History of Recorded Sound: From the Origins to the Digital Era

Micrphone in music recording studioWhile sound has been around for as long as we’ve had ears, the ability to record those sounds has only been around for 150 years or so. Today, we’re able to record sound in a variety of ways on a variety of media. The first recorded sound was actually saved to paper and there was no playback.

What is the History of Recorded Sound?

Today, sounds can be created, manipulated, and recorded without there being a tangible or touchable end product. While it took nearly a half-century to move from paper reproductions of sound to cylinders that could playback those sounds, technical advances today seem to happen almost annually.

The Origins of Recorded Sound

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian printer and bookseller, was the first to record sounds in 1857. However, his phonautograph wasn’t made to playback the sounds he was recording – that wasn’t his interest. Scott de Martinville wanted to create a device that could record and return a visual reproduction of soundwaves.

As sound waves passed through the air, the vibrations would move a stylus along the soot-covered paper to create lines. One hundred fifty years after its creation, phonautogram was converted to sound in 2008 by scanning the lines and using software to convert the lines into sound. The snippet was a man singing “Au Clair de la Lune,” a French folk song.

Phonographs and Playbacks

It would be two decades before someone else advanced Scott de Martinville’s technology and made a buck doing it. Thomas Edison’s invention captured soundwaves and etched them via stylus to a cylinder. The phonograph cylinder was created in 1877, patented in 1878, and soon gained worldwide attention.

For two decades, these cylinders were bought in the millions. The creation, use, and distribution of the cylinders became an industry unto itself. Because the cylinders could be mass-produced, they were easily accessible in most industrial countries.

It should be noted that the earliest evidence of someone having figured out a working process for recording sound doesn’t belong to Edison. That title belongs to French poet Charles Cros, whose Paleophone was proposed earlier in 1877 via a letter to the Academy of Sciences in Paris. However, no working version of the Paleophone was ever discovered.

The cylinder eventually gave way to the gramophone record as created by Emile Berliner and patented in 1887. From 1910 until the late 1950s, double-sided records developed by Edison were the main consumer music format. Some forms of these records remained popular through the 20th century.

However, there were drawbacks to these early recordings. Midrange sounds were easy to record, but higher and lower ranges were next to impossible. Horns of some sort were often used to focus the music coming from an instrument or vocals as well as to bring those soundwaves to the disk. The electrical age of recording made those horns and other devices obsolete.

The Electric Era

Although the telephone had been in use since the last quarter of the 19th century (1876), it took some time for electronic recording to be recognized as a viable option for recording sound. Just as the radio was poised to become the primary source of news and entertainment across the western world, one of the first public recording efforts took place in Britain in November of 1920. The recording was weak and nearly inaudible but proved that electronic recording equipment was a viable option.

As microphones improved, so did the amplification of sound. By the end of the 1920s, electronic recording had almost completely displaced acoustic recording. But records were still the main commercial way to listen to music. In some cases, the amplification of sound was too much for playback machines to handle, so record companies intentionally reduced the frequency range until listening devices could be improved.

The Introduction of Magnetic Tape and Multi-Track Recording

The first examples of magnetic tape can be traced back to Germany in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, American John T. Mullin aka “Jack Mullin” improved upon German tape recorders to make the first commercially viable equipment. These recorders would convert electrical audio signals into magnetic energy and then transfer that energy to the tape. On playback, the process was reversed.

We’re sure you’re familiar with the tape recorders found in recording studios. Consisting of two large spools on either end that are run through with a single strip of magnetic tape that’s fed through a series of rollers, guides, and magnetic heads, from one side to the other. To the music industry, the real boon of the invention was that tape could be recorded over or erased completely.

Whereas with phonographs and records, once a groove was made there was no going back. With tape, you could record, go back, re-record, and literally cut parts of the tape to remove unwanted recording. Along with improved recording machines, editing equipment became more sophisticated and audio engineers could work with multiple tracks.

The Beatles and Beach Boys were two of the first bands to get really creative with this new form of recording and altered the way music was recorded forever. As cassette technology improved, first with 8-track cassettes and then the smaller compact cassettes, you could take music with you wherever you went. And The Walkman was born.

The Digital Era

In the late 70s and early 80s, a new way to record was beginning to take hold as computer components became more accessible. Not only in professional recording studios but in homes as well. Four tracks, then eight tracks had once been the height of recording technology. With the advent of digital recording, audio engineers could work with hundreds of tracks (not that many did).

Digital audio workstations became the norm, transforming the music industry yet again. Virtual instruments, MIDI keyboards, and other gear allowed users to make just about any sound they wanted. And with digital, everything was saved to a hard drive—gone was the need for tape, vinyl, or any other material.

Compact discs entered popular culture during the time. These discs could reproduce a higher range of frequencies, producing a much cleaner sound. However, the recording process is roughly the same as the old cylinders, phonographs, records, and tape; music is turned to a binary code and imprinted onto the disc. Then that process is reversed on playback.

Once high-speed internet became commonplace, compact discs went away almost as quickly as they appeared. With advances in streaming services and smartphones, you now have access to almost any song ever produced—as long as there’s a digital version of it.

From a piece of paper to having an entire recording studio that fits in the palm of your hand, the advances in recording over the past 160 years are nothing short of awe-inspiring. What will the next evolution of sound recording look like? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

Start your Music Education Journey at Recording Connection

Many graduates of our music production and audio engineering school have gone on to find work with the mentors they learned under, been hired at other recording studios, and even opened their own studios. In addition to learning about the technical aspects, Recording Connection shows you how to run a business, get clients, and keep the lights. Choose from one of our many music programs including the Recording Connection music production course, music business course, hip hop and beat making course, and more.

Either in-person or through remote learning, Recording Connection will give you the information and the experience you need to begin making a career in the audio engineering field. The rest is up to you. If you make the most of your time, act responsibly, and make yourself indispensable, the sky’s the limit. Are you ready to amplify your life? Apply to your online music production school today.

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