September 1, 2016

78 RPMs 4: Pathé Records & early phonography


photos by Styrous®

I was rummaging around my record collection last week and decided to investigate my 78's for a change. Some of the gems I uncovered were produced by Pathé records. I wrote about one of them before (link below) and I'll be writing about more of these records in future articles.   

Pathé record sleeve
photo by Styrous®

The Pathé record business was founded in 1894 by brothers Charles and Émile Pathé, then owners of a successful bistro in Paris. Pathé employed several unusual technologies as preventive measures against patent infringement. At first they sold single-sided discs with a recording in wax on top of a cement base. In October 1906 they started producing discs in the more usual manner with shellac.

Even with this less eccentric material, the early Pathé discs were unlike any others. The sound was recorded vertically in the groove, rather than side-to-side, and the groove was wider than in other companies' records, requiring a special ball-shaped .005-inch-radius (0.13 mm) stylus for playing. The discs rotated at 90 rpm, rather than the usual 75 to 80 rpm.

Originally, the groove started on the inside, near the center of the disc, and spiraled out to the edge. In 1916, Pathé changed over to the customary rim-start format, a more nearly normal 80 rpm speed, and paper labels instead of the stamped-in, paint-filled text previously used. Pathé discs were commonly produced in 10 inch (25 cm), 10 12 inch (27 cm), and 11 12 inch (29 cm) sizes. 6 12 (17 cm), 8 inch (21 cm), and 14 inch (35 cm) discs were also made, as were very large 20 inch (50 cm) discs that played at 120 rpm. Due to their fragility, unwieldiness, and much higher price, the largest sizes were a commercial failure and were not produced for long.     

Pathé record sleeve detail
photo by Styrous®

In France, Pathé became the largest and most successful distributor of cylinder records and phonographs. These, however, failed to make significant headway in foreign markets such as the United Kingdom and the United States where other brands were already in widespread use. Although Pathé cylinder records were never popular outside France, their disc records sold successfully in many foreign countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Russia.    

Pathé record sleeve detail
photo by Styrous®

Pathé was the first company to make master recordings in a different medium than the final commercial product. In the Pathé recording studios, masters were cut on rapidly spinning wax cylinders that measured about 13 inches long and 4 ½ inches in diameter. Beginning in 1913, special "Paradis" cylinders about 8 inches in diameter and 8 ½ inches long were used. The large, fast-spinning cylinders allowed for a greater level of audio fidelity. The various types of commercial Pathé cylinders and discs were then dubbed (or "pantographed") from these masters. This dubbing process enabled copies of the same master recording to be made available on multiple formats. The process sometimes resulted in uneven results on the final commercial record, causing a pronounced rumble or other audio artifacts. (This rumble was generally undetectable on acoustic wind-up phonographs of the period, but are noticeable on electric and more modern equipment.)    

Pathé record sleeve
photo by Styrous®

The vertically-cut Pathé discs normally required a special Pathé phonograph equipped with a sapphire ball stylus. The advantage of the sapphire ball stylus was its permanence. There was no need to change a needle after every record side. The Pathé record cover proudly proclaims, "No needles to change".    

Pathé record sleeve detail
detail photo by Styrous®

Pathé cylinder phonograph (1898)
French phonograph catalog "Compagnie Général"

Since most records and phonographs used a different playback method, various attachments were marketed that allowed one to equip a Pathé phonograph to play standard, laterally-cut records. Attachments were also sold to equip a standard phonograph to play Pathé records.      

In 1920 Pathé introduced a line of "needle-cut" records, at first only for the USA market. The needle-cut records were laterally-cut discs designed to be compatible with standard phonographs, and they were labelled Pathé Actuelle. In the following year, these "needle-cut" records were introduced in the United Kingdom and within a few more years they were selling more than the vertical Pathés, even on the continent. Attempts to market the Pathé vertical-cut discs abroad were abandoned in 1925, though they continued to sell in France until 1932.

There is a promotional recording with great snippets of music released by Pathé, circa 1917, on YouTube (link below) which declares, "With care, I will live to speak to your grandchildren when they are as old as you are."   

In mid-1922 Pathé introduced a lower priced label called Perfect. This label became one of the most popular and successful "dime store" labels of the 1920s, and survived beyond the end of the US Pathé label (discontinued in 1930) right up to 1938.    

In January 1927, Pathé began recording using the new electronic microphone technology, as opposed to the strictly acoustical-mechanical method of recording they used until then.  

Pathé record sleeve details
photos by Styrous®

A subsidiary of the Pathé Records conglomerate was Pathé Records China (Chinese: 唱片; pinyin: Bǎidài Chàngpiān; Cantonese Yale: Baakdoih Cheungpín). It was  the first major record company in Shanghai, China and later Hong Kong

A recording from the movie, Children of Trouble Times (1935) 中华人民共和国国歌的原始版本,取自电影《风云儿女》(1935), featured March of the Volunteers, now the national anthem of the People's Republic of China, released by the Shanghai branch of Pathé in 1935 (link below). In it, they sing of building the Great Wall.   

March of the Volunteers 1935
Pathé Records China 

In December 1928, the French and British Pathé phonograph assets were sold to the British Columbia Graphophone Company. In July 1929, the assets of the American Pathé record company were merged into the newly formed American Record Corporation. The Pathé and Pathé-Marconi labels and catallogue still survive, first as imprints of EMI and now currently EMI's successor Parlophone Records. The film division of Pathé Frères still survives in France.   

In 1929, after Charles Pathé sold out his interest in the businesses he retired to Monaco where he died in 1957.  

Charles Pathé 
photographer unknown

 Emile Pathé 
Circa 1919
 photographer unknown

Net links:   
Pathé ~ Rose, Rose, I Love You    
Pathé demo promotional disc on YouTube      
March of the Volunteers on YouTube           

Styrous® ~ Thursday, September 1, 2016     

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