Cook Records was a record label founded by Emory Cook (1913 in San Francisco – 2002) who was an audio engineer and inventor. From 1952 to 1966, Cook used his Sounds of our Times and Cook Laboratories record labels to demonstrate his philosophy about sound, his recording equipment, and his manufacturing techniques.
In addition to Sounds of Our Times, under Cook Laboratories, Cook Records also released "Road Recordings," a "White Label" series, Test, and Binaural recordings.
Cook is sometimes said to have intended only to show the quality of his recording and molding process at an audio fair, with the added, unique feature of binaural (i.e., sterophonic) sound as attention-catching gimmick, and the response was so overwhelming that he decided to start producing and selling his equipment, together with the production of a tremendous number of stereo recordings. There was a somewhat similar unexpected result of his Microfusion process of record pressing. The process required the filling of each mold individually (he had a production-line at which a dozen or so individuals filled them simultaneously at his small factory, each mold-filler than handing the filled mold to an individual operating a nearby record press. The presses, which accepted one mold at a time, were much smaller than the presses used in the standard, hot-liquid-biscuit, process: the Cook presses were each not much bigger than a refrigerator. At some point it occurred to Emory Cook that it might make more sense for some record shops to press the records themselves, as customers requested them, rather than to pay shipping and stocking costs. The result was that by 1958 there were record shops on Caribbean islands from Puerto Rico to Trinidad that had a Cook record-press in the back of the store. Some of the owners of these small shops, or their associates, began recording local music themselves. They shipped the master tape recording of an album up to Cook, and (for about $100) he made a metal mold of it, which was shipped back to the record store, which, when asked for a copy of the record, would pull the mold for that record from the shelf, fill it with the powdered vinyl (which was sprayed from a device resembling an old-fashioned hair dryer and was covered the mold exactly), and then popped it in the oven-cum-high-pressure press. (See the history of Reggae music for an idea of the impact this innovation had.)
The 140-plus albums on Cook Records include European and American concert music, U.S. and Caribbean popular and traditional music, calliope and carrousel music, as well as mechanical and natural sounds. Over a quarter of these albums contained music from the Caribbean, many featuring calypso or steel bands. Many recordings were made in the field rather than by bringing musicians to a studio, with Cook travelling around Trinidad in particular, recording music wherever he heard it.
Cook Records may be best known because, in 1952, they were first to produce commercial stereo records (which Emory Cook called "Binaural"). About 50 "Binaural" recordings were released in all. He used the term "binaural sound" which should not be confused with the modern term that is used to describe 'inner-ear-microphone' recordings. Cook's sound was achieved by putting the output from two separate microphones on two independent monaural tracks on the same side of a record. On these records, the grooves of the first channel formed a single "band" that was concentric with and surrounded a second band that started about halfway into the record and which contained the grooves of the second stereo channel. The V-groove or Westrex stereo LP and cartridge that would become standard, which could play each wall of the groove as a separate track, were not released until 1957. After 1957, Cook also released V-groove stereo recordings as "Cook Vector Stereo". In the intervening years, Cook Labs, Livingston, Audiosphere, and Atlantic all released the two-track binaural disks.
In order to play back binaural disks, a listener would need two separate pick-ups (LP cartridges), both of them monaural. Since the two pick-ups on a playback system had to be kept in very precise alignment with each other, Emory Cook had to also invent and market a system that could do this. Cook created a "binaural phonograph adaptor" or "Binaural Clip-On" which functioned as an outrigger that could be used on existing standard tonearm to hold a second pickup. The Binaural Clip-On was a well-made aluminum device that Cook Laboratories sold for US$5.95. The Clip-On made provision for very fine adjustment of the spacing of the cartridges: this level of adjustment was needed, because only a very slight misalignment of the two cartridge styluses would produce a phase difference between the two channels. The fact that he was able to design and sell such a device at a reasonable price testified to Emory Cook's brilliance as an innovative engineer and outside-the-box thinker (who's now honored in the Audio Engineering Society Hall of Fame). It's also probably a testament to the passion and determination of early devotees of stereophonic sound that they would buy and deploy such a system. In addition to working with Livingston Electronics Corporation (of Livingston, NJ) to release the records, Cook worked with Livingston to develop and market a tuning fork–shaped tonearm that was designed and built to take two pickups. Like the Clip-On, the unique tonearm allowed for the simultaneous use of two monaural cartridges, and spaced them apart at a distance that exactly corresponded to the distance separating the outer and inner band of grooves. And like the Clip-On, the tonearm also allowed for calibration of the position of the stylus within the groove so that the two tracks would play in synch and proper phase. To facilitate these fine adjustments, Cook sold a test disk with a recording of a "Binaural Clock" that had clicks that a user could adjust to. Other "HiFi" companies of the day followed Livingston in marketing binaural arms.
The two tracks on a Cook type binaural disk had different equalization curves. The RIAA equalization standard had not yet been adopted when Cook began his work. The bass turnover of 500 Hz on both tracks and the rolloff of 0 on the inside band and -11 on the outside band were meant to allow for greater modulation in the recording. As the two pickups required two preamps and HiFi preamps of the day included manual settings for turnover and rolloff, the difference in equalization was not a particular burden. Nevertheless, Cook designed and sold a two-channel preamp meant for binaural playback. While this preamp did not allow for the manual setting of turnover and rolloff of other manufacturers' disks, it did work for Cook-type binaural records. Livingston had also come out with a "stereophonic" integrated amplifier (i.e., including the preamps) by 1954.
Cook's monaural records were also considered superior, with a wide dynamic range, and sold at a premium ($4.98 for a 12-inch disk) about twice the then-standard price for LP vinyl records. Their superiority was due to the superb quality of his recording techniques and his mastering which allowed for greater dynamic range and low noise levels, but also to the fact that, by 1955, they were manufactured by a special pressing process he developed. This process — which he named "Microfusion" — used cold vinyl powder sprayed into a metal mold (which looked somewhat like a round waffle iron), each one of which was then placed into a hot stamping press, the heat and pressure of which would melt the particles of plastic, and fuse them together while simultaneously imprinting the surface of each side of the record them with a negative image of the positive image of the record grooves that had been molded onto each side of the metal mold (the two sides were hinged together, which increased the waffle-iron resemblance. This process produced a better "fill" of the mold, which resulted in lower surface noise compared to the hot vinyl "biscuit" process that was the method of record-pressing standard process used by other manufacturers.
But also strange projects and strange sound recordings were part of the Cook legacy. "Night Rain" and katydid recordings were released alongside Caribbean steel band and blues recordings. A record like "Speed The Parting Guest" could even today fulfill its duty by speeding a parting guest in our modern day world. Records like "Burlesque Uncovered" in which he recorded a striptease show in sound, are today still amusing. A record like "Rail-dynamics", recorded on rainy nights along the tracks of the New York Central Railroad still delivers that 'rainy night feeling' it must have had when it was recorded. Cook's 1956 binaural record of decades-old steam-driven "Calliope and Carousels" is amusing not only for their tunes, but for hearing the audible struggles the machines had to go through just to produce a sound, and play anything even approximately in tune, all lovingly captured and preserved in their sour-note glory while the original 19th century machines could still function at all.
Though an audio artist and engineer, Cook covered himself by having musicians he recorded along the road sign pieces of paper giving him permission to market their performances, showcasing that he was also a businessman. In most cases, those papers stated that they sold all the rights to the recordings he made of them for the payment of one dollar. Naturally not all recordings were made for such cheap prices. But like a few others who did "road recordings", he brought his equipment to the artists wherever they were, and caught performances that otherwise likely would not have ever been recorded.
In today's recordings, Stereo means 'left-right'. A marching band on a stereo recording or a train like on Cook's "Rail Dynamics" will run from left to right or vice versa. But in most cases, Cook did not bother about left and right. For him Stereo meant space and depth and he wanted to design his stereo sound with a different "image". So in most of his recordings the train would not go from left to right; he would instead place his microphones on both sides of the railroad track, carefully creating a small space for his wires under the track so that the train wouldn't cut the wires as it passed by them. This way, with the mikes recording on the 'same plane of movement', the train comes towards the listener and then seems to drive right over him. This was way before surround sound systems but the effect was perhaps even better than a "left-right pass-by" recording, as it captured subtle nuances produced by different moving parts on either side of train, adding a more realistic dynamic to the overall sound that was unique to Cook's mike placement techniques.
Emory and Martha Cook donated the US branch of their record company, master tapes, patents, and papers to the Smithsonian Institution in 1990. The recordings are currently operated by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
The Trinidad branch of Cook was sold by Emory Cook some point earlier. There are a number of Trinidad-only releases (mostly singles) that Smithsonian are unable to reissue because their master tapes belong to the owners of the Trinidad branch.
- Personal communication with production-line worker Cook Records Riverside CT 1955-1956
- Thompson, Dave (2002) "Reggae & Caribbean Music", Backbeat Books, ISBN 0-87930-655-6
- Personal communication with production-line worker Cook Records Riverside CT 1955-1956