Podcasts in the car, earbuds on the train, streaming at the beach – these days we take it for granted, but it wasn’t so long ago that hi-fi was a bulky and inconvenient business. Delve back a little bit further still and audio capture and playback was reserved for the wealthy elite, and it sounded awful.
Nowadays we’re all beneficiaries of the toils of scientists and engineers who’ve brought playlists to our pockets. But the evolution and history of recorded sound was not without its missteps and dud notes. From the phonautograph to the smartphone, and an unexpected devolution - join us as we take a brief stroll through the history of sound recording.
This contraption mimicked elements of the human ear to capture sound. But it was incapable of playing audio out, instead scribbling the soundwave shapes on paper. Despite this obvious – and major – drawback, it was the template from which a series of future advancements would be made.
In the experiment, Bell observed how the human ear worked by connecting the device to a cadaver. His plan was to further develop the phonautograph to enable the transformation of sound waves into symbols that deaf people could read. It didn’t work too well. But his observations led to the development of the telephone, which several generations later would become our most common audio playback device. It’s funny how these things pan out eventually.
It was humble beginnings – basically tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cylinder – but Edison managed to record music for the very first time with the phonograph. The song: ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’. Naturally.
Around the same time, French inventor Cross submitted a thesis to Paris’ Academy of Science outlining a similar system to the phonograph. But Edison beat Cross to the prototype and ultimately the patent, leading to global notoriety. Whereas Cross, for all his efforts, remains a historical footnote.
Incredibly, Emile Berliner’s invention heralded the arrival of sound recorded on grooved discs, which – albeit modernised – remain in common usage 130 years later. Along with the phonograph, the gramophone became the major playback device through to the 1920s.
It was in the early 1900s that mass production of recordings began and in 1904, Enrico Caruso became the first millionaire recording artist. In 1917, when New Orleans’ Original Dixieland Jazz Band released Livery Stable Blues – the first jazz record – popular music was born.
This allowed artists to use microphones, dramatically increasing sound quality and instantly pushing acoustic recordings out of the market. Rather than horns, new playback systems used electronic amplifiers and despite their poor quality, shellac record discs became the norm. The era of the phonograph and gramophone had come to an end.
The big benefit of audiotape was that it would enable multitrack recording, which wasn’t developed until the 1950s. It was the now infamous guitarist/technician Les Paul who pioneered the approach.
In the 1960s, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were among the first bands to produce 4-track albums. Interestingly, it was during this time that the very concept of the ‘album’ emerged. When played back in stereo – another advancement of the 1930s – these recordings were the closest we’d come to the now universal concept of surround sound.
By the 1950s, the industry standard of 33.3RPM for LPs and 45RPM for singles was established, and by the ’60s shellac discs were discontinued altogether. The reel-to-reel audio tape had become the recording medium of choice. At last, technicians could capture audio sonically akin to live performances, which could be cheaply pressed to vinyl (and later compact cassettes) for mass consumption.
Better still, the editable qualities of tape enabled endless opportunities for manipulation and reconfiguration of the sounds captured. As cutting together virtual ensembles became possible, music changed forever, and global audiences tuned in.
Ry Cooder’s 1979 album Bop ’Til You Drop was the first digitally recorded pop record and today, digital recording remains the industry standard. While many audiophiles bemoan the reduction in sound quality, the relatively low cost of production and subsequent accessibility to the public ensures digital remains the creator, producer and consumer-friendly technology of choice.
After the CD’s introduction in 1982, initially, its high cost kept uptake slow. But rapid advancements and cost reduction led to the medium causing the (temporary) demise of bulky LP records and skittish cassettes. After all, Philips/Sony had a convincing argument: as a robotic John Cleese puts it in this advertisement – ‘One hour of Mozart out of a beer mat’. By the turn of the millennium, CDs were by far the most common format for recorded music, but the boom would be short lived.
The mp3 format – capable of compressing audio and allowing one disc to store up to 14 hours of music – had been around since the late ’80s. It was the arrival of media playout applications like Apple’s iTunes that unlocked the potential of mass sharing and consumption of these comparatively tiny files.
With little or no production costs, overnight the doors to the vaults of virtually the entire back-catalogue of musical history were swung open. The downside: copyright infringement on a global scale. Initially, as the recording industry reeled, lawsuits abounded. But like any consumer-friendly tech advance, when swimming becomes the only alternative to sinking, many music publishers and artists found innovative ways to work within the new digital framework.
In the early 2000s, as digital platforms like the iPod took hold, device storage capacities grew exponentially to keep up with consumers’ music libraries. The popularity of streaming services has once again changed the model. Now it’s possible to access the archives of all recorded music without owning or even downloading any of it.
As music has become increasingly less tangible, for the first time in the history of recorded sound, consumers are looking en masse to the technologies of the past. The upshot: an estimated 40 million vinyl records sold in 2017 alone. The beneficiaries: producers and artists reverting to the medium, and hunter/gatherer music-lovers who swear they can feel, smell and hear the difference. Can you?