Our previous sessions have dealt with ribbon microphones by RCA, one of the two prime makers of broadcast and sound equipment in the mid 20th century. This time we'll turn to the other of these major makers, Western Electric Company.
RCA and Western Electric were fierce competitors in this era. I think I am safe in saying that the majority of radio stations from the 1920s through around 1950 used either RCA or Western Electric equipment, or a combination of both. Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of Bell Telephone...but also made broadcast equipment designed by Bell Telephone Labs. In 1949 Federal anti-trust laws forced Western Electric to divest of their broadcasting equipment manufacturing. Both these companies made just about everything needed to equip a station from microphones and audio control to transmitters and antennas.
About the time RCA came out with the revolutionary ribbon microphone...Western Electric developed the first high-quality dynamic microphone. The dynamic uses the same basic principle as the ribbon....a moving conductor in a magnetic field to generate the audio signal from sound waves. Instead of a moving foil ribbon...the dynamic uses a round-shaped diaphragm that has a coil of wire attached that moves in the magnetic field...it's a small electric generator. Another way of explaining a dynamic microphone is to think of it as a loudspeaker in reverse! A loudspeaker takes a signal from a radio receiver or amplifier and turns that electric signal into sound we can hear. A microphone, as we explained before, takes that sound we hear and translates it into an electrical signal so it can be amplified and sent to a loudspeaker, as in a PA system, or for broadcasting or recording.
Western Electrics' new dynamic microphone was dubbed the model 618 and came out about 1931. The model 618 was an omni-directional...or non-directional mike that was relatively small in size and very rugged...making it excellent for studio as well as remote broadcasting, especially in the outdoors. This mike was not sensitive to wind and breath noises like the ribbon mike...and it was relatively insensitive to handling noises making it excellent as a hand mike for interviews and such.
The model 618 was a great improvement over the earlier noisy carbon and bulky condenser mikes of that era. The 618 was a big hit with the radio industry and these mikes were used clear into the 50s. RCA, of course, would not be left behind by Western Electric....so they shortly came out with a very similar-looking mike they called the model 50A. Internally the RCA model 50A used a slightly different way of imbedding the wire into the diaphragm so as not to infringe on Western Electrics' patents....but externally they looked very similar.
You'll see both of these mikes in news photos and newsreels of the day...they were used for President FDR's “Fireside Chat” broadcasts. If you look closely at these photos you'll see that CBS and Mutual (MBS) used the Western Electric and NBC and the Blue networks used the RCA because NBC was owned by RCA.
A few smaller manufacturers also made mikes that looked very much like the Western Electric and RCA units but these smaller outfits could not compete with the two giants in the broadcast industry and their mikes were used mainly in PA systems and some smaller radio stations.
The dynamic-type microphone is one of the most used units up to this very day...and Western Electric was the start of it all. These pioneering mikes were all omni-directional....picking up sounds from all around...later a small company, at the time, named Shure Brothers designed the first uni-directional dynamic mike called the “Unidyne”. Most dynamic mikes today are uni-directional picking up sound from the front side of the microphone and rejecting sounds from the rear, thus preventing sound system feedback (howling) and eliminating background noises, and all based on Shure's ground-breaking development of the late 1930s.
Singer Marion Anderson with Leonard Bernstein using a Model 618. (Courtesy U. of Maryland Lib. Of American Broadcasting)
“FDR giving a “Fireside chat” program on all major radio networks with both the RCA 50A (NBC) and the WE 618 (CBS and MBS)”
NBC announcer Graham McNamee reporting the burning of the ship Normandie using an RCA 50A connected to a special remote shortwave transmitter...making an early “wireless” microphone! (Courtesy U. of Maryland Lib. Of American Broadcasting)
Dick Powell with Irene Noblette (left) and Francis Langford (right) appearing on a CBS program “Hollywood Hotel” in the mid-30s. Francis Langford later toured with Bob Hope entertaining troops during WWII.
George D. Hay, “The Solemn Old Judge” on the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville over NBC network using a Western Electric 618 dynamic.
RCA 50A mounted on a table stand” (Courtesy Stan Coutant site)
Famous sportscaster Red Barber calling play-by-play at the 1938 All Star Game in Cincinnati with an RCA 50A. (courtesy University of Maryland Library of American Broadcasting.)
Mr. Microphone's Turner U9S microphone...one of the copies by a smaller company of the WE and RCA early dynamics. (Courtesy Mr. Microphone)
Western Electric 618 showing the special WE cord connector. (Courtesy Stan Coutant website)
Mr. Microphone Man, Gary Avey, with the Turner u9s. Listen to the sound of the microphone in this audio clip recorded by Gary.
KYOS, Merced remote broadcast...perhaps from Castle AFB...probably in the 1940s. At left is an unknown announcer, center is Mickie McClung, the owner of KYOS, at right is Charles Kinsley who managed KYOS and later became a vice president and overall manager of KHSL-AM and TV in Chico, also owned by Mrs. McClung. The microphone is an RCA 50A omni-directional dynamic which was ideal for outdoor broadcasts.