The Phonograph – The Genesis of Music Recording

Edison and the PhonographPrior to 1877 and in fact for a larger part of the 19th century, music listeners could only catch their favorite songs in a concert hall or in local joints when someone else was playing them. Because of the massive role music has played in human culture, it is almost impracticable for people to distance themselves from it. Research indicates that music may have emerged some 30,000 to 60,000 years ago and since then, man has been refining the art making the tunes beautiful through improved human talent and instruments. In 1877, something revolutionary happened in the consumption of music when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.
The Phonograph Cylinder
Edison’s invention was not the first attempt to record music onto physical media, but it was the successful one. The phonograph was the first machine to record music and play it back. The sounds to be recorded were carefully transmitted via a recording stylus which would then create indentations on a spherical phonograph cylinder. A playback stylus would then read the recording and have it played back through a diaphragm.
The phonograph cylinders compromised tinfoil carefully wrapped around a metal cylinder to help in the recording of sound. A decade later, a number of engineers and researchers amongst them Alexander Graham Bell came up with a phonograph cylinder that was made of cardboard covered in wax. The advantage with this cylinder is that the wax could be easily engraved with recordings.
Edison then created another cylinder that had wax all round it and could be shaved down if new sounds were to be recorded. This cylinder is what many consider to be the precursor to compact disc re-writables (CD RW). The wax used for the recording cylinders was hardened over time and this enhanced the capacity of the cylinders to handle a large number of playbacks.
The Development of Flat Discs
In the closing years of the 19th century, there was a transition from the phonograph cylinders to flat-disc records. The main advantage of the flat disc was that it could be mass produced, but when it came to audio fidelity, the cylinder was still superior. A master stamp was created and this allowed a number of records to be stamped within a short period of time unlike the phonograph cylinder which had to be individually recorded a process that was relatively slow.
The first release of discs was in a 5 inch version, then 7 inch followed by 10 inch and in 1903, a 12 inch version was released. Around the same time, there was an increased interest in double sided records which also meant the demand and popularity of the cylinder was going down. On realizing this, Edison quickly switched to the Edison disc record which was a quarter inch thick shellac piece that was playable on Edison disc phonographs.

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Replacement of Shellac with Vinyl
Shellac was then replaced with vinyl which was lighter and much more durable. This transition also saw the change of the industry standard from 17 revolutions per minute to 33 and a third revolution per minute which meant a large amount of music could be recorded on one disc. The 10 inch, 78 revolutions per minute disc which was popular at the time could only accommodate about 3 minutes of music making long songs to be split across a number of discs. These discs were then put in a sleeve which was bound into a book format hence the term record album. The 12 inch vinyl 33 revolution per minute disc could accommodate about 20 minutes of music on either side and this dominated the market.
Beyond this stage, the changes that were effected in the recordings of music were concentrated on the hardware used in turning the disc and relaying the sound such as direct drive turntables, better styli, balanced tone arms and many others. The innovations taking place today pushed by brands such as Stanton and Gemini are some of the products of past processes.