Historical Survey of the Impact of Recording on Music

A Very Brief Introduction

Since the introduction of the phonograph, music and recording have interacted in countless ways, influencing each other. This was as true a century ago as it is today.

Remember that even before the phonograph, it was possible to make a recording-you just couldn’t play it back. For several decades in the late 19th century, the recording of sound was just a scientific curiosity. In fact, for many years it was not possible to reproduce sounds that were recorded. One early sound recording instrument, the Phonautograph, inscribed a record of sounds onto glass cylinder or plate coated with a layer of smoky “lampblack.” It made sound waves visible to the eye, but the records could not be played. There were some recordings made of musical instruments, usually to show graphically what the waveform of the instrument could look like. In some small way, the need to capture a voice or an instrument may have shaped individual “performances” (if you can call the playing of a single note a performance), but that was all.

A. G. Bell’s Ear Phonautograph
Bell’s ear Phonautograph, using the ear and part of a skull taken from a human cadaver.

A stylus attached to the eardrum engraved a visible line on a flat glass plate coated with lampblack, providing what Bell believed to be a more accurate image of sound.

In the early studios

It was not until recorded music began appearing for sale (or for single performances in coin-operated phonographs) that the real story began. Since that time, musicians have interacted with recording technology to create new forms of music and new types of sounds.

Making a recording at the Edison studios, around 1900.

In the early years of the phonograph, it was difficult to get “serious” musicians (such as opera singers or symphony musicians) to make recordings at all. Many of them were appalled by the poor sound quality of the phonograph, and others thought that their livelihoods would be threatened if their performances were captured and mass-produced. That, combined with the popular taste, dictated that for quite a few years, record companies like the North American Phonograph company sold mainly popular music. Barroom piano players and Vaudeville performers were brought in to stand before the recording horn to belt out their “lowbrow” entertainment.

Because the cylinders could only hold 2-3 minutes of music, existing songs had to be revised to fit on the cylinders. This was one of the first obvious musical innovations related to the phonograph. The time restrictions inherent with the phonograph (disc or cylinder) would also come to play a major role in the writing of new songs, too. There was already traditions in popular and classical song-writing that shaped the songwriter’s work, but the phonograph created new restrictions.

Engineering A Recording, Circa 1890


A large band in a cramped studio at the Edison company in 1900
A large band in a cramped studio at the Edison company in 1900

Less obvious were the many things done in the early recording studios to reshape musical performance for the purpose of recording it. Some performers’ voices sounded better on record than others, and there was no good way to improve a deficient phonograph voice. Singers accustomed to performing on stage, where they could move about freely, had to stand still near the recording horn. Singers also had to control their voices carefully, singing neither too loudly nor too softly, or else they risked over-driving the recording mechanism or singling too softly to be recorded. The studios themselves were usually tiny and cramped. Singers and instruments had to be crowded near the horn, and often the number of instruments called for in symphonic pieces had to be reduced to just a few.

Some instruments simply would not record well and had to be eliminated, and early phonographs could not capture “sibilant” sounds (like the letter ‘s’). Pianos were routinely placed on high platforms so that their sound boxes were near the horn. There are even a few examples of musical instruments being modified for recording. The Stroh violin, for example, had a special metal horn attached to it that helped strengthen its sound so it could be heard on records. In all, there were numerous things done behind the scenes in order to record music that had never been necessary with live performance.

In the period from about the 1890s to the 1920s, engineers and experimenters looked for ways to improve the sound of the phonograph. Because they relied on the “acoustic” recording and playback process exclusively, achieving sufficient playback volume was a major issue. Edison and others looked for ways to record on a soft medium and then harden the medium (or transfer the recording to a harder medium) for playback. With the harder medium, the playing stylus could press down hard on the groove, and the result was greater volume.

Fidelity: Up and Down and Side to Side

Another major consideration was sound quality. Although it was difficult to define accurately, most musicians and people in the phonograph industry agreed that the closer a recording sounded to the original performance, the better it sounded. Thomas Edison believed that his cylinders would always sound better than the disc records promoted by rival Emile Berliner, in part because the angular momentum of a disc slows near the center of the disc, resulting in increased background noise and distortion. Edison also though that because his grooves sounded better, because they recorded the sound in a vertical, “hill and dale” way rather than the “side to side” wiggle of the discs. Record enthusiasts still debate this issue.

Edison was so concerned with fidelity that he staged elaborate “tone tests” in music halls during these years. These tests featured singers or musicians who had recorded on Edison “Diamond Disc” records. The audience was then challenged to tell the difference, and often they could not. Sometimes, though, they could easily tell, but were still impressed by the demonstration. Also, Edison’s associates chose performers who were capable of imitating the phonograph, so the tests were a little biased. Nonetheless, the Tone Tests helped promote the idea that “good sound” required playback that resembled the original performance. Eventually that idea would have a name: high fidelity.

The Advent of Electronics: What difference did Electronics Make?

In the mean time, inventors in the 1920s introduced a fundamentally important set of modifications to the basic technology of phonograph recording. The technology of electronic amplification was originally developed for use in radio around 1906. Western Electric took Lee Deforest’s original “Audion” electron tube, which was intended to amplify electric signals, and greatly improved its performance. They used it to amplify telephone signals, creating the first coast-to-coast long distance lines. By the time of World War I, electron tubes were available from many different manufacturers, and a few years later they were being used in consumer radios.

More High Fidelity: New Technologies in Years When Nobody Seemed to Care

In the mean time, the home phonograph industry went into decline. “Free” music was becoming available from radio broadcasts. Looking for a way to enhance their products, several record companies began experimenting with electronic equipment in the recording studio. They developed electromagnetic cutters to make records, and fed music to them using microphones and amplifiers like those in radio studios. The results were mixed. Certainly, these records sounded different. The acoustic process could create pleasant sounding records, but it could not capture the high-frequency or low-frequency sounds (the “bass” and “treble” sounds). The new “electrical recordings” could do that, but to some listeners it sounded harsh. Improved electrical recording technology designed by Western Electric became available a few years later, and eventually the only record companies still using acoustic recording were a few located in England.

The advent of electrical recording did not save the record industry–most of the small companies faded away, and both Columbia and Victor were absorbed by larger corporations. However, electrical recording thrived in the new corporate environment. Now, with connections to the emerging radio and motion picture industries, recording technology made rapid advances. These improvements would eventually find their way into consumer records.

Fidelity Peaks: The Recording Engineer Comes of Age

One of the major influences on recorded music in the 1930s and 1940s was related to the refinement of electrical recording processes. Since microphones could be placed anywhere, even inside an instrument like the piano, it was no longer necessary for musicians to crowd around a single spot in order to be heard. In fact, once engineers began experimenting with the use of multiple microphones, they could record a whole symphony orchestra, even if they were spread out across a large stage. However, the use of more than two or three microphones remained rare.

Another thing that was possible with multiple microphones was electronic mixing. After “miking” a singer and a band with two separate microphones, a recording engineer could adjust the level of each to create a pleasing sound. It was possible, though apparently not common, to adjust these levels in the midst of a recording session, so that for example a short solo could be emphasized over the background playing. Music historians are not sure what to make of all this. On the one hand, the continual improvement of electrical recording technologies resulted in the possibility of greater fidelity to the original performance. On the other hand, techniques such as mixing multiple microphones led to recordings that sounded less and less like the original performance, even though the were very pleasing. This contradiction is as true today as it was then.

The “Golden Age” of Live Recordings

The ability to capture groups of musicians in the more spacious studios of the electrical recording era (not to mention in music halls or other places where music was traditionally performed) led to another new variety of record: the live recording. Many performances broadcast live on radio in the 1930s were also recorded, usually for the purpose of re-broadcast later. During World War II, these recordings were captured in large numbers, recorded on special discs, and sent overseas to entertain the troops. A few of these performances eventually made their way onto consumer discs. Some of the “classic” early live recordings were made by Glen Miller and his orchestra in the late 1930s, one in Carnegie Hall and another in an auditorium at Asbury Park, New Jersey. These records established the model for the live recording, which included audience sounds, the commentary of the performers, and often improvisational performances.

Hi-Fi and Recordings: Hi-Fi for the Pubic

In the 1930s, a relatively small group of music enthusiasts, many living in London or New York, formed the audience (and the market) for what came to be known as “high fidelity” audio. One radio station in New York, for example, had special high quality radio receivers custom made and sold them to music enthusiasts in the listening area. Others experimented with improved technologies such as the now-forgotten Phillips-Miller recording system.

With the best electrical recordings, it was possible to hear many details of the music that were inaudible in earlier years. Sometimes, usually during classical music recording sessions, conductors would insist that a recording was not good enough. Standards of perfection–not only the quality of the sound but the quality of the performance–rose as a result of changes in the recording technology. Here, again, musical performance was affected by recording technology in subtle ways.

From the consumer’s point of view, recording had changed little. Columbia had briefly sold a long playing record in the early 1930s, intended to appeal to classical music enthusiasts. It had failed. The basic technology of the 10-inch, 78-rpm disc had changed little since its introduction in the 1890s. While most recordings were made electrically by 1940, most home phonographs were still acoustic. Newer phonographs were often equipped with electromagnetic pickups, and often shared amplifier circuits and loudspeaker with a radio, but they did not represent much of an improvement in sound quality. Ordinary consumers experienced the gradually improvement of recording technology indirectly, by hearing recordings played on the radio, or by visiting their local theater. Even the jukebox, which became popular in the late 1930s, was usually more technologically up-to-date than the home phonograph. That remained the story through the end of World War II. End.

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