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Acoustical recordings were the earliest efforts in recording live music with the intention of playback. Thomas Edison invented a machine in 1877 that recorded and played back sounds. When he spoke, "Mary had a little lamb," into a device that, in reaction to the vibrations of his voice, cut fine grooves with a stylus onto a cylinder wrapped with tinfoil, he became the first person to record the human voice. To play back the sound, the stylus was repositioned on the groove at a lighter pressure and the cylinder rotated. Over the next decade Edison improved his machine and prepared it for its ultimate application: the recording of music. Between 1888 and 1894 such notables as Johannes Brahms, Alfred Tennyson, and Robert Browning all made recordings on the phonograph.
Edison's phonograph was not well suited for recording lower sound frequencies from such instruments as the bass and cello because the acoustical vibrations would not record accurately on the cylinders. Despite these early technical difficulties, phonograph copies of classical music and performers became very popular, thanks in part to Charles and Emile Pathe who, in 1894, built a small phonograph factory near Paris producing thousands of records.
Meanwhile, in 1887, Emile Berliner was busy creating the next significant advancement in sound reproduction, the gramophone. Berliner made his recordings on flat discs rather than the awkward cylinder. Discs proved to be much more practical for storage and mass production. Edison's cylinder phonographs were soon abandoned, but the term hung on in describing either device.
The Gramophone Company established branches in several countries, including Gramophone Company in London and Deutsche Grammophon in Germany; the company eventually grew in the United States to become the Victor Company. Victor produced the Victrola, a record player that was unrivaled in popularity and sales for many years after its introduction in 1901. Recording with the gramophone was known as acoustic recording. Horns of various diameters were placed near the instrument or vocalist. The diameter of the horn and its proximity to the sound source essentially determined the level at which the sound was recorded. When recording multiple piece bands, and especially with orchestras, finding the right acoustics (how many horns to use, with what size diameter, and where to place them) became a grueling, time-consuming task.
Columbia, a competitor to Victor, agreed to a cross-license arrangement in the manufacturing of records and phonographs. They combined patent assignments, allowing both to record on the newly developed wax discs. These records played for two minutes and held a recording on only one side of the disk. Most of the records were voice recordings since the reproduction quality of voices was superior to that of instruments. Other early recordings were of vaudeville skits, readings, and simple popular music, such as ragtime piano pieces.
In 1908, a new material called Amberol was developed, enabling the number of grooves on a cylinder to be increased. The higher number of grooves allowed for a longer recording, which doubled the cylinder's playing time to four minutes.
By 1913, however, discs were matching the playing time of the cylinder. The increased number of grooves and the establishment of two-sided discs in 1908 enhanced the desirability and the utility of the disc. The development of the less-expensive 78 revolutions per minute (rpm) discs completely replaced the cylinders by 1915.
Spring motors powered the early phonographs. Hand cranks had powered the earliest versions, but it was apparent that the evenness of power was important to the sound quality, and a regulated flow of power had to be developed. The gramophone used a crank to wind a spring, and then the spring released at a regulated speed to turn the phonograph.
In the 1930s, electrically powered motors were used to turn the phonograph. The turntable could now turn continuously, allowing for a more even speed and longer playing time for the record. One of the reasons that phonographs were developed with an electric motor was the newfound capacity to combine the unit with a radio. The speaker system could be used for both, making the product more attractive to consumers.
From 1910 to 1920, the phonograph became the mass medium for popular music. Classical music recordings were by far the most widely available, but jazz, ragtime, and other band recordings began to catch on and record sales grew tremendously. However, the effect of the Depression in the 1930s took its toll on record and phonograph sales. The ability of radio to fill the void by providing free music decreased the sales of phonographs.
With the industry decline came changes to the companies that had developed the industry. Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought Victor in 1929. The father of the recording industry, Edison, left the industry later the same year. In 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) purchased the weakened American Columbia.
A significant breakthrough for the recording industry came in 1948, when Columbia Records developed a 12-inch vinyl disc that could play 25 minutes of music per side at 33-1/3 rpm, known as the long-playing (LP) record. This allowed for the typical classical symphony movement to be recorded on one side of the record, avoiding the usual disruptive breaks that had been a part of the 78 rpm recordings.
Soon after Columbia's 12-inch, Victor developed a seven-inch disc that played at 45 rpm. It contained less music time—about five minutes—but it was smaller and more economical. The industry established a standard in 1950: 12-inch LPs for classical recording and full-length popular music albums, and the seven-inch (called 45s) for shorter, single song recordings.
Another major development for the recording industry came with introduction of tape in the late 1940s. The sound quality from magnetic tape was the finest achieved to that date. Beyond the quality of the original recording, tape allowed for patchwork correction to be done to a recording, to replace sections where errors or poor sound quality occurred. It was no longer necessary to record the entire piece in one session. Tape also spawned a revival of many different kinds of music, from 18th century baroque works to forgotten pre-war, avant-garde pieces.
Tape recordings eventually allowed music to be recorded on channels; a singer's voice could take up one channel with individual instruments on other channels. This allowed the music producer an opportunity to mix the music with the desired emphasis. A flute, for example, could be enhanced beyond the original performance level, or the brass instruments could be quieted. Two-track stereophonic recordings became commonplace in the late 1950s, and phonographs were developed with two speakers to reproduce the stereo sound in the home.
The technology for recording boomed with the computer age. Synthesizers reproduced the sounds of orchestras electronically. Voices and instruments could be electronically enhanced, lowered, shifted in pitch, or adjusted to accommodate any change desired. The type of music recorded could be so stylized that it could not be reproduced in a live performance. The number of tracks recorded could be increased to meet the needs of an individual recording artist.
Along with the advancement in technology of sound recording, an advancement in the record disc began to change the shape of the industry once again. Compact discs (CDs) were invented in Japan in the late 1970s. CDs are digitally recorded discs that use a laser instead of a stylus to read the music. The benefits of CDs include the quality of the reproduction, the portability of the discs and players, and their ability to often remain undamaged by wear or scratching.
The conversion by the record industry to CD technology was swift. All new popular and classical music is now produced on CD. Record companies are continually reissuing their classics on CD, and in many cases they reissue titles that were not big hits but now sell well on CD. Vinyl, however, has not completely disappeared. Despite its flaws, many audiophiles maintain that vinyl still produces better sound quality than CD. There is a continued niche market for vinyl, especially among independent record labels.
The CD was followed by the enhanced CD, which are played on a computer and contain video clips, lyrics, artist biographies and discographies, and interactive activities. The next advance in sound quality involves DVD audio and Super Audio CD. These high-density discs produce even better sound quality than CDs. The industry is making efforts to assure that all new formats will be compatible with each other.
With the advent of online file sharing and downloadable music, a major new avenue for distribution of music opened in the early 21st century. File-sharing software made it possible for people to trade digital files of recorded music via the Internet, which resulted in a major campaign by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to fight this form of piracy and protect copyrights. In the wake of the controversy, many authorized music download and streaming sites such as iTunes, Napster, and Pandora brokered deals with recording companies to place singles, entire albums, and music videos online for legitimate purchasers. With the popularity of the iPod digital music player and similar MP3 devices, many listeners readily adopted the new format.
Now companies offer subscriptions for streaming services. Sites such as Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, and Amazon broker deals with recording companies to provide music on demand for a monthly fee to their costumers. Others, such as Pandora and SiriusXM provide streaming radio by channel, music genre, or artist type chosen by the subscriber. Non-subscription, on-demand streaming services YouTube, Vevo, Spotify, and others support their business by selling ads that accompany the content, which is free to view.
More than ever before, audio and recording technicians use computer technology in their recordings. They digitally record music and perform many of the editing and sound manipulation functions via computer software programs. The computer can transform the quiet folk sounds of an acoustic Martin guitar into the erupting noises of fully distorted power-rocking Les Paul. It can make a solo trumpet sound as though it's being accompanied by a big band. The limits of computer recording and manipulation are only one's imagination and resources.
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