The History of Recorded Sound

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | iHeart Radio | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

One of the landmark inventions in human history was the ability to record sound. 

This technology allowed music to go from something only appreciated by a small number of people to something which could be enjoyed by millions. 

It also allowed people to speak to others across vast distances and eventually led to a thing called podcasting.

Learn more about the history of recorded sound and how we went from wax cylinders to mp3s on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Normally when I talk about the development of a tool or a technology, some extremely early version of it predated the modern version by hundreds or even thousands of years. 

That is not the case with recording sound. There is nothing we can point to before the mid-19th century, which is even a proto version of sound recording. 

I have to acknowledge an urban legend and news story which broke several years ago, which claimed that sound waves had been etched into wet pottery when it was being shaped. In one claim, the noise of the Mount Vesuvius eruption had been captured on a clay pot moments before it was buried in volcanic ash. 

All of these stories have been debunked. Not only is there no evidence, but given how clay pots are made, it would be almost impossible for a needle to etch soundwaves onto them using ancient tools. 

That being said, the problem of capturing sound waves is a relatively straightforward one. Sound consists of vibrations that travel through the air. It is fundamentally a physical phenomenon. If you can convert the vibrations in the air to a physical object, then you could, in theory, capture the sound. 

The first person we have evidence of who was able to capture sound waves was the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.

He created a device he called a phonautograph. He designed the device to mimic the human ear with a drum that would vibrate from sound and then move a stylus that would make marks on a piece of paper covered in carbon black. 

The device was not designed to record sound intended for playback but rather was simply a laboratory tool used to study sound waves. 

The idea of reversing the process to playback sound was still 20 years away. However, many of his recordings, which were just black pieces of paper, survived with the soundwave images intact. 

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Labs in 2008 used digital audio tools to recreate the sound waves captured by Scott’s phonautograph. These sounds are now considered the oldest sound recordings in the world, and they predate the previous earliest recording by 28 years. 

Here is a short clip of Scott singing Au Clair de la lune on April 9, 1860. The oldest recording of a human voice in history.

[Insert sound clip]

Yeah, the quality isn’t very good, but then again, you can clearly identify a human voice, and most importantly, this was recorded 162 years ago! 

Scott’s system was neither practical nor useful. It was a laboratory tool. There were several people in the later half of the 19th century who were trying to develop something which could both record and play back sound. 

In 1877, a French poet by the name of ??Charles Cros designed a system for recording and playing back sound. He even submitted the idea in a sealed letter to the French Academy of Science in April of that year, but he never built a working prototype. He called his device the paleophone.

Because he never actually built anything, he is seldom credited with the invention of sound recording.

A few months later, the American inventor Thomas Edison began working on a similar device. He announced his new invention in November and called it the phonograph.

Edison’s impetus was to record sounds that were transmitted over the newly created telephone, which had been announced the year before. 

Edison’s first system was entirely mechanical. By that, I mean there were no electricity involved. The first recordings were etched onto tin foil which was wrapped around a cylinder. You had to speak into a horn that would collect the sound that vibrated a membrane, which moved a stylus that made indentations into the foil.

Needless to say, the sound quality was poor, and each recording was a custom job.

Edison usually threw away his old tin foil recordings because they were useless after a few plays. However, one recording from 1878 was found and recovered. It is Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

[Insert sound clip]

The first duplication efforts involved hooking up the recording device to 10 different cylinders, and eventually, it was possible to have over a hundred cylinders all recording. However, if you wanted 100 more cylinders, you had to record all over again.

To this extent, every recording was a master copy.

In the 1890s, one of the first recording stars was an African-American named George W. Johnson. Johnson had the best-selling recordings in the country and may have sold as many as 50,000  cylinders. However, he had to literally record the same songs hundreds of times to make the recordings. 

Here is a version of “The Laughing Song” from 1898

[Insert sound clip]

Edison’s system that required artists to record the same thing dozens of times a day wasn’t sustainable. 

The solution came from an invention by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Labs. They developed a system of recording onto a wax disk that was called a Graphophone. 

Whereas Edison etched the sound waves onto foil, the graphophone engraved the sound into the wax. 

Bell created The Volta Graphophone Company, which via a series of mergers, is still alive today in the Columbia Record Company. 

There wasn’t a big quality difference between a disk and a cylinder, but there was a huge difference in the ability to produce and distribute recordings. A wax disk could be turned into a metal plate, which could then be used to press out records in a factory. 

In past episodes, I’ve talked about inventions like the light bulb, the steam engine, and the printing press. What they all had in common was that the system which won wasn’t the first one developed. It was the first to create a practical system.

In this case, it wasn’t the graphophone. It was a system developed by the German-American inventor Emile Berliner. He created a system called the gramophone. You’ve probably all seen at least a photo of a gramophone. It has a large horn where the sound comes out. If you have ever seen a Grammy award, it is a small statue of a gramophone. 

His gramophone players and records were the first to find real commercial success. The term “gramophone” was synonymous with “record player” in the early 20th century.

The next big innovation in recording sound occurred in the early 20th century with the advent of the electrical microphone. 

The microphone could convert a sound wave into an electrical signal. This allowed for amplification, as well as balancing other sound inputs. The Western Electric corporation developed an entire suite of electrical sound products, which greatly improved sound quality. 

Amplification allowed for quieter instruments, such as strings to be recorded on an equal footing with louder instruments, such as brass. It also created electrical gramophones, as they were called, which used a motor to power the turntable and an amplified loudspeaker for sound. 

However, the end of this electrical system was still a disk made out of wax with grooves mechanically cut into it.

The next big leap occurred after the second world war. The Germans had been using a technology invented in the 1930s called magnetic tape. 

Magnetic tape was a huge breakthrough in sound quality. American radio engineers knew the Germans had some unknown technology when the quality of their recorded radio broadcasts was as good as their live broadcasts. 

Starting in the early 1950s, magnetic tape was used for almost all master sound recordings. Not only was it better, but it could record each track independently. This allowed the various instruments, or even completely different takes, to be edited together after recording. Perhaps most importantly, it led to the development of stereo sound recordings, where different sounds would come from different speakers. 

The difference between music recorded on tape vs. music recorded directly to wax was similar to standard definition and high-definition television. You can hear a very clear difference in sound quality between music recorded before the early 1950s and after. 

If you want a clear example, go to your favorite music service and listen to any song by Frank Sinatra that was recorded in the 1940s vs the 1950s. 

Improvements in recording quality led to the development of high-fidelity sound systems for consumers. 

There were advancements in the distribution of music as well. The quality of vinyl improved the sound quality of records. A new format known as the long-playing disk, or LP, was also introduced, allowing more music to be played on a single record side. 

LPs also spun at a slower 33 ? rotations per minute compared to the 78 RPMs of older records. An LP could hold as much as 22 minutes of music on a single side. 

While recording was now done on tape, it took a while to distribute music on tape. 

Reel-to-reel tape players were sold in the 50s and 60, but they were mostly only for people with high-end sound systems because the tape’s sound quality was better than vinyl. Plus, you could listen to an entire symphony without having to flip the record over. 

While reel-to-reel had high quality, it was very cumbersome to play. 

That problem was solved with the development of magnetic tapes in cartridges.

The first popular cartridge tape was called the Stereo 8, or as it is better known, the 8-track-tape. 

A consortium developed the 8-track standard in 1963, and it was already being installed as an option in Ford cars as early as 1965.

8-tracks were extremely popular from the late 60s through the 1970s as it was the first recorded musical format that could be used in automobiles or portable devices. 

Sales peaked in 1978, and the market had completely disappeared by 1983. 

What replaced it was the compact cassette tape. Developed in 1963 by the Dutch Philips Corporation, it was much smaller and much easier to use than an 8-track tape. 

I remember having a big rack of tapes in high school. That was the primary music format everyone used, and they were even better suited for cars and portable devices. 

It was the cassette tape that led to the popularity of the “boom box.”  

Moreover, unlike 8-tracks, you could buy blank tapes to record your own sounds, or to the bane of the music industry, you could copy music. 

Cassettes, for the first time, allowed users to mix and match songs and create what became known as “mix tapes.” 

The cassette era was short-lived, however, because just a few years after it gained ascendence, the Digital Audio Compact Disc, or CD, was announced. 

A joint project of the Philipps and Sony corporations, the CD had many advantages over cassettes and LPs. For starters, the sound quality of digital music, in almost every blind test, is considered to be much higher. 

Second, while CDs were susceptible to damage, they were much more forgiving than cassettes and LPs were to damage.  Playing a CD didn’t involve any physical contact, unlike a record needle or a tape head. 

You could play them in a car like a cassette, yet it also had album art like an LP.

The length of a CD was set at 74 minutes because the wife of the then Sony CEO Akio Morita flet that an entire recording of Beethoven’s 9th symphony should be able to fit on a single disk, and the longest version they could find was 74 minutes. 

The industry went through yet another cycle of a new format replacing the old format. 

It turned out that the CD was to be the last major physical music format. 

The 1990s saw the rise of the internet. CD’s and the early internet didn’t really work well together because the music on a CD was uncompressed which made file sizes very large. 

What turned the internet into a vehicle for sound was compression. The ability to take a digital file and make it smaller, without any noticeable diminishment of sound quality. 

The technology which made the internet a platform for sound was Moving Picture Experts Group-2 Audio Layer III format, commonly known as MP3. 

It was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in 1991 and it was able to condense digital music down to a fraction of its original size. Fun fact: the song used by the engineers to test the MP3 files was Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega. 

The MP3 format changed……everything. 

Music went from being a physical object to data. When combined with a worldwide computer network like the internet, it meant that everyone could have everything. 

Instead of letting a friend copy your cassette tape, you could now share a music file with everyone in the world. 

This led to online services such Napster and Limewire where people traded music openly and for free. 

The music industry was going to have none of that, so they were all eventually shut down. In their place arose streaming services like Spotify, where you had to pay a monthly fee or listen to advertisements between songs. 

This, too, radically changed how people consumed music. Music used to be limited to what you owned. Now, everyone has access to almost everything every recorded, all the time. 

There are a host of different digital audio formats, but several years ago, the Fraunhofer Institute released all of its intellectual property surrounding the MP3 format. Even though other formats are arguably better, MP3 is good enough has simply become ubiquitous. 

The recording you are listneing to right now is an MP3 file. In fact, you can think of this podcast as being representative of the state of the art in audio. By that I don’t mean I have the best or latest audio gear, because I don’t.

It is because I am able to record this entire episode, by myself, with common consumer products, upload it to a computer, and have tens of thousands of people around the world listen to it in just a matter of minutes. 

The democratization of sound recording and easy, free, global distribution of audio is something that Édouard-Léon Scott could never have imagined when he recorded the shapes of sound waves on paper, 162 years ago.