There are tons of books out there on the subject of “sound recording,” but nearly all of them focus on the “content” — the recordings themselves– rather than the technology. The following books do provide detailed histories of the technology, and all of them show its relationships to the content as well.
The granddaddy of them all is Roland Gelatt’s book Fabulous Phonograph. First published in 1954, this book covers the invention of the phonograph and subsequent transition to discs. Now out of print but still available used.
Next came Read and Welch’s book From Tin Foil to Stereo. Their work covered not only the early days of the phonograph, but also recording technology in the motion pictures and, to some extent in radio. They also touched on tape recording and, in later editions, early video recording on disc. Long on technical detail and business history and dreary to read. The book was condensed, edited, and re-issued a few years ago, and while some of the details were corrected, I still like the first edition the best.
For the history of motion picture sound, the best available source is still a book published in the 1970s and long out-of-print; Ray Fielding’s Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television This consists of reprints of journal articles and is highly technical in nature. Also out of print but you can buy used copies from amazon.com.
More recently, Andre Millard has published America on Record, a very good general survey of the history of sound recording, with a strong emphasis on the technologies used for recording and reproducing music.
My own books on the subject cover both music and non-musical types of recording. The first was Off The Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America, which does look at “studio” music recording techologies, but also the use of recording for use in radio broadcasting, office dictation, and telephone answering, among other things. I also explore the home taping phenomenon.
My most recent book, simply titled Sound Recording, covers all the major forms of sound recording, including its use in the motion pictures, as a portable entertainment technology, and the digital revolution.
There are numerous other books available that contain chapters or sections related to the history of sound recording technology.
For the history of motion picture sound, try to find a copy of Belton and Weis, Film Sound, which has several sections on the early history of sound in the motion picture industry.
Another option is Douglas Gomery’s The Coming of Sound. Now, this book is primarily about the economic impact of sound, and it has some serious problems in the editing department, but the information is there, and Gomery is indisputably the leading scholar of sound recording technology in the motion picture industry. Plus, this is one of the few books on this list that is both still in print and reasonably priced.
A really interesting but hard-to-find (and expensive) book on the early phonograph is Koenigsberg’s Patent History of the Phonograph. It’s is simply a compilation of text and images taken directly from U.S. patents, which are now available online for free (once upon a time, that material was difficult and expensive to find!). But the author has done the hard work of finding many relevant patents and putting them into context.
Also on the pricey side is Eric Daniel’s book Magnetic Recording: The First 100 Years. This is a compilation by various experts in the field of computer, video, and audio recording on magnetic media.
Hard-to-find but worth the effort is Magnetic Recording: The Ups and Downs of a Pioneer, by an inventor whose work at the Brush Development Company in Cleveland led to some of the earliest audio and data tape recorders.
If you use the links above to purchase any of these titles, part of the proceeds will help support this site.