Recorded Sound: Electrical Recording to the Present

Jack Russell with a Walkman.

Edison’s phonograph made recording easy and relatively inexpensive, knocking the door wide open for lots of independent recording labels to start up and enjoy success. Of these labels, Columbia and Victor grew to become two of the most successful, and have contributed to technological advances that furthered the music industry.

In 1915, the engineers at Western Electric developed the audio electron tube to the point where they could use it in electronic amplifiers that were reliable. These amplifiers were much louder than the playback horns used for acoustic phonograph recordings, but could not improve upon the clarity of them. Western Electric developed the system of electronic recording that eventually took over; using microphones, electronic amplifiers and an electromagnetic cutting stylus to make records. These were much more clear than acoustical recordings, but the equipment was very expensive so the Western Electric engineers turned their attention to an improved non-electric home record player.

A Western Electric tube amplifier.

Perhaps the most important advancement in the recording industry was the microphone. Very rudimentary forms of the microphone have been around since the 1860’s; starting as simple sound transmitters made of a metallic strip and a membrane, developing into liquid transmitters, with a metal rod suspended in an acidic solution that would manipulate a diaphragm. More developments to the technology took place, and in the early 1920’s, microphones began to be produced for recording and broadcast purposes and carried a number of advantages over acoustical recordings such as the ones made using a phonograph.

The diaphragms in microphones were much more sensitive than the diaphragms at the end of long phonograph recording horns, making them a great deal clearer. This sensitivity made possible the careers of “crooners,” with their soft voices. Before microphones, you practically had to shout into the recording horn to get the diaphragm to move, whereas now a singer could whisper into the microphone and still be heard.

Electrical recordings also encompassed a much wider dynamic range. This made recording even more interesting to some, driving many people experimented with microphones to see what they could do with the new technology. Leopold Stokowski, the long time conductor of the Philadelphia orchestra was one of these people - ever interested in technology and how he could use it in the orchestral world. He and the orchestra produced one of the first electrical recordings, and it can be read about and listened to here:

This recording was made in 1925, and if you listen to this recording from 1920, you can hear a difference:

The electrical recording is more clear, and you can hear the lower instruments when they enter, giving the recording more depth. Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the soundtrack for Disney's Fantasia, which was the first surround sound recording. It was so expensive to retrofit theaters with the speakers to play the soundtrack in its full form that the film did not enjoy immediate success.

Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Fantasia.

© The Walt Disney Company

These new electrical recordings enjoyed widespread integration into many aspects of life - two of which are very notable. In 1926, Warner Bros. collaborated with Vitagraph Studios and developed the Vitaphone method of syncing recorded sound to motion pictures. This system used a long playing record (16 inch, 33 ⅓ rpm) that was designed to have the same playback time as a reel of film. This invention revolutionized the movie industry, but impacted performers in a sometimes negative way. With the introduction of sound, the entire concept of film was turned on its head. Directors could not shoot sound films in the same manner they shot silents, and this change in medium provided the nudge out the door for actors and actresses such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.

Instrumental musicians experienced similar problems as a result of sound films. Each theatre employed a small orchestra of musicians to play for the silent films. This was really led by the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY (the WXXI studios are right across the street from the Kodak headquarters, by the way!). The musicians who made up these orchestras suddenly found themselves out of work when sound films started to appear in theatres.

Another very important application for these electrical recordings was in radio. Now it was possible to make crystal clear recordings of programs and concerts, press them onto discs and distribute them to radio stations. Thus, we saw the birth of syndicated programs. This was a godsend for smaller radio stations who could not afford the more expensive live programming. They were able to receive great recordings of programs and air them without having the group in their studio playing live. These pre-recorded programs also gave rise to the DJ personality. Hosts now had the time, freedom and flexibility to introduce music and programs, as well as incorporate some chatter between programs.

The electrical recording process is still in use today, however the medium onto which recordings are stored has changed over the years. Magnetic tape was introduced in the 1930’s, and by 1938 the technology had improved to meet broadcast standards. Using magnetic tape, the British developed High-Fidelity recording in WWII as a way to track and listen to enemy submarines. This technology gained wide acceptance after the war because of it’s improved clarity, and wider frequency range. Records were still the most widely accepted recording medium until 1963, when Philips introduced their cassette tape. From there, we enjoyed the Walkman, which made audio and music portable. People could take as many cassettes as they could carry, and travel anywhere with their music as long as they had some extra batteries to keep the walkman charged and ready to go. From cassettes, we jumped to CD’s which mimicked the jump from cylinders to disks. CD’s could hold more music and data than cassettes and were easier to store, just as disks could hold more music than cylinders and took up less space in houses and stores. With the development of iTunes in 2000, the physical CD’s began to become less popular. Now, we are left with music still being recorded and released on CD’s, but digital methods for buying and keeping music are by far the most popular.

As with most technology, there are still those interested in the past. Many people are beginning to collect records again, showing an interest in the “retro” forms of music. I myself have begun to collect records after my dad gave me his old stereo system. There’s something relaxing about hearing the occasional pop and hiss of an old record. Those types of sounds are now viewed as imperfections and every step is taken to eliminate them. After briefly exploring the history of recording technology, it begs the question: “What’s the next step?” Where do we go now that most of our music is right in the palm of our hands? Perhaps this is the end of groundbreaking technological advances when it comes to music. We’ll just have to wait and see.