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24 Inventions That Changed Music

A brief timeline of key breakthroughs in recorded sound

The Evolution of Music and Technology

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We've come a long way in capturing and reproducing sound, and in many ways, the journey has been a poetic and literal full circle. From Thomas Edison's first experiments with waveform-engraved cylinders to the rotating dials of our iPods − and every touchstone devoted to preserving composition and performance since and after − we've amassed a timeline of 24 essential breakthroughs (be they physical tools or digital breakthroughs) in recorded-music and playback technology. 

By Kenny Herzog

protools

CC Image courtesy Henrik Anttonen on Flickr

Pro Tools (1991)

In 1989, Digidesign founders Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks first released Sound Tools, a completely digital recording and editing system for Apple Macintosh. But it was the reboot as Pro Tools in 1991 − with multitrack capabilities and faster processing − that broke the mold. Digidesign was later absorbed by Avid, and Pro Tools reigns among amateur artists and elite engineers alike, even if some idealists would trade its ease and affordability for the crackling imperfections of vintage hardware.

mp3 player

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The MP3 (1995)

The revolutionary audio file's journey actually commenced in 1982, when German audio engineer Karlheinz Bradenburg helped a professor search for ways to apply digital-phone technology to music transmission. Over the next 13 years, as computers became more sophisticated, so did Bradenburg's advances in compression (his biggest snag, amazingly, came when trying to capture, sans distortion, Suzanne Vega's vocal on "Tom's Diner"). In collaboration with the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), standards were set, and thanks to the Internet, a proper host had emerged. The extension .MP3 was selected and cemented in July 1995, and the rest  −including its unforeseen snowball effect on the music industry − is history still being encoded.

auto-tune

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Auto-Tune (1997)

A majority of these inventions came from scientific minds, and Auto-Tune is no exception. Its parent company, Antares Audio Technologies (originally called Jupiter Systems), was founded in 1990 by geophysicist Dr. Andy Hildebrand. Using the same Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technology he employed to measure seismic data, Hildebrand first patented the Infinity sample-looping software and various Pro-Tools plug-ins. But it was Auto-Tune − a DSP-powered program used to course correct vocals and instruments − that etched his legacy. Its creative limitlessness has empowered the likes of Kanye West (while remaining a bone of contention for purists), but it also gave us the recording careers of his fiancé, Kim Kardashian, so perhaps that's a wash.

ipod

Courtesy of Apple Corp. via Getty Images

iPod (2001)

Walkmans and Discmans were instantly forgotten, and gathering of .MP3s on desktops mushroomed when the iPod was made commercially available in October 2001. Sure, it cost $400 and needed semi-regular charges, but who could argue with 5 GB of collated, alphabetized, prioritized albums, songs and playlists all available and scrollable via a touch-sensitive pinwheel? Thirteen years hence, the iPod's capabilities have merged with telecommunications via the iPhone, inspired scores of failed imitators (hello, Zune) and spawned legendary advertising campaigns that achieved standalone iconography. 

garageband

David Caudery/MacFormat magazine via Getty Images

GarageBand (2004)

Steve Jobs wasn't about to take Pro Tools lying down. In 2002, Apple acquired German company Emagic. They also lured its prodigal engineer Gerhard Lengeling and his innovative Logic software, which basically allowed home-computer users access to studio-level features. Concurrently, Lengeling cooked up GarageBand, which refined Logic's foundation even further so that the amateur enthusiast or cash-strapped DIY musician could become expert overnight in digital recording and mastering. Jobs demonstrated GarageBand at the 2004 Macworld Expo, and a decade on, in conjunction with standard-bearers like Pro Tools and Logic, it continues to embolden previously tech-averse artists.

soundcloud

CC Image courtesy Jon Weatherill-Hunt on Flickr

SoundCloud (2007)

Enterprising Swedes Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss launched Soundcloud from a Berlin office in Fall 2007. At the time, their aspiration was for artists and others in the music industry to have a simpler platform than MySpace for sharing songs with one another. By Summer 2009, they registered more than 160,000 users. Four years later, SoundCloud was streaming music to and between 200-millon-plus sets of ears worldwide. Ljung and Wahlforss seized on the smartphone/tablet explosion with user-friendly apps, and their program is now regarded as the audiophile's YouTube with the fluidity of Twitter, as each file has a unique, embeddable URL.

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