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Who is "André Charlin" ?

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

André Marie Bernard Charlin, born in 1903 in Paris, was introduced to electroacoustics by ill-fate. As a talented thirteen year-old flutist, he suffered the death of his father; and so his subsequent interests as an adolescent were greatly influenced by his uncle. Edmond Ragonot (Charlin's mother's brother) was an extremely creative electrical engineer, whose motor designs are still used to this day. He coached his nephew in this very promising domain, helping him to build his first detector radio and to develop it further as soon as the end of WW1 made surplus tubes readily available. Peace-time also introduced the trend for jazz music and dancing, but due to the scarcity of trained orchestras, only broadcast retransmission was available. The challenge was, therefore, to boost a detector radio's output from "earphone" to "dance hall" level. André Charlin was therefore only 16 or 17 when his first "receiver" was soldered together (but he was already very fond of jazz and dancing!)

This was the beginning of a long chain of inventions and technical developments. Over 200 of them have been officially recognized and granted patents. In many cases, an in-depth analysis of the patent's details and verification of it's practical implementation, may well show that André Charlin's discoveries preceded - sometimes by several years - the likes of Rice & Kellogg, Klar & Vogt or Black. He clearly fully deserves shared paternity in the main technical milestones towards high fidelity reproduction.

Primitive by today's power standards, his new receiver incorporated the newly available "military telegraphy valves", which provided a maximum of around 1 W effective power. It soon became obvious that there was a desperate need for better transducers. In 1922, two years before a US patent was granted to Rice & Kellogg, André Charlin obtained a French patent for an electrodynamic loudspeaker with a circular baffle. This patent was later purchased by Compagnie Thomson which, ironically, had simultaneously arranged for a Rice-Kellogg licence!

In 1926, after military service, he was granted two patents; one for a push-pull electrostatic loudspeaker and one for a variable reluctance pick-up system. As he got married the same year and established his first small business for manufacturing radios and loudspeakers, it was obviously lack of time that forced André Charlin to abandon the Boy Scout Group he had created five years earlier. His love for Madame Charlin was probably the reason he decided not to attempt a career as a musician, but rather to "go for something more serious".

In 1927, while further improving upon his pick-up concepts, Charlin is granted a patent for a method of improving an amplifier's response by the use of negative feed-back and for active loudspeaker control.

In 1930 the patents are for the use of filters so as to distribute audio signal reproduction among specialized transducers, and for the "acoustic labyrinth" to be associated with a transducer for the "contrebasse" range. This bass labyrinth as well as the ESL tweeter will still be used in his "Colonnes" during the seventies.

Simultaneously, and possibly out of some impatience with the lack of further technical progress in what would be called today "home audio", André Charlin gets deeply involved with cinematography, where sound reproduction is just introduced at a comparatively much higher quality level. From 1930 on, he produces equipment for synchronous sound playback, using 33 rpm records. Soon thereafter, as "the movies start talking" in 1931 and he is very critical of the poor sound quality attained at first, he focuses upon improving the recording processes and techniques. As early as 1933, he sets up a recording studio which will be responsible for the complete sound part of many famous prewar movies. A synchronized version of "Back Street" is his first production. For the most monumental of pre-war films, Abel Gance's Napoléon, Charlin goes as far as to produce a stereo sound track, based upon recording and reproducing concepts presented in 1934, which sets a mark in the development of stereophony.

While his recording equipment, mounted on three trucks, provides for a correct sound recording even in the hostile sand dunes of Djibouti's desert ("The secrets of the Red Sea", an episode he will later fondly remember), Charlin also adapts his sound reproduction gear to make it compatible with rudimentary projection systems, such as the very popular "Pathé Rural".

Not surprisingly, he eventually gets involved in projection techniques, where his patented "Cyclope" of 1935 introduces substantial focusing improvements to 35mm film projection, and his "Actua Color" of 1938, provides for award-winning quality in color projection. By 1948 it is used in over 1000 movie theaters in France and abroad, As the war nears, some of these designs find military application, e.g. in machine gun firing controls on board fighter aircraft, but André Charlin will later generally prefer to talk about the less elaborate designs he puts into production after the Debacle, in order to maintain sufficient business for him to keep his over 40 employees without risking to unwillingly contribute to the war effort of the German occupant: As fuel is not available and street lighting is reduced, the French bike in the dark: Demand for the new Charlin product, bike dynamos, is thus strong enough to keep the work force busy enough until the war end, when it switches back to cinema equipment.

In 1949 Charlin halts the manufacture of his cinema equipment, and all of his cinema patents were acquired by the Philips Company of Holland, who used them in the FP20/30 series and in the famous DP70 projector.

André Charlin's marked predilection for music and acoustics must have remained unaltered over these years, however, as may be gauged from his quite sudden return to this field in 1949, just after CBS' breakthrough: The American company's skillful combination of german-invented tape recording, US-developped micro-groove cutting and pressing techniques and - last but not least - excellent marketing, starts revolutionizing home audio with the introduction of the LP as we still know it. The American licensing conditions for LP production equipment, however, were so prohibitively expensive in cash-starved postwar Europe, that Charlin elects both to bypass the US patents, using instead own designs and processes whenever feasible, and to join forces with Thomson, where he is hired as the technical engineer in charge of the Ducretet and DCF labels.

There he develops both his famous dummy recording head (1954) and his proprietary stereophonic recording technique, presenting in 1958 possibly the first and certainly some of the best truly "compatible" stereo records. He furthermore fathers introduction of a new, albeit short-lived standard of 16 rpm LP's, which, at least in his own recordings, combine very satisfactory sound quality with a playing time long enough for famous theater plays from the French classical repertoire... Unfortunately this will be overlooked when the French Administration orders turntables for its schools, most will not feature the required 16 rpm speed... Unfortunately as well, Thomson will soon abandon this recording business.

André Charlin is a genius, and a tempestuous one towards whoever does not share in his obsession for technical and musical perfection. His proud "Jupiterian stature", as pianist Lily Kraus once stated, makes it further difficult to negotiate with him and talk him into any compromise, be it for financial reasons or because the Paris Fire Department wants it's high-rise ladder truck back from the Saint Eustache church, where it has been supporting André Charlin's dummy head and mikes for over a week at the very unique spot, halfway to the ceiling, which will ensure optimum sound for the music recording...

For a short while, he partners with another genius, Michel Garcin, in the adventure that will become the Erato label. Magnificent recordings, such the glorious recording of Charpentier's Te Deum, soon made famous as Eurovision hymn, are proof of their combined talent, but the clash of these two strong personalities was inevitable. In 1962, André Charlin established his "Centre d'Enregistrement des Champs Elysees" and his own record label. His accomplice and artistic director isCarl de Nys- certainly the best match one could ever have imagined. Together, they will literally exhume undiscovered musical treasures all over Europe, and their brilliant first recordings will earn "Grand Prix du Disque" awards practically each year of the next decade.

An inventor he remains, not only for his "Laboratoire's" audio equipment products, and the further refined "Colonnes" loudspeakers, which as he rightly pinpoints are among the few transducers which can fully reproduce the "world's best sound" contained in the grooves of his records, but in totally different domains as well; A passionate sailor, he designs one of the first 30' gauge polyester sailing boats to be produced in series, and gets patents for innovative navigation aids, speed logs and a furling forestay device. While very proud of these many patents and discoveries, he does not care much, however, to arrange for adequate protection of his inventions or recordings and to pursue infringements, this possibly out of some naive Christian trust in humane nature. For the same reason, he fully relies on the accounting records and transactions of his financial executive, who might have been robbing him from his first day on...

His last venture, which he enters when others would retire, will thus end in a particularly bitter way after a dozen years and production of some 100 recordings, when Charlin suddenly discovered that he had been robbed of the control over his company and of any possibilty to pursue his life-work

The blow is severe, his health deteriorates. His tools have been taken away, but he still manages to fight for and regain the copyright to his recordings, thus clearing the way for a later revival by friends, which he will be lucky to witness before his death. He welcomes the CD as a substantial potential improvement over the LP - a correct statement, but certainly again a charitable one, considering the dreadful recording quality of the first CD generations - Trying to match this higher quality potential of the CD maybe the driving element behind his continuing pursuit of transducer design improvements and, as a last proof of his genius, his prototype production of an ultimate unique pair of Colonnes incorporating them.

André Charlin dies in 1983.

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