Music Technology

The Technology of Recording Music

The Story of Recording Technology in America

Throughout sound recording history, momentum has had a large impact on the development of technology. During early stages of sound recording technology, the inventions of sound recording technology were barely used, nor adopted into society as a whole; whereas modern day recording technology has a huge amount of momentum around it with infrastructure in place to support. Music artists primarily use certain technology, and a multitude of devices like computers and phones utilize sound recording technology daily.  Throughout history, momentum has favored the best recording technology because, for a long time recording technology was either expensive or had inferior sound quality compared to live music.  This meant that improvements and new inventions could gather significant momentum just because they were better than their predecessors.  Examples following the history of sound recording will model music technology’s history of momentum.

Modern Technology

Modern technology can be referred as an advancement of old technology (“normal” to “new”), we use the technology in a different way, many functions have been added to the existing technology, those various technologies ends up affecting our lives or the society we live in. We refer to those technologies as modern technology because it can not be assumed new in our society(Ramey).

Nowadays, the recording technology has shifted to a new era. Since the well-development of mobile phone and computer, those are the common electrical appliances people use today. The recording technology is embedded into the mobile phone. Due to the convenience of the mobile phone and the easy to use of the function, many people start to use mobile phone for recording. Apart from that, the mobile phone can have a large storage capability, you can record a lot of stuff you want. Streaming is a modern musical medium use by mobile users. Also, there are many desktop audio, they provide a higher quality. You can install the tools in your desktop and those tools provide many functions for editing the record such as time-stretching, pitch-shifting, beat-slicing, slip-editing and rearranging audio et cetera.(Juno) Those tools are very welcome by guitarists, vocalists, and drummers. Since the only cost is to buy the tools only and you do not spend money on the computer, and those tools can produce a better sound modification than the previous technologies we used before.

The real advances in digital recording took place in the early 1990s as the capacity of computer hard drives and computer CPU speeds increased significantly. Today almost all major recording studios have digital capabilities, although some still maintain magnetic tape recorders for certain situations.

~ Man Hon Chow

The Digital Era

The CD is part of what defines the digital music recording era, while the CD was superior in many different ways to it’s predecessors one of the defining factors for it’s success was that it was standardized.  Any CD would be able to play on any CD player. In 1978 Phillips and Sony announced plans to create the CD (Taintor).  Four years later Billy Joel’s music was sold on the first CDs (Taintor).  This is the beginning of the digital music recording era.  

Even though the CD was the beginning of the digital era the creation of the MP3 file was much more impactful on the progression of digital era music recording technology.  The MP3 file compresses recorded audio by a factor of 12 (Taintor).  This reduction in file size was very significant because in 1990 the capacity of hard drives and other file storage was much smaller than it is today.  This made it much more viable to store recorded music on CDs and on computers.  Later on the Audio Home Recording act was passed to compensate copyright holders for the increase in piracy that the more convenient file had lead to (Taintor).  In 2003 with the launch of itunes by Apple the first recorded music was sold legally on the internet (Taintor).  The digital era set the foundations for modern music recording technology and while many of the devices created in the digital era like CD players and MP3 players aren’t used today the CD and the MP3 file are still readily used today.

~ Jeremy Maillet


Tape Era

Magnetic recording requires the storing of electric signals on a moving magnetic surface (Sturgill). This process was first “developed” in 1888 by Oberlin Smith, although it was only theoretically at the time (Sturgill). Tape recording first came about by a German in 1899, when Valdemar Poulsen created a magnetic recording device, but it never took off in the Untied States. This recording device was called the Magetophone (Morton). In the United States magnetic recording took a long time to take off. In the mid 1940’s magnetic recorders were innovated to rival the sound quality of disc recorders(Taintor). This was because the thin steel wire used for magnetic recorders was replaced with a magnetic tape coated with finely powdered iron (Taintor).

In 1944 Bing Crosby heard a demonstration of a tape recorder and was very impressed with the sound quality (Los). This led to Crosby investing $50,000 into the Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company (Los). Today that investment of $50,000 is comparable to more than $850,000 in 2017. The technology that Ampex used to develop a tape recorder were taken from the Germans by the Americans in World War II (Beardsley). American soldiers found tape recordings in German radio stations (Beardsley). Even though the Germans and the Ampex had similar tape recorders, Americans bought Ampex tape recorders because of the negative feeling they had toward Germans because of the recent World War.

Tape recorders increased the importance of the sound engineer. Tape recorders had a giant benefit over disk recorders because engineers could edit recordings. Engineers could cut a section of a tape and insert it into another to create one perfect take (Los). Sound engineers were granted greater control of recording conditions, by using multiple microphones to balance the sound (Timmons). The famous band the Beatles improved on the 4-track recorder in the 1960’s (Los). “The Beatles would make a recording using all four tracks. Then mix these tracks down onto one track of another machine. This process was called bouncing down.” (Los). The sound engineer positioned microphones around all instruments and all members of a band.

In 1964 Phillips produces a 30-minute tape cartridge for three dollars and allows other manufacturers to duplicate the specifications (Taintor). This completely changes the game for tape recording because Phillips standardizes tapes and allows mass production of it. In the 1970’s tape recording hit a major problem. With the advancements in solid state electronics and improved speakers caused the hissing produced by tape recorders to become noticeable (Los). Dolby B developed a method to reduce the hissing noise but it was never eliminated (lossend).

~ Eric Dolen

Electric Era

Thomas Edison – inventor of the phonograph and innovator of electricity – has held his influence in music technologies since 1877. The phonograph developed and lasted decades on the market. The gramophone then replaced the recording mechanisms of the phonograph with acoustics. And since the initial implementation of electronic recording instruments in 1925, the music industry had locked in the use of microphones, speakers, and led to the development of our more complex instruments. The capabilities of electrical signaling and power – proliferated by Edison’s life work – has improved upon the input and output methods of recording technologies. The presence of electricity persists in today’s music technologies.

The technological leap to electricity improved upon the sound quality of recordings along with other areas of public life. Recording processes took a turn towards automation. Microphones captures sound, and back then, the frequencies were relayed to a lathe that cut grooves into a wax disc (Los).  The wax disc is the same medium as was used by the gramophone in acoustic recordings. The development and production of vinyl discs began in 1928 when “RCA buys Victor, forming RCA Victor.” (Taintor). Vinyl and the home stereo were were successes technologically. The improvement in tech was not recognized during the great depression. Free radio was the preferable option and record sales diminished (Taintor).

The business momentum of vinyl – after the Great Depression on – is still evident in today’s market; in 2015, “sales of vinyl records were up 32% to $416 million, their highest level since 1988, according to the RIAA”(Morris).

In live recordings, the use of multiple mics led to increased flexibility and control of recording technology. Blending and sound control could be managed by a sound engineer by avenue of a mixer. The engineer’s task was to position microphones to record all instruments in an arrangement, but the engineer also manipulate the sound as the inputs came in (Timmons). From 1925 to the late 1940’s, electrically recorded music discs dominated the American market.

In conjunction with the growth of the music industry, a new culture was budding. Hollywood developed a culture for music to grow and be heard. The music industry along with the film industry increased in popularity in the early 1900s and continuously throughout the twentieth century.

~Cullen Flynn


The Acoustic Era

Recording technology has been around since 1857 when a French typesetter named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created a device called the “phonautograph”. Prior to the invention of this machine, there was literally no way to record sound. The closest thing to it was writing, which was the only method of recording what people said, or listening to it happen live. The phonautograph was built using a horn and stylus. Sound would enter the horn and cause it to vibrate, which would move the stylus, etching marks onto a piece of paper. Originally, Scott didn’t intend to record sound, rather to display it visually.

20 years later, Thomas Edison built upon this design, adding a mouthpiece and a tin foil wrapped cylinder, turned by a crank. Speaking into the mouthpiece and turning the cylinder caused the stylus to engrave the exact pattern of the sound into the tin foil. Bringing the stylus back to the beginning of the groove and rotating the cylinder again vibrates the disc, producing the original sound. He patented his “phonograph” in Great Britain later that year, ordered the production of 600 more and shelved the project to pursue other ideas.

Shortly after, Alexander Graham Bell designed the “graphophone”, which was basically the same machine, only it used wax instead of tin foil to record. Of course, now that there was competition, Edison returned to the phonograph and started making improvements on it. The main buyers of these devices were public arcades, so Edison’s goal was to make a personal home record player and began working in the record business.

In 1888, Emile Berliner advanced the recording method even further, using a flat, wax coated, zinc disc that became a staple in the music industry. A needle would engrave the recording into the wax, which was then burnt into the zinc using an acid solution. Berliner also created an easy and efficient way to copy the records using a process called electroplating. This “gramophone” outshone both the phonograph and graphophone because of its volume and mass production potential.

At the turn of the century, the Victor Talking Machine Company began commercializing Berliner’s design, and by 1906, they had created the “Victrola” which was a gramophone that had its horn on the inside of an aesthetically pleasing wooden cabinet. These record players were revolutionary and sold in great numbers, making the Victor Talking Machine Company a major competitor in the music industry.

With the ever increasing technological prowess of humanity, the acoustic era of recording technology came to an abrupt end. Towards the end of the first World War, technology that would allow an electronic signal to drive an electromagnetic recording device was in development. The wax disc of shellac was the method used to make copies of records.(Ramey, 2017)

~ Cam LaBrosse

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén