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Audio Recording: History and Development
Thomas Alva Edison's phonograph, invented in 1877, and its close technological relatives and corporate rivals, the Bell-Tainter graphophone and the Berliner gramophone, stood alone for several decades as the dominant modern innovations in sound reproduction. The rise in the 1920s of radio, electronic audio recording, and motion picture "talkies" began an era in which records and the machines that played them would begin to develop within a much more tangled web of audio technologies.
The Recording Industry Rebounds
From its beginning in the early 1920s until the Great Depression, radio broadcasting seemed to alternate between serving as a perfect partner and as insurmountable competition for the recording industry. With the Depression and the continuing rise of free live radio, the idea of spending money on "canned" entertainment quickly lost its appeal. For a few years it seemed that the legacy of the phonograph had been buried and replaced.
The industry did not begin to show signs of life again until 1934. The cautious corporate return to recording was built on making records more affordable. Stiff competition in an uncertain market kept prices down. In 1929 Italian opera great Arturo Toscanini had declared the current recording technology unfit for great art. In 1936 he finally became satisfied that recent advances in quality had redeemed the process and provided a symbolic boost to the industry's return when he agreed to record for RCA Victor. Radio fueled a surge of interest in recorded classical music, mainly on the strength of artists from Europe, where the industry decline had never been as pronounced or seemingly terminal.
Meanwhile, the jukebox craze of the late 30s marked a major boom in the youth market. Thirteen million records a year were sold just to fill the thousands of contraptions that provided teenagers with a steady diet of Big Band swing from the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. The teens also enthusiastically collected their own copies of the songs they danced to in diners and drugstores. In the early 1940s bobbysoxers screamed and passed out at Frank Sinatra performances, popular vocalists like Doris Day and Perry Como crooned sentimental love songs, and more records were sold than ever before.
As World War II began to unfold, however, shellac and other materials for making records became scarce. Members of the powerful American Federation of Musicians union agreed to stop recording any work that did not contribute to the war effort as of August, 1942, and the record companies saw production grind to a halt for two years.
War of the Speeds
The short playing time of 78 revolutions per minute (RPM) records meant that a 50-minute symphony would be packaged in the brown paper sleeves of a five-disc leatherbound "album" resembling the cover of photograph scrapbooks. Perhaps out of habit, people would later refer to single disc LPs as albums.
Experiments with longer playing records that could allow for an uninterrupted listening experience had been conducted since Edison's later years. Technologies developed during the war sparked some key transformations in the late 1940s. Columbia Records' (owned by CBS) Peter Goldmark finally perfected long-playing (LP) records that could play at 33 1/3 RPM for over twenty minutes on each side in 1947. CBS executive William Paley joined Goldmark in demonstrating the LP for RCA's David Sarnoff. Goldmark decribed the results of that meeting:
With the first few bars Sarnoff was out of his chair. I played it for ten seconds and then switched back to the 78. The effect was electrifying, as I knew it would be.... Turning to Paley, Sarnoff said loudly and with some emotion: "I want to congratulate you, Bill. It is very good."
...I later learned what happened after the group returned to RCA headquarters. Sarnoff, who had been so affable and congratulatory, had gone into what could only be described as an executive tantrum. How could little CBS, with a two-by-four laboratory, beat RCA? ... A few days later, Sarnoff phoned Paley to say that he had decided not to come in with us on the record.
RCA had already developed seven-inch single-song "45s," which were portable, stackable and well-suited to easy mechanical manipulation in juke boxes. The resulting "war of the speeds" forced consumers to either choose one size exclusively or buy two different record players. It was finally Toscanini who convinced Sarnoff to relent. When the dust settled in 1951, both RCA and CBS manufactured both kinds of records and multi-speed record players went into widespread production.
Magnetic Tape Recording
The late 1940s also saw magnetic tape recording emerge as a viable method of sound reproduction. The most important pioneering experiments in magnetic tape had been conducted in Germany starting in the late 1920s. By the mid 1930s a "magnetophone" that recorded and played on magnetic tape had been perfected. Like Edison phonographs, magnetic tape recorders were first thought of as business dictation devices.
The German BASF corporation developed tape technology that began to approach the frequency range of records in the late 1930s and early 1940s, during which they began to demonstrate the advances by recording and playing music. It wasn't until the years during and immediately following World War II that the U.S. found and appropriated German tape recording technology. The 3M company (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) was the first major American corporation to pioneer the development of high quality magnetic tape, and Ampex began to produce viable professional tape recorders. In 1948 Bing Crosby, dissatisfied with conventional recording techniques, began to use the 3M-Ampex technologies. Magnetic tape was consequently established as a serious alternative to direct recording onto wax or acetate.
Hi Fi and Studio Tape Recording
During the postwar boom the superior quality of the new records sparked a surge in demand for better equipment to play them on. Enthusiasts of high fidelity or "hi fi" equipment coaxed superior amplifiers, sensitive pickups and powerful, separately enclosed speakers out of expensive radio supply houses and into common retail outlets.
In 1949 high fidelity magnetic tape recording became the industry standard almost overnight. Once the recording quality of tape matched and surpassed that of the old direct recording process, its advantages became irresistible. Artists could sustain the momentum of a particular performance without having to break every four minutes for a disc change. Seamless splice editing allowed producers to include the best material from each of several takes in one final product. The revolution in recording quality that magnetic tape represented added fuel to audiophiles' obsession with new trends in quality improvement.
In 1914 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was established to protect recording artists from unsanctioned use of their material. ASCAP used a blanket licensing agreement to collect a pre-set annual fee from anyone using its members' material for any commercial purpose. The money was divided among ASCAP artists. As major players in the radio industry became more interested in broadcasting recorded work, ASCAP reinforced its control over distribution. Artists who were not ASCAP members had little hope of exposing their work to wide audiences.
During the recording boom of the late 30s and early 40s, ASCAP had doubled the fees they charged radio stations. In the midst of court battles and the dearth of music not protected by ASCAP, frustrated broadcasters formed their own blanket licensing system, Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI), in 1939. The BMI camp sought alternatives to ASCAP acts. In the process BMI would later become the dominant force in the discovery and marketing of a new sound that would breed a new culture.
Rock and Roll
Rock and roll echoed the cross-pollenation of black and white music cultures from the jazz age, including the heights of passion expressed by both the youthful fans and the puritanical detractors. This hybrid of country & western and rhythm & blues, what record industry insiders categorized as "hillbilly" and "race," was first popularized by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954. In Shadow Dancing in the USA, Michael Ventura describes "the moment this black music attracted these white musicians" as "one of the most important moments in modern history," in which "a whole culture started to pass from its most strictured, fearful years to our unpredictably fermentive age--a jangled, discordant feeling, at once ultramodern and primitive, modes which have blended to become the mood of our time."
Record sales once again reached for unprecedented heights, thanks to what the ASCAP camp called "untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely to the zoot suiter and the juvenile delinquent," who cranked out "obscene junk pretty much on a level with dirty comic magazines." They also blamed "the current climate on radio and TV" for promoting the likes of "Elvis Presley and his animal posturings..." Ventura confers even more importance on Elvis turned loose on culture:
When Elvis Presley hit the charts in 1956 there was no such thing as a "youth market." By 1957, almost solely through the demand for his recordings, there was. It was a fundamental, structural change in American society. In a few years we would learn how fundamental, as that "market" revealed itself also to have qualities of a community, one that had the power to initiate far-reaching social changes that seemed unimaginable in 1955. The antiwar movement, the second wave of the civil rights movement, feminism, ecology, and the higher consciousness movement...got their impetus from the excitement of people who felt strong because they felt they were part of a national community of youth, a community that had first been defined, and then often inspired, by its affinity for this music.
The explosive new youth market also prompted recording artist representatives to scramble for radio air time. The term "payola," a blend of "payoff" and "Victrola," was coined to refer to rising corruption in the music industry fueled by under-the-table fees paid to disc-jockies in exchange for air play.
Stereo and Studio Production
In 1958 stereo records hit the market to a lukewarm reception. The process of recording two separate channels onto adjacent tracks of the same tape continued to improve, however. By 1959 the added dimension of the stereo listening experience was quite compelling. Enthusiasts upgraded their equipment and the recent mini boom in home reel-to-reel tape recordings died down in the wake of stereo records.
Between rock and roll and the new wave of sophistication in recording techniques, studio recording became much more than a way of simply reproducing live performances. As they gained experience, producers began to bring technological skill and editorial precision to what was becoming a new arena of artistic vision. Many of the early 1960s recording artists were recruited by producers as ingredients in complex preconceived musical recipes that included sophisticated mixing and processing strategies.
In 1967 the Beatles and George Martin collaborated on the most legendary breakthrough in the aesthetic sophistication of studio production. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is widely thought of as the first studio "concept album." Its admirers experience it as a sustained listening journey through an expansively crafted landscape of musical effects, moods and surreal imagery. Although John Lennon has wryly pointed to the lack of conceptual connection among the tracks on Sgt. Pepper, the 700 studio hours that went into it crystallize as a masterwork that countless recording artists have since been trying to emulate. Loyd Grossman aptly explains the importance of this historical moment in A Social History of Rock Music:
After the Beatles the rock performer began to be seen not just as an entertainer but as a social visionary, a cultural trendsetter, a questing, fashionable, archetypal citizen of a new society--Beau Brummell, William Blake, and Thomas Jefferson rolled into one and put on stage with an electric guitar. The Beatles expanded the conception and scope of operations of pop music and made rock and roll the centerpiece of an entire youthful culture.
Cartridges and Cassettes
The new way of appreciating LPs contributed to a further decline in sales of 45s, which had enjoyed 25% of the record market just after the "war of the speeds" (RCA claimed the figure was closer to 50%), and unravelled to 7% by 1975. Meanwhile, recording industry executives saw great promise in the concept of creating a magnetic tape delivery system that would not involve manual threading and would be more portable than records. Philips marketed the first encased audio tapes in 1964, and within a few years eight-track cartridges emerged as the front runner in a market that included four-tracks and cassettes. By 1966 many cars were outfitted with eight-track stereo players that allowed listeners to access any of four different sections of an LP on tape at the touch of a button.
Cassette tapes eventually won the battle, however. A robust market in blank and prerecorded cassettes and cassette tape decks was established because of the less cumbersome size, the advent in 1969 of Dolby Noise Reduction as an answer to the unpleasant hiss that limited cassettes to the voice dictation market, and the possibility of consumers doing their own recording. Eight-track tapes, like Edison phonograph cylinders and 78 RPM records before them, were eventually relegated to the trash heap of antiquity. Cassette players took over domination of the car sound system market, and in 1979 Sony's Walkman added further flexibility and convenience to the enjoyment of cassette tapes.
Cassettes also sparked a revolution in recording piracy-- millions of people copied borrowed records onto blank tapes and circulated "bootleg" recordings of concerts. Countries with loose interpretations of or indifference to Western copyright law marketed cheap pirated cassette versions of popular LPs.
Digital Recording Technologies
The piracy issue has provided the recording industry with major legal and technological challenges since the advent of cassette tapes. By 1982 the computer revolution spawned a strong answer to the challenges. Compact discs (CDs), on which master recordings are converted to digital information, provided clear, superior resolution that cassette tape quality couldn't match. For the first few years vinyl record purists claimed that CDs were sterile, lacking the "humanness" of random imperfections. These voices died down, however, as CDs gradually and irreversibly permeated the market.
As video tape recording reached its stride in the 1980s, Sony took the lead in efforts to combine the helical-scan recording technology used for video signals with the latest in audio recording. The result was the introduction in 1987 of Digital Audio Tapes (DAT) and DAT recorders to the semi-professional and professional recording studio market. By 1992, 80 percent of recording studios in a Pro Sound News survey said they made use of a DAT machine.
Today, several formats, each with its own advantages, survive together. Audio cassettes have quietly secured a key ongoing niche in the recording market. Their quality has gradually approached that of CDs, they are clearly the least expensive way to acquire and play music, and their use in cars and mini-headphone systems like the Walkman continues to undercut pricier, motion-sensitive CD systems. Meanwhile, CDs dominate sales of prerecorded music, DAT machines have broken the "under $1000" barrier and are sparking broader consumer interest, and recordable Mini Discs (MD) and Digital Compact Cassettes (DCC) are being marketed by Sony and Philips, respectively.
The market viability of DCCs and MDs remains to be seen. Public familiarity with the history of new formats that may or may not endure has lead to increasing consumer hesitation to embrace new technologies as they are first introduced. The introduction of recordable video discs and "CD+" or "CD enhanced" products to the market makes consumer caution about DCCs and MDs all the more understandable.
CD+ is a format that provides high quality CD sound on a regular CD player, but also provides listeners with interactive opportunities to experiment with varying mixes and learn more about the artists' creative process when they use the product as CD Rom software on a multimedia computer. Major corporate players in the CD+ and recordable video disc markets (such as Sony, Toshiba, and Philips) have come to agreements on industry standard formats in advance, attempting to avoid the headaches associated with format conflicts of the past: the "war of the speeds," cassettes vs. eight-tracks, and Beta vs. VHS.
Mixing It Up: Recording Culture in the 1990s
If digital recording technology is igniting a revolution comparable in scope to the one sparked by rock and roll, it is certainly a quieter, more interior revolution. Rock and roll helped fuel a generational and cultural rupture of unprecedented proportions. Recent advances in digital technologies, on the other hand, help to blur old distinctions, especially those between audio and visual artistic genres and between artist and audience, producer and consumer.
Musical Intrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and digital sequencing technologies allow solitary musicians to draw on a full spectrum of instruments simultaneously, and remove musical sophistication as a requirement for producing technically sophisticated sound. Rap music highlights the increased use of appropriated and recontextualized audio material, which is facilitated by digital sampling. Interactive multimedia gives listeners the ability to design their own versions of a recording.
MTV has, for the major marketplace, firmly established the commercial interdependence of music, dance, film, and computer graphics. Multimedia production tools are increasingly easy to access and use, and since both audio and video information can be stored and processed digitally, mixing them becomes more seamlessly natural. Desktop artists and hobbyists of moderate means can now manipulate digital material with the same technical precision that recently required expensive studio equipment and substantially more time. Internet enthusiasts on different continents can collaborate on multimedia creations.
Even the cultural polarization that characterized the early years of rock and roll was prompted by the fusion of what had been separate worlds: black and white, blues and country, "hillbilly" and "race." The history of recording has been a history of merging cultures, technologies and sensory experiences. Often enough in this ongoing blending process, blazing moments of creativity are stirred into a homogenous commercial stew, made blandly palatable to a lowest common demographic. At times, though, these collisions can clear a view to something in the social and artistic air previously inconceivable, fresh and overwhelming-- something we can, at times, see as a revolution.
Copyright 1994-99 Jones International and Jones Digital Century. All rights reserved.
Block, Debbie Galante; With a Choice of Audio Formats, Consumers Still Stick With Tape; Billboard; March 12, 1994  
Butterworth, William E.; Hi-Fi: From Edison's Phonograph to Quadrophonic Sound; Four Winds Press; New York; 1977  
Du Moncel, Theodore A. L.; The Telephone, The Microphone and the Phonograph; Arno Press; New York; 1974  
Gellat, Roland; The Fabulous Phonograph 1877-1977; Macmillan Publishing, Inc.; New York; 1977  
Grossman, Loyd; A Social History of Rock and Roll; as quoted in Gallat, Roland: The Fabulous Phonograph 1877-1977 (ibid.)  
Hitchcock, Wiley, ed.; The Phonograph and Our Musical Life: Proceedings of a Centennial Conference; Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY; 1977  
Jewell, Brian; Veteran Talking Machines; Midas Books; Great Britain; 1977  
Maddox, Richard; TheDAT Technical Service Handbook; Van Nostrand Reinhold; New York; 1994  
Miller, Russel and Roger Boar; The Incredible Music Machine; Quartet/Visual Arts; London; 1982  
Read, Oliver and Walter L. Welch; From Tinfoil to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph; Howard W. Sams & Co., Inc.; Indianapolis; 1976  
Schoennherr, Steve; Recording Technology: A Chronology With Pictures and Links  
Maddox, Richard TheDAT Technical Service Handbook (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold) 1994  
Ventura, Michael; "Hear That Long Snake Moan" essay from Shadow Dancing in the USA