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A Short History of Record Production

Updated on January 3, 2015

Edison's Phonograph

The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. It used a cylinder which was then rotated against a needle. This produced vibrations that were magnified by a conical horn to create sound waves. The first phonographs were marketed primarily to businesses as dictating machines. It wasn’t until 1887, when Emile Berliner developed the gramophone, that it became a medium for recording the singers and musicians of the time. The gramophone played records at 78 rpm and the needle moved laterally, from side to side, in a groove of even depth which made the stylus vibrate and also propelled it across the record. Phonographs from this period operated on spring-driven motors which required winding after each record played. Records were made of shellac and were easily broken.

Electromagnetic Amplifiers

The phonograph became increasingly popular as a result of the production of a large repertory of recordings by Columbia Gramophone Company and the Victor Talking Machine Company. The tremendous success of the phonograph gave way to demands for improved sound. Around 1920, the old mechanical process began to be replaced by electrical recording and reproduction. This process amplified the vibrations of the phonographic needle with electromagnetic devices rather than a horn. The 78 rpm record continued to be the standard until about 1948, when the long-playing record was invented.

LPs Replaced by 8 Track Tapes and Cassettes

The first long-playing records provided 25 minutes of sound on each side. They also significantly extended the range of sound. However, the currently available commercial phonographs were not capable of producing the full frequency range provided by the records. Public demand for equipment that produced better sound quality brought about the production of high-fidelity systems in the 1950s. It was also during this time that the first recorded tapes were introduced. Companies such as RCA Victor introduced reel-to-reel tapes but they didn’t sell as well as the LP. In 1962, Phillips produced a compact cassette and the portable player which was much more successful. The drive for portable music also accounted for the success of the 8-track tape. In 1965, Ford began installing 8-track tape players in cars, attributing to their success in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 8-track tape paved the way for the cassette which became the dominate form of music technology by 1990, displacing LPs in popularity.

Compact Discs and mp3s

Phillips developed laser discs for video recording in the late 1970s. At about the same time, Sony had come out with a digital tape recorder. The two of them joined to produce a new disc which was made by using digital tape to burn laser discs. A master disc was made and duplicates were pressed in plastic. The audio discs were much smaller than Phillip’s original video recordings and were termed “compact discs”. The first CDs were marketed to the public in 1982. Multiple versions of digital media were made available but it wasn’t until 1990 that the price came down and digital recording became popular enough to displace the cassette. The digital format became increasingly popular with the home computer users. Today, the mp3 is becoming increasingly popular and there is speculation as to whether or not physical forms of recording will survive.

Edison cylinder phonograph playing "Listen to the Mocking Bird"


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