Monday, October 08, 2012

Howard H. Scott - RIP

A moment of silence please. Another anonymous man who changed our lives has died. Were it not for WWII Scott probably would have been a career musician. Scott studied at the Eastman School of Music in 1941 and was drafted shortly after starting graduate piano studies at Juilliard. He shipped home in  July of 1946 and was hired by Columbia as a trainee at Columbia Masterworks. He was lucky enough to end up working on their secret LP project under Peter Carl Goldmark along side William Bachman and other heavyweights. It culminated in the debut of the microgroove long play record introduced by Columbia Records in 1948.

In 1930 RCA Victor introduced a long-play record... the lacquer transcription disc. These were 12 inches in diameter, and revolved at 33.3 RPM with narrow tightly spaced grooves. In 1931 they started making them with a plastic called Victrolac which was actually PVC plastic contrary to what some texts claim. Plasticized PVC (vinyl) wasn't invented until 1926, but polystyrene dates back to 1839. These discs were of the much newer PVC. So how did Scott  re-invent the vinyl platter disc 20 years later? What they did was make it better. More here.

Consumer record players of that era couldn't play them. PVC is too soft for phonograph play with a standard steel needle. Even those high end electric players that did spins at 22.3 rpm, didn't do so at an adequately constant speed causing very notable pitch variations. In short, sales sucked and RCA gave up in 1934. Columbia picked up the baton.  By December 1939, Columbia was using 16-inch, 33.3 RPM transcription disc masters for all it's master recordings. They had stretched the disc to hold 15 minutes per side. It doesn't sound like much, but remember an Edison cylinder held just over a minute, and 78s just around 3 minutes. This was four times as long! By 1947 they had squeezed out 22 minutes per side. In 1948, with the variable groove they broke the 30 minute barrier.

Howard H. Scott was only 26 years old at the time and not as technical as the rest of the staff but he was the crucial man in the dubbing process. These first long-play records were spliced together from old 78 rpm and shorter 33.3 rpm masters. This required playing overlapping recordings and toggling the input from turntable to turntable. Scott cued the start and snapped his fingers conducting the technicians manual adjustments. His music education and background made him the ideal man. He went on to be a staff producer at Columbia and later an executive manager at MGM. In the 1990s he worked at Sony overseeing CD transfers. He died on Sept. 22, he was 92. More here.