History of recorded sound in Canada

Early sound recording and the invention of the gramophone

The history of recorded sound in Canada can be said to have begun on May 17, 1878 with a demonstration of Edison's recently invented talking machine, the phonograph, at the Governor-General's residence in Ottawa. The Earl of Dufferin and his guests spoke Greek and sang popular songs, and listened as the machine reproduced the sound of their voices. Though the new invention was greeted with amazement and delight (and the interest of early ethnologists, who set out to record the speech and music of aboriginal peoples), sound recording would not become a commercially successful medium of entertainment until the advent of Emile Berliner and his gramophone.

Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany in 1851, where he was apprenticed to a printer after graduating from school in 1865. In 1870, he immigrated to the United States, settling first in New York, and working at various odd jobs to earn his livelihood. In 1877, he decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., having been offered employment there as a clerk in a dry goods store owned by a fellow German immigrant.

It was during this period that Berliner began to experiment with the technology associated with the newly invented telephone. He conceived of and patented the carbon button transmitter in 1877 (Note: Thomas Edison patented a similar transmitter or microphone in the same year and there is some controversy over the correct attribution for the invention of the microphone), which was bought by Alexander Graham Bell for $100 000 and $5000 per annum to keep Berliner on retainer. The money enabled Berliner to devote himself exclusively to the creation of the gramophone.

The ideas and practically demonstrated principles upon which Berliner based his invention were long well known. Sound produces vibrations which can cause a needle attached to a diaphragm to move over a rotating surface in an undulating pattern. When the needle is moved through the groove cut by the sound vibration, the sound is reproduced. The first documented machine to record sound waves was the phonautograph of the Frenchman, Léon Scott de Martinville, in 1857. The device consisted of a diaphragm and a boar's hair bristle that traced a sinuous line laterally on a manually rotated cylinder coated with lampblack. Though the phonautograph created a visual analogue of sound waves, the machine could not reproduce those sounds.

Twenty years later, Thomas Edison, the son of Canadian parents, devised the phonograph while working on the repeating telegraph. The first phonograph had a cylinder covered with tinfoil mounted on a hand-cranked screw. It had a rigid stylus which, unlike the styli of both the phonautograph and the later gramophone, cut the groove vertically in what is known as the "hill-and-dale" manner. Edison patented his invention in 1878 and, assured of its protection, abandoned it to concentrate on the development of the incandescent light bulb.

Then, in 1880, Alexander Graham Bell established an electro-acoustic research facility in Washington, D.C. (the Volta Laboratory Association) with prize money granted to him by the French Academy of Science in recognition of his invention of the telephone.

He brought in his cousin, Chichester Bell, an English scientist and Charles Sumner Tainter, who soon turned their attention to developing an improved phonograph based on Edison's British patent of 1878. In 1885 and 1886 respectively, they were granted Canadian and American patents for their machine, which they called a graphophone. It was much like the phonograph, but with a few significant improvements. Instead of tinfoil, which was delicate and difficult to remove and replace with a recording intact, Bell and Tainter used wax-coated cardboard cylinders. In addition to greater ease of handling, the employment of wax also produced a higher quality recording and enabled a longer playing time. Moreover, Bell and Tainter utilized clockwork, a foot treadle and subsequently an electric motor instead of Edison's manual crank.


Both Edison and the Volta Associates saw the talking machine primarily as a business tool, a dictating machine to replace human stenographers. When Berliner set to work developing the gramophone, he decided to approach the technology from a different perspective, allowing him to bypass the Edison and Bell-Tainter patents entirely. He looked to the phonautograph for inspiration and devised a machine that used discs instead of cylinders, and lateral recording instead of vertical. In Berliner's process, the sound tracing was first etched side-to-side in a spiral on a zinc disc, then this master was electroplated to create a negative which could then be used to stamp copies in vulcanized rubber (and later shellac) -- a process better suited to mass reproduction of musical entertainment.

Sound recording industry and technology timeline

Year Company/Individual or Invention Event
1847 Thomas Alva Edison Born in Milan, Ohio
​1847 ​Alexander Graham Bell ​Born
​1848 ​Chichester Alexander Bell ​Born
1851 Emile Berliner Born in Hanover, Germany
1857 Phonautograph The first documented recording of sound waves made by the phonautograph, invented by Léon Scott de Martinville
1876 Alexander Graham Bell Patents the magnetic or reluctance microphone
1877 Charles Cros Deposits a sealed packet with the French Academy of Science, describing a method for recording sound in a spiral groove on a disc using photoengraving
1877 Thomas Edison Makes first sketch of the phonograph, conceived of while he was working on the repeating telegraph
1877 Phonograph An article predicting the various uses of the phonograph appears in the Scientific American
1877 Phonograph Uses a brass cylinder covered with tinfoil
1877 Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison Both develop a carbon microphone (loose contact transmitter)
1878 Edison Speaking Phonograph Company Five stockholders, including Gardiner G. Hubbard (the father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell), bought Edison's tinfoil phonograph patent for $10,000 and guarantee of 20% of future profits. It leased out demonstration rights for promotional purposes.
1878 Edison Speaking Phonograph Company Patents the phonograph in the United States, Great Britain and Canada.
1878 Phonograph A demonstration of the phonograph held at the Governor-General's residence (Rideau Hall) in Ottawa, Canada.
1880 Volta Laboratory Association Alexander Graham Bell establishes the Volta Laboratory Association, an electro-acoustic research facility, with prize money granted to him by the French Academy of Science
1881 Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter Develop a machine which improves upon the phonograph, and call the new device a graphophone
1881 Graphophone Uses a cylinder made from beeswax or carnuba wax over a cardboard base
1882 Herbert Berliner Born
1885 Volta Graphophone Company Established by Chicester Bell and his associates to demonstrate and promote the graphophone
1885 Graphophone Canadian patent for the graphophone issued
1886 American Graphophone Company Established by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter to manufacture and sell graphophones in the United States and Canada under licence from the Volta Graphophone Company
1886 Graphophone American patents for the graphophone issued.
1887 Edison Phonograph Company Edison bought back the assets of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company and reorganized as the Edison Phonograph Company
1887 Improved Phonograph Edison adopts modifications based upon the Bell-Tainter innovations and produces the Improved Phonograph.
1887 Gramophone Emile Berliner receives patent for the gramophone.
1888 North American Phonograph Company Established by Jesse Lippincott to set up a sales network of local companies to lease phonographs and gramophones as dictation machines. Lippincott invested $200,000 in the American Graphophone Company and agreed to purchase 5,000 machines per year, in return for sales rights to the graphophone (except in Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia). He also bought control of Edison patents for $500,000, and exclusive sales rights of the phonograph in the United States from Ezrah T. Gilliand (who had previously been granted the contract by Edison) for $250,000, leaving Edison with the manufacturing rights.
1888 Edison Phonograph Works Established to manufacture and develop the phonograph while patents and sales rights were held by North American Phonograph Company
1888 Emile Berliner Debuts the gramophone in Germany
1888 Gramophone discs The early gramophone discs were made with a zinc base with a beeswax coating etched with chromic acid.
1889 Columbia Phonograph Company A group of men, licenced by the American Graphophone Company to sell graphophones in Washington, D.C., established the Columbia Phonograph Company. Also licenced by the North American Phonograph Company to sell phonographs in the same area.
1889 North American Phonograph Company Publishes the first catalogue of records
1889 Louis Glass Develops the coin operated phonograph
1889 Emile Berliner Begins to stamp gramophone discs in Vulcanite, or hard rubber.
1893 United States Gramophone Company Established by Emile Berliner to attract investors for the gramophone. He hired Fred Gaisberg, who had prior recording experience, to help him in that capacity. They found investors in Philidelphia to contribute $25,000.
1893 American Graphophone Company
Columbia Phonograph Company
Control of the American Graphophone Company acquired by the president of Columbia.
1894 Pathé Frères Company founded in Paris by brothers Charles and Émile Pathé to manufacture their own talking machine, first called Le Coq, and then the Pathéphone.
1895 Berliner Gram-o-phone Company Established in Philadelphia to manufacture all equipment and discs under licence from Washington-based United States Gramophone Company
1895 American Graphophone Company
Columbia Phonograph Company
The two companies were, in effect, consolidated, the Graphophone Company concerning itself with development and manufacturing and Columbia handling distribution and sales.
1896 National Gramophone Company Established by Frank Seaman to undertake distribution and advertising of the gramophone and given exclusive sales rights.
1896 National Phonograph Company Edison dissolved the North American Phonograph Company and, salvaging his phonograph patents, established the National Phonograph Company to manufacture and distribute phonographs for home use.
1897 Emile Berliner Granted Canadian patent for the gramophone
1897 Gramophone Discs begin to be made of a thermoplastic shellac compound called Durinoid
1898 The Gramophone Company (England) Established in London by William Barry Owen and E. Trevor Williams to manufacture gramophones and records in Europe.
1899 E. Berliner, Montreal Established by Emile Berliner to hold exclusive manufacturing, sales and distribution rights to gramophones and discs in Canada.
1900 R.S. Williams & Sons Around this time, R. S. Williams, an instrument manufacturer based in Toronto, begins Canadian distribution for Edison.
1900 The Gramophone & Typewriter Company Ltd. The Gramophone Company (England) changes its name
1900 Telegraphon Valdemar Poulson wins the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris for the Telegraphon, a magnetic recording device which uses carbon steel piano wire wound on brass spoons or drums.
1901 Victor Talking Machine Company Established by Eldridge Johnson to take over the Berliner interests in the United States.
1901 Cylinders Are now made of celluloid
1904 Berliner Gram-o-phone Company of Canada E. Berliner, Montreal reorganized and renamed. Incorporated with Emmanuel Blout, Joseph Sanders, and Herbert Berliner as directors.
1904 Columbia Phonograph Company Begins operations in Canada with headquarters in Toronto (Ontario) and offices in Hamilton (Ontario), Montreal (Quebec) and Brantford (Ontario)
1904 Double-sided record Colin McKenzie of Whitehorse, Yukon receives a patent for a double-sided record. The Victor Talking Machine Company buys it.
1906 Columbia Graphophone Company The American Graphophone company is reorganized and the name changed to reflect its identity with Columbia.
1906 Reginald A. Fessenden Canadian-born physicist, makes the first radio broadcast of a gramophone record.
1907 The Gramophone Company (England) The Gramophone & Typewriter Company reverts to its former name. The company moves its base of operations from London to Hayes.
1908 The Victor Talking Machine Company
Columbia Graphophone Company
Columbia issues a double-sided record. Victor takes Columbia to court for patent infringement, but Columbia wins right to make double-sided records.
1908 Edison Introduces the Amberol cylinder, made of a thermoplastic called Condensite.
1909 Berliner Gram-o-phone Company Emile Berliner assumed presidency of Berliner of Canada which underwent reorganization and was renamed. The company begins issuing records on the "His Master's Voice" label using masters imported from The Gramophone Company in England and France. The "His Master's Voice" label was later used for series of Canadian recordings in English (1916) and French (1918).
1910 Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Edison's various manufacturing enterprises were reorganized and brought together into one corporation.
1912 Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Edison introduces the Blue Amberol cylinder, made of bright blue nitrocellulose.
1913 Canadian Vitaphone Company Established in Toronto and headed by W.R. Fosdick, former manager of His Master's Voice Ltd. in Toronto. It manufactured the Vitaphone, a disc-playing machine with a wooden tone-arm and stationary sound box, and imported Columbia records for release on its own label.
1914 Pathé Frères Begins distribution in Canada through J.A. Hurteau & Company Ltd., Montreal and M.W. Glendon, Toronto.
1915 Starr Piano Company Begins issuing vertical-cut records in the United States
1916 Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company Begins issuing vertical-cut records in the United States
1917 Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company Opens factory in Toronto to manufacture Ultona talking machine. In 1920, begins manufacturing records as well.
1917 Canadian Phonograph Supply Company Begins importing Starr records.
1917 E.C. Wente of Western Electric Perfects the first effective condenser microphone, which becomes the preferred microphone for sound recording.
1918 Compo Company Established in Lachine, Quebec by Herbert Berliner to press records in Canada for independent companies (e.g. Starr and Starr-Gennett labels for Starr). Later pressed its own labels (Sun, Apex).
1918 Columbia Graphophone Manufacturing Company Columbia reorganized.
1918 Pathé Frères Phonograph Company of Canada Established in Toronto.
1920 Horace O. Merriman (Canadian) and Lionel Guest (British) Make the first commercial electrical recording at the funeral of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey.
1924 Columbia Phonograph Company, Inc. Louis Sterling of the Columbia Phonograph Company, Ltd. of London, bought out Columbia and reorganized it.
1924 Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada Victor Talking Machine Company (United States) acquired controlling interest in the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company, changing its name.
1924 Joseph Maxfield of Western Electric Records a radio broadcast carried over telephone lines
1924 Compo Company Conducts its first electric recording session
1925 C.W. Rice and E.W. Kellogg Perfect the dynamic loudspeaker.
1926 Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company Introduce the first all-electric phonograph.
1929 Blattnerphone Ludwig Blattner Picture Corp. Ltd. of London joins with Kurt Stille's Telegraphie-Patent-Syndicat to produce the Blattnerphone, which magnetically records motion picture sound on steel tape. Widely used to record radio broadcasts.
1931 S.B. Sawer Patents the crystal microphone
1931 RCA Victor Experiments with a 33 1/3 rpm record with double the groove density in an attempt to increase playing time.
1933 Textophone Kurt Stille develops a vastly improved magnetic recorder using better steel wire and vacuum tube amplifiers. This machine, called a Textophone, was widely used by the Gestapo during WWII.
1934 A.D. Blumelien Around this time, patents a system for stereo recording on disc, employing a lateral cut for one channel, and a vertical cut for the other.
1936 Magnetophon K1 Allgemeine Electricitats-Gesellschaft (AEG) and I.G. Farben demonstrate the Magnetophon K1, which recorded magnetically on cellulose acetate film coated with gamma ferric oxide, developed by Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF), a division of I.G. Farben.
1937 A.H. Reeves Invents Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), the basis of digital recording.
1943 Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF) Replaces cellulose acetate tape with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tape for magnetic recording.
1947 Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) Begins producing ferric oxide coated tape for magnetic recording
1948 Columbia Introduces commercially successful long playing records (LPs) which play at 33 1/3 rpm.
1948 Vinyl records Use of vinyl as record material becomes universal.
1949 RCA Victor Introduces the 45 rpm 7-inch single with microgrooves.
1949 Claude Shannon Establishes the theoretical framework for digital recording in his book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication

Turning points: A short history of sound recording and record players

by Bryan Dewalt, curator of communications at the Canada Science and Technology Museum

All images are of artifacts in the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Artifact catalogue numbers are shown in brackets after photo credits.

The talking machine
Electronics transform recording
The tape recorder
Digital recording


For almost 130 years we have used technology to preserve and replay sounds that would otherwise be lost the moment they occurred. In saving these brief sonic events, we have to some extent replaced personal interaction in "real time" with a one-way communication process that is independent of time. For example, people used to either perform their own music or attend a public performance. Now we are more likely to listen to recordings (or records) than gather around the piano or go to a concert. Music and, to a lesser extent, the spoken word have become products that we consume rather than an activity that we share. Thanks to the mass production of records and players, people now have access to more diverse styles and more expertly performed music than ever before. Ironically, few of us can now sing the songs our grandparents sang.

The talking machine

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the world's first sound recorder and reproducer. To make a record, the user spoke into a mouthpiece, causing variations in air pressure, or sound waves, to set a small diaphragm vibrating. Attached to the diaphragm was a stylus that indented the vibration pattern in a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cylinder. To replay the record the user placed the stylus in the groove it had made and rotated the cylinder again. As the stylus rode over the "hills and dales" of the groove, the diaphragm vibrated as it had before, generating sound waves that approximated the original. This process of converting sound waves into a more or less permanent physical pattern that can be used to regenerate the original waves remains at the heart of all sound recording systems.

Initially, entrepreneurs sold or rented phonographs as dictating machines, but with little success. Around 1890, they discovered profits in placing coin-operated machines in bars, arcades and drug stores. Their popularity increased the demand for pre-recorded music and comedy, but it was only in 1901 that an economical method was found for making multiple copies of cylinder records. To feed the emerging market, manufacturers introduced cheaper models that were affordable to many middle-class households. Unlike their earlier electrically driven machines, these were run by spring motors wound up by hand.

The Edison Opera A was the high point in the evolution of cylinder players. Combined with the new, hard celluloid Blue Amberol records, it offered the best recorded sound quality of the years before the First World War. Nevertheless, consumers increasingly rejected cylinder machines in favour of disk players after the turn of the century. Edison stopped making cylinder record players in 1929 but recording on reusable wax cylinders remained common in dictating machines until the end of the Second World War.

The cylinder phonograph invented by Edison owed its eventual demise to a crude device patented by Emile Berliner in 1887. Berliner recorded sound on a wax disk rather than a cylinder. And instead of the stylus making a groove that varied in depth, the stylus moved laterally, zigzagging with changes in the sound wave. This was an important development because it allowed Berliner to make many cheap copies from a wax "master" by electroplating a metal "stamper" and then imprinting the grooves in a softer material. Initially Berliner used rubber but eventually he settled on shellac, a natural plastic that could be softened by heating but would harden when cooled. The earliest Berliner machines were turned by hand and played a tiny record (about the size of a modern CD) that played for no more than two minutes. They were little more than toys.

It was only in 1896, after Berliner had switched to shellac records and had installed spring motors in his machines, that the "gramophone" began to compete with cylinder players. After the turn of the century, disk players gradually surpassed cylinder machines in popularity. This was due to the ease of record manufacture and storage, to the louder (though rougher) sound of disk records, and to the mass appeal of popular singers and opera stars that the disk record makers recruited. In 1906, in a further marketing coup, Victor Talking Machine, which had taken over Berliner's patents in the United States, introduced the Victrola. The Victrola's horn was hidden inside the cabinet, which had been redesigned to harmonize with the decor of genteel parlours.

The production of records and players began in Canada in 1899, when Emile Berliner opened a subsidiary operation in Montréal. The first of Berliner's many Canadian competitors opened for business in 1907, and as the basic patents on sound recording began to expire during the 1910s, an increasing number of manufacturers entered the fray. Many of these built on established expertise in wood fabrication by importing metal components from the United States and installing them in locally-made cabinets. Weakened by the introduction of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s, the acoustic phonograph industry collapsed entirely with the onset of the Depression in 1929. Henceforth, the only acoustic record players built in Canada were portables.

Electronics transform recording

The introduction of radio broadcasting wrought massive changes in the record and phonograph industry. On the one hand, free broadcasts of live musical entertainment ate into sales of records and players. On the other, developments in microphones and vacuum tube amplifiers made it possible to record and reproduce louder and more lifelike sounds. While recording still depended on a vibrating stylus cutting a wax master, and replay depended on a moving diaphragm or cone generating sound waves, electronic components provided invaluable intermediary services in picking up and boosting the signal. The first electrically recorded disks were released to the public in 1925.

The first all-electric record players were introduced in 1926. By 1930, most such machines were radio-phonographs, in which the signal from an electromagnetic record pickup was fed through the radio's amplifier to the radio's speaker. During the 1930s, the recording industry was almost totally eclipsed by radio. Few people could afford to buy records during the Depression. One of the few sources of reliable sales was the jukebox, which became a popular fixture in bars and cafés.

After the Second World War, the record and phonograph industry was revived by renewed prosperity. Vinyl disks were introduced to replace fragile shellac records and new cutting techniques made it possible to squeeze more grooves onto a record. As a result, two new speeds came into existence beside the old 78 rpm: 33 1/3 for Columbia's long-playing (LP) records and 45 for RCA's small singles. Singles became the preferred record for jukeboxes and for sales to teenagers, who during the 1950s emerged as an influential market for popular music. Top 40 radio emerged as the primary means of promoting this music. Until the advent of "album-oriented rock" on FM radio in the late 1960s, the LP was aimed at older listeners of classical music, jazz and Broadway show tunes. Most record players available after 1950 were equipped for three or even four speeds.

The demographic division in record formats before 1970 was mirrored in the different markets for record players. At the low-priced end were small, monophonic players. The other two market segments were influenced by the emergence of "high fidelity" as a status symbol after the Second World War. Since the mid-1920s, audio engineers had gradually been increasing the frequency range and reducing the noise and distortion of recordings. In the 1950s, stereophonic techniques were introduced to add the illusion of depth and directionality to the sounds. The first stereo recordings were on tape, but in 1958, record companies began to issue stereo LPs. As the sonic information on records increased, the small but growing band of audiophiles became impatient with the much more limited capabilities of most record players. Many assembled their first hi-fi systems from components purchased through mail order or specialized electronics stores. Some were installed in custom-built wooden cabinets. For the large middle market of the 1950s and 1960s, Canadian manufacturers like Electrohome and Clairtone built large console models in a variety of styles, in which they installed less expensive stereo components.

The tape recorder

After the advent of microphones and electronic amplification, the next technical revolution in sound recording came with the introduction of magnetic tape recorders. The technology of magnetic recording dates back to 1898, when Valdemar Poulsen patented the Telegraphon, a device that recorded the electrical audio signal from a telephone transmitter as variations in magnetic flux on a length of steel piano wire. Over the next thirty years the technique evolved very slowly. By 1930, however, advances in electronics allowed the first commercially successful wire recorders to be introduced as dictating machines and telephone recorders in Europe and North America. Recording on solid steel media, whether wire or tape, remained the dominant form of magnetic recording outside Germany until about 1950. Perhaps the most interesting recorder of this type was the Blattnerphone, or Marconi-Stille recorder. This large device, which recorded on solid steel tape three millimetres wide, was developed in Germany and sold to several radio broadcasters, including, in 1935, the forerunner of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

At around the same time that the Blattnerphone was introduced, other German researchers were perfecting a method of coating thin celluloid tape with iron oxide particles. This arrangement was not only much lighter and more compact than solid steel or wire, but the particles were actually more easily magnetized. After the Second World War, American manufacturers introduced copies of these German Magnetophons. While the first such device, the Brush BK-401 was designed as a home recorder, broadcasters and record companies soon began to buy large numbers of such professional models as the Ampex 300. Not only were these machines capable of very high fidelity and low noise performance, but they could record long passages without interruption. Moreover, errors could be corrected or diverse programs assembled simply by splicing in the desired material. Beginning in the 1950s, recording engineers also discovered that by overdubbing or by recording on multiple tracks, they could assemble an ideal performance without the need for recording an entire ensemble in a single, flawless, nerve-wracking take.

Except among audiophiles, consumer acceptance of open-reel recorder-players was initially limited by their bulk and relative complexity. With the gradual spread of the transistor, solid state components began to replace heavy and power hungry vacuum tubes. As well, manufacturers developed various cassettes and cartridges to simplify tape operation. One, the 8-track cartridge, was very popular from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. In 1963, Philips introduced the "compact cassette." Initially the cassettes were used in office dictating machines, but by 1970 cassette recorders were being employed by a wide variety of professional and home users. During the 1970s, the quality of cassette recordings was improved to the point where they became acceptable for music listening. Cassette "decks" were included by many manufacturers in stereo components but the portable aspect of cassette players was not forgotten. In 1980, Sony introduced the Walkman, a headphone-equipped "personal" stereo that could be held in the palm of the hand and played anywhere. Soon after, manufacturers also began to build portable stereos or "boom boxes" that coupled a cassette player with a more powerful amplifier and speakers.

Digital recording

Up to the 1970s, all recording technology depended on creating a physical analogue, whether on tape or disk, of the original sound waves. Despite many incremental improvements to these techniques, by the 1970s, further reductions in noise and distortion were becoming increasingly difficult and expensive. As a result, audio researchers began to experiment with digital techniques that had first been exploited in the computer and telecommunication industries. Digitizing an electrical audio signal consisted of first sampling the wave thousands of times a second, measuring the amplitude of each sample, and then assigning one of a limited number of binary values to each. The resulting tape recording consisted of a coded series of on-off signals, or bits. Unlike analogue recording, in which noise and distortion tended to accumulate at each stage of recording and post-production, in digital recording the original message could be cleanly regenerated as long as the simple binary values were recognizable. In addition, minute alterations to the message could be made electronically, by altering the value of individual bits.

The first digital tape recorder was demonstrated in Japan in 1967, with the first digitally mastered records appearing on the Denon label in 1972. The first commercially available digital audio recorder was the Sony PCM-1. Introduced in 1977, the PCM-1 converted an incoming analogue signal into a digital one, which was then recorded onto a standard video cassette in a VCR. Initially, digitally mastered records were still released on vinyl disks in the analogue format. In 1982, however, Sony and Philips released the first compact discs and players. On a CD, the digital information was embodied as millions of microscopic bits in the reflective aluminum coating of the disk. The CD player employed an optical unit to "read" the pattern of bits and convert the resulting electrical pulses into an analogue signal that could drive a speaker. Because the system was optical, friction and noise from physical contact between stylus and record was eliminated. In 1987, another digital format was introduced, the digital audio tape (DAT). Due to record company opposition to a medium that allowed flawless copies of CDs to be made, few DAT recorders were released to the North American public. They did, however, become quite common for professional recording.

Digital recording devices are continually evolving. In the last decade, the most significant, and largely unforeseen, development has been the widespread exchange of digital music files over the Internet. This has been made possible by a number of technical developments, including software for "ripping" songs from commercially released CDs, compression software that reduces the size of these music files by eliminating redundant or unnecessary data (e.g. MP3), and file-sharing software that supports the swapping of these files over the Internet (such as Napster, Kazaa and LimeWire). The popularity of MP3 file sharing, especially among young, technically savvy music lovers with disposable incomes, soon encouraged manufacturers to introduce portable MP3 players. The first of these, the Elger Labs MPMan F10 and the Diamond Rio PMP300 were introduced in 1998. These employed flash memory chips for data storage and had a capacity limited to less than a dozen songs. In late 1999, Remote Solutions introduced the first MP3 player incorporating a magnetic hard-drive, which boasted a capacity of 1,200 songs. This was followed two years later by Apple Computers' iPod. The huge popularity of file sharing has shaken the foundations of the recording industry, whose profit for over a century has depended on restricting the ability of record buyers to make and transmit high-quality, free copies of their products. It is not yet clear what arrangements will ultimately be devised to balance the rights of music creators to compensation with the rights of consumers to reasonable copying and sharing of their products.


Technology, whether analogue or digital, now helps us not merely record a unique musical event for later listening but also create in the studio an ideal musical event free of errors and with sounds that cannot be attained in live performance. Edison and Berliner focused on simply capturing and reproducing enough information in the original sound to make it recognizable. Their successors sought a more aurally rich and detailed sound that was free of noise and distortion. Later, they developed systems that gave greater control over the recording process, so that the final product did not depend on the chance events of an actual performance. A record producer can now assemble the various elements of the ideal event at different times, in different places. Performers have become less members of a collective endeavour and more isolated elements in an industrial process. In fact, alone in the studio, a composer can now create novel musical sounds by recording or sampling any noise, manipulating it electronically, and assembling it in a musical sequence. The line between recording, composition and performance has become increasingly indistinct.

At the same time, with the advent of MP3 files, recorded music has lost its tight coupling with a physical artifact, the record. Although for many of us songs are still "consumed" in the conventional 20th-century manner, it is now possible for music to be conceived, recorded, edited, performed, edited again, performed again and deleted without ever taking permanent material form. In some ways, a "piece" of music has returned to its original status, a brief sonic (and now electronic) event that is unique and never to be replicated.

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