Sunday, January 28, 2018

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 comment:

  1. I find it interesting that the original phonographs used a cylinder system and produced sound through vertical movement. It reminds me of wind-up music boxes. (

    The horizontal movement of the circular disc seems more practical, which might be a reason the disc rendered the cylinder obsolete. I was surprised to learn that consumers could make home recordings, so early on, by purchasing wax cylinders. It's funny to hear the type of content people of that period recorded. It didn't take long for the motivational speaker, comedic skits, and soundtracks of animal noises to make their way onto the first audio format. It's hard to believe that the generic "brown wax" cylinder is the prototype of the cassette recorders I grew up using, and still do, to record rough demos. That such a large and awkward looking contraption, like the phonograph, eventually led to the creation of the of the I-pod is astonishing. Though, my nieces must think my analog electronic devices are from the previous millennium (and they would be correct).

    The sound driven mechanical process is perplexing to me. I have never seen that type of technology and can't imagine how it works. The electrical recording and microphone amplification system appears to be nearing a century of usage. While vinyl can suffer from static, tapes can be eaten by a cassette players, and compact discs sometimes skip, digital audio can sound distorted and the data can become corrupted. But their one commonality is that, when compared to the phonograph and even many of the pre-WWII recordings, the music devices available to the baby boomers and their descendants have been groundbreaking and revolutionary. From the jukebox to the DJ, to pirate radio and the Jamaican sound systems, modern music technology was a major catalyst behind the events of the latter half of the 20th century.