Discussion Requirements

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Make at least three required posts to each discussion each week. 

· Post 1: An answer to the initial set of questions you choose. Your post should be least 300-350 words long and include two quotes or specific references to vocabulary or concepts in the Learning Materials with citations in 

MLA format


· Post 2: A question for a classmate about their first post that refers to Learning Materials and is at least 75-100 words long.

· Post 3: An answer to one of the questions that a classmate or the professor has asked you OR if no one has asked you a question, a follow-up question for yourself and your answer. This post should be at least 150-200 words long and include at least one quote or specific reference to a concept or vocabulary from the Learning Materials with a citation in 
MLA format

The assignment/discussion is as follows:

The instruction for your Post #1:

Technology and Culture Journal 

Explore article titles on historical topics related to technology in the journal 

Technology and Culture

 in the UMGC library. URL=


Choose one article between 2002 – 2020 that is of particular interest to you, read it, and do the following: 

1. Put a full citation in MLA style for the article at the top of your post.  

2. Provide a brief summary of the article in your own words. 
Do not use the article’s abstract for this
. Read the article and state briefly what it is about is in at least 3-4 sentences. 

2. Explain whether it generally seems to take the approach of social constructivism or technological determinism? Or is there a combination of both approaches? How do you know this? What specifics from the article give you hints about its approach?   

3. Use at 
least three quotes from the article

 in your discussion to support your points.  

4.  Make sure to provide in-text citations for those quotes in MLA format.  

I have attached the full selected article tittled: “Microphone voice and the technology of easy singing” for you to use for the assignment.

Also, in case you need it, my name is Prosper Moses and email is prosperpm55@yahoo.comTHANKS.

ABSTRACT: This article offers an historical account of Paul Robeson’s appro-
priation of electroacoustic technologies, which he encountered in the re-
cording studio, film sound stage, and radio work, for use in song recital on
the concert stage. Attending to the ways in which technologically-engaged
musicians like Robeson employed emergent sound technologies in concert
performance in the first half of the twentieth century, it thus supplements
the history of sound technologies, which has focused on recording and
broadcasting. It argues that Robeson’s sometimes novel use of these tech-
nologies, on the one hand, was tied to specific aspects of his own vocal iden-
tity while, on the other hand, also produced a voice that functioned within
the soundscape of modernity.

“You don’t need the mike, Mr. Robeson”

In the latter part of 1958 Paul Robeson returned to London, his home
of the 1930s, and from there followed a tour of the British Isles and select
European cities. The British media were all agog at the singer’s appearance
in the country after almost a decade’s absence, with three items common
to the reportage: Robeson was in Britain to sing, not to politic; he had a
contender in Harry Belafonte—“It’s Belafonte versus Robeson,” shouted a
Daily Mail headline; and Robeson used a microphone, of which almost
every review of the singer’s comeback concert at the Royal Albert Hall on
10 August made mention. The singer’s seemingly daring use of the little
electric device not only caught the critics off guard but also was cause for
much consternation. At issue were propriety and necessity. On the one
hand, it was deemed improper for a (classical) concert singer to use a mic.
For Oxbridge-educated music critic Percy Cater, it “was something of a

Grant Olwage is a lecturer in the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand.
He is the editor of Composing Apartheid, and is currently working on a monograph on
Paul Robeson’s voice.

©2018 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved.

Paul Robeson’s Microphone Voice and
the Technologies of Easy Singing



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VOL. 59


shock” that Robeson sang with a mic: “Artists who sing at the Albert Hall
are not wont to rely on this mechanism.”1 Critic Noël Goodwin was more
pointed: it was “unknown for concert singers,” specifically, to use the de-
vice.2 (By comparison, commentary on pop singer Belafonte’s use of the
mic was either non-existent or positive.) Robeson’s performance with a
microphone, therefore, departed from the practices and traditions of clas-
sical concert singing, and affronted its high-minded custodians.
It was also, so the critics believed, a vocal self-betrayal. Critics were puz-

zled by Robeson’s use of a microphone because they could not fathom why
the singer, who they assumed possessed a powerful voice, required amplifi-
cation (although in fact, and as we will see later, Robeson did not have a
“big” voice). “You don’t need the mike, Mr. Robeson,” chastised Cater.
American critics echoed these sentiments. Earlier in the year, in preparation
for his anticipated return to formal concertizing, Robeson had undertaken
a brief tour of the West Coast, and as with his Albert Hall appearance com-
ments on his use of a microphone peppered the reviews. Influential art critic
Thomas Albright, for whom Robeson was “the greatest natural basso voice
of the present generation,” concluded that he was “the last singer around
who needs a microphone.”3 These misgivings brought to the fore a more
pressing problem for the critics: As they strained to hear Robeson’s “true”
voice, the singer’s microphone voice thwarted their task of critique. Leslie
Mallory cast the relationship of Robeson’s voice to its amplified sounding as
one of deception for the listener. The singer “hid” behind the mic, “making
it quite impossible to judge how his voice, now 60 years old, has stood the
test of time.”4 Others were less forthright, but always the microphone voice
impeded the critic’s judgment. Thus for the London TimesRobeson’s recital
“disappointed only in one important respect—he used a microphone, so
that never could we tell just where we were with him. . . . With Mr. Robeson
it is the actual voice itself . . . that provides our thrills, and still to-day his
voice (in so far as the microphone allowed us to judge) seems totally unim-
paired by the passing of time.”5
In Robeson’s case it was not only the practices of classical concert sing-

ing that his microphone voice contravened. It also altered the relationship,

1. Percy Cater, “It’s Belafonte versus Robeson,” Daily Mail, 11 August 1958, series
G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP. The heading for this section is from a subheading from
this article.

2. Noël Goodwin, “Paul Robeson Uses a Mike,” Daily Mail, August 1958, series G,
folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP.

3. Thomas Albright, “Robeson Makes Triumphal Return,” San Francisco Chronicle,
19 February 1958. For Arthur Bloomfield, Robeson “did not need the mic he insisted
upon using”; see “Ovation for Paul Robeson,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin, 10 February
1958, both sources in series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP.

4. Leslie Mallory, “Robeson Hides Behind Mike,” News Chronicle, 11 August 1958,
series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP.

5. “Warm Welcome for Mr. Paul Robeson,” 11 August 1958, series G, folder 1958
Concerts, in PRP.

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


and a history established over several decades of concertizing, that his lis-
teners had with his voice. Broadly grounded in an aesthetics of the natural,
Robeson’s singing was noted for its sincerity and simplicity, which facili-
tated in turn an honest communing with his listeners. The discursive for-
mation of Robeson’s voice as such dates to the mid-1920s, and British crit-
ics drew on remembered accounts of this voice on his return to Britain in
the late 1950s.6 For some critics, if not the singer’s lay audiences, the micro-
phone voice undermined the terms on which a Robeson performance was
founded: Was it Robeson’s “real” voice, could it still be considered the
“natural” voice for which he had long been celebrated, and with these in
question, how could his singing be a sincere expression of his self? In the
Times critic’s words: “never could we tell just where we were with him.” So
set adrift aurally by the sound of Robeson’s microphone voice were the
critics that, as one pundit put it, the singer “might as well have been still on
the other side of the Atlantic as far as any musical assessment of his voice
is concerned.”7
What this points to is how different modes of performance—“concert

and gramophonic” singing, to borrow Nicholas Cook’s distinction—previ-
ously practiced and theorized as distinct domains (certainly by classical
musicians and art music critics) transgress upon one another.8 For what
Robeson presents is a conflation of the conventionally opposed concert
voice, technologically unmediated in live performance, and gramophone,
or recorded, voice. The field of the latter, its sound technologies and prac-
tices (such as the mic, amplification, a sound engineer), had visibly en-
croached on the singer’s concert voice.9 For this reason we should not be
surprised by the critical reception of Robeson’s microphone voice in con-
cert. The critics were thus not primarily concerned about the quality of the
sound; their reviews were not post-concert “soundchecks.” Rather they

6. For an example of such journalistic criticism, see “Sincerity and Artistry: Mr. Paul
Robeson at Albert Hall,” Times, 1 December 1958, series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP;
for a detailed account of Robeson’s “natural” art, see Grant Olwage, “‘Warbling Wood-
Notes Wild.’”

7. “Warm Welcome for Mr. Paul Robeson”; and Mallory, “Robeson Hides Behind
Mike,” both in series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP. The reference is probably to Rob-
eson’s transatlantic performances of the year prior, in which on one occasion Robeson,
“singing direct from New York (by special trans-Atlantic hook-up),” performed to a
thousand-strong audience in St. Pancras Town Hall in London on 26 May 1957. Known
as the “telephone concert,” it was made possible by the TAT-1 submarine transatlantic
cable, newly completed the year before. Schedule for the Paul Robeson Concert, St.
Pancras Town Hall, London, 1957, in PCJ. It was released on LP as Paul Robeson’s
Transatlantic Concert (Topic, 1957).

8. Nicholas Cook, Beyond the Score, 345. For a discussion on thinking about live and
recorded music as two separate “cultural systems” rather than encompassing an en-
larged concept of performance, see Cook, Beyond the Score, 356–58.

9. One critic noted of the Albert Hall concert that Robeson “kept signalling to the
control engineer to turn it up louder.” Goodwin, “Paul Robeson Uses a Mike,” Daily
Mail, August 1958, series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP.

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VOL. 59


objected to the ontological confusion of the voice’s identity introduced by
the microphone voice, which for them had no place on the concert stage.
The reasons for this, as I’ve outlined, were specific to the historical recep-
tion of Robeson’s voice, which had been constructed as natural, and also to
the field of the song recital in which he performed. If at mid-century live
performance continued to assume a normative position vis-à-vis its repro-
duction, a product of a discourse of fidelity that trades on the distinction
between original (live performance) and copy (recording), then, as Cook
notes, this is particularly true of classical music for which “the prioritisa-
tion of live performance is general.”10
What I am interested in pursuing is how Robeson deployed sound

technologies he had encountered in radio broadcasting, the recording stu-
dio, and the film sound stage in the mid-1920s and 1930s, and thereafter,
for use in song recital on the concert stage in the decades that followed. In
other words, I explore the “phonograph effects,” that is the influence of
sound recording technologies broadly conceived, on Robeson’s concert
singing.11 In doing so I summon the microphone, that preeminent artifact
of electroacoustic technologies, to conceptualize Robeson’s use of sound
technologies in concert as a “microphone voice”; the microphone assum-
ing thus a synecdochic relationship to the array of sound technologies. The
figure of the microphone voice, then, is invoked not to describe the result-
ant sonic quality of Robeson’s technologically mediated voice but rather to
show how it placed electroacoustic technologies centrally in his concert
performance practice—in front of his voice.
Throughout the last decade, the recording studio has been a productive

site of study; although as Susan Schmidt Horning’s work illustrates, ac-
counts of the historical development of many specific sound technologies
are still only partially told.12 Less attention has been paid to the ways in
which musicians working in the first half of the twentieth century em-
ployed emergent sound technologies in concert performance (rather than
for recording and broadcasting).13 Perhaps, as Schmidt Horning suggests,
this was because very few performers were fascinated by technology until
the 1960s; a domain which they tended to leave to the technicians.14 I hope

10. Quote from Cook, Beyond the Score, 355. For more on the “eschewal of techno-
logical mediation within classical recordings,” see Donald Greig, “Performing for (and
against) the Microphone,” 20. For more on the discourse of fidelity in the history of
sound reproduction, see Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past, chap. 5. See also Tim J. An-
derson on the prioritization of live performance experience over even high-fidelity
stereo recordings in the 1950s and ’60s. Anderson, Making Easy Listening, 149–50.

11. See Mark Katz, Capturing Sound, 9.
12. Susan Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound, 7.
13. For instance, the technologically-enabled singing style of crooning, which

Timothy Taylor has called the first modern style of singing because if its use of the
microphone and origins in radio broadcasting, has been much written about. See Tim-
othy D. Taylor, “Music and the Rise of Radio,” 260.

14. Much of Schmidt Horning’s focus is on popular music; see Chasing Sound, 8–9.

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


to show that Robeson, by contrast, was a technologically-engaged musi-
cian, like the conductor Leopold Stokowski (with whom he worked). How
technologically-engaged performers such as these pressed sound technolo-
gies into service for their art is part of the story I wish to tell here. Robe-
son’s turn to a microphone voice in concert is, in turn, one of the many
reverberations of what Emily Thompson has described as the “soundscape
of modernity”: how the architectural acoustics of recording venues, talking
picture palaces and soundstages, broadcasting studios, and concert halls,
and the cultures of listening they fostered, produced a “modern sound.”15
This essay is thus in part concerned with the spatial acoustics of Robeson’s
singing, and I argue that sound technologies afforded the vocalist sonic
spaces for “easy singing.”16
The negative press on the microphone voice Robeson presented at the

Albert Hall elicited a response from the singer. In reporting on the singer’s
subsequent tour through England, the provincial press normalized Robe-
son’s practice of singing with a mic. In a move of journalistic one-upman-
ship over the metropolitan papers, they reported on Robeson’s history with
the mic, often citing the singer. “A word might be added,” The Yorkshire
Post and Leeds Mercury informed its readers, “about Robeson’s use of the
microphone which apparently has caused surprise to some critics. It is a fact
that Robeson has always used a microphone, and would not appear without
one, ‘even,’ he says, ‘if I were to be invited to sing at Covent Garden.’”17 It
was also a fact that Robeson endeavored to get ahead of the press, no doubt
due to American critics’ comments on his microphone voice immediately
prior to the trip abroad. As he set foot on British soil Robeson held a press
conference at Heathrow airport. He spoke about the “important” issues,
that he was in Britain as an artist not as an activist, and he must have
deemed it important enough to make a statement about his use of the
microphone in concert. Robeson “revealed that for the past thirty years he
has ALWAYS sung with a microphone. ‘I used to hide it away among the
footlights and things,’ he said. ‘Now I use it quite openly.’”18 To be precise,

Although Robeson was by no means a conventional art music singer, and any reference
to him as a classical singer should be read with caution, many of the practices of his
vocal art, including to an extent his vocal training, can be located within the broad field
of the art song recital.

15. Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity.
16. The conceit of easy singing is adopted from Tim Anderson’s account of “easy

listening.” He argues that fundamental to understanding high-fidelity sound technolo-
gies of the postwar years is a focus on the listener, but that an analysis of listening is also
relevant to understanding musical production. See Anderson, Making Easy Listening,
107, chap. 5.

17. Ernest Bradbury in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 3 November 1958,
series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP.

18. Desmond Wilcox, “No Politics—I’m Here To Sing,” London Daily Mirror, 12
July 1958, series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP. That the music critics reviewing the
Albert Hall concert seemed not to be aware of Robeson’s long use of the mic suggests

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VOL. 59


Robeson had been using a microphone in concert for the prior two decades,
and not at first for the purposes of amplification. To understand his adop-
tion of a microphone voice in concert we need to turn to an earlier phase of
his concert career.

Synthea, or The Acoustic Envelope

In November of 1931 Robeson canceled, at the last minute, an appear-
ance at the Royal Albert Hall. So unprecedented was it for a major artist to
abandon a celebrity recital at the Hall that the Daily Express headlined its
report on the singer’s no-show as “Incredible News.” The 6,000-strong
throng that queued outside the Hall was equally incredulous: “Round the
pavement circling the building men and women were running, shouting
out the news to each other. They did not seem to believe there was no
entertainment for them.”19 The official line was that Robeson was too ill to
perform—a cold become influenza—but it is likely the singer’s dislike of
the venue played no small part in the decision to cancel. Robeson’s valet
and confidante Joe Andrews admitted that the singer was “probably not
too sick to appear on stage.” He “never liked performing in Albert Hall,”
recalled Andrews. “It was too big and the acoustics inadequate. He had his
usual worries about his voice and whether it would carry, and . . . so he
backed out.”20 Robeson’s wife Eslanda referred to the Albert Hall as the ac-
companist’s “bête noire” for all the troubles it caused the duo, writing that
Robeson vowed never to return there: “never no more,” he said emphati-
cally.21 But five weeks after the canceled performance Robeson was back at
the Hall, and he would perform there many times more.
One such occasion was in June 1937, when Robeson shared the stage

with other public figures at a political rally and fundraiser organized by the
National Joint Committee for Spanish Refugee Children. The nature of the
event, which included much speech-making, necessitated a public address
system, which Robeson appropriated for his sung portion of the pro-
gramme; the event was also due to be broadcast. The photograph of Robe-
son singing at the event is perhaps the earliest instance of the singer’s con-
cert microphone voice (fig. 1). Performing with a mic in concert, I argue,
mitigated the singer’s strain; Robeson was “actually comfortable, with
none of the paralyzing fear he usually felt” in the Hall.22

the extent of their surprise on hearing his microphone voice in person and or their remove
from the society and news reportage that covered Robeson’s airport press conference.

19. Daily Express, 19 November 1931, quoted in Sheila Tully Boyle and Andrew
Bunie, Paul Robeson, 250.

20. Andrews interviews, 13–20 November 1974, quoted in Boyle and Bunie, Paul
Robeson, 251.

21. Letter from Eslanda Robeson to Lawrence Brown, 24 December 1932, microfilm
3, in LBP.

22. Andrews quoted in Boyle and Bunie, Paul Robeson, 377. For more on the event

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


Before this event, Robeson’s concert performances involved no direct
use of sound technology; his concert voice was “natural” also in its lack of
technological mediation. But by the mid-1930s he was a major recording
star, and while by no means a radio artist, he had some experience of radio
broadcasting. In fact, his first radio broadcast predated his breakthrough
concerts at the Greenwich Village Theater, in New York City, of mid-1925.
On 18 December 1924 he broadcast a scene from The Emperor Jones, in
which he had recently appeared on stage and sung spirituals, from the New
York station WGBS. Regarding his radio debut the press enthused over his
“excellent broadcasting voice,” stating that he “should be an interesting fig-
ure in front of the microphone”; and praise for Robeson’s recorded voice
would be a refrain throughout his career. The British magazine Gramo-
phone noted “the particularly fine microphone quality of his voice.”23
Familiar with microphone singing from over a decade’s work in recording
and broadcast studios, perhaps recourse to the technology in concert in the
Albert Hall in 1937 proved the impetus for his productive experimentation
with and adoption of sound technologies on the concert stage in the ensu-
ing years.24

and Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, see Boyle and Bunie, Paul Robe-
son, 374–78. I have found no earlier photographic evidence of Robeson using a mic in
concert in the extensive collection of photographs in the Robeson archival material in
the Schomburg Center and Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. H.M.V. released a 78
of material sung at the event (H.M.V. B8604), but recorded afterwards at the Abbey
Road studios; see Daily Worker, 2 August 1937, series G, folder 1937 Concerts, in PRP.

23. New York American, 18 December 1924, series G, folder 1924; Gramophone,
June 1934, p. 21, series G, folder 1934 Recording, both in PRP.

24. By the late 1930s Robeson was performing with a public address system regu-

FIG. 1 Spanish War Relief Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London, 1937. Photogra-
pher unknown. (Source: Paul Robeson Papers, Photographs, Concerts.)

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VOL. 59


As war brewed in Europe, Robeson returned to the United States from
London in 1939. Two composite events, soon after his American home-
coming, precipitated his adoption of a microphone in concert. The first was
his starring role in the radio broadcast performances of the patriotic cantata
Ballad for Americans for CBS, which premiered on 5 November 1939, and
which radio historian William Barlow argues was the singer’s “first major
triumph on network radio.”25 This was followed by subsequent broadcasts,
a recording, and a nationwide concert tour of the work. The concert tour in
particular resulted in sustained use of the microphone and sound rein-
forcement outside of the studio, as the singer performed in large outdoor
venues to record-breaking crowds: the Hollywood Bowl concert on 23 July
1940 attracted an audience of almost 25,000, with the Grant Park concert in
Chicago a few days later attracting as many as 165,000 by some estimates.26
For these outdoor concerts Robeson’s performance with a mic was both
necessary—to project over the orchestra and choir and to reach the listen-
ers amassed—and conventional, as the use of public address systems in sta-
dia and for large gatherings had become common by the late 1920s.27
More interesting to consider are the consequences of what Thompson

has called the “sound of space” for Robeson’s adoption of a microphone in
concert. In designing the modern auditorium, and in acknowledgement that
performers and auditors required different acoustic conditions, engineers
aimed to acoustically separate the stage and hall. According to the dominant
acoustic wisdom of the 1920s and ’30s, where listeners needed an absorptive
environment performers desired a reverberant one. To an extent, then, the
design of modern concert venues reproduced the conditions of the studio as
reverberation gained ascendency in the thirties; previously a “dead” envi-
ronment that denied spatial context prevailed.28 Both the Hollywood Bowl
and Grant Park, the outdoor settings of which exacerbated the problems of
stage-auditorium acoustic separation, are exemplary for creating a perform-
ers’ space acoustically distinct from the open-air seating. Their stages, con-
structed of a series of semicircular concentric arches forming what was
called an orchestra or band shell, enveloped performers in a reverberant
space that at the same time amplified sound as it was directed out toward the
audience.29 As Robeson became familiar with performing under these stage
shells and also singing within the isolating “shells” and booths of the record-

larly, if a New York Timesreport is to be believed. The article mentions “the discovery two
years ago by Mr. Robeson”: “he stood in front of the microphone of a public address sys-
tem which was being used in a concert.” See “‘Acoustic Envelope’ Lets Singer Hear Self.”
New York Times, 16 November 1940, p. 9, in series G,

folder 1940 Concerts, in PRP.

25. William Barlow, Voice Over, 59.
26. Paul Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 19.
27. See Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, 241. The Hollywood Bowl was

amplified circa 1936.
28. Ibid., 248–56, 234–46.
29. For a brief discussion of the Bowl’s acoustics, see ibid., 254–56.

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


30. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice just like Paul Robeson’s,” Evening Bulletin, 13
December 1940, in series G, folder 1940 Concerts, in PRP.

31. The same biographer also claims Stokowski as the “first electronically knowl-
edgeable conductor”; William Andre Smith, The Mystery of Leopold Stokowski, 103.

32. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice.” For an account of the Stokowski-Bell Labs
experiment, which resulted in concert presentations on 9 and 10 April 1940, see Greg
Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever, 50–51; and Robert E. McGinn, “Stokowski and the
Bell Telephone Laboratories,” 62–68. The concerts have been considered the first dem-
onstration of a “practical true stereophonic recording”; see Tim J. Anderson, “Training
the Listener,” 111.

33. Anderson, Making Easy Listening, 118–19, 147.
34. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice.”
35. Robeson’s rights in the system were spelled out clearly by Burris-Meyer: “I feel

I cannot enter into any commitments with respect to the system without consultation
with you for the protection of your rights therein.” Letter from Harold Burris-Meyer, 25
February 1941, box 2, in PRP. The arrival of Synthea was widely reported by, amongst

ing studio, he attempted to recreate these conditions on concert stages
where they were absent. Robeson would thus describe his ideal performance
condition as like singing in his “own private little orchestra shell.”30
The second event that facilitated the singer’s microphone voice in con-

cert was his collaboration with Harold Burris-Meyer, the famed acousti-
cian and director of the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. It
seems they first met collaborating on another project with the conductor
Leopold Stokowski, “the most sophisticated acoustician among the world’s
conductors.”31 Noted for his involvement with experimental sound tech-
nologies, Stokowski was working further with stereophonic recording and
“three-dimensional music,” what his tech partner Bell Laboratories called
“enhanced” music.32 Robeson’s involvement entailed recording a scene
from the Eugene O’Neill play The Emperor Jones stereophonically on film,
which was played back in concert and distributed through several speakers
spread across the stage. Anderson has noted that these early demonstra-
tions of stereo recording informed one of the central ambitions of stereo:
audio-spatial aesthetics. More particularly, at play are the “acoustic princi-
ples that constitute the audio sensation of space, namely, reverberation,
echo, and source separation.”33 Robeson’s experience of these phenomena,
and of the “directional use of sound,” led him to suggest to Burris-Meyer
that “these fascinating new principles might be applied to the matter of
directing some of his voice back to his own ear.”34 Whereas the history of
stereo has typically been focused on sound reproduction and its reception
in listening, Robeson’s innovation was to redirect some of the principles of
stereo for the purpose of his own singing in concert settings.
It was thus that in late 1940 the U.S. daily press covered the news of a

new performance mechanism nicknamed Synthea (which the press mis-
heard for the female name Cynthia), jointly developed by Robeson and
Burris-Meyer.35 The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin introduced Robeson’s
Synthea to its readers:

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VOL. 59


others, motion picture trade magazines, acoustics research journals, popular science
publications, general music magazines, and the news press.

36. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice.”
37. The stage monitor is one of the many sound technologies yet to attract any sig-

nificant scholarly historical attention, and much of the historical knowledge on moni-
tors comes from soundmen’s recollections. See for example the forum posts on “A little
wedge history..??” For Garland’s use of side monitors in concert at the San Francisco
Civic Auditorium concert of 13 September 1961, see Sarah Benzuly, “McCune Sound”;
and for the challenges of doing archival research on sound technologies and the reliance
on engineers’ knowledge, see Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound, 7.

When Paul Robeson, six-foot-three and 240 pounds of top rank
baritone, sends his giant voice rolling out over the Academy of
Music audience a little friend named “Cynthia” stands unobtrusively
in the wings calling encouragement. She doesn’t do anything so
ill-bred as to shout, “Attaboy, Paul, you’re doin’ swell,” although
she will shout if Paul shouts. She has a voice almost as big as the
famous Negro singer’s and she doesn’t hesitate to use it.
But the audience never hears “Cynthia,” for her words of reassur-

ance are Robeson’s own, coming back to him as an instantaneous
and private “echo.”36

The trade magazine Radio-Craft, which included an insert of Robeson
and Synthea on its cover for March 1941, ran a lengthy feature on what
became known as the “Robeson Technique.” That the electroacoustic sys-
tem and its application in live performance were both named—as Synthea
and Robeson’s technique—suggests something of their novelty. And it
would not be too much of a stretch to consider Synthea a prototype of the
stage monitor system that two decades later would become standard in live
performances of especially popular music. More specifically, Synthea was
an early example of a side-fill monitor; the first component of what would
develop into the onstage monitor system. If side monitors were in com-
mon use only towards the end of the 1960s and the first well-known use
thereof was by Judy Garland in 1962, Burris-Meyer and Robeson’s Synthea
is a forgotten moment in the history of live stage sound.37 For this reason
I explore in some detail how Synthea functioned, and why Robeson
adopted it.
According to the diagram of the set up reproduced in Radio-Craft (fig.

2), Synthea consisted of Robeson’s amplified voice captured by a micro-
phone in the footlights fed back to him by an off-stage directional bell-
shaped speaker. Functioning as “a sort of super-fine sound mirror,” to use
the Bulletin’s phrase, Synthea’s development was, for Robeson as for any
performer, an endeavor to control the singer’s acoustic environment, in
part by allowing the singer to better monitor his own sound. The first thing
to note about Synthea is that it sought to overcome age-old difficulties con-
cert performers experienced, associated particularly with large venues.

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Burris-Meyer’s primary interest, however, was in sound effects design and not in live
sound for musical performance. For more on Burris-Meyer’s varied contributions to
sound technologies, see James Tobias, “Composing for the Media,” 8. There is some indi-
cation that Synthea had application in theatre sound design and performance; for in-
stance, for offstage choruses and upstage singers to better hear themselves and the orches-
tra at the Metropolitan Opera. See “Robeson Technique of Acoustics Control,” 561.

38. “Robeson Technique of Acoustics Control,” 561–62.

Radio-Craft noted that concert singers “perform by choice in small, highly
reverberant rooms since in them they are able to hear themselves easily.
However, they deplore the acoustic conditions of most large concert halls
and auditoriums.” The magazine then presented a catalog of artists’ (and
these were also Robeson’s) woes: “tension, inability to relax, a feeling of
being ill at ease, of low vocal efficiency, forcing the voice in an effort to
project, using a higher key than is best for the song in an effort to get out
more volume and fill up the house.”38

FIG. 2 Diagram of Robeson Technique. (Source: “Robeson Technique of Acous-
tics Control,” Radio-Craft, March 1941, 561.)

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39. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice”; “Robeson Technique of Acoustics Control,”

40. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice.” Burris-Meyer also applied the directional use
of sound to the theatre, sending a “disembodied chorus marching up the center aisle” of
the Metropolitan Opera House. Ibid.

41. Harold Burris-Meyer and Vincent Mallory, Sound in the Theatre, 40.
42. “Robeson Technique of Acoustics Control,” 562.

Synthea promised to overcome this litany of singers’ complaints by cre-
ating what Burris-Meyer dubbed the “acoustic envelope,” the virtual trans-
formation of the singer’s stage-space into a “small, highly reverberant
room.” Burris-Meyer explained that the effect was “to surround the singer
with the acoustic equivalent of a small reverberant studio, to enclose him in
a small acoustic envelope,” and Robeson, as noted, described it as like
singing in his “own private little orchestra shell.” The acoustic reduction of
the singer’s auditory space was a crucial feature of the system, with the the-
ory presented as such: small spaces—and Robeson often described the
acoustic conditions of showers, drawing rooms, and recording studios as
ideal—allowed for reverberation that in turn permitted the singer’s auto
audition. Through experimentation it was found that Robeson heard him-
self best when he perceived a difference between his original vocal utterance
as it left him and his reproduced voice as it returned to him. The significant
variable was the time difference between the singer’s vocalization and his
hearing thereof, what the Bulletin called the “voice of this Little Miss Echo,”
and for Robeson the ideal time difference was found by placing the speaker
that returned his voice to him 50 feet away from the singer.39
Two other features of the system were also important: directionality

and frequency selection. Auto audition was ensured by directing Robe-
son’s echo voice straight back to the singer only. The acoustic envelope was
so focused that walking a few steps out of it meant that one could not hear
the reproduced sound. Importantly, the return of Robeson’s voice to him-
self was meant for his ears only. And the ruse was complete by ensuring the
soundware was out of the audience’s sight: the microphone “nestle[d]
unseen” in the footlight trough, the control box and bell speaker were “in
the wings.”40 The first major concert venue in which Robeson trialed the
system was Carnegie Hall, in New York City, and there the loudspeaker
was stationed discreetly offstage “behind the proscenium, stage right” (fig.
3). Not only was Synthea’s projection of Robeson’s voice highly direc-
tional, but it could also be “at such a low level that persons other than the
performer within its range will not notice it.”41 Hiding the singer’s voice
entailed also hiding a selection of its frequencies. As Burris-Meyer argued,
because low frequencies lack directionality and are not readily absorbed by
the audience, amongst other things, the system cut out frequencies below
500 cycles. Higher frequencies, by contrast, were found to be “directional
enough to be kept away from the audience and are absorbed readily
enough so that they are below background if they ever do get out.”42 All

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43. Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound, 86–93; Thompson, The Soundscape of Mod-
ernity, 234–36.

aspects of Synthea’s construction and deployment worked to maintain the
illusion of a technologically unmediated voice in concert, to present a con-
cert rather than gramophone voice.
The phonograph effect, however, was that Robeson desired to recreate

the acoustic conditions of the recording studio on the concert stage, in-
spired in part by the insights afforded by his encounters with experimental
stereo recording and demonstration. Historians of architectural acoustics
have documented how, from the mid-1930s, the aesthetics of recorded
sound favored, amongst others, a more reverberant sound. The record was
produced for a sense of physical space, whereas immediately prior to this
recorded sound sought to deny spatial context.43 Similarly, as previously
discussed, concert hall design strove to acoustically separate performers’
and auditors’ spaces, engineering the former for greater reverberation.
There is no evidence that the Robeson technique and Synthea were adopted
by performers other than by those who trialed it with Burris-Meyer. But if
Synthea is a forgotten byway in the history of live sound, it was thoroughly

FIG. 3 “Acoustic Envelope”: Loudspeaker and amplifier in place behind the
proscenium, stage right, at Carnegie Hall. (Source: Harold Burris-Meyer and
Vincent Mallory, Sound in the Theatre, 1959.)

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44. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice.” Photographic evidence suggests Robeson was
using the hand cupping technique in non-public performances already in the late 1930s,
such as during the radio broadcast of the patriotic cantata Ballad for Americans in 1939;
see Susan Robeson, The Whole World in His Hands, 120.

45. See Robeson, The Whole World in His Hands. The different microphone types
were probably used for different purposes: the public address, Synthea, broadcasting,
and live recording.

46. Ogden, 14 March 1947, in series G, folder 1947 Concerts, in PRP.
47. Certainly when Robeson found himself in situations at which Synthea wasn’t

available, the singer took to cupping his hand to his ear in performance; see Robeson Jr.,
The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 19. Rare video footage of Robeson singing for con-

of its time: it allowed Robeson to listen to his concert voice more easily, and
so to sing more easily, and in doing so he heard himself according to the
dominant acoustic-spatial framework in which his recorded voice was
located. Synthea permitted a synthesis of sorts of the acoustic conditions in
which Robeson’s gramophone and concert voices functioned.

An Enhanced Voice

In the early 1940s Synthea was concealed amidst the footlights and in
the wings to allow Robeson’s “real” voice to shine in the spotlight. To this
end Robeson even noted that while Synthea had a crude equivalent in the
practice of “ear cupping,” in which singers cup a hand behind their ear in
order to better hear themselves, the practice, which was “alright for re-
hearsal,” “certainly won’t do for the concert.”44 But as the 1940s pro-
gressed, the microphone emerged from the footlights to stand before Rob-
eson, and by the later years of the decade it was routine for the singer to
perform, in public, hand cupped to ear. These twin developments are cap-
tured in an undated photograph from the 1940s of Robeson in concert:
From the front on angle, the singer’s mouth (and much of his face) is
fronted by the microphone, and accompanied by the hand cupped to ear
(fig. 4). There is no more explicit image of the singer’s voice become a
microphone voice on stage. By the end of the decade it was not uncommon
for Robeson to stand behind a bank of multiple microphones in concert.45
As with his use of sound technologies, Robeson’s hand-to-ear habit

drew response from the press. The Ogden, in Utah, commented on the
“mannerism,” which “had the audience guessing,” and required the
singer’s explanation: “‘Holding my one ear is not because of an earache or
deafness—it is just that it helps me to hold down my voice.’ . . . Then laugh-
ingly, he added, ‘I learned that trick from Bing in Hollywood.’”46 It is un-
clear why Robeson assumed the mannerism when Synthea’s aid was avail-
able to him. Perhaps the increasingly informal concert style he cultivated
during the 1940s permitted the unconventional practice, and perhaps the
spaces of performance he began to frequent, including those that were out-
doors, did not suit the use of Synthea.47 As the hand-to-ear became routine

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struction workers at the Sydney Opera House in 1960 shows him using the hand-to-ear
technique. “Paul Robeson Sings for the Workers.”

48. Irving Kolodin, “Paul Robeson in Carnegie Hall,” Saturday Review, 24 May
1958; Harriett Johnson, “Words and Music: Robeson Returns to Carnegie Hall,” New
York Post, 11 May 1958, both in series G, folder 1958 Concerts (Carnegie Hall), in PRP.
Reviewing the Albert Hall recital of later that year, Noël Goodwin was less generous: he
“kept cupping his right hand to his ear—a classroom dodge to check how the voice is
sounding, hardly customary in public.” Goodwin also reported that Robeson “kept sig-
nalling to the control engineer to turn it up louder,” one assumes in reference to Syn-
thea’s volume rather than that of the house speakers. See “Paul Robeson Uses a Mike,”
Daily Mail, August 1958, series G, folder 1958 Concerts, in PRP.

it seems to have joined its high-tech substitute in Synthea, possibly even as
a compensatory mechanism. Thus critics noted both system and manner-
ism in operation at a Carnegie Hall recital of May 1958. Music historian Ir-
vin Kolodin pondered whether Robeson’s “new mannerism” of cupping
his right hand to ear “from time to time” was “to blot out the confusing
‘voices’ from the speakers,” “a powerful complement” of which stood at
either side of the stage.48 As Robeson’s microphone voice proliferated into
plural instances of itself—in Synthea’s return echo and the stage speakers’
projections—the singer perhaps fell back on his hand in order to bend his
ear toward better self-hearing of his unmediated voice. In other words, the
addition of a public address system to the singer’s private system of self-

FIG. 4 Unidentified photograph, c. 1940s.
(Source: Paul Robeson Papers, Photographs,

Concerts, #PR227.)

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49. “Little Cynthia has a Big Voice.”
50. “Manual for Local Sponsoring Groups,” 1952, microfilm 3, in PRC. The manual

gives no further details, for example, of the type of microphone to be supplied; and there
are no such guides for Robeson’s earlier, pre-amplified concerts.

51. Correspondence between Bob Stein and John Gray, 4, 11, 13 March 1954, mi-
crofilm 5, in PRC. Emphases in the original.

address that was Synthea seems to have introduced an element of confu-
sion to the singer’s acoustic environment, which the hand-to-ear practice
endeavored to clear up.
When exactly Robeson started using a public address system regularly

in concert is unclear, but it appears to date to after the introduction of Syn-
thea. Robeson was emphatic that Synthea was “in no sense a ‘booster,’ so
far as getting the voice out to the audience is concerned.”49 It was impera-
tive, recall, that at first the audience was not to hear nor see Synthea. But
shortly thereafter, in the early to mid-1940s, photographic evidence sug-
gests that Robeson had started to rely on the amplificatory power of a pub-
lic address system on a regular basis, at least for large venues and outdoor
concerts. In time, this technological set up even became a condition of a
Robeson performance, formalized in the contracts he signed, and specified
in a “manual” for hosting venues. Section 4 of the manual focused on the
“Sound System and Piano”:

It is important that a good electrical technician be obtained to make
certain that the public address system is in order and to be on hand
throughout the concert to operate it. In addition to the regular loud-
speakers, one speaker should be placed in such a position as to enable
Mr. Robeson to hear his voice as he sings. Two microphones should
be available, one near the piano for Mr. Lawrence Brown, Mr. Robe-
son’s accompanist, who joins Mr. Robeson in several songs, and the
other for Mr. Robeson.50

Such was Robeson’s dependence on amplification at this point in his career
that without it he would not sing. Thus in 1954, when the local organizer
of a Robeson recital scheduled for Chicago’s Mandel Hall—hardly a large
venue—reported that the “loudspeaker system in the hall is not good,” and
inquired whether it was “possible for [Robeson] to do without [the system]
this time,” Robeson’s assistant replied that it was “imperative that the best
available [system] in Chicago be set up in the hall, with a technician to
operate it during the entire performance.” He concluded with the injunc-
tion: “Mr. Robeson will be unable to perform if this is not complied
with.”51 The equipment and the technician were duly acquired.
What accounts for Robeson’s volte-face on sound reinforcement? At

first he assured readers that Synthea did not boost his voice, only later to
refuse to perform in a venue without public address. It is unlikely his
reliance on amplification was a result of declining vocal power as he aged,

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52. London Evening Post, 13 April 1937, series G, folder 1937 Concerts. More per-
ceptive critics had long noted that the size of Robeson’s voice was not directly propor-
tional to his large body. It was a “voice of great beauty, small perhaps, but unfailingly
pleasing to the ear” commented one critic. Indianapolis News, 21 January 1926, series G,
folder 1926 Concerts. Others distinguished between the affective power of Robeson’s
singing and vocal volume. Carl E. Lindstrom thus enthused over Robeson’s “wonder-
fully smooth textured voice which created a sense of power rather than actual volume
and one that had a certain mesmeric persuasion on the gentler levels.” Hartford Times,
29 October 1945, series G, folder 1945 Concerts. All sources in PRP.

53. The moniker gained traction especially during the Cold War, but first appeared
at the end of the 1930s. It is beyond the focus of this article, but it is telling that the politi-
cization of Robeson’s voice—in speech and song—coincided with the amplification of
his voice. For a discussion of how the technologies of sound amplification and radio

and more likely the consequence of several unrelated but ultimately linked
circumstances, events, and influence, which collectively altered the condi-
tions for a Robeson concert in the post-World War II years.
Certainly, the utility of Synthea and the slightly later addition of a pub-

lic address system into the acoustic mix were to improve the conditions of
live performance for the singer. But these sound technologies also created
an environment that mitigated aspects of Robeson’s vocal self, and the fail-
ings the singer perceived to flow from his vocal limits. For example, con-
trary to the popular image of the singer possessing a large voice, he had
what he called an “embarrassingly delicate” voice. As late as 1937, by which
time his voice was that of a mature singer, he confessed that he was “really
a drawing-room singer . . . and I really give of my best only in drawing-
room conditions.” Robeson went on to explain that performing with a mi-
crophone afforded such conditions, and that film work and gramophone
recordings were therefore “the best possible medium” for his voice. He also
repeated his oft-stated dislike of performing in large venues: “In most big
halls I have to produce my voice for the benefit of the guy in the back row
of the gallery . . . The strain on my nerves and on my voice is terrific.” And
so, he concluded, “I am trying to cut out the big halls.”52 Widely reported
in the British press, these statements preceded Robeson’s performance
with a microphone in the Albert Hall—one of the very biggest of concert
halls—for the Spanish war event by only a couple of months. And when the
singer returned to the United States two years later, he would have to con-
tend with even more challenging performance conditions which demand-
ed sound reinforcement.
Indeed, the singer’s adoption of a regular microphone voice in concert

accompanied the changing landscape of his concertizing that emerged on
his return to the United States in 1939. In the wake of his newfound pop-
ularity in the United States, catalyzed by his starring role in the populist
Ballad for Americans and his growing politicization as advocate for the in-
ternational working classes and oppressed minorities, Robeson gained the
moniker “the people’s artist.”53 The locations for his performance neces-

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mediated the political rhetoric of four early-twentieth-century politicians, see Huub
Wijfjes, “Spellbinding and Crooning”; see also Melissa Dinsman, Modernism at the Mi-

54. Ian Shaw, “Paul Robeson,” 10. Commentary on Robeson’s less than typical recital
practice dates to the mid-1930s. One critic noted that “Robeson has done a great deal to
dissolve the genteel torpor that identifies the concert hall and its substantial devotees”;
New York Daily Worker, 9 October 1940, series G, folder 1940 Concerts, in PRP.

55. Carl E. Lindstrom in Hartford Times, 24 June 1946, series G, folder 1946 Con-
certs, in PRP.

56. McGinn, “Stokowski and the Bell Telephone Laboratories,” 55.
57. Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound, 97.

sarily proliferated, and in addition to the concert halls with which he was
familiar from the 1930s he increasingly sang also in large stadia, in outdoor
amphitheaters, and from makeshift stages set up in parks and factories. In
these settings sound reinforcement was required for Robeson’s voice to
reach the often sizeable audiences that came to hear him. In these settings,
too, Robeson cultivated a more informal performance presentation, which
readily permitted the use of a mic as much as classical singing rejected it.
The remove from the world of the art song recital is never more plain than
in his appearance at the first Peace Arch concert, on the U.S.-Canada bor-
der on 18 May 1952. A flatbed truck parked “within one foot of the border”
provided the stage, with an upright piano and speakers mounted on the
truck and additional speakers “hooked up elsewhere around the concert
area so a large audience could hear.”54 If the varied and changing contexts
of Robeson’s concert singing made his adoption of a microphone voice in
concert a necessity, the propriety for this act can in part be attributed to the
practice of influential forerunners.
There is limited evidence of Robeson being influenced by other singers’

use of technology. Passing references by the singer to microphone voices par
excellence Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra—a “trick I learned in Hollywood
from Bing and Frankie”—in the mid-1940s are unspecific, and at best indi-
cate Robeson’s awareness of popular singers’ practice.55 The example of
Stokowski, with whom Robeson collaborated in 1940, is more intriguing to
pursue. Similar to Robeson’s use of the TAT-1 for his transatlantic tele-
phone concert, Stokowski was central to Bell Labs’ experiments with the
“long-distance wire transmission of high quality music” in the early 1930s.
This was realized on 27 April 1933 when the Philadelphia Orchestra,
onstage in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, performed for an audi-
ence gathered in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., transmitted by spe-
cially designed telephone line. Tellingly, the conductor chose not to direct
his orchestra (the duty of which fell to his associate Alexander Smallens) but
rather to control the sound signals at the output end in Washington.56 It was
Stokowski’s view that in scenarios of microphone-mediated sound the con-
trol engineer was the real conductor, a role that Stokowski readily took on.57
One feature of the system developed for the concert transmission that bore

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58. McGinn, “Stokowski and the Bell Telephone Laboratories,” 55, 65–66. Stokow-
ski oversaw the amplification of the Hollywood Bowl, and presented the first concerts,
with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to use sound reinforcement at the venue in 1936.

59. For an overview of these developments see Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound,
chaps. 4 and 5.

60. Ibid., 79–80.
61. Alfred Frankenstein in San Francisco Chronicle, 13 November 1940, series G,

folder 1940 Concerts, in PRP.

the conductor’s influence was its expanded volume range. Stokowski had
corresponded with the Bell Labs technicians about lifting “the top edge of
the volume range far above what it is in the concert hall,” and to this end the
system could increase the orchestra’s volume tenfold. It seems the same
desire for sound intensity animated Bell Labs and Stokowski’s “enhanced”
music demonstrations of 1940, in which Robeson took part. While the
demonstration was an unqualified technical success, Rachmaninoff, who
was in the audience, thought it was “sometimes unmusical because of its
loudness,” and in general the “intensity and volcanic nature of [Stokowski’s]
‘enhancements’ offended the sensibilities of part of the audience.” Much the
same, as we’ve seen, would be said of Robeson’s use of amplification in con-
ventional recital venues.58 It is not improbable that Robeson’s collaboration
with the technologically-minded Stokowski permitted the singer to rethink
his relationship with sound reinforcement technologies, and to consider
presenting an enhanced voice in concert.
We should also consider how Robeson’s voice was enhanced on record,

and how his and his listeners’ familiarity with his recorded voice informed
the singer’s use of sound reinforcement in concert. From the mid-1930s
through the ’40s and into the ’50s, recording technology continued to im-
prove. One outcome was the sound of high fidelity: more sensitive micro-
phones, new approaches to reverberation and the creation of sonic space,
and the introduction of tape combined to capture greater frequency and
dynamic range and to achieve sonic presence.59 Importantly, from the late
1930s, modernized home phonographs permitted, for example, “bass
boosting” and greater volume control such that consumers, argues Schmidt
Horning, were more “musically and technically sophisticated.”60 Robeson’s
voice had always been heard, on record and in concert, as rich, resonant,
and deep. Critic Alfred Frankenstein gushed that the “great Negro bass has
a voice like the title of the late James Weldon Johnson’s book, ‘God’s Trom-
bone.’ It is a voice as sonorous and full and deep as a prophetic brass choir,
but it is capable of the utmost intimacy and sympathetic expression as
well.”61 But if one listens to a selection of synchronic snapshots for each
decade Robeson recorded from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s it is in the
high-fidelity records of the 1950s that critical descriptions of Robeson’s
voice receive their most complete sonic correlation. Here, Robeson’s voice,
especially from the independent recordings on, made during 1954 and 1958
when commercial studios shunned him, is remarkably—viscerally—”pre-

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62. For Robeson’s independent recordings, see Robert H. Cataliotti, “On Ma Jour-
ney.” After Robeson was “unbanned” in 1958 and his passport was returned to him, the
singer signed with the “predominantly classical firm” Vanguard Records, for which he
realized several LPs as part of the company’s “Adventure in High Fidelity Sound” series;
see Nat Hentoff, “Paul Robeson Makes a New Album,” 34; Vanguard’s high fidelity
series included Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall (Vanguard LP VRS-9051, 1958).

63. Peter Seeger to Paul Robeson, n.d. [c. 1965], series B, in PRP. For this period,
see Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson, chaps. 19, 22; and Tony Perucci, Paul Robeson and
the Cold War Performance Complex.

64. Cataliotti, “On Ma Journey,” 18.
65. Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 222; Cataliotti, “On Ma Journey,” 17.
66. Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 222.

sent,” all the more magnetic for the sonic magnification that was the object
of high-fidelity recording.62 My argument is that as recording moved
towards high-fidelity sound, the singer, through recourse to sound rein-
forcement technology, desired to present to his concert public an approxi-
mation of the hi-fi voice they had become accustomed to hearing on record.
But putting Robeson’s voice on record during the time of high fidelity’s

first apogee was no easy task. It is well known that the singer was black-
listed in the late 1940s and for much of the 1950s for “Un-American” activ-
ities—the folk singer Peter Seeger described Robeson as “the most black-
listed performer in the history of America”—and the consequences for his
singing career in the United States and abroad were far reaching: concert
venues closed their doors to him, recording companies would not sign
him, stores refused to stock his records, and musicians who collaborated
with him were intimidated.63 Denied access to recording company studio
facilities, Robeson at first worked out of well-to-do friends’ apartments.
Several small independent recording outfits and venues were also used,
such as Esoteric Sound Studies in New York, whose owner was harassed by
the FBI for renting to Robeson. Engineers and musicians sometimes re-
fused to work with Robeson for fear of the implications for their careers:
“Whenever we had union people,” recalled Robeson’s son, “they had to do
it off the books and not get credit because they’d lose their union card.”64
An engineer graduate with some knowledge of audio engineering and a
“musical ear,” Paul Robeson Jr. took on the role of producer, and managed
to secure the services of several of the city’s highly respected sound engi-
neers: Peter Bartók, son of the composer; Tony Schwartz, a seminal figure
who worked across multiple media technology platforms; and David Han-
cock.65 And after many refusals, a small plant in Yonkers agreed to manu-
facture the records. But then another set of problems arose: “no commer-
cial distributor would handle [the records], no stores would display them,
nor would any radio station play them.” In the United States the inde-
pendently produced records were sold by mail order, subscription, and
through black churches and progressive organizations.66 Historian Robert
Cataliotti concludes that Robeson’s independent recordings, which totaled

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more than 100 tracks, “stand as a stunning accomplishment . . . There is no
rival to the achievement that this body of work represents when the condi-
tions under which this music was produced are considered.”67
Given the production challenges faced by Robeson’s team during the

time of his blacklisting by the recording industry, it is perhaps surprising
that the audio quality of the records was a priority. There are several indi-
cations to suggest that this was so. New releases were promoted as much
for the event of a new Robeson record as for technological achievement.
Othello Records’ second release, Solid Rock: Favorite Hymns of My People
(circa 1954–55), aimed specifically at the local black market, was advertised
thus: “The very latest advances in the art of High Fidelity have been em-
ployed. We do not hesitate to say that this is the finest Robeson album ever
offered from the point of view of Mr. Robeson’s voice and art.”68 Ensuring
that Robeson’s voice was heard at its best, perhaps especially because his
public seldom heard him in person, was important in representing a fit,
healthy, and powerful voice at a time that the State sought to weaken Robe-
son and silence his voice.69
The singer’s collaboration on the independent recordings with noted

engineers working in professional studio environments, from some time in
1955, no doubt facilitated the sonic advances the Robeson team advertised.
David Hancock’s involvement seems to have been particularly productive
of Robeson’s sound. A classically trained pianist, Hancock was a celebrated
engineer, and sometime producer, noted for his work on contemporary art
music and avant-garde jazz projects. In audiophile circles his recording of
the Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Rachmaninoff
Symphonic Dances in 1967 “attained near-legendary status . . . (both for
sound and for the performances).” On that project, as with most others,
Hancock used custom ribbon microphones and a modified tape recorder
running at 30 inches per second; a set up that was something of a Hancock
trademark, but obsolete in wider recording practice.70 Whereas in the
1930s and ’40s the standard microphones for recording voices were RCA
ribbon mics, in the ’50s the condenser mic was preferred—a new allegiance
epitomized by Frank Sinatra, whose use of microphones is unusually well
recorded.71 In an article for db: The Sound Engineering Magazine, Hancock
documented his practice of “updating ribbon microphones” through vari-

67. Cataliotti, “On Ma Journey,” 21.
68. Undated notice, c. 1955, Othello Recording Corp., series D, box 17, in PRP. Un-

derscoring in the original.
69. Such was the control the Robeson team exercised on his voice’s sound that they

would recall very recently released master tapes for succeeding ones that sounded bet-
ter. For an example of this, see Paul Robeson Jr. to Desmond Buckle, London, 11 Febru-
ary 1955, series D, box 17, in PRP.

70. Michael Fremer, “Sonic Spectacular Twice as Good at 45rpm.”
71. Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound, 111–12; and Charles L. Granata, Sessions with

Sinatra, 22–23.

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VOL. 59


72. David B. Hancock, “A New Ribbon Microphone,” 21–22.
73. Cataliotti, “On Ma Journey,” 17. A few years later, Vanguard’s “An Adventure

in Stereophonic Sound” LP of Robeson’s 1958 Carnegie Hall recital advertised itself as
“the first and only discs in which full justice is done to Mr. Robeson’s voice through the
most advanced techniques of high fidelity recording.” Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall
(Vanguard LP VRS-9051, 1958).

74. Harry Olson, “High-Quality Monitor Loudspeakers,” 22.
75. Hancock, “A New Ribbon Microphone,” 22. Emphasis in the original.
76. Sterne, The Audible Past, 285, 392; ibid., 241, 245.
77. Cook, Beyond the Score, 369.
78. Anderson, Making Easy Listening, 114.

ous “improvised modification[s]” and outlined his reasons for advocating
for their usage, which included extended response for both low and high
frequencies.72 For Robeson, the use of Hancock’s microphone “proved far
more effective in capturing the full range of Robeson’s bass-baritone than
condenser microphones.”73
As much as the practices of high fidelity informed Robeson’s record-

ing, so did its discourse. Harry Olson, one of the most influential micro-
phone designers, defined high fidelity as “a quality of sound reproduction
which provides a high order of realism.”74 Hancock’s mic performed to this
logic, recording Robeson’s proper voice more fully, or, in the discourse of
high fidelity, reproducing it more realistically. The engineer himself pro-
claimed hi-fi results for his microphones: “recordings made with them
have a clarity and a transparency that must be heard to be appreciated.”75
Hancock’s claim that the high-fidelity microphone concealed the mediat-
ing effects of recording, that it presented the sound object transparently,
should be read with caution. On the one hand, his microphone and its re-
cording of Robeson’s hi-fi voice participated in the larger history of sound
reproduction technologies that functioned according to what Jonathan
Sterne has called a “narrative of vanishing mediation,” in which the
medium attempts to erase itself in the desire to bring source and copy into
indistinguishable identity—the record a highly faithful reproduction of the
live performance. On the other hand, scholars of the history of recording
have noted that while listeners desired records that bore a mimetic rela-
tionship to the performance events the discs captured, and performers
(with the help of engineers) aimed to produce realistic performances, re-
cording’s artifice entailed constructing “a realism that holds the place of
reality without being it.”76 Cook has expressed this aesthetic of reproduc-
tion as such: “the business of records is less to produce an existing reality
than, under the cloak of reproduction, to create a new one. Their motivat-
ing principle is not so much realism as hyperrealism.”77 Anderson thus
speaks of high fidelity’s “surplus of the ‘real.’”78 And Robeson’s hi-fi gram-
ophone voice of the 1950s is certainly also a hyperreal voice. But it is the
voice the majority of his listeners heard; it was their sonic reality. For Rob-
eson, who performed live only occasionally for much of the 1950s, his

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


79. Ibid., xix.
80. Benzuly, “McCune Sound.”
81. Lisa Barg points out the contradiction that Robeson’s folk repertoire and vocal

style “did not fit comfortably—if at all—the criteria of authenticity” on which folk styl-
ists were based. Barg, “Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans,” 33.

82. Stephen Banfield argues that “microphone amplification was slow to have a fun-

high-fidelity gramophone voice assumed perhaps an unusual prominence.
That he would turn to sound reinforcement in concert—to a microphone
voice—in order to approach the sound of his hi-fi voice on record is unsur-
prising. Rather than attempting to capture a live performance in a record-
ing, the singer endeavored to produce something of the sound of his re-
corded voice in concert.


My account of Robeson’s microphone voice tells the story of how, over
time, electroacoustic technologies encroached upon the field of concert
singing. It is significant that the singer’s adoption of such coincided with a
profound shift in American musical life after World War II, from a culture
of “performance to playback.” And cultural historians of music have plot-
ted the many developments by which recorded music began to overshadow
the previously dominant terms of the aesthetic and industrial production
of music.79 One topic that has received less systematic coverage is how live
concertizing articulated with technologically mediated traditions of per-
formance. Perhaps this reflects the status of ‘live sound’ itself in the field.
In the experience of the McCunes, one of America’s preeminent sound
families, live sound remained “the stepchild of radio and recording” at
mid-century and into the 1960s.80 From the partial histories of live sound
technologies and the passing references thereto in accounts of musicians’
practice in the first half of the twentieth century, it is difficult, for now, to
place Robeson’s path toward a microphone voice in a broader context of
vocal practice. For this we need more historical work on individual singers’
practices and on specific technologies.
Such an endeavor is also complicated by the challenge of “locating”

Robeson as a singer tout court. For if different styles of singing relate dif-
ferently to their usage of sound technologies—the very essence of the
crooner’s voice yoked to a microphone; the opera singer, in conventional
wisdom, eschewing it—then we must identify the song traditions with
which Robeson was aligned. But he was not a pop singer, and less a jazz
vocalist, nor was he a folk singer (despite the importance of folk music in
his repertoire).81 He was not a Lieder recitalist, and even less so an opera
singer (despite his classical voice training in the 1920s and early 1930s); nor
was he a musical theatre performer, even though he occasionally appeared
on its stages.82 We might conceive of Robeson’s voice as constituted of

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VOL. 59


damental effect on the vocal production and characterization of the musical theatre
stage.” The microphone’s usage on stage is largely un-chronicled, he notes, observing
that producer Hal Prince’s claim that microphones weren’t used until West Side Story
(1957) must stand. “Stage and Screen Entertainers,” 77. For earlier instances of the use
of amplification on Broadway, see Timothy R. White, Blue-Collar Broadway, 219.

83. Dublin Evening Mail, 24 March 1939, series G, folder 1939 Concerts, in PRP.
84. Anderson, Making Easy Listening, 107.
85. “Inside Paul Robeson,” 6–7.

imbricated vocal practices. As the Dublin Evening Mail noted in 1939: “He
is not a classifiable singer, and what might be faults in another do not ap-
pear always as such with him.”83 Bound not to any one tradition of reper-
toire and its vocal praxis, perhaps Robeson felt less constrained using
sound technologies in concert than if he had been a conventional concert
singer. To be sure, and as I have attempted to show, the singer’s micro-
phone voice was thoroughly of its technological times: a modern voice that
responded to the acoustics of performance spaces by drawing on develop-
ments in sound technologies. Following Anderson’s characterization of the
“relaxed listener” of high-fidelity records at mid-century as one who “has
often sought a moment, a space, and a technology in which the act of ‘easy
listening’ can be fostered,” we might similarly consider Robeson’s micro-
phone voice as permitting him to sing more easily.84 At the very end of his
career, the singer was still trying out a new technology for these ends.
When embarking on an extended seven-week tour of Australia and

New Zealand in 1960, Robeson revealed another device of self-listening to
the New Zealand magazine The Listener:

I’ve got now my own little gadget. I put this in my ear and it’s like
I’m standing in a very wonderful bathroom. Now all I have to do is
be very quiet, and I hear my voice about five times as loud. Put it
in your ear, not that ear, the other one, now say something. . . . You
see it’s just like built-in acoustics. Well that noise to me is as if I’m
standing in a bathroom. I can talk like this the rest of the day with-
out strain.85

It is not clear what the precise nature of the “little gadget” was: a crude,
early type of an in-ear performance monitor (which were commercially
produced only in the 1970s when they began to be used in popular music
performance); a modified hearing aid; or a combination thereof. Nor is it
clear what the device could do: perhaps simply reduce stage noise and/or
provide a vocal mix of sorts, as Synthea had done. It was undoubtedly a
further aid to Robeson in controlling his singer’s acoustic space, and as
with all his uses of sound technologies on the stage, it aided him in the very
practical task of easy singing.

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


86. Many of the newspaper and periodical articles, reviews, and notices were sourced
from the extensive collection of news clippings (Series G) in the Paul Robeson Papers,
and in some instances the act of clipping has removed certain bibliographic information.
I have included all the bibliographic information contained in the clippings.


Archival Sources
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library,
New York
Lawrence Brown Papers (LBP)
Paul Robeson Collection (PRC)

Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
Papers of Clive Jenkins (PCJ)

Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC
Paul Robeson Papers (PRP)86

Published Sources.
Anderson, Tim J. Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar

American Recording. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

_____. “Training the Listener: Stereo Demonstration Discs in an Emerging
Consumer Market.” In Living Stereo: Histories and Cultures of Multi-
channel Sound, edited by Paul Théberge, Kyle Devine, and Tom Ever-
rett, 107–24. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Banfield, Stephen. “Stage and Screen Entertainers in the Twentieth Cen-
tury.” In The Cambridge Companion to Singing, edited by John Potter,
63–82. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Barg, Lisa. “Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans: Race and the Cultural
Politics of ‘People’s Music.’” Journal of the Society for American Music
2, no. 1 (2008): 27–70.

Barlow, William. Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1999.

Benzuly, Sarah. “McCune Sound: 74 Years and Still Going Strong.” Mix. 10
January 2006. www.mixonline.com/news/live-gear/local-crew-mccune
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Boyle, Sheila Tully, and Andrew Bunie. Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise
and Achievement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2001.

Burris-Meyer, Harold, and Vincent Mallory. Sound in the Theatre. Mine-
ola, NY: Radio Magazines, 1959.

Cataliotti, Robert H. “On Ma Journey: Robeson’s Independent Record-
ings.” Notes to CD On Ma Journey: Robeson’s Independent Recordings.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40178, 2007, 6–23.

Cook, Nicholas. Beyond the Score: Music as Performance. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2013.

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Dinsman, Melissa. Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and
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Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson: A Biography. New York: The New Press,

Fremer, Michael. “Sonic Spectacular Twice as Good at 45rpm.” Analog
Planet. 1 July 2010. www.analogplanet.com/content/sonic-spectacular-
twice-good-45rpm-0#sEBzLX7TaQpLzaW2.97 (accessed 24 March

Granata, Charles L. Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of
Recording. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2004.

Greig, Donald. “Performing for (and against) the Microphone.” In The
Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, edited by Nicholas Cook,
Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, and John Rink, 16–29. Cam-
bridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Hentoff, Nat. “Paul Robeson Makes a New Album.” Reporter, 17 April
1958, 34–35.

Hancock, David B. “A New Ribbon Microphone.” db: The Sound Engi-
neering Magazine 2, no. 8 (September 1968): 20–22.

“Inside Paul Robeson.” Listener, 11 November 1960, 6–7.
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York: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Olwage, Grant. “‘Warbling Wood-Notes Wild’: Nature, Art, and Race in
Paul Robeson’s Early Singing.” The Musical Quarterly 98, no. 3 (2015):

Olson, Harry. “High-Quality Monitor Loudspeakers.” db: The Sound Engi-
neering Magazine 9, no. 5 (May 1975; reprint from December 1967):

“Paul Robeson Sings for the Workers at Sydney Opera House.” YouTube
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tube.com/watch?v=Eg7bPgrosAE (accessed 5 November 2015).

Perucci, Tony. Paul Robeson and the Cold War Performance Complex:
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VOL. 59


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“Robeson Technique of Acoustics Control.” Radio-Craft. March 1941,

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OLWAGEK|KRobeson’s Microphone Voice


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