A Brief History of the Progression of Audio Recording

A Brief History of the Progression of Audio Recording

Beginnings –

Humans first started recording sound over a hundred years ago with using a technique called acoustical recording. The earliest recorders, utilizing this method, worked with three basic components: a diaphragm, needle, and recording medium. When put together, the diaphragm moved in accordance to the sound wave, the needled moved with the diaphragm, and the sharp point traced a pattern on to paper, cylinders, etc. This pattern “held” the sound information. I say “held” because the quality was, of course, horrid, but it was a major first step in a new technology.

Thomas Edison and a man named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville were some one the most important individuals to recording’s birth. While Edison is widely recognized as pioneering sound recording’s major breakthrough, Edouard actually beat him to it a little over a decade with his phonautograph.

Here is one of, if not, the earliest know recordings by Edouard-Leon Scoot, 1860, where someone sings “Au Clair de la Lune”:

(Alexander Graham Bell, known for the telephone, actually created a phonautogrpah as well shortly after Edouard, but his was a bit gruesome: it was essentially the same, but use an actual human ear and part of a skull. Yep.)

There were a few devices popping up to replace the phonautograph, but Thomas Edison’s phonograph by far took the cake, which was patented on December 24, 1877. This device not only was able to record, but had a separate needle for playback (playback, simply enough, work in the complete opposite order recording did). Edison’s phonograph used metal cylinders to record the acoustic patterns onto, however, the recording time was about 2 minutes with an unfortunate short amount of playback time before degrading in quality. The hi-tech decedents of phonographs are still used today.

Era of Tape –

While phonographs worked, a new recording medium was much needed. Enter magnetic tape. Tape as we know it was first invented in Germany by Fritz Pfleumer in the ’20s.  His tape was a paper of sorts with magnetic iron particles across the surface, which, when recorded to, aligned with the audio signal. This new technology allowed for easy edits, but the sound was still crap. Fortunately, the process of AC tape biasing was accidentally discovered (this is achieved by recording a very high, inaudible frequency over the rest of the recording), and the audio suddenly and massively improved.

Here a video going more into this:

This changed everything. For nearly half a century, this tape (a further improved, of course, but basically the same, nonetheless) became the number one medium to record to. The Beatles, Led Zepplin, and some of the largest bands to ever exist used tape. Even today, if one can afford to do so, tape is still considered a high quality recording medium, yet, it has its limitations, as physical devices do. A new technology was needed.

Modern –

While immensely successful, producers and musicians wanted more than what tape could offer: the limited typical 24 possible tracks, tedious editing, and other limitations drove us into a new direction. That new format being digital, and those magic “1”s and “0”s. While a few digital techniques, like digital tape from the 80’s, existed, the computer was the major player. Before, all the sound was recorded, mixed, and distributed in analog, meaning it never was digitized, but computers offered digitization of sound and, more importantly, incredible and rapidly growing computing power. Nowadays, one can do virtually anything to sound with a few clicks of a mouse that would otherwise be near if not completely impossible in analog, and tape has been replaced by hard drives. This revolution also brought electronic music to its full potential.

So, while this seems like a gift from above, the same problem that plagued the earliest of recordings reared its ugly head once more: quality. Now, digitally recorded audio quality may be many magnitudes better than what a phonautograph recorded,  it takes a lot of work and power to get digital to sound not digital, if that makes sense. The biggest worry is that digital cuts up the audio into thousands of samples a second, and that there’s a limit on the highest of frequencies it can record. Being so complex, things get really confusing really fast, and can sound bad if done incorrectly.

Here’s a video explaining more of the quality aspects behind digital audio:

I grew up on digital audio, right around the time when tape was starting to be replaced. Personally, I’m fine with what I have available: it works just fine and so much more. However, I would still like to experiment with tape, but the whole process is way too expensive, so I’ll just take what opportunities I can catch.

All in all, there are many ways to record sound, and things will continue to improve and change. All we can do is move along with it.

Some Sources:





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