Home Engineering The dark side of technology
Successes and replacements of media for musical recordings
Advances in twentieth-century electronics revolutionized the world. Back in 1904, Ambrose Fleming (in the UK) invented a vacuum valve. The valve contained a hot cathode that emitted negatively charged electrons, which were attracted to a positively charged collector (the anode). This extremely simple concept meant that it was possible to have a device that allowed electricity to flow in only one direction. By 1907, Lee de Forest (in the USA) added a wire grid close to the cathode, so that small changes in the grid voltage caused large changes in the current transmitted across the valve. This was the basis of the first electronic amplifier.
The relevance for music was that in the nineteenth century, the attempts at recording had explored making impressions, first on wax drums, and then wax discs, by using sound vibrations to move a needle that scratched a pattern in the wax surface. However, this needed powerful sounds, and the playback was badly distorted.
Amplifiers of electrical signals offered a new dimension, as it became feasible to build sensitive microphones, and amplify their weak electrical signals for technologies ranging from loudspeakers to recording and storage on other materials. This meant one could make a master copy of the sound and duplicate it, rather than individually recording each copy. The disc only had a few minutes of recording time, but this was enough for dance music or songs. Gramophone music was therefore culturally very popular, even for non-musicians. It was an economic mass market. This drove electronic progress and eventually, by 1920, this had advanced to invent, and market, radio transmitters and receivers. Electronics had arrived.
The first electronic devices transformed the recording industry and brought music to a wide audience via shellac discs, but the playtime was brief, so there was the typical pattern of new variants driving the obsolescence and collapse of old-style systems and equipment. This was what electronics had done to the wax disc recordings in the previous generation. The record material moved from shellac to vinyl, and turntable speeds shifted from 78 to 45 or 33M rpm. Hence playtimes steadily increased from 3 minutes per side to nearly 30 minutes. Each format dominated for, say, 20 years. Vinyl records were in competition with, or displaced by, magnetic tape, and tape became the preferred system by the early 1980s. Nevertheless, for classical symphonies and operas, etc. even longer playtimes were needed. This challenge was met by the introduction of the CD (compact disc). Reportedly it was made long enough to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth. Symphony (about 75 minutes). The overall result was a collapse of the vinyl sales, which dropped to around 2 per cent of classical music sales by 2000. CD recording, giving 80 minutes of good sound quality, which had only appeared in the late 1980s, rapidly gained 80 per cent of the market by the mid-1990s. So within one decade, the music recording medium had changed.
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