Fred Gaisberg was musically inclined from a young age. He could play the piano in many styles and had a knack for knowing musical talent when he saw it. In 1891 he worked for Charles Tainter, who was recording graphophone cylinders in preparation for arcades at the Chicago World's Fair. While still a teenager, Gaisberg found new singers, set up the studio, ran the recording machines, accompanied the vocalists on the piano, and delivered the cylinders to the arcades. He was well placed to become a major influence in the early recording industry, both as a talent scout and as a sound engineer.
While working for Emile Berliner, Gaisberg was frustrated that the first disc gramophones, which were wound by hand, did not play for long and were of poor quality. While paying a visit to mechanic Eldridge Johnson, Gaisberg saw how clockwork machinery intended for sewing machines might work to rotate gramophone discs at a steady rate. The standardization of disc rotation at 78 rpm made Johnson a wealthy man who eventually took over Berliner’s American interests in the Victor Talking Machine Company. Recording materials were also a problem, and Gaisberg discovered that shellac was better than hard rubber for record production. During his early days in the recording industry, records could not be mass produced. Instead, many records were recorded at one time. Throughout the 1890s, multiple machines were set up to capture the same studio performance, which was repeated until enough cylinders or discs had been made.
In 1898 Gaisberg left his position in Berliner’s company as a piano accompanist and recording supervisor and went to London to join the Gramophone Company as a recording engineer. He was enthusiastic about all kinds of music and quickly became a friend to major singers and musicians all over Europe, including Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba. According to an apocryphal story, Gaisberg heard Caruso and was determined to record him singing a program of arias. Caruso expected a large sum of money for the contract, but Gaisberg’s bosses refused to approve the expense. Gaisberg made the recording anyway in a Milan hotel room and was later gratified both by Caruso’s international stardom and his contribution to Victor Record’s financial success.
Gaisberg remained in his position as senior recording expert for the Gramophone Company from 1898 to 1939. He was quite financially successful. His monthly earnings as a recording engineer were about five times as much as those of a skilled mechanical engineer. He was also one of the few experienced recording engineers able to cope with the effects of switching from acoustic to electrical recording. In acoustical recording, the actual sound waves produced by the artist operated a recording mechanism that cut grooves on the master record. In electrical recording, instead of direct operation by the sound waves, a microphone diaphragm received the sound waves and amplified the electrical currents that operated the cutting mechanism. Gaisberg had to study electrical engineering to keep up with his profession once electrical recording could encompass so many more sounds and frequencies than acoustic recording. Although much of his work was behind the scenes, Gaisberg played a major role in both the technological form and the artistic content of the early sound recording industry.