We read with unparalleled interest the news of a new discovery, the importance of which is difficult to calculate. (…) We have had to make an effort to restrain our imagination after reading the news because it is very difficult not to be seduced by the flattering idea that one day the word of man will be copied with the same exactness with which his image is copied and who does not get excited when dreaming of procedures by which ideas, feelings and oratorical outbursts are recorded as soon as they come from the lips that improvise them?
Taken from a chronicle in La Zarzuela, Madrid, 1856, following the news of Léon Scott’s invention of his sound recording machine.
The enthusiasm shown by the writer of the note from which the above quote was taken was not insignificant. We are in the middle of the 19th century, when photography was advancing by leaps and bounds, so it did not seem farfetched to think that something similar could be done with sound. For those people the mere possibility of being able to keep their voice was something hopeful and exciting. More than a century and a half later, not only is it something that does not attract attention, but we have at our disposal permanently all the music we want and we can record our voice wherever we want. Surely that enthusiastic journalist from the music magazine La Zarzuela would have been amazed at how far the technologies capable of recording sound have come.
This past October, several media outlets echoed a press release from the main cassette tape manufacturer in the United States (NAC, National Audio Company). Let’s stop to think about this question for a moment: who is interested in old audio tapes today? Well, it seems that many more people than you might imagine at first glance. The press release mentioned the shortage of certain basic material for the manufacture of cassettes, gamma (III) iron oxide. It seems that the only manufacturer of this variety of the compound formerly known as ferric oxide had begun to renovate its facilities, so that the cassette producer was temporarily unable to meet the growing global demand for tapes. In the 21st century and still buying cassettes? Very true, because the trade in these “audio containers” has been growing in recent years in a surprising way, as has the trade in vinyl records. Today, with mobile phones and tablets in the palm of our hands, with which we can access all imaginable music via streaming, the consumption of these “old-fashioned” media has begun to grow again.
Meanwhile, compact discs and DVDs have been falling in sales, indicating that the aforementioned growing market for “old-fashioned” hardware has more to do with nostalgia, with having something tangible in hand, than with the actual quality of the sound recorded on them. No matter how hard you try, the sound of a cassette will never be a marvel, even though all sorts of improved variants were marketed in their time, from those containing chrome compounds to the “giant tapes” of the ELCASET type, the giant cassette by Sony (over 15 cm, with 6.35 mm tape) that appeared briefly in the late 1970s.
The evolution of the physical media for recording audio is in itself the evolution of recording technology over the decades. The foundational milestone in this field is found, as on so many other occasions, in the tenacious ingenuity of Edison, who created the phonograph around 1876. That ingenuity was capable of storing and later reproducing the sound thanks to a system of “chiselling” with a needle on cylinders of wax or similar materials. It was an invention that aroused passions, but was soon surpassed by the gramophone, the machine that reigned from the 1890s until well into the 20th century. Flat discs, made of slate for example, were much more practical than phonograph cylinders. The Berliner gramophone of 1887 opened up a whole world of possibilities for the recorded music market, culminating in the arrival of vinyl records and modern record players in the mid-20th century. The microsurface technology of vinyl records reigned supreme until the end of the century.
But vinyl records were expensive and required certain care, although their sound quality was far superior to any other recording method seen before. However, in response to demand for something more rugged and cheaper, Philips introduced the classic compact cassette tapes to the market in 1962, which have remained with us until recent times. Their sound is of poorer quality, but the qualities of strength and economy made this medium the king of youth and, above all, they could be recorded easily, unlike vinyl.
From the analog sound, the digital revolution came with the arrival of the compact disc (CD) in 1979. CDs ate up the market from the mid-eighties onwards, causing vinyls and cassettes to disappear. But it was the creation of the digital format MP3 what changed everything. It was no longer necessary at the end of the nineties to have a physical support on which to keep the sounds. They could be shared and stored in magnetic memories and, above all, transmitted over the Internet. The 21st century saw how digital music in streaming was going to end up eliminating any competition that depended on physical supports for its distribution. And this whole accelerated race to record sounds and distribute them was born in the now distant year of 1856 in the mind of a restless French bookseller named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
Léon Scott lived in effervescent 19th century Paris, the place where all the trends, fashions and new techniques were made known. His world was books, print and literature. As a bookseller, he was aware of the latest developments in graphic recording and, of course, he was passionate about photography. Could sound be recorded in the same way as photographic images on paper? That was the challenge he worked on for years until he found his sound recording machine. Of course, unfortunately, he didn’t have enough time to create a player. He could record music, but not bring it back to life, although years later Edison took a different approach but with a similar physical basis.
Scott tried various methods of “sound printing” since the late 1840s. As a printer, he was given all kinds of assignments, but the ones that interested him most were scientific manuals. He was fascinated by physics, so he didn’t miss the opportunity to be inspired when he was commissioned to make a work containing recordings on the physics of hearing and sound. Trying to imitate the mechanical workings of the human ear, he created a rudimentary device with a membrane that vibrated and made a needle move, acting as a stylus on a surface covered with fine soot. Between 1856 and 1857 Scott presented his perfected model of what he called a “phonautograph”.
The machine was sold mainly to scientific cabinets as a method of studying sound, but little else. Scott lived out the rest of his days as he had done before, in his bookstore and among printers. It would be another two decades before Edison achieved his goal with the phonograph, and by then Scott’s ingenuity had almost fallen into oblivion. The French bookseller’s phonoautograms remained there, like photographs of intricate grooves that were intended to be the first recorded sound samples in history. They were little more than a curiosity, but was this really the first machine capable of recording sound? The inventor, as mentioned, only managed to record the sound, but was never able to reproduce it again. It took more than a century and a half for a Scott phonoautogram to be digitized in 2008. The result became a digital audio file, a spectral voice recovered from the 19th century, becoming the oldest known recording in history that can even be heard on the Internet today. With this, the circle is closed, a phonoautogram recorded in 1860 with mechanical technology was recovered in 2008 through digital techniques to become a distributed file in streaming. A whole echo of an already distant past that would have excited the bookseller who dreamed of recording sounds.
Well into the 20th century, the idea of recording sounds graphically so that they could be reproduced later by means of some device seemed to be a thing of the past. Certainly, it did not go very far, but there were those who still wanted to go further with this proposal and imagined sections in newspapers that contained sound recordings. It would be similar to putting a QR code on the pages of a magazine or newspaper, so that additional content could be accessed on the Internet via mobile phone. The Argentine inventor Fernando Crudo designed his “photoliphone” for something remotely similar. His machine from the 1930s worked by means of a photoelectric system that drew a pattern of waves on the paper according to the sound to be recorded. The result was the “sound pages”, phonograms with optic reproduction.
Crudo dreamed of extending the idea of his patents and practical models to newspapers all over the world, but in the end the extension of the proposal did not go very far. The system was certainly original: a sound page in a newspaper could contain music, speeches, advertisements, news or any sound recording imaginable. The printing press captured the image on the page as if it were a photograph. Then, at home, the user who was reading the newspaper, upon arriving at the sound page, could reproduce it through a small photoelectric device that would read the ink strokes and convert them into sound through a speaker.