Sound recording technology

150 years of sound recording technology

Wikipedia has an overview of sound recording and reproduction, with numerous links to other more specialised articles. Recording-history is a website devoted to the relevant inventions and inventors. The Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music at the Universities of London and Sheffield provides a more detailed history of recording.

Examples and collections of recordings can be found at the British Library, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Humboldt University of Berlin, the US Supreme Court, and the Internet Archive. The BBC has archived a series of radio programmes, Gramophones and Grooves, illustrating the history of recording technology.

  1. The phonautogram
  2. The phonograph
  3. The gramophone
  4. Magnetic recording
  5. Digital recording

1. The phonautogram

The first apparatus for recording and playing back sound was Thomas Edison’s Phonograph. Before that, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had perfected a method for making graphic records of sound waveforms, patented in 1857 as the Phonautograph. The subject spoke into a drum; a vibrating stylus then scratched the image of the sound wave onto a layer of lamp black coating a paper wound round a revolving cylinder, or onto a glass plate.

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 (book pdf here). 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 phonautogram. Scanned from one of Scott’s originals in 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. Until recently, that is. In 2008, researchers at Firstsounds applied an optical method similar to that used for playing the sound tracks of motion films.

Listen to the start of their reproduction of Scott singing the French song Au clair de la lune in 1860:


2. The phonograph

Edison’s Phonograph, patented in 1877, with horn for recording and playback. A vibrating stylus cuts the wave-shaped groove into the surface of the revolving wax-coated cylinder. A threaded rod draws the horn and stylus unit along the cylinder, creating a continuous spiral groove.
Photo: Wikipedia.
Other manufacturers were soon producing their own versions, for example Alexander Graham Bell and his Graphophone.
The photo shows a member of Bell’s staff, Welch, speaking into the Graphophone, using a mouthpiece and a speaking tube.
Photo: Library of Congress

Listen to an extract from a Phonograph recording of the politician William Gladstone (1809-98), saying “William Ewart Gladstone” in 1890 (from the BBC programme Gramophones and Grooves).

[Aside: The authenticity of this recording has been disputed; the accent sounds like RP but Gladstone spoke in the Lancashire accent of his native Liverpool; the wax cylinders were not durable and wore out when copies were made, and Edison is known to have replaced originals with “new” recordings]


3. The gramophone

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

Emile Berliner’s flat Gramophone disc record.
Photo: Wikipedia
A Berliner Gramophone from about 1900.
Photo: Auction Team Köln
A home recorder and player for Gramophone records (1915). The subject still spoke (or sung) into a horn (just visible on the left). The cutting stylus is supported and steadied by the steel bars that also hold the horn. The pickup for playback is folded away on the right.
Photo: From the instruction manual, British Library.

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

During the 1914-1918 war, the regional accents of British army prisoners held in Germany were recorded on gramophone discs by Wilhelm Doegen (specialist in audio-visual aids for language teaching, sound archivist, and later professor of English). This collection, part of the Berliner Lautarchiv, is held at the Humboldt University, while copies can be heard online from the British Library. Listen to a brief extract from a Manchester soldier. He is reading “There was a man who had two sons; the younger son said to his father, give me all that belongs to me; so the father gave him his share”.


By the 1930s, microphones, electronic amplifiers, and loudspeakers had replaced the horn of the gramophone recorders, so that electric signals could be used to drive the cutting stylus, vastly improving the quality and frequency response of gramophone recording.

The concept of high fidelity recording (hi-fi) came with the long-playing vinyl LP record. By definition, hi-fi recording captures the entire sound spectrum that can be heard by the perfect human ear, i.e. 20Hz to 20kHz, with minimum distortion and minimum background noise. To be meaningful, every component in the process must meet the standard – microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers – which became possible in the 1950s.


4. Magnetic recording

Magnetic recording techniques were developed during the 1930s, and once available they used one of 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

Tape recorder design evolved into many combinations of tracks, channels and direction, meaning that any tape recording has to be played back on a machine that has the same track layout as the original recording machine (not always easy to find in the past, even more difficult today).

The standardized compact cassette has 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 over 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), and they rarely met hi-fi standards (typically highest frequency around 15kHz).

compactcassette150Compact cassette

Cassette recorder for professional field work


5. Digital recording

For a digital recording, the fluctuating sound pressure is measured at regular intervals, representing the sound wave as a sequence of numbers. One of the first commercial uses may have passed unnoticed, digital mastering in music studios for the production of regular LP gramophone records. Speech labs gained access to digital recording and digital speech analysis for research and teaching when they began to install computers from the 1970s onwards. The audio CD music record and the necessary CD player appeared in the 1980s, bringing digital sound reproduction into the home. Finally, during the 1990s, sound systems and the necessary programs made digital recording and audio CD production possible with any personal computer.

Since around 2000, a wide range of fully specified digital recorders have become available 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