The History and Evolution of Sound Recording and its Impact on Culture and Education

Sound recording is the process of converting the acoustic energy of sound into some form in which it can be permanently stored and reproduced at any time.

History and Evolution of Sound Recording

Recorded sound was invented in the 1850s by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a “French Parisian typesetter who managed to capture sound nearly two decades before Thomas Edison’s famous recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a sheet of tinfoil” (Wilkinson, 2008).

“Interestingly, Scott did not intend to record sound for playback.  Instead, he wanted to create a visual representation, much like a waveform display today.  To that end, in the 1850s Scott invented a device he called the “phoautograph,” which consisted of a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus.  Sound waves entering the horn caused the stylus to vibrate, which etched squiggiles onto a sheet of paper covered with a layer of soot from an oil lamp.  The paper was mounted on a rotating drum that also moved horizontally along its axis as it turned, so the stylus traced a spiral, much like a wax cylinder” (Wilkinson).

Scott’s aim was to represent sound visually, not record it for playback.  As a typesetter who published a book on the history of shorthand, Scott apparently thought that sound recording might improve stenography and that people could learn to discern what recorded voices were saying by looking at the traces left by the stylus.

In 1877 while working on the telephone, Thomas Edison had an idea; if the human voice could be transmitted by means of a vibrating disk, why couldn’t it also be recorded on some substance and reproduced later?

“Edison’s solution was a machine that had a cylinder set on a long shaft.  He wrapped tinfoil around the cylinder, and at one end he placed a movable arm with a mouthpiece that had a thin disk with a needle at its tip.  At the other end was a crank for turning the cylinder.  Edison turned the cylinder at a steady speed and began to recite, “Mary had a little lamb / Its fleece was white as snow…” The sound wave of his voice made the disk vibrate, and as it did so, the needle cut a groove on the tinfoil that was at some points shallow and at others deep, depending on the strength of the sound.  When he had finished reciting the nursery rhyme, he returned the needle to the beginning of the groove.  Then he turned the cylinder again.  The needle made the disk vibrate, as it had done while recording, and the vibrations reproduced the original sound.  The machine was talking! Edison’s staff could hear his voice, weak but clear; repeating the poem” (Nirgiotis, 1994).

The phonograph had been born.  The phonograph made Edison not just another famous inventor but made him into a national hero, as he was invited to the White House to demonstrate his new machine to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Thomas Edison filed his first patent in Great Britain on sound recording and the reproduction of sound in July of 1877. Later in April of 1878, a full specification for the phonograph was filed.  “During 1878, the first 600 or so tin foil phonographs were made by several small machine shops at Edison’s request. These were distributed to demonstrate the principle of phonography. Edison moved on to work on other projects and paid little attention to the phonograph for almost a decade” (Morton, 2006).

Alexander Graham Bell began studying the nature of sound in a laboratory in Washington, D.C.  In 1881, he designed what would become known as the Graphophone, an improved form of the phonograph, and deposited a model with the Smithsonian Institution (Morton).

The main difference between a phonograph and graphophone, at least at first, was that the graphophone used wax as the recording channel rather than tin foil, and the recording was cut or chiseled into the wax rather than being embossed.

It took several years for Alexander Graham Bell to file patents on the graphophone, but he finally was granted them in 1886.  Realizing there was a market for the phonograph, Thomas Edison returned to his work on the phonograph in 1886 and had made numerous phonograph improvements over a two-year period.

By 1890, both the graphophone and phonograph were being marketed as office dictation machines.  Neither machine was generating much money, but local distributors discovered a more lucrative way to use the machines as public amusements.  Public arcades started making coin-operated record players very common sights.  In retort, Thomas Edison continued to make enhancements on the phonograph; Edison began working toward an economical home record player, and went into the business of making records.

As the arcade phonograph business was expanding in 1893, Thomas Edison was moving into the business of manufacturing records and had ambitions to establish the phonograph as a type of home entertainment device.

In the 1890s, Emile Berliner improved on Thomas Edison’s cylinder design by developing a flat recording disc that became the music industry norm (Watt, 2006). Emile’s disc was made on a zinc disc coated with wax.  Once a recording was carved into the wax, the disc was dipped into an acid solution, which ate away the disc under the groove and etched the recording into the surface of the zinc.  Then, using an electroplating process, the zinc disc was turned into a stamper that could be used to produce the final recordings in large number by pressing the stamper into a ball of vulcanite a type of hard rubber.  Emile Berliner called his invention the gramophone.

“Beside the advantages of mass production, gramophone records could produce a higher volume than the phonograph or graphophone records of the day.  The higher volume was attributed to the fact that the volume of a record was directly related to how hard the tonearm was pressed into the groove—the harder you pressed, the more sound came out, but at some point the pressure damaged the recording.  For a few years at least, before the phonograph was improved, the Berliner disc could produce a loud, room-filling sound.  Emile set up a small recording studio in 1896, the disc business was off and running” (Morton).

In 1901, the Victor Talking Machine Company, commercialized the gramophone based on Berliner’s patents. In only five years the Victor Talking Machine Company had become a major force in the music industry.  In 1906, the Victor Talking Machine Company introduced its first “Victrola” disc player with its horn inside the cabinet instead of on the outside of the cabinet.  This model and subsequent generations of Victrolas became top-sellers and the word “Victrola” became a generic term for the record player in the U.S.

Due to technological discoveries of the Industrial Revolution mechanical change was occurring more rapidly. During World War I, radio technology was greatly being accelerated in part by military need. By the end of the World War I, the vacuum tube was commercially available for use in low-cost radios as well as radio transmitters and all sorts of other devices. It was not long before different inventors returned to the idea of using an electrical signal from a microphone to drive an electromagnetic disc recording device. With the invention of the vacuum tube, the microphone’s weak signal could be stepped up to drive the cutter. While there were numerous proposals to do this, the technical problems were significant.

Thomas Edison who was one of the first to work on a design for the electrical recording technology, was lagging behind his competitors but eventually introduced his own electrical recording system for studio use.

The Western Electric Company developed an electronically amplified, electromagnetic disc cutter of high quality in the early 1920s, as well as a conventional-looking but improved acoustic phonograph on which to play the resulting records. The new device was marketed to phonograph and record manufacturers; it also became the basis of talking films and “transcription” recorders used in many radio stations (Morton).

In October of 1924, the Columbia Phonograph Company tried some experimental testing with this new electrical recording equipment developed by Western Electric. These new records sounded different than those previously recorded by the acoustic process, and many consumers responded better to them. The trade-name “Orthophonic” was attached to both the recording process as well as the record player.

In 1925, due to the newer processes the Victor Talking Machine Company released its last phonograph discs made by the original acoustic process.

Thomas Edison meanwhile had announced a long-playing, 12 inch disc capable of holding 20 minutes of music per side. While this format did not become a commercial success, the next year the company marketed its first electrically-recorded diamond discs. Struggling, Thomas Edison in 1927 offered another phonograph capable of reproducing either Edison’s vertical cut discs or his competitors’ more popular lateral cut discs. Finally, in 1929 Thomas Edison ceased production of records and quit working on the home phonograph.

“During the 1930s and 1940s, there were all sorts of experiments with the phonograph. Western Electric’s electrical recording technology briefly became the basis of talking pictures in the late 1920s before finding a place in radio stations, where it was called the transcription recorder. Columbia in 1931 introduced the first long playing record. Resembling the later LP, these 12-inch diameter discs had finely spaced grooves and turned at just 33 1/3 rpm. There were even experiments with stereo. But through all this, the standard 10- and 12-inch, shellac-based discs remained the top sellers (Morton).”

It was not until after World War II that newer technologies started replacing the older ones. A new disc format introduced by RCA in the late 1940s began selling well. This 45-rpm disc doomed the older records, which were now known, like the fourty-five by their speed of rotation– 78 rpm. Many people hung on to their record collections, and most record players had a ’78’ setting until the 1980s. However, sales of 78-rpm discs fell off during the 1950s, and the last records were issued by about 1960.

The date of the very last 78-rpm record is not known, although some claim that the last one issued in the U.S. was Chuck Berry’s “Too Pooped to Pop “, released in February 1960 (Morton). There were almost certainly later released 78 discs on small labels, and there are documented cases of 78 discs released as late as 1961 in Finland. According to one source, 78s were deleted from the EMI catalogs in 1962. EMI stands for the Electric and Musical Industries which was formed in 1931 by the merger of the Columbia Graphophone Company and the Gramophone Company.

Magnetic recording is the technique of storing electric signals as a magnetic pattern on a moving magnetic surface.  The concept of recording sound on magnet tape and thus the principle of the tape recorder was worked out theoretically in 1888 by the English inventor Oberlin Smith.

Fritz Pfleumer was a German-Austrian engineer who invented magnetic tape for recording sound in 1928.  Magnetic tape was further developed by the German electronics company AEG, which manufactured the recording machines and BASF (a German chemical company), which manufactured the tape.

The practice of recording and editing audio using magnetic tape rapidly established itself as an obvious improvement over previous methods.  Magnetic tape revolutionized both the radio broadcast and music recording industries. It did this by giving artists and producers the power to record and re-record audio with minimal loss in quality as well as edit and rearrange recordings with ease. The other recording technologies of the era could not provide anywhere close to this level of excellence and functionality. Since some early modifications enhanced the accuracy of the reproduced sound, magnetic tape has been the highest quality analog sound recording medium available.

Within a few years of the introduction of the first commercial tape recorder, the Ampex 200 model, launched in 1948, American musician-inventor Les Paul had invented the first multitrack tape recorder, bringing about another technical revolution in the recording industry. Tape made possible the first sound recordings totally created by electronic means, creating the way for the sonic experiments, which in turn led to the ground-breaking pop music studio recordings..

Tape allowed the radio industry for the first time to pre-record many segments of program content such as advertising, which formerly had to be presented live, and it also enabled the creation and duplication of complex, high-fidelity, long-duration recordings of entire programs. It also, for the first time, permitted broadcasters, regulators and other interested parties to carry out comprehensive logging of radio broadcasts for legislative and commercial purposes, leading to the development of the modern media monitoring industry.

Advancements like multitrack recording and tape echo made it possible for radio programs and advertisements to be pre-produced to a level of complexity and sophistication that was previously unattainable and tape also led to significant changes to the pacing of program content, thanks to the introduction of the endless-loop tape cartridge.

The compact cassette, also called the audio cassette, cassette tape, cassette, or simply tape, is a magnetic tape sound recording format. It was designed originally for dictation, but improvements in accuracy led the compact cassette to replace the Stereo 8-track cartridge and reel-to-reel tape recording in most non-professional applications.  Its uses varied from portable audio to home recording to data storage for early microcomputers. Between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, the cassette was one of the two most common formats for prerecorded music.

The mass production of compact audio cassettes began in 1964 in Hanover, Germany. Prerecorded music cassettes (also known as Musicassettes; M.C. for short) were launched in Europe in late 1965. The Mercury Record Company, a U.S. affiliate of Philips, introduced M.C. to the U.S. in July 1966. The initial offering consisted of 49 titles. However, the system had been created initially for dictation and portable use, with the audio quality of early players not best suited for music. Some early models also had undependable mechanical design. In 1971 the Advent Corporation introduced their Model 201 tape deck that resulted in the format being taken more seriously for musical use, and started the era of high fidelity cassettes and players.

During the 1980s, the cassette’s acceptance evolved further as a result of portable pocket recorders and high-fidelity (“hi-fi”) players, such as Sony’s Walkman (1979), which used a body not much larger than the cassette tape itself, with mechanical keys on one side, or electronic buttons or display on the face. Sony’s WM-10 was even smaller than the cassette itself and expanded to hold and play a cassette.

Like the transistor radio in the 1950s and 1960s, the Walkman dominated the portable music market in the 1980s, with cassette sales outperforming those of LPs.

The Compact Disc (also known as a CD) is an optical disc used to save digital data.  The CD was originally developed to store and playback sound recordings exclusively.  The Compact Disc is a progression of LaserDisc technology. Sony first openly demonstrated an optical digital audio disc in September 1976.  CD data is stored as a series of tiny indentations known as “pits”, encoded in a spiral track molded into the top of the polycarbonate layer of the disc. The areas between these pits are known as “lands”.  A CD is read by focusing a wavelength (near infrared) semiconductor laser through the bottom of the polycarbonate layer. The change in height between pits and lands results in a difference in the way the light is reflected. By measuring the intensity change with a photodiode, the data can be read from the disk.  CDs are susceptible to damage from both normal use and environmental exposure. Pits are much closer to the label side of a disc, enabling defects and contaminants on the clear side to be out of focus during playback. Consequently, CDs are more likely to experience damage on the label side of the disk. Scratches on the clear side can be repaired by refilling them with similar refractive plastic, or by careful polishing.

The CD was considered to be the successor of the gramophone record for playing music, rather than first and foremost as a data storage medium. From its start as a musical format, CDs have grown to include other applications. In June 1985, the computer readable CD-ROM (read-only memory) and, in 1990, CD-Recordable were introduced, also developed by both Sony and Philips.

MP3 is a original digital audio encoding format using a form of lossy data compression. MP3 is a universal audio format for consumer audio storage, as well as a standard of digital audio compression for the transfer and playback of music on digital audio players.

Digital audio is useful in the recording, manipulation, mass-production, and distribution of sound. Modern delivery of music across the Internet via on-line stores depends on digital recording and digital compression algorithms. Distribution of audio as data files rather than as physical objects has significantly lowered the cost of distribution.

In an analog audio system, sound starts as a physical waveforms in the air, then is transformed into an electrical representation of the waveform, via a transducer (for example, a microphone), and finally is stored or transmitted. To be re-created into sound, the process is reversed, through amplification and then conversion back into physical waveforms by the use of a loudspeaker. Although its nature may change, analog audio’s primary wave-like characteristics remain the same during its storage, transformation, duplication, and amplification.

Analog audio signals are vulnerable to noise and distortion, unavoidable due to the natural characteristics of electronic circuits and associated devices. In the case of purely analog recording and reproduction, various opportunities for the introduction of noise and distortion exist throughout the entire process. When audio is digitized, distortion and noise are introduced only by the stages that precede conversion to digital format, and by the stages that follow conversion back to analog.

Technological developments in recording and editing have transformed the record and music industries in recent decades. Audio editing became more feasible with the development of magnetic tape recording, but digital audio and cheap mass storage allows computers to modify audio files quickly, easily, and cheaply. Today, the process of making a recording is separated into tracking, mixing and mastering. Multitrack recording makes it feasible to capture signals from several microphones, or from different ‘takes’ to tape or disc, with maximized headroom and quality, allowing previously unavailable flexibility in the mixing and mastering stages for editing, level balancing, compressing and limiting, adding effects such as reverberation, equalization, flanging, and much more.

Cultural Impact of Sound Recording

Sound recording has been a part of our culture since the late 1800s. At the time of its early development, listening to the recording machine was a shocking experience. Thomas Edison once recalled how taken aback he was when the prototype tinfoil phonograph actually worked. The ability of a machine to capture the human voice was an astonishing thing to people of the time. Shortly after first using the crude tinfoil recorder at his rural laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison took advantage of the proximity of New York City (about 50 miles away) to reveal it to the public. After hearing it in the offices of the New York Times in December, 1877, an observer wrote that “it is impossible to listen to the mechanical speech without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him.”

Yet the freshness quickly wore off and the focal commercial application of the phonograph-office dictation-fell flat. After achieving only limited acceptance as an office dictation machine in the late 1880s, the enterprising manager of the Pacific Phonograph Company set up the first coin-operated phonograph in an inn in late 1889. While capable of playing only one song, this proto-jukebox helped initiate the current music industry. What Pacific Phonograph had started was the idea of using the phonograph to play back commercially made recordings, following the examples of the coin-operated player piano, music boxes, and other arcade-type amusement technologies. Louis Glass of Pacific Phonograph accounted to his business associates in 1890 that each of the two coin-operated phonographs he set up had generated about $1,000 in five months, all the more remarkable because the money was gathered five cents at a time.

While speeches, sermons, and other voice recordings benefit from some success, popular music rapidly became the largest selling kind of phonograph records in the period from about 1890 to 1915. After a few years as novelty items in “phonograph parlors” (arcades with numerous coin-operated phonographs where customers could privately listen to a variety of recordings), low priced home machines began to appear. The top-selling cylinders of the period around 1900 were probably (based on their predominance in catalogs) military bands. Many of these military band recordings were actually dance songs, described in catalogs according to the way people were expected to dance to it- waltzes, polkas, cakewalks, and so on. Yet the most famous leader of such a band, John Philip Sousa, had doubts about the phonograph and publicly denounced recordings as inferior to live music. Thus began a decades-long campaign against recorded music, sponsored by a succession of music critics, social theorists, and musicians (Morton).

As one of those social theorists had disputed, the real significance of the early phonograph was that it transformed the way people listened to music. Where once music was a unique, live performance, experienced in a public place with a group, now it was heard privately in the home and it was possible to hear the same “performance” over and over. According to this argument, the listening experience was cheapened.

Yet because music was now available almost anywhere, any time, it was now theoretically possible for people to be exposed to a much wider range of music, or to listen to more music than they had in the past. Musicians who resided in Europe, for example, could now easily be heard anywhere in the world where there was a phonograph player. Some of these musicians thought that the mass-duplication of the top available music would result in a process of social uplift. In practice, most people in the United States and Europe continued to buy popular music of the kind that few reformers considered uplifting, and disregarded what they called good music. While in Western Europe music had more of a popular appeal, in the United States the progression of the public’s taste became something of a reform movement, backed both by music critics and the recording industry. Record manufacturers such as Victor, Columbia and Edison’s company responded by advertising music more heavily and offering a wide variety of it in their catalogs. Some record companies, such as Victor, set up departments to promote music appreciation in colleges and schools, developing special packages of records and programmed courses of instructions. Historians have also countered the argument that the phonograph degraded musical taste by noting that live music was not always readily available to millions of people in nations like the United States, who lived outside major cities. The phonograph provided a link to urban culture, including the music preferred by music critics. However, by the time it was possible to track record sales according to the type of music, it was clear that the public still preferred popular music. Record companies did nothing to daunt the sale of popular recordings, which largely supported their business.

From another cultural standpoint, the phonograph in the 20th century had an important role in race relations, mainly in the United States. In the early decades of the 20th century, the jazz music being created at the time by African-Americans began to sift into the mainstream record catalogs, but it was usually recorded and performed by caucasians. What might be seen as an encouraging link being formed between black and white societies via the sound recording was sadly being counterbalanced by the simultaneous phenomenon of “black” and ethnic recordings. There was a long-running appeal with “black” records and similar recordings, which were often presented as comedy, and used stereotyped black-sounding voices to entertain in what (as one historian has written) “was intended to be a patronizing but benevolently humorous manner.” It is difficult from today’s perspective to hear these recordings and not be offended, but perhaps caucasians at the time did not see them from our view. In fact, it is reasonable to compare these to another popular turn-of-the-century type recording, which employed humorous stereotypes of caucasians known as “hick” recordings. Modern attitudes about rural caucasians have not undergone the same transition as those regarding African-Americans, so that today the “hick” stereotype is still socially acceptable. It is possible that “black” recordings reflected an analogous type of attitude among the causcasian population.

Yet while early “black” records reinforced bad stereotypes about African-Americans, later jazz recordings helped bridge the gap between the two groups. From the 1920s, when the first recordings of black jazz artists appeared on records, through the rap music of the present day, sound recordings have transferred musical culture between these two groups. Records could be more effective than radio broadcasts (which began in the late 1920s) in disseminating culture between groups, because often the content broadcast by the use of radio was controlled by one or a small number of companies or government agencies. In the U.S., for example, a corporate oligopoly controlled most of the content that was broadcast, so the programming decisions they made were highly influential. For many years, authentic African-American culture was largely excluded from these broadcasts. From a more global perspective, the mass production and distribution of Western music has been seen as a form of cultural imperialism, spreading not only music but with it, U.S. and European values to other parts of the world. Today, pop music icons are known the world over, and have frequently been criticized for their Western moral values that their music can convey. The flow of culture in the other direction has had an important but less dramatic influence in the West, as “world music” and other non-Western songs have only gained a small following.

How Sound Recording has impacted Education

With the invention of recorded sound, educators were able to start bringing sound recordings into the classroom.  From the beginning with records, then to audio-cassettes, then to CD’s, up until now with mp3’s and digitally streamed recordings; recorded sound has enabled teachers to start bringing in content that some students never would have been introduced to otherwise.

Music classes can use recorded sound to make available proper, full-scale performances, which can lead class discussions freely across centuries of pieces of music, while maintaining a true perspective and permitting the recognition of proper dimensions.  With the use of recorded sound, it is possible to discuss the history of music not only with the knowledgeable student who has assembled his/her impressions earlier in the concert hall, but also with the inexperienced student who must become acquainted with the literature of music in the classroom.

Reading classes have been using audiobooks for a while in class; specifically with struggling students.  “The use of audiobooks with struggling, reluctant, or second-language learners is powerful since they act as a scaffold that allows students to read above their actual reading level” (Beers, 1998).  Listening to narrators demonstrate proficient reading on audiobooks allows students access to stories they might be unable to read on their own.  Audiobooks also help stretch growing attention spans and flex critical thinking skills.  “Teachers and parents are encouraged to use audiobooks because they expose readers to new vocabulary.  As new words are heard in the context of a story they become part of a child’s oral and eventually written vocabularies” (Serafini, 2004).

Recorded sounds offers students a much higher level of control over the way they use the material.  Provided the students have access, either individually or in groups, to sound recordings, students can listen when where, how and as often as they like.  The technology also allows students to stop, start, rewind and fast forward through the recording.  This ability makes it much easier for a teacher to integrate the use of audio with other learning materials (e.g. handouts), and learning activities (e.g. reading, writing, applying what they’ve learned, practicing skills, sharing and discussing ideas and experiences).

With the Internet, sound recording in Podcast format have really taken off lately.  The term Podcast refers to an audio recording, linked to the Web, that can be downloaded to a personal MP3 player (Gordon, 2007).  With a podcast, students can listen to a teacher outside the boundaries of school.  Families can even hear what their children are learning about at school.

Solely teachers and professors in education anymore are not the only people using Podcasting.  Now, teachers are having their students design their own podcasts.  “Educators must train students to know their audience, pick a theme, research talking points, and practice.  Organization is key too.  Like speeches, podcasts require a beginning, middle, and conclusion” (Villano, 2008).  Student, after finishing high school are going on to college to study to become audio engineers, audio technicians, sound technicians.  These careers have people working in the field that are proficient with different types of recording media, such as analog tape, digital multitrack recorders, and computer knowledge.  With the introduction of the digital age, it has become more and more important for people in the sound recording field to be versed in the understanding of software and hardware integration.

Sound recording has been around for a little over one hundred years.  In this time it has grown tremendously from its analog beginnings to its current digital structure.  Over the course of sound recordings existence, humanity has seen its impact on culture through the way it has affected the music industry to the way it has been used in education.  One wonders with the incredible speed that sound recording has transformed from over a hundred years ago to now, what sound recording will look like in five years, twenty years, even another one hundred years; will it be recognizable to what it is today?



Beers, K. (1998). Listen While You Read. School Library Journal. 44(4) 30. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premiere database.

Gordon, A.M. (2007). Sound Off!: The Possibilities of Podcasting. Book Links. 17(1) 16-18. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.

Morton, D. (2006). Recording History: The History of Recording Technology. The History of Sound Recording Technology.  Retrieved April 2, 2012, from

Nirgiotis, N. (1994). Thomas Edison. Chicago: Children’s Press.

Serafini, F. (2004). Audiobooks & Literacy: An Educator’s Guide to Utilizing Audiobooks in the Classroom. Retrieved April 2, 2012, from

Villano, M. (2008). Building a Better Podcast. The Journal. 35(1). Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.

Wilkinson, S. (2008). Credit Where Credit is Due.  Electronic Musician.  24(6), 36.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premiere database.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s