From the time the musical instruments were primitive up until today, the history of music and music-making technology were entwined.
Today, you rarely wonder what instruments were used to create the background music at a store. However, a few decades ago, every new album or the slightest music tech innovation was considered monumentous.
It’s difficult to say that one innovation is more important than another, especially when technology is developing so rapidly. There are products we can’t imagine music being created without. For instance, what if the microphone or electric guitar wasn’t invented yet? There are certain innovations that deserve recognition based on their impact on the industry and how they paved the way for where music is today.
The first versions of the modern microphone appeared in 1860 created by Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner in the US and David Edward Hughes in England. It took 17 years to create the first documented microphone that was capable of transmitting sound. It was made of carbon and got its name as a device that used carbon granules behind a metal plate – the diaphragm. The carbon mic was used for nearly a century in phones all over the world. This led to the development of the microphone in the music industry. It became an ultra-sensitive instrument that captured the subtlest nuance of voice. Without it, the loudest musicians always won during any live performance. Now, microphones can be placed around a stage to pick up any whisper or sound, and the audience can hear them even seated in the back rows. It also became a powerful sound recording tool and creating aftereffects such as, for instance, overdubbing was made possible. It can be a big deal for a solo artist, who plays multiple instruments during one track.
The guitar combo amplifier
There is no rock without an amplification. The first company to sell an electric stringed instrument and amplifier package was the Stromberg-Voisinet in 1928. However, musicians complained about its tone and volume, so the product didn’t take off so well. In 1932, Electro String Instruments introduced a guitar amplifier with “high output” and a “string driven magnetic pickup.” The most innovative sound was created together with the Super Amp in 1941, a great combo with Fender’s electric guitars. The song ‘Bad’ by The Edge (U2) became his signature song. He used a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a VOX AC30 amplifier to play it, and never let this combo go throughout his whole career. Such iconic bands and artists as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, and others created their fans’ favorite hits using various guitar combo amplifiers that helped them craft the perfect sound.
The four-track cassette recorder
In 1979 the company called Tascam created the first 4-track cassette recorder, “Portastudio.” It was a revolution in the music industry, especially for independent musicians, as they could bring a multitrack recording studio home now. Soon, everyone started trading cassettes and sending tapes back and forth. The Legendary Pink Dots took off using a four-track cassette machine. For the first time, musicians could affordably record several instrumental and vocal parts individually and later blend all the parts together. Introduced in 1982, the Tascam Portastudio 244 improved with overall better sound quality and more features like dbx noise reduction, and the ability to record on up to four tracks simultaneously. Musicians typically used these machines to record demos. The four-track recorders are still used today in the lo-fi recording.
The sound card
The best thing about the computer revolution was, well, the computer itself. This machine’s sound card, invented by Sherwin Gooch in 1979, was far-reaching for the audio industry. The significance of a sound card was in providing audio processing needs available to a computer. It was an internal expansion card that provided input and output of audio signals to and from a computer under control of its programs. For years, sound cards were the only way to get quality sound. Today, our computers have good audio hardware built-in. Most audio nowadays is geared toward computer technology. Digital recording, iPods, iTunes, the DVD format, and HD are a few examples of how sound cards are used in the music industry today.
The first portable mixer Studer 69 was completed in 1958 and produced by Studer. It was big and bulky, yet a crucial part of any recording studio. Later, the mixer would grow into something gigantic, but tube-based mixers gave way to sleek solid-state ones in the late 1960s. Those were, for a time, supplanted by digital consoles and, more recently, software options. The mixer became a creative tool for DJs and musicians and introduced us to the word “remix” we are used to by now.
Sometimes, musicians don’t have the equipment, time, or money to record every instrument they need for a song. A sampler allows musicians to have various sound options without recording every instrument. It is a digital or an electronic musical device that uses sound recordings of real instrument sounds, excerpts from recorded songs, or found sounds. The samples can be loaded or recorded by users or by manufacturers. In 1979, an Australian company Fairlight unleashed Fairlight CMI – the first digital sampling synthesizer and the modern sampler’s ancestor. It was proven too intense at first, so it needed an improvement. After some time and effort, the first commercial polyphonic digital sampler Fairlight CMI I has been produced. Today, some of the best samplers are made by such giants in the music industry as Pioneer, Elektron, Akai Professional, and more.
In 1993, a group of European engineers designed the MP3 format to reduce audio file size. The goal was to maintain the sound quality of the original uncompressed recording. The sound quality of MP3 was the least controversial aspect of it – it was far from perfect for many. For some, portability was more critical than fidelity, for others – vice versa. In the process, new methods of delivery and distribution developed. Apple’s iPod music player appeared in 2001. It has allowed independent musicians access to millions of listeners without relying on record labels, distributors, and stores. Music production has truly been democratized. As a result, we have free, or very affordable access, to tons of music from across the globe.
The electric guitar
George Beauchamp spent years in the 1920s looking for ways to electrify and amplify violins, steel and bass guitars. In 1931 he succeeded and got the electric guitar officially patented in 1936. Needless to say, it made a massive impact on the music industry’s development and paved the way for many stars. Jazz musicians (Oscar Moore and Eddie Durham), country stars (Noel Boggs and Merle Travis), and blues artists (T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters) were the first to use the electric guitar in the 1930s and 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s, it became the most important instrument in pop music. It has evolved into an instrument capable of many styles and sounds in any music genre existing.