Friday, January 20, 2017

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 (one of which can be heard here).

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, though it offered the first "talking dolls," failed to find any broader 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.

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.

There remained problems with Edison's invention -- the acoustical horn used in recording had trouble picking up fainter sounds (one reason that brass band music and operatic singing were frequent offerings), and the various materials and needles used in reproduction all had problems with surface noise (click here to hear a modern series of recordings made using Edison's original materials) In addition, 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.

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 substate -- a mixture of shellac, carbon black, and clay -- still had a problem with surface noise (for a sample of what a record of this era would have sounded like without this issue, listen to these Louis Armstrong recordings recovered from metal masters).

 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. I could only imagine how sound recording, in the sense of experiencing it, was when it first started and whether or not the pioneers of the industry could have imagined how far sound recording could have gotten. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (I’m going to call him Scott from now on), as mentioned in the post, didn’t intend to record sound to playback audio but rather to produce as a visual representation instead. Could he have imagined his recordings to someday be computerized and produced to become sick jams in a studio? Now in days not only can we record natural sound but we can also create and record artificial sound. For example, an actor could have passed away during a film shooting or could have already been deceased and is wanted for a scene in a new movie (Furious 7 and Rouge One), not only can the film have the actor visually produced but they could also use software to create artificial dialect of the actors’ voice for the lines in the film.

    For me, the closest thing to this type of experience would have to be VR (Virtual Reality). We are still in the early stages of VR, with Nintendo experimenting with the Virtual Boy and motion sensors from the Wii, Wii U, and now the Switch to companies like Sony and Oculus using these experiments to create a better quality VR experience. Very similar to Scott, Edison, and Emile Berliner, these companies seem to be working to create a different style of experience, but are very much still in the early stages no matter how amazing we may think they are now, years from now someone is going to create something based off these works that we could only imagine and in some cases, may not even be able to see.

  2. I am curious of Scott’s intentions as well. Perhaps his vision was to have his voice live on long after his death, and he hoped that his visual recordings of sound would one day be deciphered. And they have!
    Today it is a catch-22 for the recording artist. You want your music played and praised. You want to be successful, but also reach people and be understood. You want to inspire the world, but you also want to get paid!

    The artificial dialect Edgar refers to is beneficial to the movie maker when an actor unfortunately passes away during production. Movies are an enormous undertaking, and so it makes sense for a director to want to take advantage of technology for the means of finishing a film. However, would this be something, for example, that Carrie Fisher’s family is alright with? And if they are, and the computer-generated Princess Leia is as good as the original, is this not a cautionary tale for the actor? Why pay real actors millions when you can create ones digitally for a lot less?

  3. Edgar and Eric raise interesting points with digitally recreating a persons image and voice. If they use my image can I stay home for all of shooting and still get paid? What happens when AI (Artificial Intelligence) gets together with Hollywood and recreates the basic personality traits and physical quirks of movement of an actor? At what point is it a new creation? Can I copyright myself? That sounds like a far fetched joke, until you look at what Edgar pointed out about creators of early works being probably blown away if they were to know where the technology actually went. Virtual Reality would have looked like magic, yet humble sound and video beginnings had to precede it. In the end there will be jobs for the programmer who builds the images and sounds, but what about the actors and actresses? Will companies create new virtual stars “from scratch”? Will they be based on past stars? If so, do the past stars get a royalty? Can you copyright a limp? How is this different from Rappers sampling loops and making new art with them? Law. Recording engineers and actors should study Law. We’re going to need it.
    -Tony Ricci