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.
With all due respect to the French phonoautograph − a fine if bulky mechanism − most of us associate the beginning of conventional playback with Thomas Edison's phonograph design. The wizard of Menlo Park's earliest experiments merely required paper strips, a telephone diaphragm, needle and voices to sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Competition would eventually enhance and improve on Edison's model, but no one matched his innovation.
Thomas Edison scored the patent (as he was wont to do), but British telegraph pioneer David Edward Hughes is commonly recognized as the auteur of our first functioning microphone. By loosely packing carbon granules in a confined space, Hughes discovered that sound vibrations resulted in varying electrical currents and a more balanced reproduction. His first demonstration involved broadcasting scratching insects, a clear forerunner for nü-metal frontmen of the late 20th century.
Long before Beats by Dre, there was Utah Mormon and electrician Nathaniel Baldwin's rudimentarily constructed, but sonically potent, cans. Baldwin initially crafted his "radio earphones" out of copper wiring and an operator's headband. After failed attempts to gain the attention of private companies and even the Smithsonian Institute, he turned to the Navy, who ordered hundreds of sets in anticipation of possible world war. Legend has it that Baldwin handmade each pair in his kitchen, though it remains unknown whether he could cook.
This Victor product's lid-top feature remains the template for turntable practicality, while ornamental, cabinet-style wood furnishing created an immediate luxury item and future antique. But what made the Orthophonic an improvement on Victor's previous models − and a death knell for Edison and other phonograph manufacturers − was its superior acoustic sound design. These mid-Twenties Victrolas set the precedent that fidelity rules above all, even if the equipment weighs a ton.
Just prior to America's Great Depression and WWII, there were several advances in recording tech that would become signature studio and home-audio tools for decades. In 1927, German Austrian engineer Fritz Pfleumer began a trial-and-error process of finding an alternative to magnetic wires. He'd eventually adhere iron oxide powder to thin paper with lacquer and patent the world's first magnetic recording tape, though let's not blame the 8-track's eventual emergence entirely on him.
So long, wax cylinders! Almost. In 1930, RCA-Victor (RCA had by then purchased the Victor brand) made the first 33 1/3-friendly vinyl long-players commercially available. Whether because of subpar sound, the Depression rendering them unaffordable or RCA-Victor marketing them drolly as Program Transcriptions, few folks took these early LPs for a spin. Nearly two decades later, in 1948, Columbia Records reintroduced their take on the format, and a revolution − not to mention fierce competition with RCA − was born.
Fritz Pfleumer's magnetic tape was put to good use in 1935, when German electronics-engineering company AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft) unveiled the first reel-to-reel tape recorder for everyday use. The Magnetophon was designed with Pfleumer's magnetic tape in mind and premiered at the Berlin International Radio Exhibition. As with most original iterations of these devices, Magnetophon's first recordings were distorted and nearly inscrutable. But by 1939, tape manufacturers began using a different kind of oxide that provided extra clarity and helped cement Magnetophon as a pioneering piece of aural history.
After decades of attempts to capture and reproduce authentic hi-fi sound, Bell Labs used a 1937 demonstration film to show off their two-channel innovation, which split up multiple tracks from a single source recording. The primary intent was to optimize movie soundtracks and enhance the theatrical experience, in a sense opening up another cinematic dimension. Only three years later, Disney seized on the technology and released Fantasia, the first commercial studio film amplified by high-fidelity stereo sound.
Before Auto-Tune, the Vocoder reigned as our primary tool for manipulating and messing with a singer's pitch (i.e. a vocal synthesizer). Created by a Bell Labs physicist to secure compressed voice transmissions over phone lines, it became essential during WWII in obscuring trans-Atlantic conversations between President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Three-plus decades later, groundbreaking German electronic band Kraftwerk made it commonplace in popular music, where it would later be notably adopted by the unlikely one-two punch of Cher and Daft Punk.
A few different worldwide companies (including a then-fledgling Sony) were tripping over themselves to bring transistor radios − the genesis of portable, handheld personal music devices − to commercial markets. Regency and Texas Instruments (yes, of calculator fame) joined forces for a more intuitive and affordable model. The duo debuted the TR-1 in 1954, ostensibly making rock and roll accessible to the masses and allowing generations of baseball-game attendees to keep one ear on the AM broadcasts, lest they err on their box score.
When Jim Marshall and his colleagues Ken Bran and Dudley Craven began constructing their now-signature amp, they had bass playback in mind, which might explain why the JTM produced such booming results. It also didn't hurt that they upped the ante on Fender models with bigger, closed-back cabinets and impactful Celestion speakers that allowed for the robust sound that Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and legions of other axe-wielders would come to prefer. Big Jim passed away in 2012 at 88, but his 45 is immortal.
By now, with radio ubiquitous and kids transformed into rock-and-pop acolytes, music begged for even further fluidity. Enter Phillips, who consolidated the hulking reel-to-reel and revealed the first cassette tape at a 1963 fair in Berlin. Its actual tape was just more than three millimeters wide, but the product's impact was vast. Cassettes would become the chief mode for distributing albums alongside vinyl and CDs before the digital revolution, not to mention a beloved means of self-expression (via mixtapes) for millions of heart-aching teens. There's even an annual Cassette Store Day, consolidating the last importance of Phillips' invention.
A few tinkerers had made inroads on endless-loop tapes, but none had the clout of Bill Lear, businessman and inventor behind the Learjet. In 1964, he produced beta versions of his eight-track model − a leaner, more efficient update of inventor George Eash's Fidelipac − for RCA and Ford executives. The former licensed their music catalogue to Lear, while the latter offered eight-track player installation in their '66 models. The clunky EP host may have been short-lived and become the butt of jokes, but it also facilitated a permanent shift in how we listen to music in our cars and still makes for terrific retro-kitsch décor.
In 2010, audiophiles mourned Panasonic's announcement that they'd ceased production of Technics SL-1200s. For nearly 30 years, the silver-and-black decks had been popular, but they really caused a sensation when MK2 hit streets in 1979. Its improved pitch-adjustment capability, simplified start/stop button and quartz-lock control system, coupled with Technics' existing direct-drive motor (as opposed to more tenuous belt systems), made the MK2s catnip for budding hip-hop DJs looking to use and abuse playback possibilities. And it's still regarded as the quintessential scratching tool − Serato be damned.
Few commercial products defined the 1980s like Sony's Walkman, which arrived in 1979 as a convenient, fashionable way to make an already portable innovation even more portable. The Walkman represented a true synergy of music tech, for it wouldn't have been possible without Phillips' cassette tape or Nathaniel Baldwin's headphones. Also, Sony exec and music fan Masaru Ibuka traveled a lot and wanted something more compact than a typical cassette recorder to play back albums. Enter the Walkman (or, as it was first dubbed in America, the Sound-About), and thus commenced an era of casually neglecting passersby on streets, buses and in airplanes. Amen.
Lasers once evoked futuristic fodder. Yet, way back in 1979 (based on experiments five years in the making), Phillips and Sony cracked heads on an optical 12-centimeter audio disc that could reproduce hi-fi-worthy sound. All it took was harnessing surface laser-beam reflections that converted digital data into analog sound. In 1982, Billy Joel's 52nd Street became commercially available on Compact Disc in Japan, and the next overnight tech phenomenon was birthed. The CD instantly threatened extinction for vinyl and cassettes, though ironically, it currently battles obsolescence against the mighty MP3 (more on that later).
Two years after Japanese electronics manufacturer Akai broke ground, they busted open possibilities for hip-hop and electronic producers venturing beyond their tables' mix-match capabilities. The S900 sampler could store and edit more than 30 re-purposed sound bites at once, and made compositional looping and manipulation a reality. Its immediate spawn, the S950, upped the storage space and has been utilized by everyone from Dr. Dre to Portishead. Still, the S900 remains a legacy product for Akai and renowned starter kit for novice beat makers.
This year signified the World Wide Web's Silver Anniversary, even if most of us only put it to popular use over the past 15-20 years. In March 1989, British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee (who naturally has been knighted for his accomplishment) drafted a proposal to ease virtual communication through an interlinked series, or web, of e-notes. A year later, he created a browser, and in 1993, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), granted the technology into free, worldwide usage. The Web would, of course, decentralize how we receive and share information and change the planet. But it also enabled mischief-makers like Shawn Fanning to launch digital-music software such as Napster and YouTube's young founders to re-establish video as a relevant tool for artist promotion and expression. And let's not forget iTunes, Pandora, Dropbox and every other idea that folded and re-pitched the industry's tent in less than a decade. The Web was, without understatement, its century's phonograph and more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.