The Evolution of Recording Music

Feb 21, 2018

Music has been an important part of pretty much every human culture since pre-history. But in those earliest days, you had to actually be in the presence of the musicians in order to hear any music at all. Without any methods for transporting or reproducing a musical performance, it was an entirely live experience for centuries. Today, we can carry around the specific performances of dozens, if not hundreds of musical artists in our pockets. And, in fact, with the advent of streaming services, we now have access to almost any recording ever made, anywhere, all at the touch of a button.

It’s been quite a long road getting from the exclusively live experience that music started out as, to the immersive experience we can choose to have literally anywhere today.

This week, we’re going to explore many of the steps in recording technology that took us towards what we have today, and maybe even beyond.

Sheet Music

Although not technically recording and playing back music, the invention of sheet music in the 15th century allowed the same piece of music to the reproduced exactly, over and over again. Although you still needed to be in the same place as the performing musicians to hear the music, you could be certain that you were hearing the same notes, and therefore the same song, no matter where you were, and no matter what orchestra you were listening to.

The Phoautograph

The very first device ever created to record sound was invented in the 1850s, and nearly two decades before Thomas Edison’s first recording of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on a sheet of tin foil. Created by Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, the phoautograph was an interesting little device. And while this was the first time human beings were able to record sounds, the phoautograph wasn’t able to actually play those sounds back.

In fact, Scott had no intention of creating something that could reproduce the sounds it recorded. He wanted to create a visual representation of sound, sort of like the images of waveforms we see today. It was a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus. Sound would enter the horn and cause the stylus to vibrate, which would then etch little squiggles on a sheet of paper covered with a layer of soot from an oil lamp.

The Phonograph

A few years later, while working on the telephone in 1877, it occurred to Thomas Edison that if the human voice could be transmitted with a vibrating disk, couldn’t it also be recorded and reproduced later?

Edison’s solution was to create a machine that had a long cylinder set on a long shaft. Tin foil was wrapped around the cylinder, and at one end there was a movable arm with a mouthpiece with a thin disk with a needle at its tip. At the other end, there was a hand-crank for turning the cylinder. Cranking at a steady rate, Edison sang “Mary had a little lamb…” which made the disk vibrate, and the needle cut a groove in the tinfoil at different depths. When he was done reciting the nursery rhyme, he placed the needle back at the beginning of the groove, and cranked the cylinder again. This made the disk vibrate, reproducing the original sound! Edison and his staff could clearly, if faintly, hear his voice repeating the poem.


The vinyl record that most of us are familiar with today was born out of Edison’s early device. Replacing the phonograph in 1889 was the gramophone, with its large, flat disk rotating beneath the recording needle replacing the earlier cylinder. This change signaled the beginning of the now-common disc design that outlived even the gramophone. In fact, like we talked about last week, people today are still hunting down vinyl records wherever they can, with many claiming that more modern formats lose a certain unidentifiable quality of the recording.

The method for recording sounds on a vinyl record is a little different. Sound is actually recorded on a much softer material, called lacquer, using a sharp needle to carve a spiral groove. Usually both sides of the lacquer are recorded on, then both lacquer layers are placed on either side of a polyvinyl chloride disc, and squashed together, fusing them into the final product.

Cassette Tapes

Following vinyl came the humble cassette tape, which used the power of magnetism to record music onto the actual tape within the cassette. Commercialized in the 1940s, the driving force behind the adoption of the cassette tape was actually Bing Crosby. Thanks to the high quality of the recording, Crosby could record his shows ahead of time, which freed him of the pressures of live performances. As a direct result of this, he went on to pitch a series of high-profile investments and endorsements that single-handedly lead to the wide-spread use of cassette tapes in homes and inside cars.

This technology went on to prove itself incredibly useful in a variety of ways. For example, cassette tapes introduced the idea of “multi-track recording,” which involved recording several sets of audio on each tape. This allowed stereo, or even surround sound playback by sending each track to a different speaker.

Compact Discs

The compact disc, or CD, was originally developed by Sony and Philips in the early 1980s. It was their intent to revolutionize the audio scene. Most of the technology was based on Philips’ early work into audio discs, called Audio Long Plays at the time. Between the two companies, a lot of engineering and technical problems were solved, leading to the development of the modern CD. This new format was quickly adopted by the general public as a replacement for cassettes and vinyl records.

CDs work using digital signals instead of analog, making it the first music format to break the digital barrier. Music is stored on the disc in the form of a series of indentations in the middle layer of the disc, made up of aluminum, like Edison’s phonograph. These bumps and stripes are tightly wound in a spiral from the centre of the disc, outward. A laser reads the bumps as “0s” and the stripes as “1s.” These 0s and 1s make up all the digital information that creates each song.

The Digital Future

Today, almost all music reproduction has been transferred into digital recordings like MP3 files. Even with the recent rise in vinyl record sales, both vinyl and CDs, and especially cassette tapes, have taken a back seat to digital download sales. In fact, it could be argued that we have come full circle, and digital quality has reached such a high level that it has brought us back at a point where the musical experience is a live one, even if we’re all alone with headphones on.

And who can predict what new tech might be coming up around the corner. I, for one, cannot imagine what the next portable music format will be. But what I find more interesting is the recent melding of music and virtual reality. This meeting of technology might one day create the ultimate “live” experience, where you can “be at” a live concert while sitting comfortably on your own couch.

And what a day that will be.