth Century.

"Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists": An Index to the Hobbies Articles of Jim Walsh
The first thorough online index to the "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artist" articles by Jim Walsh, from 1942 to 1985. A great starting point for further research.


Where are they now? Follow me and learn more.

Henry Burr

Frank C. Stanley

Arthur Collins

Will F. Denny



The Columbia Record, 14 Volumes (1904-1917), Phonostalgia, 2012 & 2013.
I did a brief, limited printing of the complete run of Columbia's trade publication, The Columbia Record, reprinting all fourteen volumes for the first time together. It is the rarest publication of the "big three" company "house organs." I sold out of copies some time ago, and due to my current work schedule, I have not had time to reprint more. It is an essential resource for Columbia fans, if you're able to locate a set.

"Billy Murray: The Aeolian Company Discography (1919-1920)," In the Groove, August-September 2013, pp. 14-18.
Detailed history and discography of Murray's extremely rare Aeolian-Vocalion hill-and-dale records, and his later needle-cut issues. Includes catalog numbers, titles, composers, show credits, label credits with accompaniment, matrix numbers, estimated recording dates, and release dates.

Ed. Morton's "Bit of Broadway" (The Sound of Vaudeville, Vol. 2), Archeophone Records (ARCH 5017), 2012.
Liner notes to the second volume.

"Elizabeth Spencer: Queen of the Edison Diamond Discs," In the Groove, February-March 2012, pp. 6-15.

"A Billy Murray Pathé Frères Discography," In the Groove, April-May 2011, pp. 21-23.
A detailed discography of Murray's hill-and-dale Pathé sapphire discs. Includes catalog numbers, titles, composers, show credits, label credits with accompaniment, matrix numbers, estimated recording dates, release dates, and releases on additional labels.

"The Eldridge R. Johnson Victrola Museum: Holiday Fun for Everyone," In the Groove, December 2011-January 2012, pp. 15-16.

"A Trip to Edward Meeker's Grave," In the Groove, February-March 2011, p. 26.

"The Nipper Building: A Visit to the Historic Victor Building #17 and New Interior Photographs – 2010," In the Groove, October-November 2010, pp. 20-21 & 24-25.

Book Review, The American Stage Performers Discography: Actors, Vaudevillians, and Musical Comedy Stars, Volume I (1891-1932) by Allan Sutton (Denver: Mainspring Press, 2007), published in ARSC Journal, Fall 2008, pp. 308-309.
Considering my high level of expertise in this subject, I was really disappointed in what could have been an amazing, ground-breaking reference source.

"Billy Murray's Uncredited Edison Blue Amberol Cylinders," In the Groove, December 2007, pp. 6-9 & 30.
Lists all of Billy Murray's 140 Edison Blue Amberols in which he participates without credit. Includes cylinders by the Premier Quartet (a group he often sang with) without him present. I accidentally gave the uncredited number as A useful, basic list.
(Correction to the original: I accidentally printed Blue Amberol #3498 as a number by the Premier Quartet when it's really a Murray solo with chorus, so I gave the number of uncredited Blue Amberols as 141 when it's really 140. I also gave 283 for the grand total of Blue Amberol cylinders when it should really be 288, including #3498, and four British series Blue Amberol releases that I later discovered).

Irving Kaufman Anthology: The Last Recording Pioneer, Archeophone Records (ARCH 5504), 2005.
Liner notes.


Jacqueline Edmondson, ed., Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories That Shaped Our Culture (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013), pp. 503-507.
I assisted and proofread Frank W. Hoffmann's encyclopedic entry, "Government Censorship in American Music," although we are both credited for writing the entry.

"Appendix: Cal Stewart's Indestructible Recording Dates," in Cal Stewart: The Indestructible Uncle Josh, Archeophone Records (ARCH 5009), 2013.
I chronologically arranged Stewart's two-minute Indestructible cylinders by estimated recording date and matrix number. I also gave release dates and a brief note about the Indestructible recording studio itself.

Obituary, "Quentin Riggs (1930-2012)," ARSC Newsletter, Winter 2013, p. 8.
I originally posted a notice about Riggs' passing to an email list. It was then reprinted in this newsletter. Riggs was a good friend of mine, and a frequent contributor to Jim Walsh's "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists" in Hobbies magazine. He was one of the co-authors of Billy Murray: The Phonograph Industry's First Great Recording Artist in 1997, and the last survivor to attend one of the John Bieling Day recording artist get-togethers in 1947 (where he met Bieling, Billy Murray, Walter Van Brunt, Irving Kaufman, Will Oakland, etc.).
(Correction: Endquote for "congestive heart failure got the best of him.")

The Dr. Demento Show #12-17, April 28, 2012.
To help promote my release of Ed. Morton's "Bit of Broadway" (The Sound of Vaudeville, Vol. 2), I submitted a CD to Dr. Demento and he helped plug it by playing Morton's "Noodle Soup Rag," a song in which table manners fly out the window.

The Dr. Demento Show #12-15, April 14, 2012.
I contributed a transfer of "Sunrise at the Zoo" by Ada Jones and Gilbert Girard, one of the earliest known songs to include sound effects throughout.

1917: "Yankees to the Ranks," Archeophone Records (ARCH 9017), 2012.
Transfer of track 19, "Where Do We Go from Here?" by Arthur Fields and Peerless Quartet.

In the Groove, December 2011-January 2012.
Images on page 17 of the 1924 Little Tots' children's records set, "The Christmas Book," and the back cover image from the cover of New Victor Records, December 1918.

In the Groove, June-July 2011.
Back cover image of Cal Stewart (Uncle Josh) and Ada Jones speaking into a recording horn.

Medal of Honor, Florentine Films and Sherman Pictures, 2008.
I contributed a transfer of "Good-Bye Broadway, Hello France" by the American Quartet for this PBS documentary.

In the Groove, May 2007, p. 11.
Center reprint of a full color poster of Billy Murray during his early years with the Al G. Field Greater Minstrels.

ARSC Newsletter, Fall 2005.
Rare photo on the back cover of seven of the Eight Popular Victor Artists (Albert Campbell, Billy Murray, Rudy Wiedoeft, John Meyer [misprinted as Meyers], Frank Banta, Frank Croxton, and Henry Burr).

In the Groove, December 2004.
Front cover of "Santa Claus Hides in the Phonograph," using the 7" Little Tots' Nursery Tunes disc, and the picture card with Santa coming out of the phonograph. A crease appears on the card, and it is not printed in color. I later found a better copy of the card and had it reprinted in full color in the December 2011-January 2012 issue of In the Groove.

Wilbur Sweatman's Original Jazz Band: Jazzin' Straight Thru' Paradise, Archeophone Records (ARCH 6004), 2004.
Front cover image.

Between August 2005 and April 2006 I occasionally wrote chapter news in In the Groove as the Secretery and Treasurer of the Old West Antique Phonograph Society, a Colorado chapter of the Michigan Antique Phonograph Society (now The Antique Phonograph Society).


"Writing Early Sound Recordings," North Wildwood Beach Writers' Conference, Wildwoods Convention Center, Wildwood, New Jersey, June 6, 2012.

Links to other useful resources:

Antique Phonograph Music Program with MAC
Antique Phonograph Society

Antique Phonograph Supply Co.
Archeophone Records
Association for Recorded Sound Collections
Audio Antique, LLC

Canadian Antique Phonograph Society
City of London Phonograph & Gramophone Society
Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project
Discography of American Historical Recordings
Hawthorn's Antique Audio
Johnson Victrola Museum
The Kiddie "Rekord" King
Library of Congress Recorded Sound Reference Center
Little Wonder Records and Bubble Books
Mainspring Press

Media History Digital Library
Monarch Record Enterprises
Mulholland Press
National Jukebox
Nauck's Vintage Records
The Old Crank
René Rondeau's Antique Phonograph, Fan, and Photography Site
Television and Record Industry History Resources
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
Thomas Edison's Attic
Tim Gracyk's Phonographs and Old Records
Truesound Transfers
Vintage Jazz Mart
The Virtual Gramophone


Email (No sales or appraisals please)

Ryan Barna
Emmaus, Pennsylvania, USA


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