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Positive Feedback ISSUE 14
july/august 2004


The Audio Century, Part I: The Twentieth Century and the Birth of Audio Technology - Some thoughts on where we've been, and where we might be going.
by John Pearsall


Footnotes by Robinson

Way back in Positive Feedback, Vol. 8, No. 4, John Pearsall published some reflections on the history of audio. As part of PFO's program to re-print vintage PF articles, we are re-publishing John's fine overview of our audio past. "Those who don't know the audio past are doomed to bad mojo," said Gorgeous George Santayana, Jr.—and "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know," said Harry Truman.

Yep. To learn more, read on, pilgrim…

Somewhere between our 15th and 20th year, the majority of us grew weary of conforming to the youthful fiction of non-conformity. The search began for a special passion, a special passion of our own, an outlet for the artistic yearnings we all have. A few of us didn't start the search until we were somewhat older, but if the passion we discovered happened to be audio, there was usually an event, probably unexpected, that changed all the tracks on our road map. That triggering event was usually our first opportunity to hear well-recorded music, probably played on a friend's audio system. Very likely his dad had assembled a stereo system from Heathkit or Dynakit, very likely a joint project and sharing their music with their friends. It's possible that something else captured our attention in a dealer's sound room. I remember hearing my first really good sound as though it was last week! And nothing has ever sounded the same since. In becoming an audio hobbyist, we discovered the only way to have great music every day was to own it. I had a growing dissatisfaction with my first record player. I couldn't stand to listen to it anymore. I wasn't too sure I could afford it, but I felt the strongest urge to have my own sound gear. Then I could listen to the magic every day of the week. In the first month of the 11th grade, I busted my butt and my budget to assemble my first good record playing system.1 I auctioned off all my extra stuff to friends, cashed in a War Bond and sneaked a little money out of my savings account. I didn't tell my parents, but they didn't say anything. Sometimes moms and dads don't comment on omissions like that if they think you're on one of life's missions.  

1 Synchronicity! It was at this same sublime time in mylife that I did very much the same thing that friend John is reporting—only with a large Sony open reel recorder (the TC-630) as the object of desire. I spent most of that year earning the money, which, combined with my parents' grace, allowed the purchase…

A first exposure to extraordinary sound can be a life-changing revelation, a kind of musical epiphany. Well-recorded sound reveals a startling immediacy, vitality, pulsing rhythmic drive, tight controlled bass, delicate instrumental detailing and the illusion of being present in the music. Music leaps off the recording and into one's ears. The very best recordings excite you like good live music and, sometimes, even more vividly than live. On hearing a good sound system for the first time, your response might be similar to Will Smith's hot-shot pilot in the apocalyptic film "Independence Day." When he first pilots the alien craft on his mission to sneak into the mother ship, he exclaims in boyish glee, "I gotta get me one 'o these!!" That's what I said when I discovered how much sound quality I could buy for a couple hundred dollars, some careful planning and doing most of the work myself. Oh! Those remarkable 50's and 60's, though often filtered through rose-colored memories, were the supreme decades for electronic kit building, establishing a price/performance ratio that hasn't been equaled in over 30 years. Extraordinary value-for-money made kit assembled equipment irresistible to the chronically impoverished 1950's teenager or young married couple or the merely frugal. And some of us from that earlier time are still involved with the audio scene four decades later.  

Growing up as I did in mid-50's small town America, I was extremely fortunate. With three adult friends to guide me through the technical challenges, my new "hi-fi set" was operational in about six weeks. It's hard to believe it's been 45 years come Autumn. Belatedly I raise my glass to my three wonderful friends, Mr. French, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Reed! Thank you for sharing your precious time with me in 1955. Our work sessions are among my most treasured memories from the high-school years. Even my grumpy old shop teacher had to admit he was pleased with the thoroughly professional looking speaker that I built in his wood working class. (I used a sheet of choice 3/4 inch American black walnut plywood and carefully followed University Loudspeaker's cabinet plans.) Their enclosure was a fairly complex floor-standing affair and had a bass-reflex port that was also horn-loaded! Lotsa' bass! I equipped the varnished, hand-rubbed cabinet with a University 12 inch Coax drive unit. The speaker not only looked good, but sounded like a band of angels. Needless to say, my music system was a source of great personal pride and, of course, my music had never sounded better. Though not fully aware of it, my lifelong love affair with audio technology and music had already begun. 

Before I offer any speculations on where we might be going in high-end audio in this new century, perhaps we should review where we've already been in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. I'd like to start with a fairly detailed history of analog and digital audio leading up to the present time, so I can provide some context for my later comments. And so where to begin? 

The dawn of recorded sound: The first recorded music comes into the family home 

In 1796, Antoine Favre produced the first known music box. The upper classes bought hand-crafted, beautifully decorated music boxes as novelties and gifts. The music box brought the first recorded music to family households. As an outgrowth of clock making, the music was produced with protruding pins mounted on brass discs or cylinders which created musical tones by plucking tuned metal elements or teeth. Either cranked by hand or spring motor powered, simple melodies could be programmed into these ornate boxes and played back. But the music box sounded mechanical and, after a time, became boring in its limitations. By 1825, music boxes had up to 250 tuned elements covering up to six octaves. Music boxes were popular through the 1890's and usually featured short classical pieces and operatic arias.  

A new source of music was invented about 1890. Special "player" pianos developed a system whereby musical notes were punched on moving paper rolls. At first a separate playing unit had to be placed in front of a regular piano and it struck the piano's keys with mechanical fingers. This arrangement was awkward, so by 1900 the playing mechanism was built into the piano. At this time, more expressive capability was added to the reproducing piano. Fairly inexpensive piano rolls permitted the music lover to buy new music for playback on his own piano, complete with harmonies, tempo changes and dynamic shadings. In the reproducing piano, punched paper passing over vacuum apertures caused actuators to move the hammers and pedals thus reproducing the musical notes, tempi, dynamics, etc. One could buy a piano roll and enjoy a recent piece of music that could be played by anyone capable of loading the roll and reaching the foot pedals. I'll bet you hadn't thought of it that way, but music boxes and player piano rolls were, fundamentally, our first recordings of music.  

The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round

In 1876, recording technology changed dramatically. Charles Cros in France and Thomas Edison in the U.S. described methods by which instrumental and vocal sound could be recorded by real musicians and played back from an engraved record of the performance on cylinders or discs. With the aid of large playback horns good volume levels could be achieved. Recordists, choosing the cylinder, began engraving analog representations of live sound on metal foils (Edison's method) and then on hard wax compounds using a vertical modulation technique (also called "hill and dale") developed by the original Bell Laboratories. If you wanted to re-use the wax, it could be shaved flat and re-cut a couple of times. At first, copies were molded from plated masters using hard wax and, later, utilizing primitive phenol resins, but in any case, the yield of copies was small.  

In 1888, a German immigrant to the U.S., Emil Berliner, demonstrated the first flat disc with the groove spiraling from the outside to the center. Berliner's method featured side to side groove modulations. (Lateral groove modulation was universal standard through the end of the mono LP era.) His 12" flat record kept improving until it was equal to the Edison cylinder, though some still prefer the sound of the cylinder. Since flat discs were cheap to produce in large numbers, Berliner established the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey in 1901. There he produced thousands of Victrolas until the RCA buyout in 1928.  

A Nostalgic Side Trip 

I bought a beautiful mahogany, dome-top Victrola Type XIV (circa 1914) in 1968 and enjoyed it in three different houses. Several years ago, however, I sold it at a handsome profit. I hated to sell it, but my house is really small and I needed the room. My classic Victrola was stylish, posh and hand-crafted with gold plating over brass on the cabinet hardware, the tone arm, the needle cup and the green felt covered platter. Then, one day—SPRONGGG!!! The motor spring bought the farm in the middle of a record. But, when it was working, that machine could play clean and loud with stunning presence! I kind of wish I had it back now. 

Back to our story of the 78 RPM record 

Before electrical recording began in 1925, sound was engraved on the master recording by a large recording horn assembly whose diaphragm moved the engraving stylus using only sound pressure to cut the grooves in the wax master. The blank master disc was rotated beneath the stylus on a motor driven platter called a lathe that rotated at about 78 RPM, give or take a few. Pre-electric recordings, before the advent of microphones, mostly favored the human voice and brass instruments or anything that was strongly in the middle-range. Subtler, quieter instruments didn't record very well and had to wait until a later time to be recorded properly, when more sensitive electrical recording techniques were developed.  

In the earliest pre-electric era, cylinders were made in limited numbers with a difficult and costly molding process which produced relatively few duplicates from each plated master. Small numbers of labor intensive duplicates meant the cost remained high and priced them out of reach for many customers. In a few short years, phonograph records became very popular in the U.S. and Canada, especially where families were scattered over the vast frontier. Living in a remote area, the phonograph was the best source of musical entertainment unless your friends were musically gifted. If you wanted Caruso singing Verdi and not "Turkey in the Straw" on a fiddle, the phonograph was the only game in town. A player piano could give you "Turkey in the Straw" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", but not Caruso.  

After the turn of the century, when phonograph records were produced in large numbers with a simpler molding process, the average middle-class family could afford to order a phonograph and a few records to play on it. In rural America, a customer could even mail-order his record playing equipment from a Sears catalog and pick it up a few weeks later at the nearest Railway Express office. Recorded music for the home arrived and became a major musical resource for families all over the world. My mother's Norwegian immigrant parents homesteaded in North Dakota in 1903 and bought a phonograph for their large family sometime before 1920 when my mom was in the 2nd or 3rd grade in her little one room school (about 1918), and that old phonograph was one of the dearest memories from her prairie childhood.  

Mom shared her abiding love of music with me in the 1940's, starting in the war years before I was five. Network radio was my family's main source of music, and a very rich source it was. Every network had a symphony orchestra, (NBC, CBS, and Mutual), and the weekly offerings were astonishing. Big name conductors and classical soloists nearly every week, and wonderful pop and swing band music of WWII. Mom's homesteading family, eventually with 13 kids listening to the Victrola, must have been quite a sight! And so it is that music passes from one generation to the next. But, it doesn't always work that way. Consider my poor father who knew only two songs: One was "Yankee Doodle"—the other one wasn't. 

In Europe and America, the '20s were an extremely progressive decade for the art and science of music recording. The '20s also marked the arrival of radio. By 1912, the first Audion vacuum tube amplifier from inventor Lee de Forest was demonstrated and it changed our recording future once again. The first studio microphones were developed from Bell's telephone transmitter and could be used to great advantage. Because they could be amplified with vacuum tubes to drive an electro-mechanical cutting stylus, softer sounds could be recorded.

Our reliance on huge cutting horns ended in 1925 when the first electrical recordings began to appear on the market. The new, more realistic records were a success. Cutting of disc masters improved steadily on electrically powered lathes. The sensitivity of the recording process increased every year and a wider variety of musical instruments could be heard with convincing naturalness. Being spared the need to play or sing really loud, the musicians could perform more naturally at something less than triple-forté. Recordings began to sound more like the real singing artists and less like shouting contests. Subtle details began to emerge in the listening experience. Electrical recording using mass produced, flat 12 inch records, playing at 78 RPM became the norm and were widely distributed in retail outlets from coast to coast, in small towns and large. 

The Wireless: How AM Radio was born, and quickly unified the nation 

When commercial AM broadcasting became feasible in the early '20s, it arrived with a bang! Turn-of-the-century wireless transmissions were mostly ship-to-shore. Using Morse code just like the telegraph, wireless was mostly for commercial message traffic. Commercial broadcasting of voice and music began about 1922, and radio technology moved forward incredibly fast. The constantly improving vacuum tubes and newer, highly sensitive receiver circuitry was the immediate result. By 1930, every major city in North America had one or more AM radio stations. Some of them very powerful clear channel stations, reaching listeners over 1000 miles away. Fascinated radio listeners began sharing a common experience from coast to coast in a country that had previously been strongly regional. We began sharing our music, drama, sporting events, late-breaking news and information of all kinds. No longer did we wait for the delivery of news by train service or have to rely on sketchy reports over the telegraph. Information was ours by flipping a power switch and tuning the dial.  

Radio's role changed again when loudspeakers replaced headphones. G.E.'s patent on the moving-coil loudspeaker in 1928 brought the loudspeaker to the home radio. The Victor Talking Machine Company, finding itself challenged by the popularity of free music on the radio, merged with Radio Corporation of America and became RCA Victor. At first, phonograph records took an ugly hit from radio, because music was available virtually the day it was composed. Family and friends gathered in the living room for sporting events, news, music and entertainment programming. Housewives got hooked on daytime radio drama, an innovation in the '30s that we now call "the soaps," owing to the fact that their original sponsors were makers of soap powders. (An elderly Tennessee great-aunt of mine used to declare that she had to get home to listen to "her stories," and off she'd go in a cloud of dust.)  

We might not realize it now in the year 2000, but in the very different '20s and '30s, radio was as wondrous as the computer, satellite television, and the Internet all rolled into one. For the first time, the nation could share a common experience, linked with each other coast to coast. Instant contact with the world became available even in the remote areas without waiting for a telegraph messenger, dog sled or a month-old newspaper delivered by U.S. Mail. As long as you could supply electrical current to your radio receiver, even if it required expensive batteries, you were connected to the world. 

The Silver Screen - and how several Hollywood moguls paid for our toys 

In the movie theaters, those darkened repositories for a nation's depression era dreams, audio technology developed very rapidly. In 1927, Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the industry's first partial sound feature, uttered the line, "You ain't heard nothing yet!" He sure got that one right!  

Furious competition for keeping movie audiences happy began at once. The timing couldn't have been better for audio engineering. As it turned out, more than two decades of top-quality sound engineering was financed by the Hollywood studio moguls in their attempt to keep the American public in their theater seats. Movie sound, coming out of the nation's best laboratories at RCA, Western Electric and others in 1927-1928, reached the majority of the nation's theaters by 1929-1930, setting off a flurry of sound engineering second to none. (If you and your investors owned a movie studio in 1929, there was no choice. You either got wired for sound or you got out of the film business. Simple as that!)  

Advancements came rapidly as movie studios trotted everything they could think of in front of the studio microphones. Distributors desperately needed new product for sound hungry audiences all over the world. There were mass hiring's of musicians to provide the film music that replaced the pit orchestra in movie houses. The singing musical with its elaborate dance numbers became an early sound movie staple. Noisy movie cameras had to be encased in sound isolating enclosures to keep the shutter clatter out of the microphones. The studios struggled mightily to keep everything quiet on the lot. Every shooting stage was now a soundstage.  

Several bewildered, well known silent film stars found themselves out of work when it was discovered that they sounded ridiculous on sound tracks. Thick European accents, unpleasant voices, diction problems, mumbling and utter lack of any vocal charm hadn't mattered in silent films. Who cared? With the advent of sound, however, it mattered! In desperation, Hollywood sent its sharpest casting agents to the New York theater district and raided their talent pools. Studios were shopping for proven actors with good voices. The actors had to be willing to relocate to sunny California and try their luck at stardom. Or anonymity. Studios needed talent and they were in need of all the "talkies" they could produce for their corporately owned theater chains and they needed them fast! The great talent grab of the late '20s worked out well for everyone, and a couple dozen former New York stage talents became Hollywood stars overnight. Several became legends. And, due to the fortunes of war, several of the great "silent" stars of the '20s were never heard from again.  

The two-way theater horn speaker with separate bass and treble drive units found its way into movie theaters by 1935. Western Electric's daring experiments in stereophonic sound recording for movies and broadcasting were really kickin' by 1935. The first in-house stereo demonstrations were conducted as early as 1931. Crude stereo test recordings of music were made and experimental stereo AM radio transmissions using two independent broadcast channels were conducted between two cities by the mid-30's. Western Electric's labs produced the first wide-range condenser mikes for film work and optical recording on movie film. It worked much better than competing methods with respectably wide frequency and dynamic range. 

The major film makers failed to notice what was happening with Ma Bell's clever engineers.  

All except Walt Disney, that is!  

At considerable financial risk for his studio and using borrowed depression era money, Disney spent 5 years making the most personal film he ever produced. It was his pet project and he worked tirelessly on it. Needless to say, in 1940, Disney Studios startled the movie going public with his full-length feature, Fantasia, a revolutionary animated film which introduced stereophonic sound to theater goers in the world's major capitols. Fantasia was a unique marriage of the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Maestro Leopold Stokowski and Western Electric's research team collaborated with Disney's studio sound department. Combining spectacular sound and the image wizardry of his best animators working in dazzling three-strip Technicolor, Uncle Walt gave us breathtakingly intense visuals and our very first taste of a stereo sound future. Unfortunately, Fantasia puzzled many people and didn't break even financially until two decades later when the film was re-released in the late 50's to wide acclaim. (In 1940, musical purists, matron patrons and the fearsome "blue-rinse ladies" thought it was unsuitable having cartoon characters cavorting to their oh-so cultivated concert music. Ahem! Sniff! And, sadly, the press wasn't very kind in its movie reviews.)  

Our promised stereo future had to wait a few years. The Second World War intervened and multi-channel sound for the movies, or anything else, was the least of our concerns—that is, until the great Hollywood TV Panic of the 1950s. You see, television was kickin' the crap out of movie theater box office numbers. The first studio to declare all-out war on the "sniveling bastard upstart' television, was Darryl Zanuck's 20th Century Fox studio. Fox introduced Multi-Channel Stereophonic Sound and Cinemascope, an anamorphic wide-screen process in 1953. Zanuck displayed all his new technical skills in a pious sandals and toga epic called The Robe. Because of its impressive panoramic screen image (a full 1 to 2.35 screen ratio) and rich, layered multi-channel sound, The Robe packed movie houses in all the major cities. Spectacle on the big screen worked, for a while at least. (Note: in 1953, studios also introduced 3D films and funny cardboard glasses.) But, I'm getting ahead of myself again.

The Broadcaster's "Holy Grail": Quiet, static-resistant, wide-bandwidth radio 

Several approaches to static-free, wide-bandwidth radio were considered in the late '30s utilizing the pioneering research of Armstrong and others. Frequency Modulation was the obvious front runner when further field trials were interrupted by WWII. Similarly, loudspeaker design, from its earliest state of development with AM radio, matured dramatically in the movie theater and in stage sound reinforcement. So did the amplifiers. Hollywood studios continued to do everything they could to maintain weekly attendance with prizes and premiums and special offers. Of course, continually improving sound remained a part of their sales strategy. The phonograph record kept improving a little each year and turntables, arms and pickup cartridges, though still mechanically primitive, attempted to keep up. Nobody realized it at the time, but the "800 pound Gorilla" lurked just around the corner. A maturing technology called Television was about to pounce on us. Black and white TV had been publicly demonstrated in commercially feasible form since 1936, including the "World of the Future," the 1939 World's Fair in New York. But again, WW II reared its ugly head, and all consumer electronics were put on hold until 1946.  

Part 2