History of Recording Music

The History of Recorded Music

Acoustical Recording

In 1877, Thomas Edison used two needles on tinfoil cylinders. One needle was for recording and the other for playback. This was the creation of the phonograph. The first word that he recorded were “Mary had a little lamb”.

Thomas Edison 1877 Phonograph Recording

In 1887, Edison built on improvements by the Alexander Graham Bell lab invention, the Graphophone. Among other advancements, the tinfoil-covered cylinders were replaced by wax cylinders. Before long, recording and sharing music took on the lion’s share of the sound recording market.

The Edison Entertainment Company’s wax cylinder players, along with those of many competitors, endured into the 1920s.

Popeye the sailor man – cylinder recording

In the 1890s, inventor Emile Berliner unveiled the Gramophone. This was the first to stop recording on cylinders and star recording on flat disks. His first recorded words were “Twinkle, twinkle little star”.

Berliner also invented a method of mass producing copies of the original record. Until Edison made improvements in his machines, Berliner’s Gramaphone was the loudest machine on the market.

In 1902, Edison introduced “Gold Molded” cylinders for $0.50 each, with an improved wax surface. They were mass-produced by a molding process that actually emitted a gold vapor. Europe “Red Seal” 10-inch discs with 4-minute capacity were sold for $1.00 each featuring famous European artists. The first Red Seal records were recorded by the Russian Imperial Opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, who recorded 10 records for the Gramophone Co.

The Victor company began to import these celebrity labels in 1903 and became the leading seller of classical music records. The 10-inch disc quickly became more popular than the previous7-inch standard disc that could only play for two or three minutes.

In 1906, The Victor Machine Company debuted the Victrola. This line of “talking machines” tucked the turntable and amplifying horn away inside a wooden cabinet. Rather than increasing the audio fidelity, the idea was to produce a homo phonograph that looked less like machinery and more like furniture. These internal horn machines were an immediate hit. Soon the brand name “Victrola” became synonymous with record player.

A range of styles and price ranges would follow – anything from a small tabletop for $15 all the way to a high-end gold trip designed for mansions at $600. Victrolas became by far the most popular type of home phonograph and sold in great numbers until the end of the 1920s.

Sample of a Victrola 78 rpm record 1912

Electronic Recording

In the 1920s, inventors introduced electronic recording with microphones and amplifiers, and record players were gradually electrified as well. This was a vast improvement over the old mechanical methods. At first, only affordable to the most wealthy (an electronic record player cost as much as a new car), electronic technology began to infiltrate the market.

Tape Recording

Several visionary inventors had been working on electronic recording when the first reel-to-reel tape recorder and player, the Magnetophone, entered the arena in the mid 1930s, The first classical recordings were disappointing, however improvements in the tape helped.

In the early 1940s, German engineers accidentally discovered high-bias recording when a “faulty” machine was brought in for repair. Suddenly, tape recording surpassed the existing gramophone recording technology. The new machines were kept a closely guarded Nazi secret for the duration of World War II. Once the machines were discovered after the war, engineers quickly imitated and improved on them, and magnetic tape recording became the industry standard.

The Age of Vinyl

After many fascinating experiments with materials, the first vinyl records were produced in the 1930s and soon demonstrated their superiority. Yet many of the old 78 rpm records were still made of various combinations of shellac into the 1950s.

In 1948, Columbia introduced the first 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm micro-groove LP vinylite record. The following year RCA Victor introduced 7-inch 45 rpm micro-groove “Extended Play” vinylite records and record players. Eventually the 33 1/3 and the 45 rpm were the only ones produced.

Vinyl records remained the primary medium throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. They were not supplanted by the compact disc until 1988.