Thursday, January 23, 2014

Earliest Sound Recordings

The history of sound recording was once thought to begin with Thomas Alva Edison's phonograph of 1877. As with many of his inventions, Edison sketched out the idea, and gave it to his engineer, John Kruesi. Tests and improvements occupied most of the year, and the patent was finally filed in December. Legend has it that the first recording was of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," recited by Edison himself. Although Edison made later recordings of the same text, there is no surviving recording of any sound using the Edison system until more than a decade later, with the 1888 recordings of the Handel Festival at London's Crystal Palace.

And yet, it turns out, there are actually sound recording which do survive from nearly 20 years earlier than Edison's invention. These were made using the Phonautograph (shown above) invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. His device was not intended to permit the playback of sound; instead, using a sound-sensitive cone which etched its trace on paper coated with a fine layer of charcoal dust, the aim was to produce a visual record of sound. It was only in the twenty-first century that these visual traces were, with the aid of computer models, rendered back into audible sound, and even then there were glitches. The 1860 record of "Claire de Lune," though to be have been sung by a woman, turned out to be of much lower pitch, and sung by Scott himself! This device, indeed was extensively tested and deployed, and rumors circulate as to recordings of famous persons of the day, among them Abraham Lincoln. Such a recording would indeed be a find!

The capitalization of sound recording happened in many phases. Edison's own company, founded in 1878, failed to find any market for its recordings until more than a decade later, when improvements by other inventors -- chiefly Alexander Graham Bell -- rendered the Edison system practical for widespread use. The original system of tinfoil-covered paraffin was discarded in favor of various waxy compounds, which had the advantage that, though soft enough for recording, they could be hardened through baking. Later systems enabled the making of a wax matrix, which could be used to make molds to cast duplicate cylinders, enabling mass production of commercial recordings.

All of Edison's early discs used "hill and dale" recording, in which the sound waves formed, and later reproduced, impressions by degrees of vertical movement. This system had limited fidelity, and posed many technical hurdles; switching to a lateral (side-to-side) movement offered promise, but was not made commercially practical until Emile Berliner came up with the circular disc as opposed to the cylinder. Cylinder and disc fought it out from the late 1890's through the early 1920's, when Edison finally ceased cylinder production.

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Edison Cylinder system was that one could buy special "brown wax" cylinders and use them to make home recordings. This made the cylinder the one of the technologies prior to the home reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks in which the end user could make his or her own recordings.

All these systems were mechanical -- the actual sound waves moved the needle, and the needle physically reproduced them. The next step was what was called "electrical recording," using microphones to capture the sound, and relaying the signal to an electromagnetic cutting stylus. Mechanical systems could only be used with fairly loud instruments and voices; the ordinary spoken voice, or quieter instruments such as the guitar or banjo, could scarcely be recorded. Electrical recording, thanks to amplification, could be much more sensitive in the studio -- and much louder on playback.

Such a system did not come into wide use until 1927, at which time record companies made enormous efforts to send out "field recording" vans which used this new technology to capture popular forms of music -- country blues, jug bands, fiddlers, and banjoists -- whose talents could now be cheaply recorded and mass produced. The Great Depression put an end to most of these efforts, and it wasn't until after World War II that the recording "industry" began its greatest epoch. Cheap players and cheaper records -- the constant-value cost of a 45 rpm single was a fraction of a 78 rpm record -- along with the rise of radio as a promotional tool, turned the record business into a global, multi-billion dollar behemoth. The arrival of digital CD's at first only extended and multiplied this vast empire, in part because people bought the same music again in the new format.

And yet, with the advent of the internet and audio compression paradigms such as MP3, the industry began to fizzle; its old bargain of turning the ephemeral -- music performance -- into the physical -- a disc or cylinder or tape -- was undone, as MP3's were almost as ephemeral, and as readily copied and transported, as the music itself. In the 2000's, the CD business has essentially collapsed into a small specialty market, and even online sales have fallen below the pace (due in part to unpaid downloads, and in part to users transferring their older recordings to the new format). Music is, once again, in the hands of the people.

1 comment:

  1. I found it remarkable that sound was recorded so much earlier than I previously realized. I always believed Edison's recording of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was the first, until I read about Scott de Martinville's Phonautograph. Although it took today's computer technology to render sound from the etchings, the inventor's attempt to visual sound so early on is quite an achievement.

    Once people finally took to the phonograph, the technological leaps from there came rather quickly with the invention of the radio and electronic recording. If not for the halt to recording due to the Depression, I can't help but wonder what else may have been used at this time.

    Brecht's reading was interesting, probably quite introspective for the time, but I feel holds little merit today. The radio was "The" form of media for a long time, as radios were affordable for the masses and much more immediate than print or cinema. Though it is true that radio was mostly for entertainment early on, it has developed into an important source of news as well as entertainment.

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