However, before the advent of 50-plus hour playlists on Spotify, people had to settle with as little as two minutes of audio. That’s only half a song nowadays!
Thankfully, technology kept pushing its boundaries to allow for more storage. But before you decide to “go retro” and buy the best vinyl record player, let’s learn about how electronic music media evolved over the years.
Phonautogram recordings from the 1850s are the oldest known sound recording device. Sound waves were imaged on a sheet of soot-coated glass or paper. Tracks included a 20-second snippet of someone singing and another of someone speaking.
But believe it or not, this invention would have been lost to time if it weren’t for the efforts of the researchers from First Sounds. Their 2008 discovery of the phonautogram and their subsequent successful attempts at playing the recorded audio changed history forever.
So how did something this incredible almost got lost to time? It’s because the phonautogram’s inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, created the device to study the sound waves. Someone else had the idea to play the recordings back, but Thomas Edison’s announcement of the phonograph obscured everything else.
Late 1880s: Wax cylinders
Thomas Edison’s phonograph paved the way for other inventors to improve the technology further. Instead of recording the sound waves on a piece of glass, paper, or tin foil, the recordings were inscribed on a “waxy” cylinder. The stability of the cylinder was necessary for the sound quality, unlike the fragile tin foil.
Wax cylinders caught on quickly, especially for home use. Several companies produced different kinds of cylinders, with some specifically for recording concerts. Wax cylinders also introduced the idea of “rewritable medium” because the cylinders can be shaved and smoothed to allow for a new recording.
Companies also took advantage of wax cylinders for their “dictaphones.” They dictate and record their notes for posterity, and the cylinder’s durability allowed them to keep the notes for some time. And because they are rewritable, companies can discard old records and create new ones until the wax runs out.
Early 1900s: Records
During the wax cylinders’ heyday, a man named Emile Berliner was working on a sound recording device. The resulting invention was called “gramophone,” and had significant differences than Edison’s phonograph and Alexander Graham Bell’s graphophone. The gramophone’s main difference is that it uses a flat, round disc made of shellac instead of a cylinder.
Nobody took the device seriously at first, so Berliner had to settle with selling it to toy makers. Eventually, Berliner established his own company and was able to market the device properly. Records existed alongside cylinders for a while, but technological advances and lower costs eventually allowed the records to overtake the cylinders.
The first iteration of the record spun at 78 rotations per minute (rpm), which meant that each side could only hold five minutes of audio. As the record’s popularity caught on, companies tried using different materials and sizes in hopes that it would improve the format.
It wasn’t until 1948 when Columbia introduced long-play (LP) records made of vinyl. They were classified as long-play because each side could hold about 22 minutes of audio. These records spun at a much slower 33 1/3 rpm, which accommodated for more audio grooves than its predecessor. And most importantly, the vinyl allowed for better sound quality than the shellac version.
LP Vinyls quickly became the standard for audio consumption, especially after technological improvements allowed it to play for longer. LPs also coined the term “album” because this format was the first to store up to 10 different songs.
However, the format still had many limitations: the sensitivity of the needle when encountering imperfections, the difficulty in locating specific song tracks, the fragility of the record depending on the kind of vinyl used to manufacture it, and many others. It wasn’t long until a competing format would present a better solution to the LP’s problems.
Late 1950s: Audio cartridges and cassette tapes
The very first audio cassette wasn’t even used for songs; it was for dictation purposes. Remember our friends from Dictaphone, the same company that supplied businesses with cylinders for dictation? They’re back again, but this time with a cassette tape called “Dictet.” Though it was never used for home consumption, it led the way for other companies to do so.
RCA, on the other hand, suffered a significant loss during the vinyl era. Seeing a new opportunity with cassettes, they introduced the sound tape cartridge. It also had two sides of audio, with each side capable of up to 30 minutes of recording. Though most units had to be transitioned by hand to play the other side, some models allowed for continuous playing.
Unfortunately, RCA’s slow support of the sound tape cartridge led to the decline of the unit. But it didn’t take long for a superior version to appear: Philips’ Compact Cassette tapes.
These compact cassette tapes were the defining model of the cassette era, much like how the LP vinyls were during the record era. Due to multiple companies manufacturing their version of cassette tapes, play length varied; however, the standard is between 30-45 minutes per side.
Cassette tapes launched in two kinds: one that already has pre-recorded music and one that’s blank. The options gave consumers the freedom to get the cassette they wanted. And thanks to its small size and cheap pricing, the cassette became a standard format for a while. The introduction of Sony’s Walkman allowed consumers to bring their music with them wherever they went, heralding the age of portable music.
Variations of the format appeared on the market
during the popularity of cassette tapes, but only on specific regions. For
example, 8-track tapes enjoyed some success in countries like the US and
Canada, but it was shortlived. Most of the world adopted cassette tapes as the
standard due to size and cost reasons.
1980s: Compact Disc
It seems that music media was destined to go back to flat discs for storage. The LaserDisc was technically around during the 70s, but its popularity struggled. Thanks to the joint efforts of Philips and Sony, they launched the Compact Disc and its accompanying storage standard.
Much like the LaserDisc’s concept, CDs rely on a laser beam to read the audio signals stored within the disc. Philips coined the name “compact disc” to match the name of its predecessor, the compact cassette. And as a result of Philips and Sony’s collaboration, consumers can play any CD from any company on any CD player.
CDs were a significant upgrade compared to vinyl records and cassette tapes. The discs were smaller and compact, it had more storage capacity, and it had better sound quality. Though met with widespread skepticism at first, the public quickly embraced CDs. Albums were converted from vinyl and cassette to CDs, and subsequent albums released in CD format only.
Sony also repeated the Walkman’s success by releasing a CD version of the Walkman. With the widespread availability of audio CDs and blank CDs, music lovers were able to bring loads of music with them wherever they went.
1990s: MP3 and digital distribution
Though audio CDs are still available today, their consumption has declined since its heyday. CD aficionados have the MP3 audio format to thank for that.
MP3s, also known as MPEG-1 Audio Layer III or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, is a digital audio format that compresses data for playback. The compression affects file size and quality; the higher the compression, the lower the file size and sound quality.
Despite the quality loss, MP3 sharing exploded on the internet. Smaller file sizes meant smooth online transfer, and it wasn’t long until peer-to-peer sites opened. People used free software for ripping audio tracks from CDs and shared them online, allowing people to download specific songs. The songs are then played back using an audio player within the computer.
Dedicated devices called MP3 players eventually took the world by storm. Though their physical and storage size varied, MP3 players allowed people to carry a lot of music for less physical space. The rampant free sharing of music across download sites also caused problems in the music industry, citing lost revenue as the cause.
The iPod’s launch helped standardize the legal download of audio tracks, helping pave the way for legal acquisition of songs digitally. Various file formats also enabled software developers to support multiple formats at once.
Once the smartphone era started, dedicated digital audio players began to fade. Smartphones consolidated audio storage and download for consumers by allowing them to purchase, play, and store the songs in the same device.
As digital distribution continues to dominate, people started encountering problems with storage space and costs. Once mobile networks became reliable enough for continuous data streaming, companies launched subscription programs for listening to music.
Platforms like Spotify and Pandora allowed consumers to listen to music without downloading the songs themselves, thus saving them space and money.
Electronic music media truly has gone a long way. In less than 200 years, we’ve gone from 20-second recordings to unlimited streaming. We’ve also gone from listening to music at home with large devices to streaming the songs from our pockets. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next once the successor of digital distribution launches.