Overview History of the Technologies for Recording Music and Sound

The first recording devices were scientific instruments used to capture and study sound waves. These devices were capable of recording voices and other sounds long before the phonograph.

The most famous of these was Leon Scott’s 1857 Phonoautograph. This device used a horn to direct sound toward a flexible diaphragm placed at the small end. Attached to the diaphragm was a stylus and lever assembly that allowed the point to scratch out a line on a rotating cylinder beneath it. The cylinder (glass strips were later used) was coated with “lampblack,” probably applied by holding it over a flame and allowing carbon to accumulate.

The Phonautograph.

A 2001 search for original Phonautograph traces (many are published in facsimile form in books) turned up few from the period before the invention of the phonograph. The device probably lacked the sensitivity to record traces with enough detail to allow modern technology to reproduce intelligible sounds from them. The recordings are also very short – often less than 1 second.

Alexander Graham Bell experimented with a Phonautograph in 1874, shortly before Edison’s invention. Attempting to discover how the ear detected sound, he used a human ear (including the internal parts) from a cadaver, attaching a stylus to the eardrum and using it to make a recording.

Bell’s ear Phonautograph was a very unusual variation on the basic technology. The recording mechanism was the human ear. By removing a chunk of skull including the inner ear from a human cadaver, and attaching a stylus to the moving parts of the ear, he was able to use this bio-mechanical device to make a recording of the sounds that entered a recording horn. It recorded on a moving glass strip, coated with a film of carbon, so there are probably no original recordings from it. When he learned of the invention of the phonograph, Bell wondered why he didn’t think of it himself.

Several researchers have investigated the possibility of using modern technology to reproduce these pre-Edison recordings, especially following the claim (probably false) that a recording of Lincoln’s voice might exist. However, no one has yet been successful. A small collection of original Phonautograph recordings dating from the post-phonograph period is held by the Edison National Historic Site, but in part due to their poor quality, a signal processing engineer commissioned by the IEEE History Center was unable to extract any sounds from them.

Phonographs, Graphophones, Gramophones, and so on. . .

Thomas Edison had been working on telephone equipment at the time he conceived the phonograph. Alexander Graham Bell announced his telephone in 1876, and many inventors set out to duplicate and improve it. Edison, drawing on his vast experience in telegraph equipment, in July 1877 conceived of the idea of using a sensitive electromagnetic device to inscribe telephone messages on a strip of wax-coated paper. Probably unknown to Edison was a similar concept described in April 1877 by Frenchman Charles Cros. The latter would later claim precedence with some justification.

A sketch of one of Edison’s earliest phonographs. A sheet of thick tinfoil, wrapped around cylinder “C” is indented by a stylus attached to diaphragm “A.” This hand-cranked machine was of the type used to demonstrate the principle. Production models had provisions for keeping the speed constant and other improvements.

After some experimentation, he turned instead to a device that could record straight from the air instead of relying on a telephone connection. This line of inquiry resulted in the construction of the first functional phonograph in early December, 1877. He demonstrated it almost immediately in the New York office of Scientific American magazine, and in subsequent months the publicity the invention generated resulted in a new nickname for Edison: “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (referring to his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratories).

Early graphophone
Graphophone (source)

Edison did little to commercialize the phonograph himself, and a limited number of licensees made unsuccessful attempts to sell the new device, including a German firm that introduced a talking doll.

Within a decade, however, Edison had a new competitor in the form of the Graphophone. Essentially an improved phonograph, the new recorder stimulated Edison to return to his invention, and the result in 1886 was the improved phonograph. Phonograph and graphophone licensees attempted to lease or sell the devices to stenographers to replace hand-writing. They made little money until someone had the bright idea to make a coin-operated phonograph for public amusement. By supplying ready-made cylinders, they transformed the device into an entertainment technology. Following much legal wrangling over patents in the 1890s, Columbia Phonograph emerged as a major competitor to the Edison company, and survives today as part of CBS Records.

Electrical Recordings

Man using a transcription recorder
Library of Congress Photo.

The phonograph, graphophone and other players purely mechanical devices through the 1920s. However, in 1924, Columbia began experiments with a new technology developed by the Western Electric Company (the division of AT&T; that made telephones and related equipment). Western Electric’s recorder used electronic amplifiers to drive an electromagnetic cutting head, rather than relying on the acoustic horn. The result was a louder, clearer record. In the beginning, the record players still relied on acoustic playback with a horn, but as the home radio became popular, it became more common for people to purchase record players that had electric motors and electronic amplifiers. Some of them had a built-in loudspeaker, while others plugged into specially equipped radio sets and played through them. While some said the new “Orthophonic” records sounded harsh, they soon dominated the market.

Edison's electromagnetic recorder
Edison National Historic Site

“Transcription” recorders like the one here were a later variation of the basic electrical recording technology. In this type of recorder, electrical signals are delivered to the electromagnetic cutting head, which is carried in a lathe-like mechanism (the operator has his right hand on the lathe).

Edison, who had experimented with a form of electrical recording from the beginning, created his own version of the technology as well. Shown here is a close up of the machine from the side. Visible in the center is the large, heavy platter, the cutting head with its horseshoe-shaped electromagnet armature (left) and a microscope for observing the groove.

Hollywood’s influence

Film soundtrack
variable area soundtrack

For the home consumer, the phonograph (or, as it was often called outside the U.S., the gramophone), was the only widely owned sound recording or reproducing technology through the end of World War II. But in recording studios, particularly in the radio and movie industries, times were changing.

There were numerous attempts to record sound as a visible record rather than a groove, dating from the late 19th century. None was commercially successful until the early 1920s, when several firms introduced sound recording systems that recorded sound onto photographic film. They were all intended to be used with motion pictures, which had emerged as a major money maker in the 1910s. Thomas Edison, Western Electric, and others had developed phonograph-based systems for adding sound to motion pictures, but none worked well due in part to the difficulty of synchronizing the sound to the picture. With the optical systems, the sound was recorded directly onto the same film that held the images, so it was always in synch. Between about 1906 and 1927, numerous “sound-on-film” optical systems emerged, but they still had technical problems. In fact, many of the early talkies, including the famous film The Jazz Singer of 1927, used the sound-on-disc technology introduced by Western Electric. While perhaps the best of the disc systems, the Western Electric system began to be replaced by improved sound-on-film technologies as early as 1929. Sound-on-film became the standard way to record and reproduce sound in movies through the 1980s, and is still used some today.

Magnetic recording

The era of the phonograph also saw the introduction of an alternative recording technology that was little seen by the public but increasingly used in studios. Magnetic recording, which is today used for video and audio tape, was first introduced around 1899-1900 by the Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen.

Poulsen envisioned that it would be useful for office dictation and telephone recording, but his “telegraphone,” manufactured in the U.S. and Europe by various firms, never took off. It was virtually forgotten in the U.S., but inventors in Germany and England persisted.

The earliest version of the telegraphone looked a bit like a cylinder phonograph. For simplicity’s sake, the inventor wrapped the wire (onto which the recording was made) around a cylinder. The recording head tracked the wire along the surface.

The advent of electronic amplifiers for the telegraphone in the 1920s and the introduction of an oxide-coated tape in place of the solid steel wires and bands used before resulted in steady improvements in sound quality. The BBC, the CBC, and the RRG (the German broadcasting agency), among others, used steel-band magnetic recorders extensively all through the 1930s.

By the end of the decade, the German companies AEG and I. G. Farben had improved the tape recorder and its coated-plastic recording medium to the point where it could approach the best disc recorders in sound quality. Its ability to make very long recordings and recordings under conditions of vibration and shock helped make the “magnetophon” popular for field and telephone surveillance recordings as well. For radio broadcasting, the best studio magnetophons rivaled or exceeded high quality American and British disc recorders by the time Berlin fell in the spring of 1945.

This AEG magnetophon was one of several versions of the technology developed in Germany between the early 1930s and 1945. Like modern audio and video recorders, it employed a plastic tape coated with a layer of extremely fine iron powder (modern recorders use different mixtures of iron and other materials).

The Era of Tape Recording

Despite its quiet start, it was tape recording that would eventually displace both the phonograph and optical recording methods. Eventually. Captured German recorders were widely copied, improved upon, and re-introduced by Ampex, EMI, and other firms in the late 1940s. Engineers used to editing optical film found it easy to learn to edit tape, and tape represented real improvements over optical recording in terms of convenience and low cost. In radio, record, and movie studios, tape was almost universally adopted by the early 1950s.

Network radio engineer using early Ampex tape recorders, circa 1948.

The first consumer magnetic recorders also appeared in this period. Inexpensive wire recorders, developed more-or-less independently of the Europeans, were introduced around 1946 and proved to be a short-lived hit. When the first cheap tape recorders appeared around 1948, they quickly stole the market.


A famous demonstration given in 1948 or 1949 by Jack Mullin featured the new Ampex tape recorder. Also featured was the massive new type of loudspeaker at center.

Millions of them were sold during the 1950s as part of a boom in “hi-fi,” although many owners reported that they made little use of them. Record companies were willing to sell recorded tapes, but they could not compete in price with records, especially the LP record introduced in 1948 by CBS.

The first consumer magnetic recorders also appeared in this period.

A consumer wire recorder made by the Air King Company of Long Island, New York.

Inexpensive wire recorders, developed more-or-less independently of the Europeans, were introduced around 1946 and proved to be a short-lived hit. When the first cheap tape recorders appeared around 1948, they quickly stole the market. Millions of them were sold during the 1950s as part of a boom in “hi-fi,” although many owners reported that they made little use of them. Record companies were willing to sell recorded tapes, but they could not compete in price with records, especially the LP record introduced in 1948 by CBS.



Studio Tricks and Stereo

The advent of tape recorders in recording studios led to innovations in recording that radically altered the making of music. Most radio and record studios in the U.S. adopted Ampex recorders (although there were competitors from RCA, Presto, and others) for making master recordings.

Westrex Stereo cutter

The less-expensive Magnecorders were popular in radio stations and studios where these workhorse machines were used for heavy production and editing work. The basic techniques of editing – cutting and splicing to remove, re-arrange, or compile pieces of recordings, mixing two or more sound sources into one recording, and fading sound in or out-were all innovations that were made easier with tape. Where in the past performers had to execute songs perfectly (or with minimal errors), or else face remaking the whole recording, now it was sometimes possible to splice together two or more flawed recordings to make a perfect one. Engineers and artists found that it was also easier to manipulate sounds on tape, leading to the use of all sorts of special effects, such as using a recorder to allow a single artist appear to accompany her/himself.

Even in the late 1940s, there were experiments with multitrack recording on tape. Multiple simultaneous soundtracks had been possible, though expensive, since the 1930s on motion picture film. As engineers reduced the size of tape recorder heads, it became possible to mount two or three heads on a single recorder, equip each with a recording/reproducing amplifier, and record multiple simultaneous tracks on a single tape. This feature was used in two ways. In the studio, groups of musicians or singers could be separated into two or three groups, such as recording the rhythm section and the rest of the band separately. If there was a flub on one or the other tracks, it could be re-recorded without re-assembling the whole band. After years of perfecting this technique, it became the basis of increasingly complex recordings in the 1960s. More and more tracks were added to recorders to allow 24 or more tracks to be recorded on a single, very wide tape.

Stereo in the Home

The second outcome of the use of multitrack recordings was the most evident to the consumer; the advent of stereo sound. Engineers in the 1930s had discovered that a two-channel (or more) recording, utilizing two microphones, two amplifiers, and two loudspeakers, gave aurally pleasing results. The “stereo effect” as it was called was often described as “realistic,” because human hearing has the capacity to identify the location of a sound source based on the slight time delay in the reception of sound in each ear. In the 1950s, engineers found that the stereo effect is false-the original location of the instruments in the studio is not perfectly simulated when a stereo recording is reproduced. However, most listeners prefer the three-dimensionality of the stereo effect, and it proved to be very popular. However, it required that consumers, like studio engineers, purchase equipment that could play stereo records, along with two-channel amplifiers and a second loudspeaker.

The first stereo recordings available to the public were in the form of reel-to-reel tape. Recorder manufacturers offered add-on stereo tape heads and off board amplifiers that could be added to existing recorders. Stereo recorders with a second head mounted next to the main head soon appeared. Almost simultaneously, tape recorders with two miniaturized, stacked heads mounted in the same housing appeared; tapes for these recorders were incompatible with the earlier “staggered” head recorders. Then in 1957-8 RCA introduced a recorder with a super-compact tape head that stacked four heads in the place of just two, allowing a stereo tape to be flipped over and played on both sides like a mono tape. These large “four track” tape cartridges could not be played on either of the other two stereo systems. This lack of compatibility, combined with the high price of stereo tapes, discouraged sales. Meanwhile, another division of RCA introduced the stereo LP record, also in 1957-8, along with moderately priced stereo phonographs (stereo 45-rpm discs soon followed). Stereo LPs could not be played on monophonic players, so for many years mono and stereo versions of the same recordings were available. During the 1960s, most record companies discontinued mono LPs.

The Rise of the 8-track

The 8-track was a distinctively American achievement in audio, reflecting the well-known fascination with automobiles in the U.S. (For more about the development of 8-track technology, click here). Automotive record players, some of questionable utility, were available as original equipment or aftermarket add-ons from about 1958 to the mid-1960s. They never sold in great numbers, and were eclipsed by the advent of automotive tape systems. Small cartridge tape systems appeared in the middle 1950s as a variation of the “cart” system that came to be widely used for spot announcements in radio stations. This was based on an endless loop tape cartridge that had a long playback time (over two hours was possible). In the early 60s, an entrepreneur in California created a minor sensation with his “Stereo-Pak” auto tape system, and this was modified and reintroduced in a few years as the phonograph+history Stereo-8. Made by the same firm that made phonograph+history airplanes, it was first installed in Ford cars in 1965. Soon all the American auto makers offered this technology as optional equipment, and home and portable versions of the players appeared.

The 8-track took a large proportion of the music market in the late 1960s and peaked in the mid-1970s. Although it was a compromise in terms of sound quality, it required only one hand and minimal accuracy to insert into or remove from the players, which themselves were designed for extreme simplicity of operation. Once in the machine, the tape played automatically and required no rewinding. In terms of responsible engineering, the 8-track’s design was a wise attempt at avoiding the introduction of an accessory that distracted the driver. At the end of its life in the early 1980s, it became the butt of jokes; a symbol of obsolescence and 70s tackiness.

Cassette Culture

An early Norelco cassette recorder/player
An early Norelco cassette recorder/player

The cassette actually predated the 8-track by about a year, although it was cheap children’s technology through the late 1960s. This small, two-reel cartridge was introduced by Phillips in Europe and Norelco in the U.S. It was based on, but intended for a different market than a similar small cartridge system that Phillips introduced for office dictation purposes. The “Carry-Corder” battery operated recorder/player made low quality recordings in mono only, but once prices for the recorders came down it proved to be a huge hit with teens. To overcome its sonic deficiencies, engineer Ray Dolby adapted his hiss reduction technology, versions of which appeared in pro and reel-to-reel recorders, for cassettes in 1968-9. The introduction of better quality home cassette decks by Ampex and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s elevated the reputation of the format and helped make it acceptable to the hi-fi crowd.

Meanwhile it had become the technology of choice for those interested in making copies of records for use in battery operated portables or in-car tape players. In terms of pre-recorded cassettes, sales overtook 8-tracks in the mid-1970s, then overtook LPs in the early 1980s. For a time in the 1980s, the cassette was the most popular home music format for both home recording and pre-recorded listening applications. Improved versions of Dolby appeared tailored for tape, and the venerable gamma-ferric oxide tape formulation, used since the 1940s for reel-to-reel tape, was superseded with mixtures that contained iron oxide mixed with or replaced by chromium dioxide or metal particles. The 90-minute tape became the best-selling blank tape, reflecting the fact that two full albums could usually be recorded on a single 90-minute cassette. The format spawned an ever-wider variety of portable and home recorders and players. In addition to the small battery operated portables available since the beginning, larger, more powerful “boomboxes” began to be popular in the late 1970s. These versatile devices were, for many people throughout the world, the primary form of home or personal audio technology for many years. If the trend in boomboxes was toward bulkier and bulkier devices, the cassette spawned a second movement toward “personal audio.” Following on the heels of its successful line of home VCRs, Sony Corporation in 1977-8 introduced its Walkman line of battery operated radios and tape players. Copycats jumped into the market the next year, and soon there was a bewildering variety of personal audio products. The CD-walkman was available by mid-decade, and the trend persists today with small MP3 players.

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