History of Sound Recording

Scott, Berliner, and Edison

The Beginning

The history of audio recording is divided into eras; the first of which is called The Analogue Era (AE for short). The AE focuses on the time from 1854 to about 1930.

Now when most people think of the beginning of audio recording, they are more than likely under the assumption that Thomas Edison was the first person to figure out and produce a way to record sound, but this is not true. The first person to actually find a way to record sound was a Frenchman named Edouard Leon Scott De Martinville. He created a machine called the Phonautograph. The Phonautograph was originally to be used as a way to visually study the effects of sound and how different environmental factors affected sound production. Scott got the idea to make the Phonautograph when he was helping a regular client of his bookstore make extra copies of a medical presentation that talked about how the ear perceived sound. Scott was also fascinated by the idea of an automatic stenographer; he wanted to make a way for businessmen and the courts to record conversations that were more convenient than by hand.

As previously mentioned, the Phonautograph was meant as a way to visually study sound, so the design was not made to produce playable recordings and also did not have a built-in way to play them back. For over 150 years it was thought that we would never hear the first recordings of man's own voice; however, an organization called First Sounds decided to try and trace back the history of recording so that they could find out who really discovered audio recording and see what the oldest playable recording was.

The Phonautograph

The Phonautograph was originally built to run along a flat surface with a piece of blackened paper on it and then a stylus would etch the waveform of the sound onto the paper. Scott later revised the design to the one pictured above; still using the blackened paper and stylus, the design now rotated along an axis instead of along a flat plane. The oldest known recording of man's own voice is Scott singing Au Claire De La Lune.

The recording of Scott singing was recorded in 1857 and was made playable by First Sounds in 2008.

Now Edison was the first person to figure out how to record sound, and play it back! He created a device called the Phonograph in 1877, 20 years after Scott completed his Phonautograph. But Edison claimed to not even know who Scott was and claimed that he came up with the theory of audio recording all on his own.

The Phonograph

The Phonograph worked by rotating a tin or wax cylinder while a stylus etched the waveforms picked up by the horn into the cylinder. You could then store and playback the cylinders at a later time. This was the beginning of the music industry.

Edison and His Phonograph

In 1877, Edison produced his Phonograph and started to manufacture and sell them. He received awards and recognition for his achievement and created yet another industry, the music industry. His Phonograph is considered one of the most important inventions in audio history.

But about 10 to 15 years after Edison developed the Phonograph, a man from Germany named Emile Berliner would create a recording device that would change the game, he invented the Gramophone. The Gramophone was different from the Phonograph in two distinct ways, it had a spring in the turntable so that you didn't have to hand crank it the entire time you wanted to listen to music, and it also used a disc instead of a cylinder.

You may be thinking that the Gramophone looks familiar, and that is because the yearly music awards, The Grammy Awards are designed to look like a Gramophone. This is because the Gramophone was the first device to use a disc playback method and it also started the audio engineering field of the music industry, more on that later though

The Gramophone worked in a similar way to the Phonograph, a stylus would etch the waveforms of the sounds into the disc as the disc rotated along its axis.

Berliner started his first Gramophone company, called The German Gramophone Company, in the late 1880s, early 1890s. It didn't last for very long, but nobody is sure how long it was around. After the company failed, he started The American Gramophone Company, but it too failed. The American Gramophone Company was closed before it could sell any Gramophones or recordings. In 1895 Berliner teamed up with a machinist from Philidelphia named Eldridge Johnson. Johnson decided that a spring in the turntable to enable people to listen to their music without having to hand crank it would make the Gramophone more enjoyable. The company that Berliner founded with Johnson was called The United States Gramophone Company; The United States Gramophone Company would be one of the first major companies in the music industry.

Originally the Gramophone discs were made of a hard rubber, but after Berliner started The US Gramophone Company, he decided to switch to a lacquer design. The lacquer disc would be in use for almost 40 years until the invention of the vinyl record. While The US Gramophone Company was growing and experiencing success, Berliner was dealing with other companies ripping off his design and rebranding his work as their own. Becoming frustrated with a number of lawsuits and legal action, Berliner decided to leave the Gramophone industry. He transferred all of his trademarks and patents to Eldridge Johnson; Johnson then rebranded The US Gramophone company as The Victor Gramophone Talking Machine Company. Victor would carry the success of The US Gramophone Company and be one of the biggest names in the music industry for years. It would also start a branch off a company called HMV, His Master's Voice, and the dog sitting with the Gramophone would be featured on almost every record produced for years to come.

Montreal joins the industry.

Before the mid-1920s, recording was done in a purely acoustical way. The sounds were played into a horn and then the vibrations would make a diaphragm that was held in place vibrate and then the vibrations would make the stylus move; the stylus would engrave the waveforms into the disc or cylinder and voila you had your recording.

However, you could not play back the recording you had because they were made on a soft wax, and if you played it back you would damage the wax and lose the recording. The wax master would be sent to a processing plant where it would be electroplated to create a metal stamp of the recording. The metal stamp was used to press the recording into a heated shellac biscuit.

This recording process was not very effective as the horn could only pick up sounds that were close to it and had a frequency that was neither too high or too low. As I mentioned in the previous episode, bands would use euphoniums instead of tubas and blocks of wood instead of a bass drum. But the horn would also pick up unwanted noises as it was recording all the noises in the room. It was like having your condenser microphone’s input cranked all the way up while recording, you would pick up unwanted background noise. The background noise would drown out the necessary overtones and sibilants for a clear recording.

Now let’s talk about Montreal and its involvement with Berliner and Johnson’s companies! Starting around 1900, Berliner and Johnson would manufacture most of their recordings in Montreal. Until around 1960 most of the recordings, you would hear in Canada were made in the US and Europe, sent to Montreal to be pressed and then sold in Canada and the US. Now at the time of all those legal battles I was telling you about earlier, Canadian patent law required that anyone who wanted a valid patent in Canada had a manufacturing plant somewhere in Canada. While the legal battles were going on, Berliner decided to open the plant in a suburb of Montreal, thus clinching his claim of a valid patent in Canada.

After WWI Herbert and his brother Edgar decided to reduce the number of imported recordings from the US to reduce the number of royalties they owed to Victor. In 1916, Herbert, through a subsidiary company, his master's voice, introduced the 216000 series, devoted to Canadian recordings. Later, an exclusively French-Canadian series was initiated in the HMV 263000 series.

By 1920, most of the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company's recordings were recorded and pressed in Canada. Victor was unimpressed by this situation and asserted considerable pressure to displace Herbert from his position of power. How it was achieved will remain a mystery but, in 1921, Herbert resigned from the company and departed for the compo company in Lachine, Quebec, which he had established independently in 1918. The aim of compo was to manufacture records for other recording labels. His younger brother Edgar became president of Berliner gramophone company; the HMV series was phased out and replaced with Victor recordings. In 1924, Victor acquired controlling interest in the Berliner Gram-o-phone company, changing its name to the Victor talking machine company of Canada. Edgar remained president but the other directors were also active directors of the American company.

Even the powerhouse Victor company could not stand against the increasing predominance of radio in the sound recording business and, in 1929, RCA (radio corporation of America) merged with Victor, including the victor branch in Canada, to create RCA Victor. Emile Berliner died the same year, at the age of 78, and the following year Edgar Berliner resigned from the presidency of Victor of Canada, severing the family's last tie to the company, and ending the first era of recorded sound in Canada.

All Information was taken from my blog www.theottawasound.com! Check it out for more cool information, pictures, videos and other music services.

Kyle Stumpo
Kyle Stumpo

I run a blog called The Ottawa Sound which aims to promote Ottawa Canada based musical artists, venues and any other aspect of the local scene. I'm also in two bands Rebel Reload and Batavia.

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History of Sound Recording