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Nathan Van Cleave is a top man in radio music whose improvements in his home recording machine grew into a prosperous business.

Photos by Bradley Smith

WHEN Nathan Van Cleave started playing trumpet at 8, he never dreamed he’d be conducting a band at 14. When he left Illinois University and came to New York, he never thought in a few years he would be sitting in Carnegie Hall and listening to one of his own compositions being played. When he started to experiment with sound reproduction to improve his music for radio audiences, no one could have ever made him believe he’d wind up with a flourishing manufacturing business. But it has all happened!

Van, at 35, is recognized throughout musical circles as one of the most gifted composer-conductor-arrangers to come up the ladder in many a year. He has his own program, “Variations by Van Cleave,” on the Blue, and is the entire musical staff, aside from the musicians, on Radio Reader’s Digest on CBS. He is also part owner of the DuoTone company, which manufactures phonograph needles, a recording head, records, various and sundry items, and 20-odd high precision gadgets for the government. He is also the proud possessor of a home recording set that is one of the trickiest and most effective in existence, which he “invented.”

He doesn’t remember exactly why he chose the trumpet to start making sounds with, back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was born. But he does remember that he did most of his practicing because it was strictly an “either/or” proposition. He had either to practice—or work in his father’s vegetable garden.

He made fast progress with the trumpet. While he was still in grade school he was playing in the high school band, and at 14, was conducting the 35-piece Central Cities Band. He also took it upon himself to teach the other members of the band. This he performed with the dexterity of a tight-rope walker, because he was often just one lesson ahead of his “students.”

When he was ready for higher education, his family insisted that he matriculate at the University of Illinois for a course in aeronautical engineering. They thought the trumpet was all right for a pastime, but wanted their boy to he a businessman. For two years Van struggled with blueprints which bored him extremely, and used every moment he could snatch without flunking to take all the available courses in harmony, composition, theory, conducting, and the study of the technique of the great masters.

During the summers he played trumpet and arranged for barn-storming dance bands throughout the Middle West, learning about the kind of music most people like best, with the idea of someday combining “long hair” and “short hair” music for radio. After a particularly stormy summer with Doc Fenton and His Sooners, Van landed a job with Al Katz and His Kittens, who were on their way to New York.

Then the depression caught up with the entertainment business. The band dis-banded. Van did a few arrangements for Charley Barnet at the (for him) terrific price of $15 each, but the depression overtook Charley, too. and Van was out of a job. His family wanted him to return to school, but he had finally decided that music and not blueprints was his business and decided to stick it out in New York.

He put in a lean time: lived in a hall bedroom with another ambitious musician, and rolled up a debt of gratitude he will never be able to pay to a Greek restaurant owner who fed them because he liked music. Finally he got a few pieces to arrange for Little Jack Little, who was enjoying great popularity at that time, and his luck was on the up-beat.

It wasn’t long before he was making recording arrangements for Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring and Andre Kostelanetz. He got his first break as a composer-conductor on the famous CBS “Workshop Shows,” where he brought about a complete reversal in the position music should occupy on a dramatic show. The “six-way” formula he put into effect there is now used on all dramatic shows.

Van knew that the study of sound reproduction would enable him to make his programs better listening for his radio audiences, in that he could insure their getting clearness of tone and what musicians call “ear-ease.” He wanted to be able to study the effects of tricks in instrumentation, and to detect possible flaws in his work and that of the musicians who worked under him. He also wanted to discover the relative sound value of each instrument and player in the orchestra, and how he could improve the way they sounded by placing and grouping them differently, and checking their instruments for tone purity, etc.

Almost any composer will tell you that building an orchestra is like building a house. Both jobs require imagination, and in both the strongest part is no better than the weakest. Building an orchestra is essentially creative. It is the conductor who establishes its human character or quality, its style, and its color-scale. This is possible only if he can control every nuance of its tone shading. It is the conductor’s task to mold any given number of men and instruments into one highly responsive sound producing organization, capable of making the sounds he wishes to create. It was during this period that Van started to experiment with sound reproduction. He began by learning the sound range of the different instruments in his orchestra and of the sound effects devices used on his shows, so that he could keep well within the range; that makes for better listening. Most radios, unknown to their owners, have faulty speakers or amplifiers, which eliminate the very notes intended for important punctuation of action or plot.

He bought one of the best commercial recording sets on the market, and began to have all his programs taken off the air. He knew how the music sounded in his mind’s ear when he wrote it; how it sounded when the orchestra played it back for him; but he had no permanent record for future study, and no way of knowing how it sounded to the program’s listeners.

His first discoveries with his home-recorded records were that the turn-tables on his set, which had attached motors that operated at 1500 RPM and were placed off to one side, on the table level proper, caused vibration, which in turn caused distortion of the sounds reproduced. He found, too, that he could not eliminate the surface noise which also caused distortion of the high frequency tones of the violins, and made them sound blurred and fuzzy. Low frequency notes frequently reproduced with a “bottom-of-the-barrel” sound. Even cutting down the range of the tones, or notes, in his arrangements brought no marked improvement, and he decided to build a set of his own which would, insofar as was possible, eliminate the faults of his commercial set.

Van knew he wasn’t an inventor. Aside from puttering around in his basement workshop with household repairs, and a little building, he had never done anything sensational or unusual—but that didn’t faze him. He wanted “perfect” recordings, and was determined to get them. He bought two 18-inch turntables of the type used in movie houses in 1929, when sound movies made their debut. These he had completely retooled, substituting elongated turning shafts which operated on ball bearings for the regular spindles. Each turntable had a heavy iron collar in which the turntable rotated and which added weight to the mass. Van felt these collars would give him additional insurance against vibration.

They did cut down the vibration of the tables to a large extent, mostly due to their weight, but could not eliminate the vibrations of the 1500 RPM. motor he was using; nor did they help the distortion caused by the variations of speed.

Taking time out to read up on various kinds of motors, Van decided to try a synchronous type, which is wound with two sets of windings. One gives a true 33 1/3 RPM., the other, a true 78 RPM. With the turn of a switch the selection of either speed can be made. This motor he anchored into the wall of his basement study by chiseling out a two-foot square of the foundation proper and cementing the motor into the wall, completely separate from the turn-tables themselves.

By operating a pulley drive from the motor to the two turn-tables with a 20-foot dental cable which made five complete laps and insured against any slippage or slack, he was thus able, finally, to get smooth, constant-speed operation, and found that his problems with vibration and variations of speed (WOW) were over.

His home-recording machine satisfied him so far as the actual reproduction of sound was concerned. He had managed to escape most of the evils that attend amateur home recording, and was able to record a continuous program from the air. With the recorder set for 33 1/3 RPM. he was able to take 7-1/2 minutes off the air on a 12-inch record, which represented a saving of more than half on the cost of his discs. Formerly, with the 1500 RPM. motor, he had been able to take off only 4 minutes on a 12-inch disc.

One by one he had been eliminating the faults of the average home-recording, but the deeper he got into the matter, the more things he found he had to contend with. He was still getting too much surface noise and too many “scratchy” sounds, and the quality of tone fidelity was too poor to please his musician’s ear. He called in a pal, Stephen Nester, who had formerly been with Western Electric and had had some experience with a phonograph manufacturer. Together they decided to find the fly in the ointment which still caused the trouble. They traced some of it to the needles they were using.

They knew that there was an abrasive material in all commercial needles that would eventually hone-down or shape a faulty one until its point was round and smooth and fit the recording track groove perfectly. Records have to be tough to stand up under that kind of treatment. So do needles, which travel an average of 1/7 mile on a 12-inch record. Home recording records are made of soft acetate and nitrate compositions, and after three or four playings are literally chewed to pieces by faulty cutting and playback needles.

Van and Nester bought a shadowgraph and began experimenting with various types of needles which they enlarged more than 400 times until they could actually see the flaws which were doing the damage to their records. While their interest was still in the expanding stage they suddenly found themselves in business. Now their DuoTone Company makes fifteen different needles to suit every home or commercial use. They were the first to mass-produce a needle engineered to fit the record groove. They introduced the S-shaped Star Sapphire needle, which they claim, gives the truest transmission of vibration from the groove to the pickup.

After taking about 3,000 records off the air, Van was still not satisfied. He had reached the point where he could play his musical tricks back and listen to them without wincing, and could evaluate the individual performer and his instrument in the orchestra, but it wasn’t good enough for him. He thought he had discovered the last possible flaw. Improvement was needed in the recording head itself. The average recording head used on home-recording sets is far inferior to those used in commercial or broadcasting studios, and does not reproduce with the same degree of fidelity.

While pursuing this problem and trying various heads, he found that a friend of his, Fred Van Eps, once the greatest banjo player in the world, had invented one. He and Nester called on Fred. They tried the head, and liked it. Soon the Van Eps head was added to the gradually lengthening list of DuoTone products, and is now used in broadcasting and commercial studios everywhere. Its great advantage is a metallic reed that requires no damping. It is therefore impervious to changes in temperature and humidity.

In the midst of his experiments with heads of various type, Van had one of his biggest musical thrills. Paul Whiteman played one of his compositions, “Scherzo and Cantilena” (which had been written in five days and a burst of enthusiasm), at his Eighth Experiment in Modern Music at Carnegie Hall. Van bought a suit of tails for the occasion, and was thoroughly uncomfortable. But the critics said his music showed promise. Van felt it was partially due to the progress he had made in his research, and was even more determined than ever to learn all he could about sounds, their treatment and their effects.

The factory grew by leaps and bounds. Sometimes Van felt it was like an octopus stealing time from his music with its varied demands. They had begun to manufacture everything they couldn’t buy to suit them, and in the process had acquired a lot of high precision tools which could machine accurately to 1/10,000th of an inch. Their technicians had developed a new method of dipping record cores so that the platters, or discs, had a perfectly smooth, even coating, either on glass or aluminum bases, that were higher in quality than some they had been using. So they decided to make them, too.

Van was made composer-conductor of “Man Behind the Gun,” a half-hour documentary show based on authentic stories from fighting fronts. It was a he-man type of program, with plenty of punch and action. Real battles were simulated. Van had only one day in which to do the half-hour score, because rapidly changing conditions might date the show if it were done any further ahead.

It was on this show, particularly, that his studies in sound were to prove not only helpful, but essential. Thousands of new sounds, most of them heard but once or twice in news-reels, had to be duplicated. Battles on land, sea and air had to be produced with only three mediums, the voices of the characters, studio devices, and music. The show won the Peabody Award, radio’s highest honor, and Van’s music was given full credit for its part in accentuating the drama and plot. Van thought that he had composed some of his best dramatic music for that show, and the critics agreed with him.

While he had been busy with his programs, taking records off the air and further perfecting the machinery with which he did it, Van hadn’t much time to play back some of his first recordings for comparison. One night he decided to play some of the oldest in his collection, which had swelled to about 6,000. He made a very sad discovery.

The records he had worked so hard to get were almost unplayable. The high frequency notes were muffled and blurred, which subsequent investigation proved to be caused by distortion of the recording grooves, due to a drying-out process. He and Nester began to experiment with strange brews. The result was a liquid that would help preserve the groove structures and restore to a great extent the original tone quality. Furthermore, it materially reduced the surface tension which had caused the distortion of the high and low frequency notes.

They had another product, and another idea. If they could produce a product which would do these things, they could find another that would do away with still another bug in home-recording, friction between the cutting needle and the disc. Months of research produced a pre-recording fluid for use on the disc before cutting; when applied before the record was actually cut, it allowed the needle to cut more smoothly, and reduced both surface noise and needle wear.

When the war came along, the business which was founded by accident had become a thriving industry. The plant possessed enough high-precision equipment, personnel and technicians to be in line for war contracts. Today, in addition to its regular products, DuoTone manufactures 20-odd items for the government, some of which are used in the instruments in Uncle Sam’s bombers, and are so small that 10,000 of them can be packed in a tiny glass vial not more than one and one-half inches long.

But with Van music is still first. He is in “big” business, but to him it remains a side-line. Together they put him into very high income brackets, which pleases both Van and his father. The latter is delighted his son is in business at last and doing so well. He still thinks the music should come under the heading of spare-time activity; but it will never be that to Van.

1 comment
  1. Hirudinea says: June 21, 20129:43 am

    I checked his wikipedia entry, not much on there (although he did introduce the theremin to tv), I wonder what happened to his audio products after tape came in, anyone know?

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