We’ve come a long way in capturing and reproducing sound. From Thomas Edison’s first experiments with waveform-engraved cylinders to the rotating dials of our iPods to music streaming platforms and Live concerts.
Today we want to share a list of essential breakthroughs (be they physical tools or digital breakthroughs) in recorded music and playback technology.
Friday, September 23rd
The Phonograph Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the foil-cylinder phonograph fundamentally altered music’s place in our lives. It changed the ephemeral nature of music, as performances could be fixed in time and returned to over and over again. Much as mechanical reproduction had done with art, recording democratized music and greatly increased its accessibility. It opened people’s ears to genres like folk, jazz, and blues, and remade our relationship to popular music. Previously, listeners had experienced pop songs by hearing orchestras play them in ballrooms or buying the sheet music and gathering round the piano to sing them at home. For a time, then, music became less participatory, but that would soon change.
Long before Beats by Dre, there was Utah Mormon and electrician Nathaniel Baldwin’s rudimentarily constructed, but sonically potent, cans. Baldwin initially crafted his “radio earphones” out of copper wiring and an operator’s headband. After failed attempts to gain the attention of private companies and even the Smithsonian Institute, he turned to the Navy, who ordered hundreds of sets in anticipation of possible world war. Legend has it that Baldwin handmade each pair in his kitchen, though it remains unknown whether he could cook.
Electric Guitar (1941)
When, in 1941, Les Paul added a neck, strings, tuners, and homemade pickups to a 4-by-4 pine slab that he dubbed the Log, audiences balked. They weren’t prepared to see a musician wrest melodies from a solid block of wood, so Paul added false sides to give it a more familiar shape. That and the instrument’s rich, sustaining tone won over showgoers. It would take Paul another decade to convince the Gibson Guitar Corporation to mass-produce a solid-body electric guitar, but Gibson debuted a model in 1952, named, of course, for Les Paul. As rock ’n’ roll exploded, the electric guitar—cheap, loud, and relatively easy to play—became one of the most popular means of musical expression.
Multitrack Recording (1941)
Multitrack recording, another innovation credited to Les Paul, introduced collage—a critical feature of modern art—into popular music. Multitracking freed musicians from the constraints of performance and replaced live, in-the-studio recording sessions. Now each element of a composition could be recorded separately and assembled later through editing. Without multitracking, celebrated pop albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would have been impossible to record.
JTM45 Amplifier (1962)
When Jim Marshall and his colleagues Ken Bran and Dudley Craven began constructing their now-signature amp, they had bass playback in mind, which might explain why the JTM produced such booming results. It also didn’t hurt that they upped the ante on Fender models with bigger, closed-back cabinets and impactful Celestion speakers that allowed for the robust sound that Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and legions of other axe-wielders would come to prefer. Big Jim passed away in 2012 at 88, but his 45 is immortal.
Phillips Compact Cassette Tape (1963)
By now, with radio ubiquitous and kids transformed into rock-and-pop acolytes, music begged for even further fluidity. Enter Phillips, who consolidated the hulking reel-to-reel and revealed the first cassette tape at a 1963 fair in Berlin. Its actual tape was just more than three millimeters wide, but the product’s impact was vast. Cassettes would become the chief mode for distributing albums alongside vinyl and CDs before the digital revolution, not to mention a beloved means of self-expression (via mixtapes) for millions of heart-aching teens. There’s even an annual Cassette Store Day, consolidating the last importance of Phillips’ invention.
Studio tricks like echo, reverb, distortion, and phasing introduced unusual sounds into pop music. Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar tone, for instance, came courtesy of his friend Lee Hazlewood, who turned a grain elevator into an echo chamber. Many of these effects, though, were totally impractical for live performance. Eventually, companies created portable units so that musicians could re-create these sounds easily, bringing them out of the studio and onto the stage, as Jimi Hendrix famously did with his array of fuzz, wah, and chorus pedals.
trips, a telephone diaphragm, needle and voices to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Competition would eventually enhance and improve on Edison’s model, but no one matched his innovation.
The Turntable The turntable began as a playback device, but in the 1970s, dance and hip-hop DJs started to use it as a way to offer unique interpretations of other musicians’ recordings. With a mixer and two turntables, DJs would lengthen songs by bouncing back and forth between copies of the same LP. Every replaying of a song could potentially become a unique performance. This innovation introduced subjectivity into the way popular music could be presented and led DJs to release their own remixes that audiences could listen to at home.
The Walkman (1979)
Few commercial products defined the 1980s like Sony’s Walkman, which arrived in 1979 as a convenient, fashionable way to make an already portable innovation even more portable. The Walkman represented a true synergy of music tech, for it wouldn’t have been possible without Phillips’ cassette tape or Nathaniel Baldwin’s headphones. Also, Sony exec and music fan Masaru Ibuka traveled a lot and wanted something more compact than a typical cassette recorder to play back albums. Enter the Walkman (or, as it was first dubbed in America, the Sound-About), and thus commenced an era of casually neglecting passersby on streets, buses and in airplanes.
Commercial Compact Disc (1982)
Lasers once evoked futuristic fodder. Yet, way back in 1979 (based on experiments five years in the making), Phillips and Sony cracked heads on an optical 12-centimeter audio disc that could reproduce hi-fi-worthy sound. All it took was harnessing surface laser-beam reflections that converted digital data into analog sound. In 1982, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street became commercially available on Compact Disc in Japan, and the next overnight tech phenomenon was birthed. The CD instantly threatened extinction for vinyl and cassettes, though ironically, it currently battles obsolescence against the mighty MP3 (more on that later).
An acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, MIDI is the technology that allowed musicians to hook up, synchronize, and play multiple electronic instruments simultaneously. After it became the industry standard in 1983, MIDI-enabled synthesizers and other devices—such as the Roland TR-909 drum machine, which defined electronic dance genres like techno and house—became essential instruments.
Musicians have been altering the human voice since long before the 1970s. But when Kraftwerk appropriated the Vocoder—a processor developed in the 1930s—on such songs as “Autobahn” and “The Robots,” it evoked a dehumanizing effect. Similarly, producers began employing Auto-Tune regularly in the late 1990s to correct off-key singing. When intentionally used incorrectly, Auto-Tune produces an uncanny distancing sensation on songs like Cher’s “Believe” and Kanye West’s album 808s and Heartbreak. Auto-Tune’s cyborg lilt sent a subconscious message: No matter how poor your sense of melody, you, too, could be a pop star.
The MP3 (1995)
The revolutionary audio file’s journey actually commenced in 1982, when German audio engineer Karlheinz Bradenburg helped a professor search for ways to apply digital-phone technology to music transmission. Over the next 13 years, as computers became more sophisticated, so did Bradenburg’s advances in compression (his biggest snag, amazingly, came when trying to capture, sans distortion, Suzanne Vega’s vocal on “Tom’s Diner”). In collaboration with the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), standards were set, and thanks to the Internet, a proper host had emerged. The extension .MP3 was selected and cemented in July 1995, and the rest −including its unforeseen snowball effect on the music industry − is history still being encoded.
Walkmans and Discmans were instantly forgotten, and gathering of .MP3s on desktops mushroomed when the iPod was made commercially available in October 2001. Sure, it cost $400 and needed semi-regular charges, but who could argue with 5 GB of collated, alphabetized, prioritized albums, songs and playlists all available and scrollable via a touch-sensitive pinwheel? Thirteen years hence, the iPod’s capabilities have merged with telecommunications via the iPhone, inspired scores of failed imitators (hello, Zune) and spawned legendary advertising campaigns that achieved standalone iconography.
YouTube is an American online video sharing and social media platform headquartered in San Bruno, California. It was launched on February 14, 2005, by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim. It is currently owned by Google, and is the second most visited website, after Google Search.
Music Makes Up 5% of All Content on YouTube — And 20% of Total Views
Enterprising Swedes Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss launched Soundcloud from a Berlin office in Fall 2007. At the time, their aspiration was for artists and others in the music industry to have a simpler platform than MySpace for sharing songs with one another. By Summer 2009, they registered more than 160,000 users. Four years later, SoundCloud was streaming music to and between 200-millon-plus sets of ears worldwide. Ljung and Wahlforss seized on the smartphone/tablet explosion with user-friendly apps, and their program is now regarded as the audiophile’s YouTube with the fluidity of Twitter, as each file has a unique, embeddable URL.