Recorded Sound Technology and its Impact | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Recorded Sound Technology and its Impact

From the beginning, sound recording offered the consumer an unprecedented access to musical sound - an access virtually uninhibited by the constraints of skill, time, place, and social standing.
Berliner Gramophone
An early gramophone by Emile Berliner, c 1890 (courtesy Canada Science and Technology Museum/1977.0123).
Edison Cylinder Player
Thomas Edison's cylinder player made its debut in the late 1870s (photo courtesy Russell Bingham).

No other factor has contributed more to the overall character of musical culture in the industrialized world during the 20th century than the development of sound reproduction technologies (both those of sound recording and broadcasting) and the rise of the recording industries. While the parlour piano was the primary instrument of musical entertainment in the home during the 19th century, its popularity was quickly challenged, if never entirely displaced by the phonograph (and radio) during the first part of this century; by the late 1980s, Statistics Canada estimated that approximately 85 per cent of Canadian homes owned record, CD, or tape playback equipment (and over 50 per cent owned more than one of these devices) whereas 12 per cent owned a piano. And although the production and sale of sheet music of popular songs and short piano pieces was a mass industry by the turn of the century, it had become little more than an appendage of the recording industry by the last quarter of the 20th century, a subsidiary operation maintained primarily for the purpose of securing copyright incomes. In concert music, however, the change has been far less dramatic.

From the beginning, sound recording offered the consumer an unprecedented access to musical sound - an access virtually uninhibited by the constraints of skill, time, place, and social standing. This achievement has been especially important in sparsely populated areas of Canada, where tours by performers were hard to arrange. At the same time, recordings and broadcasts have provided the example of higher standards of performance (whereas formerly the local church soloist's or piano teacher's performance had been accepted as the criterion for excellence). Since the first half of the 20th century, sound recording has been credited with contributing to a 'democratization' of the classical music repertoire, on the one hand, and to the popularization of Afro-American and various folk-influenced forms of popular music, on the other. More recently, the international reach of the recording industries has contributed to the growth of a global form of popular music culture, or World Musics.

Technology And Technique

The history of sound recording can be broken down into four distinct periods, each with its own characteristic technologies and practices: the acoustic era (ca 1877-1925); the electrical era (1925-48); the magnetic era (1948-80); and the digital era beginning around 1972 but achieving widespread impact only during the 1980s. Its pre-history began outside of commercial contexts with the 'phonautograph' of the French inventor Léon Scott de Martinville - an instrument which, interestingly enough, produced no sound at all. In 1857 de Martinville was able to record sound waves on a cylinder covered with soot; because he was primarily concerned with the scientific analysis, he did not pursue the possibility of actually reproducing the sound waves once they had been recorded.

Twenty years later another Frenchman, Charles Cros, conceived in theory the principle of reversibility, ie, not only recording but also reproducing the voice. In the same year, 1877, the US inventor (and scion of a Canadian family) Thomas Alva Edison produced a practical working model of a 'talking machine'. Edison had covered his cylinder with tinfoil (as opposed to soot) thus enabling it to retain the indentations made by sound waves and to play back what had been recorded. In 1878 Edison's invention was exhibited all over the world, including in Canada, when a machine was sent to the governor-general, Lord Dufferin, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Edison and his engineers had invented the talking machine almost by accident (he was working on a telegraph repeater at the time) and, for this reason, no practical use had actually been foreseen. So, despite its apparent revolutionary capabilities, the phonograph remained no more than a novelty device for almost a decade while Edison occupied himself with other research. The introduction of wax cylinders (which greatly enhanced the sound quality of the phonograph) and other early improvements were the work of Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter (their work was supported by Bell's cousin, the Scottish-born inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell). They called their invention the graphophone and it was bought and manufactured by American Graphophone Co (established in 1886 and later acquired by the Columbia Phonograph Co; see Sony Music Canada Inc) for the purpose of exploiting the device as an office dictation machine.

The commercial emphasis on the reproduction of speech and the relatively primitive recording techniques of the day meant that the early talking machine found relatively few musical applications. Perhaps the most significant of these was the adoption of the device by researchers for the preservation and study of folk and non-Western musics. Some of the earliest recordings of aboriginal music anywhere were made in British Columbia. It was not until Emile Berliner's invention of the gramophone in 1887 that the technical foundation of the commercial recording industry as we know it today was established. Berliner introduced the idea of the flat disc as a recording medium and (based on de Martinville's original design of the phonautograph) a lateral, side-to-side method of recording (cylinder recording used a vertical 'hill and dale' method). More importantly, his method also allowed for the production of a 'master' disc from which any number of copies could be made (only a few copies of the early cylinder recordings could be made before the sound quality deteriorated). Whereas Edison's phonograph had been conceived as a device for making unique recordings of sound, Berliner's gramophone was conceived, from the outset, as a device for mass reproduction, thus laying the basis for an industry devoted to reproduction of music through the mass marketing of records.

Berliner's gramophone was first produced commercially in 1889. Berliner's patents were soon threatened in the US and, partly in order to secure a firm international base for his invention, Berliner took out a Canadian patent in 1897. That same year he set up a company in Montreal (Berliner Gramophone Co) which in 1900 issued the first Canadian-made disc recordings. These were 18-cm (7-inch) discs, followed in 1901 by 25 1/2 cm (10-inch) and in 1903 by Deluxe 30-cm (12 inch). Double-sided discs were issued in 1908.

Early recordings lacked the high and low extremes of sound, and despite refinements in record materials, the record of early 1925 essentially was identical to that of 1889. Performers would record into horns of varying sizes, and the sound vibrations were recorded directly on a wax disc by means of a diaphragm to which the engraving tool was attached. But by 1919 two former Royal Air Force officers, Lionel Guest, a former aide to a Canadian governor-general, and Horace Owen Merriman (b Hamilton, Ont, 1888, d Ottawa 1972), had begun to experiment with electrical recording by microphone. Their work helped usher in the electrical era of recording.

The first commercial recording of this type anywhere was made by Guest and Merriman during the ceremony of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey on 11 Nov 1920 (an original print is held at the National Library of Canada). The new technique revealed bass and treble sounds hitherto unheard on recordings. However, largely because of their huge inventories of acoustically recorded discs, the major record companies showed little interest. Finally, in 1925, they were forced to record electrically in order to compete with the superior sound quality of radio. Moreover, recording was no longer confined to a small studio but could be done on location. The proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa during Canada's Diamond Jubilee 1 Jul 1927 were recorded, as was, during the following summer, the 2200-voice CNE Chorus in Toronto.

The use of microphones and the development of techniques of electrical recording were significant during the period after 1925 not only because of the resulting increase in sound quality, but also because they introduced the sound engineer, who would share, with the musicians themselves, the responsibility of achieving musical balances in recording.

The 1930s was a difficult decade for the recording industry: hard economic times and competition from radio and cinema meant that few could afford to buy the new electric phonographs and recordings. A revival of the coin-operated phonograph as an inexpensive, public form of entertainment helped rebuild the industry during this period. A Canadian, David C. Rockola (b Virden, Man), played an important role in designing the modern 'juke box' when he introduced the Rock-Ola Multi-Selector phonograph in 1934. In the decades that followed, the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation (originally founded in Chicago) became one of the four largest juke box companies in North America.

Two important events marked the arrival of the magnetic era in sound recording in 1948: first, the introduction of reel-to-reel tape in the production of commercial sound recording; and second, the introduction of the long-playing record (which later, in 1958, also became stereophonic). Magnetic recording and the LP had both been developed much earlier in the century but a combination of technical and economic problems prevented their widespread commercial application until after World War II. For the consumer, the impact of these new technologies was the achievement of greater sound fidelity and the removal of the limitation on playing time which had been fixed at about three to four minutes per side with the older discs, thus allowing a variety of musical repertoires to be experienced without interruption. For producers, the impact of magnetic recording techniques was more profound: for the first time musical recordings could be edited and assembled, much like a film, from a series of short 'takes'; the result was a new kind of perfection in both musical performance and the art of recording.

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was one of the first musicians in the world to fully realize the implications of these technical developments. In 1964 he abandoned his career as a concert artist in favour of the possibilities offered by the recording studio and, in 1966, published an article entitled 'The prospects of recording' which summarized his attitudes toward the recording medium. Gould's philosophy and practice combined the talents of musician and engineer, using microphone placement to reveal the details of musical texture and tape editing as a means of arriving at new interpretive insights into musical stucture. While few classical artists dared to follow his lead, Gould's actions were symptomatic of a much larger phenomenon: the challenge that sound recordings had posed to the concert hall as the central medium of musical experience and the emergence of a new creative potential in sound technology. The challenge was taken up again, and the potential explored further, in the 1980s by such musicians as René Lussier and John Oswald.

In popular music production the possibilities of magnetic tape were taken even further with the development of 'simul-sync' - a modification in tape recorder design that allowed for the recording and synchronization of performances by individual musicians onto separate 'tracks' of a magnetic tape; later, the tracks could be sonically enhanced and mixed into a single, integrated ensemble 'performance'. The multitrack studio of the 1960s and early 1970s grew quickly from 4-track capability to 8-, 16- and 24-tracks. By the early 1980s, when Le Studio in Morin Heights, Que, acquired 48-track capability, the task of mixing had already become so complex as to require the aid of an automated mixing console, one of the first of its kind in the world.

In multi-track recording, the record producer and sound engineer contribute so much to the final recorded product that in many respects it is they, and not the musicians, who must be regarded as the true 'virtuosi' of this medium. During the 1980s a number of Canadians developed international reputations for their studio work: among them, Bruce Fairbairn, David Foster, Daniel Lanois, and Dave Tyson. Multi-track recording techniques represent a radical break with traditional ensemble performance practices in music, and some resistance to the medium surfaced during the late 1980s: The Trinity Session, an album released by the Toronto band Cowboy Junkies in 1989, achieved widespread popularity, in part, because of its unique sound - as recorded live in a reverberant church through a single microphone at a reported total cost of $250.

In consumer technology, the tape medium slowly began to achieve popularity after the introduction of the portable audio cassette recorder by the Dutch company Philips in 1963; its rate of acceptance accelerated after the development of Dolby noise reduction in 1970. Cassette players soon became commonplace in automobiles and, with the arrival of the Sony 'Walkman' (a small cassette machine coupled with light-weight headphones that offered high fidelity sound reproduction in a portable unit) during the early 1980s, cassettes began outselling vinyl records (cassettes surpassed vinyl in both unit and dollar sales in Canada in 1984; Statistics Canada). Not only was the cassette portable; for the first time since the Edison talking machine, it also permitted consumers to create their own sound recordings easily and inexpensively. Seeing the cassette as a threat to its profitability, the recording industry mounted a campaign against 'home taping' - the taping of copyright material - a practice which many consumers argued was their right. The debate raged on throughout the 1980s and, by 1990, the Canadian government had still failed to introduce legislation that responded to industry demands for a cassette levy or tax to compensate copyright owners.

The digital era in sound recording began in 1972 when the Nippon Columbia Co of Japan introduced the first professional digital audio converter - a technology using a process called pulse code modulation (PCM) and a standard video recorder. PCM translates audio signals into binary information which can be stored and manipulated in a variety of ways; furthermore, digital editing can be performed with an unprecedented degree of precision. By the late 1970s, digital recording had made a significant impact on professional recording practices and many LPs were being mastered digitally. During the 1980s several of Canada's largest studios began to specialize in digital audio production. Another digital innovation, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), introduced in 1983, allowed electronic musical instruments to become integrated with sound recording in a new way resulting in a further blurring of the distinction between musician and technician. At the same time, the advent of music video and the adoption of digital synchronization devices helped to transform many recording studios into complex audio/video post-production centres.

Taken together, these developments have increased the technical and artistic demands made on sound engineers and, as a result, the apprenticeship mode of training that was once typical of the trade has become inadequate. In 1977 Fanshawe College of Applied Arts and Technology in London, Ont, established a formal training program in sound recording. It was followed in the 1980s by similar programs primarily geared to the needs of the popular music industry and located at technical schools, such as the Trebas Institute of Recording Arts (with campuses in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver), the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology and the Harris Institute for the Arts (both located in Toronto), and at many community colleges across the country. McGill University's Faculty of Music established the first Master's degree program in sound recording in Canada; based on the European 'tonmeister' model, it stressed both conventional musical training and the acquisition of a high level of technical, practical, and theoretical knowledge. During the latter part of the 1980s, the Banff CA also built a sophisticated recording studio and created its own internship program.

For the consumer, digital technology took the form of the compact disc (CD) which was introduced 1982-3 through a joint venture by Philips in Holland and Sony in Japan. Based on a small-format video disc technology (originally developed during the 1970s), the medium offered music listeners an increased dynamic range and freedom from the annoying surface noise of older recording formats. At first CDs were in short supply - in 1985 there were only 7 CD manufacturing plants (5 of them in Japan) in operation worldwide. But by 1987, a total of 35 plants had been built, 3 of them in Canada. That same year CDs surpassed LPs in dollar sales in Canada and in unit sales the following year (Statistics Canada); by 1990, many new releases were being made available only in cassette and CD formats and some retailers had ceased carrying LPs entirely.

It is impossible to predict the future direction of sound recording but it is clear that some form of digital technology will continue to be the preferred medium as musical culture enters the 21st century. In production, there is a move towards a more flexible, computer-based digital recording apparatus - one that does not rely on any analog components between the points where the sound enters and exits the recording chain. In consumer technology, the recording industry has for several years stalled the introduction of Digital Audio Tape (DAT), citing copyright concerns similar to those involved in the cassette home taping debate. The most recent strategies (1991) of the electronics industry seem to be oriented towards developing a more integrated home entertainment concept around video disc technology - a technology that is suitable for video, music, or computer information storage but does not, at present, allow users to make their own recordings. By 1990, the largest Canadian record store chains, had already added video tape and video discs to their retail operations.

Recording Studios

Until about 1970 sophisticated studio facilities were few in Canada and most recording stars had to travel to New York or to European centres. For a number of reasons, among them the CRTC's broadcast quotas for Canadian music content established in 1970, the situation then changed. Toronto, for example, had only three studios of international calibre in 1970 but boasted five 16-track studios by 1972. In addition to commercial records, studios (rented out at hourly rates) have been used to produce jingles, demonstration records, interviews, and other recordings.

Many Canadian studios were equipped with the latest and most complex equipment and certain tax advantages helped to attract foreign recording groups, especially in the pop field. André Perry's Le Studio, first located in Montreal and, after 1974, in Morin Heights, Que, became one of the most sought after recording facilities in the world. In the mid-1980s, Le Studio had also become a video production and film postproduction complex generating, 1985-6, $2.8 million in total revenues.

It is difficult to estimate the total number of commercial studios, large and small, operating in Canada at the beginning of the 1990s the Music Directory Canada lists over 90 studios in Ontario alone (its listings for the rest of the country are somewhat less comprehensive). The following list includes some of the largest and most active Canadian facilities as well as several newly established ones. (All of them possess 24-track or greater capability and many are also engaged in video or film post-production): in New Glasgow, NS, double-bass Sound Productions; in Moncton, NB, C.M.S. Studios; in Chomedey, Que, Inter-Session Recording Studio; in Montreal, Listen! Audio Productions, Cinar Studio Centre, Montreal Sound, Les Studios Marko, Studio Multisons, PGV Studio, Studio La Majeure, Studio Tempo, and Le Tube; in Longueuil, Que, Studio Saint-Charles; in Morin Heights, Que, Le Studio; in Quebec City, P.S.M. Studios and Sequence; in Ste-Anne des Lacs, Que, Ambiance (operated by A.R.P. Track Productions with studios also in Stoney Creek, Ont); in St-Charles-sur-Richelieu, Que, Endel; in Ottawa, Ambience Recorders; in Hamilton, Ont, Grant Avenue Studio; in Mississauga, Ont, Metalworks Recording Studios; in Toronto, Cherry Beach Sound, Comfort Sound, Deschamps Recording Studios, Film House, Inception Sound, Kensington Sound, Manta Sound, McClear Place, Quest Recording Studios, Reaction Studios, Sounds Interchange, SRS, and Zaza Sound; in Winnipeg, Century 21, Maddock Studio, Trillium Recording Centre and Wayne Finucan Productions; in Saskatoon, Studio West; in Calgary, E.K. Sound and The Sundae Sound Studio; in Edmonton, Beta Sound; and in Vancouver, Little Mountain Studios, Mushroom, Pinewood, Soundwerks, Uptown Sound, and Vancouver Studios.

Further Reading