Strange Magnetics

by Jeff Suwak

How Bing Crosby, Les Paul, a US Army Signal Corps Officer, and the Nazis helped shape rock and Roll.

Enter Jack Mullin
The ashes of World War II were still smoking across the German countryside as US Army Signals Corps Officer John T. "Jack" Mullin and his team carried out their mission. It was the summer of 1945, and they were searching near Frankfurt for a rumored Nazi weapon that used high-frequency sound beams to disable airplane engine ignition systems in midflight. The team inspected a strange, abandoned machine of some uninterpretable purpose, but never did find the weapon they were looking for. The journey wasn't pointless, however. It led Jack Mullin to his destiny.

Mullin was an engineer and a classical music enthusiast. During his service time in Europe, he'd frequently dialed in his radio to Nazi stations to marvel at the German music they played. If he didn't know better, he'd have sworn that the music was being played live, but not even Hitler was crazy enough to have orchestras playing 24 hours a day in the chaos of war. How then did the Nazis achieve such high sound quality with recorded music? The only technology Mullin was aware of couldn't come close to the clarity of what he was hearing.

During the failed search for the high-frequency antiaircraft weapon, Mullin ran into a British officer who gave him his first lead on how those marvelous German recordings were made. The answer was a device known as a "magnetophon," and the Allies had come into possession of some.

While just about every other soldier was pining to get back to the states, Mullin decided to postpone his return trip home. He went instead to the town of Bad Nauheim, Germany, to check out its radio station, which contained some of these magnetophons. He would later say it was the best decision he ever made.
Amplifier section of the German tape recorderAmplifier section of the German tape recorder
The quality of the magnetophons stunned Mullin. "It was one of the greatest thrills in my life," he said. "I will never forget that moment. I had never heard anything like it."

Mullin was not a man interested in fame or fortune. He was driven instead by his passion for machines and music. With that, he filed the necessary paperwork and took possession of two magnetophon high-fidelity recorders and 50 reels of Farben recording tape produced by the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft company.

The machines had to be shipped back to the states in parts. One lost part could have ruined the whole operation. Luckily (and somewhat amazingly considering the conditions of that time), all the parts arrived intact, and Mullin set about bringing the magnetophon to the United States.

He tinkered with the machines day and night, not only figuring out how they worked but also improving them. Once they met his standards of quality, he gave two public demonstrations in Hollywood in 1947. In each, he had a band play music live behind a curtain and then played the same music on a magnetophon - the audience couldn't tell the difference.

The performances amazed everyone present, including one Murdo Mackenzie, technical director for Bing Crosby.

Enter Bing Crosby

Crosby, for those readers who may be unfamiliar with this period of music history, was kind of a big deal.

A 1945 issue of Life called him "America's number one star" and "a kind of national institution." He was one of the defining singers of his generation. He was also a great entrepreneur and innovator who never stopped looking for the Next Big Thing in music.

When Mackenzie told Crosby about Mullin and his magnetophon, the crooner was more than a little intrigued. Mackenzie set up a meeting where Mullin gave Crosby a private demonstration of the technology. Crosby recognized its potential at once. It was perfect, in fact, to help him solve a problem he'd been having for years.

Crosby never much liked performing for live broadcasts. The events were too strictly planned and oppressive. He much preferred making music in the recording studio, where he and the other musicians could relax and let the sound flow. He'd tried to record his music a few times before, but the radio executives always refused his attempts. Technology simply hadn't been up to par, so the music didn't sound very good.

In Mullin and his magnetophon, Crosby saw a solution. The superstar asked Mullin to do a test recording of one of his performances. Mullin complied. The results were a resounding success, earning Mullin the job as Crosby's chief engineer. The first magnetic tape broadcast in America occurred shortly after, on October 1, 1947.
One amusing side note of the Mullin-led audio revolution was the birth of the "laugh track." When the hillbilly comic Bob Burns went off script one day during a performance on Bing Crosby's show, his improvisations got the live studio audience busting up with laughter, but the jokes were too risqué for radio broadcast. Bill Morrow, who'd written the show's script, didn't want to lose those laughs, so he had Mullin keep the recordings. The radio played them during a moment that wasn't very funny a couple weeks later.
Crosby had Mullin record the remainder of his radio series. He also invested $50,000 in an electronics company named Ampex. Working with Mullin, Ampex produced the Model 200 tape deck in April of 1948. With this technology, the recording industry was transformed.

With the ability to record and edit high-quality sound that didn't degrade with repeated playing, Crosby was freer to experiment. He could also make higher quality songs by taking bits and pieces from various performances and splicing them together.

Mullin continued tinkering with recording technology for the rest of his life. He died of a heart attack in Camarillo, California, on June 24, 1999. Aged 85, he'd lived a hell of a life. The collection of recording hardware he amassed is still preserved at the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting. Among his friends and family, he was as respected for his humility as for his achievements. In honor of his fondness for simplicity they had his headstone engraved with a single line: "An extraordinary gentleman."

As for the magnetophone, now the Model 200, the journey wasn't over yet. Another industry legend was waiting in the eaves, ready to play his part.

Enter Les Paul

Crosby made sure that the second Model 200 ever produced made it into the hands of his friend Les Paul, a respected musician and innovator in his 40s. He's best known today for his guitars, but the man had his hands in all kinds of inventions. He immediately saw in the Model 200 not only what it was capable of, but also what it was capable of becoming.

Paul never felt like his songs were distinct enough to set them apart from the crowd. He wanted to make music that was unmistakably original - unmistakably Les Paul. So, one day after a recording, Crosby suggested that Paul build his own recording studio so he could create that unique sound he was looking for. Paul thought it was a good idea and built a studio in the garage of his Hollywood home. Musicians came from all over the country to record there and benefit from Paul's expertise.
The back cover of Les Paul's The New Sound states: In this collection of hits Les Paul demonstrates how he has expanded his "overdubbing" technique to reflect the moods of every sort of modern song. He has found the lonely wonder in "What is This Thing Called Love," the brilliant excitement in "Lady of Spain," and the moving, Oriental quality of "Caravan."
Paul constantly experimented with his studio equipment, having a go at multitrack recording. The problem: acetate discs of the 1930s to '40s weren't good enough to realize his ambitious vision. When he recorded and released a Capitol Records multitrack experiment titled "Lover," he burned through roughly 500 discs trying to get what he wanted, playing the song in eight parts at various speeds and then combining them into a single track.

The Model 200 was the answer Paul had been looking for. With this tool, he could record tracks on top of tracks with an efficiency he hadn't been able to achieve before with the acetate discs, and with a final product well beyond what he'd been able to capture previously. Along with his wife Mary Ford, Paul dove into his new experimentation. In 1950 he released the album The New Sound, signaling the new frontiers he was exploring.

Paul's enthusiasm for the Model 200 later inspired him to buy the very first Ampex 8-track recorder, the Model 5258. He bought it for $10,000 dollars, which would be over $80,000 today.

The Model 200 and the multitrack recorders that soon came from it transformed the music industry, and in the 1960s the music industry truly transformed American culture and politics.

When we think of the transformations fueled by 1960s rock and roll, we think of Dylan, The Stones, and The Beatles up on stage. But the musical revolution powering the Cultural Revolution was itself powered by revolutions in technology. Without multitrack recording, there would be no Blonde on Blonde, Let It Bleed or Sgt. Pepper.

Sure, someone else would inevitably have created the technology, but the timing and the circumstances would have been thrown off. Just like football, fate is a game of inches. A few days here, a few characters there, and the entire continuum is changed.

The multitrack recording technology that grew out of those first two magnetophons evolved in complexity into the 1960s, a time period when music played a pivotal part in reshaping American culture. You couldn't really separate that era's music from its politics. They were inextricably linked.
The very first single recorded with overdubbed vocals was "Confess," a multi-million-selling single by Patti Page, one the top female artists of the 1950s. Mercury Records' Bill Putnam did the technical work.
It's strange to think of how history may have played out differently without the music of the 1960s. Rock and roll, hippies, Watergate, the Manson Family... these and a million other things all came together in a pressure cooker at a very particular time in history to have a very particular effect on the future. The anti-war movement would have been a completely different animal without the hippies, and the hippies were directly informed by the music, which was informed by the hippies and the cultural revolution as a whole. Which comes first, the hippie or the rock? We may never know.

The one thing we are certain of is that a weird, combustible mixture of circumstances shaped the world we have today. A single pebble thrown into the temporal cogs of that revolution would have thrown off the whole machinery.

Politics and cultural revolutions aside, the music itself was shaped in a very specific way by the timing of events that started with Jack Mullin in Nazi Germany. From Elvis to Dylan to Huey Lewis to Taylor Swift, all were touched by the ripple effects of a technology salvaged from the wreckage of war.

Ultimately, the world itself would look very different today if Jack Mullin hadn't been the man to find the magnetophon. If it had been any other person on Earth, things wouldn't have unfolded quite as they did. We might not have Pet Sounds.

So, thanks Jack, Bing, and Les. Extraordinary gentlemen, indeed.

September 8, 2017
Photos by George Shuklin, CC BY-SA 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Comments: 8

  • Big D from CaliI laugh when the Feds accuse China of stealing technology...when so many German patents were stolen after WWII. Americans were pirating British technology and literature. Charles Dickens complained about Americans pirating his books!
  • Anonymous from JimAnd to this day the French for tape recorder is magnétophone.
  • Phillip Wiredawg Cobb from New OrleansAs a life long music enthusiast and a sound engineer since the 60s and have know bits and pieces of this story, this is a Great article. Tape and Vinyl is still king in my Book and will always have a place in My recording Word!
  • Vic Zaslav from Venice, CaliforniaYou forgot to mention Alex M. Ponitof(sp) Add EX to his initials and you AMPEX..
  • Patrick from Camarillo, CaI have been aware of the Crosby and Paul connection for decades, but the Nazi link is jaw dropping. Not surprising, tho, German microphones rannk among the very gest in the world to this day.
  • Robert from SydneyVery interesting and intriguing stuff here. Ty.
  • Jim from Mobile, AlGerman engineering was leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world. Who knows how far they could have gone had Hitler not set the world on fire and taken his own country down with it.
  • Patrick from Wahiawa, HiFrom what I've heard/read of the years, the Allies wondered how Adolf Hitler could be giving a "live" speech in two different locations. The mystery was solved when German tape recorders and the associated technology were discovered after World War II. Music wasn't the driving force, it was being able to do radio broadcasts by the same person/group from multiple locations. Otherwise, the founding of Ampex follows the story line presented above.
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