The History of Recorded Sound.

musicI’m a big music fan. That’s both obvious and a bit of an understatement. Yesterday I went to the National Museum of Scotland for no other reason than I now live in Edinburgh and it’s free, plus it’s Jurassic June. If that’s not a good enough reason to go then I don’t know what is. After roaming around the animal section for a while with the occasional dinosaur dotted around for effect, we wandered to the other side to see that they had a huge technology section, one of which was an evolution of music.

So, this got my attention and I spent what I’d imagine was far too long looking at this small part of the exhibit and decided I’d blog about some of it. It began with Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who was the creator of the earliest known device for sound recording, the phonautograph. He patented the idea for this device in 1857, detailing his idea based on the human ear, where he would record soundwaves on lampblacked glass plates. His interest in the idea seemed to be sparked when he was read about the anatomy of a human ear during his business as a bookseller, and tried to recreate the structure, ultimately being successful.

The sound was collected and amplified through the horn, moving like a diaphragm, making a hogshair bristle vibrate, which then traced a line on a paper-covered cylinder coated with lampback. The more you know! I think the more I stared at the exhibition, the more I found this one in particular interesting because recording sound is second nature today, and for someone to actually invent something that’s gone on to be second nature is pretty fascinating.

The next stop on this tour was the gramophone, which came with the general caption: The gramophone’s most obvious defects were its lack of volume and its narrow frequency range.

I’ll include photos at the end, because they all look pretty cool (excuse the bad phone quality!), because there was quite a few interesting parts. The first one was the Duophone ‘Regent’ Cabinet Gramophone (1924), which had two sound boxes and tone arms that were connected to a single stylus. The aim was to crank up the volume, with the sound from the separate boxes being merged into the internal horn. Moving onto the Hines Gramophone (1925), the Scottish had manufactured a quality table grand device mounted on a matching stand. The particular make at the Museum’s cabinet apparently derived from the HMV No.9, which held a real clout in establishing gramophones as furniture. Fashionable as they were, they did take a step backwards in sound projection: internal horns muffled the sound in comparison to the already established external trend.

Like all trends, it didn’t take long to make a model suited to those enthusiastic over the recorded sound. The EMG Special Cambridge Model (1924) was noted to have some of the finest acoustics available, even holding its own against the electronic counterparts that were starting to rear their heads. This was truly designed for the dedicated – EMG’s were said to be very loud with a great frequency range, but were often very bulky and unattractive in design, unlike the aesthetically pleasing option from Hines.

The HMV Gramophone Model 202 was designed to ‘do justice’ to electronic recordings, which were becoming an increasingly popular thing. With the technology in place, the America played host to the first orchestral recording in the world, with Camille Saint-Saëns’ own ‘Danse Macabre’. I found quite an interesting piece on the whole process here, which includes many of the recordings in mp3 format.

The need to change records frequently, and the unnatural breaks in the music, made listening to symphonies and operas an exasperating experience.

The Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph was the Edison company’s attempt to keep up with competitors, such as Columbia Records. The company initially worked on this project in secret, looking to create a superior disc in both sound and wear, and a product able to outperform the actual replay. The design was absolute, in that Edison discs would only work on Edison products, and no outside discs could be used on it. It was an attempt at autonomy – a modern day example springs to mind with a simple iPod charger, one of the few – if not the only – device that hasn’t yet subscribed to the mini-USB output. A stretched example, perhaps. The public didn’t react well to the product initially; the natural dislike being that it alienated itself from already purchased products and wouldn’t integrate them, but rigorous tests to prove their worth and quality eventually won many over. Another interesting piece on the whole process can be found here.

I’ve decided to break this into a few parts, because I’d rather to it properly. I find this all really interesting – I don’t know about anyone else!

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One thought on “The History of Recorded Sound.

  1. John Cavanagh says:

    Greetings! I happened upon your piece as I was looking for a useful link concerning Duophone records/machines to add to my Soundwave radio show playlist, as I feature a 78 each week and this time it was an acoustic one on the purple/black/gold incarnation of the Duophone label. As you’d written the piece a couple of years ago and no comments had been left before, I thought I’d leave one now to say I enjoyed reading it.
    As an aside to this, I used to be in the antique trade. The name of my shop, which functioned in three locations in Glasgow across eleven years) was Duophone Antiques!

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