If you record and produce music, it’s powerful to understand the roots of this craft, and how it evolved from carving notation into stone tablets to have the world in your hand.
Stick around for just five minutes and let me drop it. Here’s the biggest milestones in recorded music tech.
The farthest back we’ve found any music at all is in writing from 1400 B.C. at Nippur in Babylonia.
Musical Notation allows ideas to survive beyond their creators, persist through generations, and travel the world.
But, neither a musician nor the US Copyright Office recognizes that as a form of recorded music because we can’t hear it, performed as the composer intended.
We can’t know the exact timing. And that’s a big deal because timing is the foundation of what a performer breathes into the music to render it audible.
The Automatic Flute
Around 850 AD, a trio of Persian inventors in Baghdad, the Banū Mūsā brothers describe in their legendary Book of Ingenious Devices, a machine capable of playing music precisely the way the composer wrote it.
This system of a cylinder with raised pins would remain the de facto way to produce and reproduce music mechanically for the next thousand years.
But that machine took up an entire building, and none survived. We have some notations of their music, and we may try to perform it ourselves. But we have no recordings of them performing it.
Mid 13th century is the farthest back in history we can hear a mechanical reproduction of the timing of music as intended at all.
The Music Box
A clever bell ringer in Flanders invented a miniature pocket version of the Banū Mūsā brothers machine, called the music box.
The same rotating cylinder with raised pins, now striking bells, fits neatly in a beautiful, portable case.
But the timing depends on how tightly you wind it, and the sound is wonky, though charming.
Haydn-Niemecz Barreled Organ
Only two centuries ago in 1793 we got the first reliable mechanical reproduction of a musical performance. That’s Franz Joseph Haydn: Pieces for Musical Clock.
Haydn himself collaborated in person with the talented creator Niemecz to confirm the timing of these performances.
Most critically, the mechanism used to rotate the cylinder has the time fidelity of a fine clock. So this is the first moment in history that we can know how to perform the music as intended.
The Player Piano
In 1896 Edwin S. Votey invents the Player Piano.
The key innovation here is the media— instead of a cylinder with pins, we’ve got a whole roll of paper with holes punched. Expert piano players can record their performances directly onto rolls for mass distribution.
Edison’s phonograph crossed the threshold into actual audio recording 1877 but never quite arrived at mainstream use for music.
The Vinyl Record
In 1904, Emile Berliner invented the pressed-disc horizontally-modulated groove storage medium we still know today, the vinyl record.
Soon, we see affordable record players at home and jukeboxes in public.
Radio had been used before for telegraphs and conversations, but around 1920, AM radio showed up with the spread of music-quality vacuum tube receivers and the emergence of public stations.
Now, anyone with a radio can listen to music for free. But, you pay with your ears.
Radio stations generate revenue by measuring the value of their audience and charging advertisers accordingly.
Before 1926, all audio recording was acoustic, meaning that each record came directly from a single take of a single microphone.
But in just one year, a new “electrical recording” technique completely replaced the old method. Numerous microphones feed through the mixing board, which allows an engineer to craft the final mix.
In 1945, an American named Jack Mullen stumbles across one of these original German magnetic tape recorders at a radio station in Germany and brings it home.
In 1947, he gave a notorious presentation in Los Angeles, where the audience was amazed after being unable to distinguish a recording from a live orchestra behind the curtain.
Then, Bing Crosby invested the modern-day equivalent of half a million dollars into a tape recorder startup called Ampex that would save him from having to repeat his performance every night 3 hours later for the West Coast. He hated doing two shows.
Interestingly, also the quality of broadcasted and recorded audio went through the roof between 1947 and 1948.
Because creators seized that opportunity to enhance and craft the audio en route from the performers to the audience.
In 1955, the same company, Ampex, manufactured the first multitrack recorder for Les Paul. It became known as the “Octopus.” But the technology evolved in subsequent decades to a mainstream recording technique.
In 1971, Daniel N. Flickinger introduced the first parametric equalizer, which achieved filtering circuits that were previously impossible yet have dominated the industry ever since.
The bar rose in terms of the quality of listening experiences that audiences demanded and musicians competed to deliver.
In 1979, a new consumer product arrived on the market like gas on a fire. As our society accelerated into individual-identity-based culture, the Walkman was the answer to millions of prayers for a portable, personal listening machine.
Practically overnight, we got used to people walking around wearing headphones everywhere.
Analog Digital Converters
The computers of the 70s lagged way behind in terms of audio processing. But in the 80s, we got analog-digital converters that could turn an affordable computer into a serious recording studio.
The Digital Audio Workstation
In 1989, Digital Design released a product called Sound Tools, later known as Pro Tools.
It seems obvious now that the Digital Audio Workstation would become the standard. Yet, even in the 90s, it was controversial whether a computer-mixed record could hack it at all.
In 1993, Severe Tire Damage became the first band to perform live on the internet. WIRED magazine later accused them of ruining the recording industry.
But what does WIRED magazine know about the recording industry? Let’s not blame the messenger.
The members of this band include some highly regarded figures in the founding of the internet. For example, drummer Mark Weiser is generally regarded as the father of ubiquitous computing.
No. I don’t blame Severe Tire Damage. Advances in data compression, combined with broadband internet access, rapidly eroded the demand chain for distributed music.
Now, all that remains of the iPod is the word “Podcast.”
But recorded music will never be the same.
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