Sound Recording Technology

150 years of sound recording technology


There is a more complete version here, with more detail, links and sound examples.

An illustration of the 1859 version of Scott’s Phonautograph, as published in Franz Josef Pisko, Die neueren Apparate der Akustik, Vienna 1865. Collected and scanned by Firstsounds. The speaker’s drum is on the left, while the diaphragm and stylus are pressed against the cylinder on the right.
 An example of a Scott phonautogram. Scanned from the archive of the Institut de France and published by Firstsounds.

The Phonautograms were intended for visual inspection and acoustics research, there was no method for playback.

Edison’s Phonograph, patented in 1877, with horn for recording and playback. A vibrating stylus cuts the wave groove on the revolving wax-coated cylinder. A threaded rod draws the horn and stylus unit along the cylinder, creating a continuous spiral groove.
Photo: Wikipedia.
Using the Bell Graphophone fitted with a mouthpiece and a speaking tube.
Photo: Library of Congress

In 1889, Emile Berliner had developed a hard flat recording disc to compete with the soft wax Phonograph cylinders. The sound quality was initially very poor and they were sold as toys, but by 1894 they were being sold with pre-recorded entertainment or as blanks for home recording.

Emile Berliner’s flat Gramophone disc record.
A home recorder and player for Gramophone records (1915). The subject still spoke (or sung) into a horn (just visible on the left).
Photo: From the instruction book, British Library.

Note that Phonograph and Gramophone were originally registered trademarks, that eventually became generic words for disc players, “phonograph” in the USA and “gramophone” in the UK.

By the 1930s, microphones and electronic amplifiers had replaced the horn of the gramophone recorders, so that electric signals were used to drive the cutting stylus, vastly improving the quality and frequency response of the recording. At the same time, magnetic recording techniques were being developed, using two rival media – steel wire and plastic tape. Wire recorders were mainly limited to professional applications in the 1940s and 1950s, whereas tape recorders were used widely from the 1950s to around 2000 (in studios, broadcasting, education and home).

 wirerecorder200A wire recorder
 nagra01a200A tape recorder

Standardized compact cassettes have simplified operation since the 1960s. They were just dropped into a slot, avoiding the bother of threading a tape round the rollers and guides, and through the magnetic heads. But there was a performance cost – the small dimensions meant that compact cassettes achieved poorer signal/noise ratios than professional reel-to-reel tape (35-40dB against 100dB).

compactcassette150Compact cassette



Cassette recorder for professional field work
Since around 2000, a wide range of fully specified digital recorders for professional use. At first, the recording media included a variety of special tape cassettes or small discs. The more recent models use the memory modules familiar from digital cameras, offering storage capacities of many GB.

P.S. 5 January 2014.

The British Library’s Sound blog has a recent post, Blue Christmas 1913, written as though you were there then, comparing the latest sound technology before buying.

©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2014


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