Early recording technologies

Photograph of a gramaphone
© istockphoto.com / Artem Efimov

The recording industry began through two significant inventions:

  • Thomas Edison's cylinder phonograph, the first practical sound recording and playback device, in 1877.
  • Emile Berliner's gramophone disc, the first format to allow mass reproduction, in 1889.

As records became marketable products an industry slowly emerged to produce them. That industry in turn developed its own specialist equipment and its own dedicated spaces where that equipment was used. One of the most important of those spaces was the recording studio.

In these early years the studio can be seen as merely a means to capture straight performances of music. Musicians would be recorded as they played or sang in real time and the performance would be captured directly onto master discs. Indeed the technology used in studios from the beginning of the 20th century would not allow for anything else. At this stage musicians played in the direction of a recording horn, or a number of linked recording horns. The horn was connected to a diaphragm and stylus which turned the vibrations into indentations in the grooves of a master disc. This meant that everything had to be recorded at the same time and the volume of each instrument or voice was dependent on their distance from the recording equipment. For example in early operatic and jazz records the singer had to be positioned directly in front of the recording horn in order to be heard over the rest of the orchestra or band.

The recording process (and the sound quality) was transformed by the change from acoustic to electrical recording. In 1924 Victor introduced its Orthophonic recording system and was quickly followed by other manufacturers. These new recording systems used microphones and amplifiers which could be electronically mixed together to form a single signal (see Morton, 2004: 66). The major effect of these systems was an increase in the frequency range that could be captured. This produced a significant improvement in audio quality, a change which was to have significant consequences for the development of popular music (see for instance the effect of the microphone). However the reduction of differing microphone channels into one signal meant that recording was still essentially capturing simultaneous performances in real time. Recording thus remained a largely documentary process during this period.

The early 1930s saw various new developments. These included the introduction of lightweight 'moving coil' cutting heads which allowed for much more precise grooves to be engraved on master discs. This resulted in a more accurate representation of the waveform of the original sound, and therefore much higher fidelity (Morton 2004, 94) - that is, a better sound quality. Electric microphones, and later magnetic tape, were developed, two inventions which would go on to change the face of popular music. Likewise the development of stereophonic sound from the 1950s to the 1970s and the adoption of multitrack recording from the 1940s onwards all had a huge effect on the recording process, and ultimately on our expectations of recorded music.