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07 September 2018

The Eternal Sound: From the Phonograph to Holophony

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

Music adds rhythm to our lives. Who hasn’t hummed along in the shower to a song playing on the radio, bobbed their head to the beat of some melody while driving or slipped on headphones to listen to a favourite playlist while going for a walk? However, we’ve been able to record and reproduce sound for only 140 years. Before that, music lovers had to be satisfied with the intense, but ephemeral, live performance. Everything changed with the invention of the phonograph. Since then, the way in which we store sound has varied in medium and format, although in essence the technique has always been the same: record the sound waves—subtle changes in atmospheric pressure—as graphic sound waves, then later reproduce them following the inverse process.

It was the prolific American inventor Thomas Alva Edison who came up with the phonograph in 1877. Sound waves were transformed into mechanical vibrations that made a stylus move on a cylinder with a thick layer of wax, where small grooves were recorded. That device could record a maximum of two minutes and play the recording about 50 times, until the grooves got worn and became illegible. Seventeen years earlier, the French printer and bookseller Édouard-Leon Scott had devised a similar instrument to record sound, the phonautograph, on a device that was also cylindrical but that used smoked glass instead of wax to record sound waves. That first machine was able to collect sound waves, but not reproduce them: therefore, until 2008, nobody was able to hear the short verse of the popular French song, Au clair de la lune, that Scott had managed to immortalise.

Thomas Edison and his early phonograph. Source: Biblioteca del Congreso de EEUU

The reign of the gramophone

Scarcely had people begun to listen on phonographs to the first recorded chords when, in 1887, Emile Berliner, an American of German origin, developed the gramophone. It could record sounds on a flat disc (which could contain music on both sides) instead of on a cylinder. The first gramophone records were 12.5 cm in diameter (about 5 inches) and were made of ebonite, a plastic substance that could be engraved. The advantage of this new system was that thousands of copies could easily be made from a single original mould, whereas with the original phonograph it was necessary to interpret the piece to be recorded as many times as copies were desired.

Since then, Edison had greatly improved his phonograph, as well as the manufacturing process and the materials of his cylinders, which sounded better than the Berliner discs. The stage was set at the beginning of the 20th century for the first format war in the history of music—between cylinders and discs—a battle that Edison lost in the 1910s. After that, the gramophone quickly became popular and its discs—of up to 12 inches (about 30 centimetres) in diameter, which rotated at 78 revolutions per minute (RPM) and could store up to 4-5 minutes of music on each side—were the first musical format that sold massively and reached homes.

Then albums were born, which were the folders to keep the four discs necessary to record a symphony. The singles (only one disc) of 10 inches contained a single song of popular music, of up to 3 minutes, whereas they needed to be extended up to 12 inches for jazz artists to be able to perform their material. That reign lasted until the mid-1950s, when vinyl emerged, the synthetic material that replaced a natural resin (shellac, produced by small insects) in the commercial manufacturing process of music discs.

The vinyl empire

The first vinyl LPs were released on 10 June 1948 by the company Columbia Records and changed the history of music. It was not just a simple change of material. The new vinyl records were more durable than the heavy and brittle shellac discs, but above all they had another advantage: with the same diameter, a single record could fit as much music as on the four discs of an old album. This is why the name LP (long play) was given to the 12-inch vinyl records, which rotated at 33 RPM (compared to 78 RPM on the gramophone).

The trick to quadrupling the length of a record (up to 22 minutes per side) was not only to spin the disc more slowly, but also to record the sound in grooves three times narrower. And to reproduce those sound, a new machine was needed: a more sophisticated version of the gramophone that was cheaper to manufacture. For the public it was a less expensive and more comfortable way to listen to music; for artists, the new LP format (which also retained the name “album” of its predecessor) was a new way of composing music. Jazz musicians took advantage of the long duration to record much longer songs and also to create albums as a collection of several themes with a sense of wholeness. Meanwhile, popular music was sold like donuts on 7-inch (30-centimetre) singles that rotated at 45 RPM.

Those gramophones that had evolved to adapt to vinyl records—with a finer needle and a lighter arm, reproducing sound with more fidelity and less surface noise, and capable of turning at 33 and 45 revolutions per minute—are the basis of the current record player or turntable. It’s the sound reproduction system that has stuck around the longest (with important technological improvements, such as those that allowed the birth of hip hop), dominating the scene without any great rivals until it almost disappeared abruptly in the final stretch of the twentieth century, before being resurrected well into the twenty-first century.

The tape recorder and rock and roll

While the gramophone didn’t stop spinning, in 1935 the German company Telenfunken AEG released the innovative K1 tape recorder, which recorded sound waves on a magnetic tape made by the chemical company BASF, also German. Unlike the gramophone, the tape recorder permitted the recording of a sound quickly and reproducing it immediately, something that revolutionized the radio industry. The Nazi party also used this new technology to spread propaganda messages through its network of broadcasting stations.

But without a doubt the tape recorder became popular thanks to a new musical genre: rock ‘n’ roll. From the 1960s to the 1980s, rockers exploited the creative possibilities of this fabulous machine to the maximum, cutting and gluing the magnetic tape or playing sounds backwards.

AEG – Magnetophon 75 in the National Museum of Military History in Diekirch (Luxembourg). Credit: Paul Hermans

And the tape recorder led to the appearance of new sound mediums, which young rock ‘n’ roll lovers could listen to in their cars, and not just in their homes. In 1962, the Dutch firm Philips launched the compact cassette: a sealed plastic covering containing a rolled up reel of magnetic tape about 100 metres long. A few years later the blank cassettes of the Japanese company Maxell came onto the market, making it much easier for anyone to record and distribute music.

The digital revolution

The digital era landed in 1979 with the Compact Disc. A digital recording is obtained after an analogue-digital conversion process—the analogue information is transformed into a binary code of zeros and ones—which is then recorded onto a medium. In the first CDs, digital recordings of about 75 minutes on a 12 cm diameter disc could be made. It was the first reproduction system that hardly deteriorated with use and was free of the background noise of vinyl records and cassettes.

The digital MP3 system, released in the early 1990s, changed the way people consume music. The format uses an algorithm with some loss of information (and therefore quality and subtleties) compared to the CD, reducing the size of the audio file, which makes listening and sharing music through the Internet very simple. Other digital formats emerged later (such as WAV, AAC, WMA or MP4) along with new devices to play them, such as Apple’s iPod, which popularised this digital music that became independent of physical media such as albums and cassette tapes.

The recording of the future

If the MP3 reduced the quality in search of comfort and versatility, the latest recording formats look to do just the opposite. On the one hand, high-resolution music files contain more information than the tracks on a CD, and are beginning to take off with high-speed Internet connections and the increased capacity of mobile devices to process them.

On the other hand, the most novel way of storing music, holophony, manages to find new nuances in traditional music. Sound is perceived in three dimensions, since it reaches us from any angle. To achieve this, it’s recorded as it would reach our ears, so that it sounds more realistic when played, achieving a sound immersion that requires the use of new headphones to make the experience complete. One more step in the search for a perfect sound that lasts forever.

Interactive timeline: History of Music Technology

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Bibiana García Visos



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